Gurdjieff International Review

Beelzebub, a Master Stroke

Belzébuth, un coup de maître

Manuel Rainoird

With the translation of a 1,094 page work into French, the opportunity to feast on a banquet of ideas has been laid before us. Beelzebub's Tales

Has George Gurdjieff, its author, invented the literature of shock? Everything in his Beelzebub convinces us he has. In any case, it owes nothing to other works. The range of tones, encompassing every nuance from the lyrical to the down-to-earth, the continual presence of vibrations issuing from a central focus, the avalanche of images, ideas, and made-up words that suggest to us nothing we could possibly already know—“six years of work, merciless toward myself and with almost continuously tense mentation”—have resulted in a monumental accomplishment.

And when one considers his literary mastery, so clearly displayed (the genres he calls into play leave our elegant efforts far behind), the fact that he has chosen to reach an audience through forms that are difficult of access leads us to suppose it is for some reason.

The stories die away. The nonsense dissolves. A great white silence, without even the cry of a magpie, reigns in the wake of this naked, unique advent, with no echo of anything second-hand. But this is only a respite. Like the transspace ship Karnak, this meteor, clothed in the perfume of other worlds, falls into our pond. And we frogs are struck dumb in our bewilderment.

Once having read Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man—if I say ‘read’ it is for want of a better word, for the work is much more than that suggests, like an infinitely testing trial, a substance both assimilable and unassimilable by every organ—I feel required to pronounce in stunned astonishment the words ‘great’ and ‘new.’ But, as I also take stock of the library of contemporary fiction, I realize that here there is no possible term of comparison, and ask myself what book more deserves to be referred to as ‘great’ and ‘new’—what work of philosophy, science, legend or history? And yet it is our lives which are in question, yours and mine, universal and personal.

Let us breathe all the seriousness of which we are capable into the words: greatness, wisdom, strength, goodness, let us measure the influence these sovereign entities have over us; let us ask ourselves if their taste remains perceptible to our palates, or if their influence extends to our domain,1—but do we in fact rule over any domain?—we who call the rules of grammar new, any clever old loudmouth great, every merchant of panoply wise.

What part do the books we’ve given our attention to play in our lives, what are they worth in relation to ourselves? They only make little billows on the remote shores of our dominions, only by accident do they ruffle my self-possession; but even if one of these thousand little waves chanced to wet my heel, I would soon dry out and—uninjured, undisputed master of the world that is my oyster—I shall resume my stroll, examining the sea’s horizon with unaltered gaze. Let’s admit it. The impressions we gain from books leave us in royal peace; they sleep in the little drawers of our brain, or quickly die.

That isn’t how it goes with Mr. Beelzebub. The comparison with little waves no longer works. Maintaining the maritime paradigm, the image of a treacherous beach would be more suitable for providing a notion of what awaits. I recall certain beaches in Brittany that have been spared by tourists, on which the sea falls with a heavy, continual rumbling, like a chant—not clothed in its robes of storm, but still beautiful, concentrated, terrible, carrying its force inside very special battle apparatuses called “rollers” and “barrels.” In these coves, if you are thinking of doing a jack-knife, forget about your skill as a swimmer—the trick will do you no credit. And if there is a trick, it consists more in this: in yielding, body and soul, because nothing in you escapes the blows of the water. Here everything—ears, lungs, stomach—turns into the liquid element and your back’s endurance of the hailstone bites of the sand. Rolled, mauled, transported gratis, your grief wrought from above, from below, from the right, from the left, assaulted and saved a thousand times over and over—haven’t you experienced something, now that you have been really been captured? Battered, happy, sanded down, you emerge from the Neptunian machinery as if pardoned—at least until it all becomes a memory for later on.

So here is a book which cannot be read as we commonly read our books—and which simultaneously attracts and repels us. A book of a stature and inspiration which, although it entirely contains us, bag and baggage, is manifestly far above our heads! It is as if, caught up in that inspiration, engulfed in it and exhorted along the way to behave as something other than children, we were being urged to want what is wanted without our participation. It is like the implacable guard who chivies and rouses the passengers before the train reaches some frontier, out of sheer kind-heartedness (since he is not involved), so that they will be ready and things will go smoothly.

Here man is seen from above, as he has never previously been seen. This vision from a very great distance—Beelzebub the narrator is the inhabitant of worlds like our own, only far removed, and as an envoy from above has sometimes had occasion to make flights to the planet Earth—this overview on the scale of our Great Universe engulfs any reader and bathes him in an extraordinarily clear light, so that far from blurring the details, the hidden springs of the human mechanism, it has the effect of revealing them all the more. The more the view embraces, the better it explains by analogy the function and meaning of the creature made in the image of God. Here, distance has a twofold and quite astonishing effect. The greater the height to which Beelzebub goes, the more the confusion of our usual jumble of ideas is dispelled. What emerges is the opposite—we see in high relief what was previously screened and misunderstood. The high has illuminated the low. Infinite spaces have ceased to frighten us. They no longer appear in the void of a bleak futility, produced by the musings of the top mathematician in the open examinations; instead, now that they are peopled, revealing themselves in their tangible aspect as emanations of the affliction of our deeply-loving and infinitely patient eternal Creator, they become living, transmitting matter, creative of a new language, and of which Beelzebub is a more and more conscious emanation, through his merits and his efforts.

Now in spite of this grandeur, Beelzebub still remains a kind of standard or model, all other things being equal. His personality is attractive. Deprived of his horns, Beelzebub, devil though he is, has not been exempt from the process of expiation. This was his exile in the solar system Ors, to which our own planet belongs—exile for errors made in his youth, and which greatly resemble our familiar sins, with the corollary they imply, the forgetting of man’s cosmic functions in the universe, and the concomitant unhappy effects which are impartially noted by Beelzebub, who would like to see them rooted out from inside the three-centred beings of the planet Earth.

What do we know of the meaning of our life on Earth? If G. I. Gurdjieff works within a literary form so that this question may some day occur to us, under certain conditions, he does it like no one else. All commentaries past, present and future, even In Search of the Miraculous, are merely pools compared with his ocean. If Gurdjieff tackles his task in one manner only, he has available an arsenal of ways to arouse our interest. Although it is impossible to follow the usual practice of giving a glimpse of what is named or described, it would be an act of charity at least to point out to the dear public, fond of philosophico-literary tracts, that we are actually dealing here with the disconcerting question: ‘Who are we, where are we going?’ but strongly flavored, according to a recipe it will not find familiar, with an accompaniment of cymbals and the use of other sonorous and percussive instruments. In this recipe, iced water and itching powder are also involved.

But let me repeat that the reader is not simply defeated. He is reading the kind of roman-fleuve which, in the long run, will sweep him along with it. The work of demolishing received ideas is not undertaken with the aim of imposing a knowledge which we have not drawn in through our own roots, or which, taken literally, and without genuine links with the inner world, would tend to generate grave misapprehensions. With our minds under such fiendish attack, we give way to the following mental gymnastics: we defend ourselves, we surrender. And if we surrender it is because somewhere around the plexus a warmth may develop—like the air filling in our lungs—by virtue of the representations which have been aroused, as if all at once there had been correspondences established between the superb obscurities of this book and unknown areas of ourselves. In simpler terms, let us recall that certain writings, such as the Song of Solomon, or the Gospel According to St John, were designed to rouse our emotions. The Tales are of this nature. There is nothing in them for rigid minds.

And it may well be that deep thinkers—when Mr. Beelzebub’s literary career will, according to them, have partaken sufficiently of the bottle—will go so far as to hail the appearance of a myth, a modern myth, mounted for our time (when there is no longer either shepherd or flock but plenty of science fiction in our station newsstands), channeling down to us in more useful forms the contents of fables and legends that once upon a time certainly appeared to be for something. Thus new territory is opened for seekers.

At all events, the Tales, in the way all myths do, cause us to carry questions within ourselves. The question will never meet its answer on the same level. It is a support, a lever. The instructor refrains from forcing anything. He has to tempt; he has to set his snares. (It has to do with creating the conditions for a choice. For there to be a choice, everything has to imply its opposite. The struggle between joy and sorrow goes on without respite in the universe.) What he is doing cannot be done without duality. In this connection one must perhaps seek the reason for the choice of the name Beelzebub—that very ancient god, bearer of lights but subject to the law of choice, whose nature is so close to ours, and who breaks away from the troop of the first gods.

However that may be, this Beelzebub whom age has grizzled has nothing of the demon about him.

I repeat, all beings, of all brain systems, without exception, large and small, arising and existing on the Earth or within the Earth, in the air or beneath the waters, are all equally necessary for our common creator, for the common harmony of the existence of Everything Existing. [p. 196 of the 1950 English edition of Beelzebub’s Tales]

In the course of one of his missions he teaches his friend, the high priest Abdil, the eighteenth commandment, which stipulates: “Love everything that breathes.” And now that, thanks to his merits, he has become a maintainer of the universal process, it is not without intention nor without precautions that he explains to his grandson Hassein the unnatural behavior of the beings of planet Earth. Before coming to any conclusions, Beelzebub devoted himself to meticulous investigations. His method is not that of a sorcerer’s apprentice. Nothing about him owes its knowledge to the devil. He has been to a good school for this. Mullah Nassr Eddin would say in such a case: “You don’t learn to make faces from an old monkey.”

Beelzebub is an upholder of the good sense bestowed upon us by Great Nature, an upholder of the ancient wisdom founded on human folly. If George Gurdjieff approaches all the great questions—art, religions, war, time—in an altogether astonishing fashion that so thoroughly overturns received ideas, the point of departure of his critique remains always very naïve, very close to common sense, the expression of a conscience that we have in common with the order of things, but which is buried, and which he exhorts us to find.

Beelzebub thinks that the genuine feelings of Faith, Hope, and Love, upon which Messengers from Above have based their teachings—having been atrophied beyond recognition by so-called “education”—are no longer present in waking consciousness to sound the call. Beelzebub likewise devotes himself to explaining how the Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash set to work to extirpate those tendencies that are contrary to the harmonious development of man by awakening “objective conscience,” the possibility that exists in their subconsciousness.

When does Ashiata Shiemash’s work take place? For Beelzebub, our concern with chronology is a sham. There is nothing new under the sun.

Sitting then in solitude in the restaurant in Montmartre and watching the contemporary favorites of yours gathered there, I continued to ponder… Are not the beings sitting here the same, and do they not behave as unbecomingly as the beings of the city Samlios on the continent Atlantis… Or over there, on the left, at another table a contemporary young man is sitting, who in a squeaky voice convincingly holds forth to his bottle-companion about the causes of disorders which proceed in some community … dress his head in a ‘chambardakh’ and would he not be exactly like a real, as they were then called, ‘Klian-of-the-mountains’? Only their dress and the names of their nationalities have changed. During Babylonian times they were called ‘Assyrians,’ ‘Persians,’ ‘Sikitians,’ ‘Aravians,’ and by other different names ending in ‘ian.’ [pp. 674–675]

Everything happens as if humanity, infected with apathy, held prisoner inside an immense closed theatre, with nothing for nourishment but the shadows that hang beneath the rafters, plays over the same sordid drama, never to come to themselves again. Maybe doors open in the wall now and then. The actors are given a chance to glimpse the sky. Some Ashiata Shiemash brings mankind the means of responding and shows what the meaning of true progress could be.

In Beelzebub’s account, so scathing to common notions, epochs during which something beneficial could, perhaps, have been crystallized and passed on to subsequent generations, or at least their primary motives, are praised and restored to a standard of reality (thanks to the analysis of essential forms designed for a purpose). Here human history, purified, reduced to what matters when one views it from the loftiest peaks, takes on an unknown lustre. Let us not forget that Beelzebub is the instructor of his grandson Hassein, an inhabitant, like himself, of a very great sun. With them the history of humanity, if there is a history, necessarily takes on a wholly different meaning. Beelzebub is not going to locate the traces left by the enterprises of man within the perspectives of our illusory time. It seems to me that he is naturally seeking to locate them in the perspectives of a time that goes beyond the earth, a time of the numerous planets that Beelzebub and Hassein frequent, planets that are so numerous, indeed, that this time, this original matter on the scale of the universe, appears to us to be in fact the consciousness of everything that exists.

On our scale as well, a time of consciousness would be accessible, and of a different nature than this time we measure in distance traversed, a devourer of so many efforts, at the same time merciless and simple-minded. One sentence of this book suffices to cut the range of our modern discoveries down to size:

Whatever speed they may attain with this ‘machine’ of theirs all the same, if they remain as they are not only they themselves but even their thought will never go any further than their atmosphere. [p. 709]

While in everything and everywhere it is ceaselessly a question of spaces to conquer, places to capture or defend, of the dignity of man, of man friend of nature or man against nature, and all this served up on a desperate plane of ignorance, where the tiniest morsel is an item for sale to anyone, anyhow, in competition with no matter what—it may well be that when all this vanity is exhausted, we will come to realize the following: this book says that something else is possible, that serious efforts could reach toward a zenith, that another meaning exists, a verticality of the world, of ourselves, of our body.

Our philosophies are collections of marvelous, complicated theories with no relation to our life; our heads are full of specious ideas. Each of us has our own fantastic conception of the world.

But what is crucial for each of us is the relation between our dreams and reality. Isn’t it my fault if, by a trick of ignorance, by an error I entertain unbeknownst to me, the impressions I receive of the world and of myself are like the leftovers and stale smells of a feast from which I am forever shut out? I lack information, and living in fear, am afraid of something whose existence I deny. I am like someone walking in a forest at night. Having strayed from the path, I am assailed by irrational terrors. The masses of foliage form an architecture, first like an undulating wall to stifle my voice, then like trembling porticoes with eyes that watch me. Every nocturnal incident—a cry, a silence, a branch yielding to a puff of wind—corresponds to something in my restlessness, adds something more to my fantastic creation.

But when day dawns … these scattered elements that were previously the supports of my fear guide me toward a whole. I see the forest—I comprehend the forest. I have a place in relation to the trees, in relation to the soil I set my feet upon.

It is with the universe as with the forest. A sincere effort to know myself in it would act like a sunrise dissipating the nocturnal illusion, and would cleanse my senses, my brain, of parasitic efflorescences. Then, far from fear and the evils it engenders—vanity, hate—I would recognize a high, I would recognize a low, whose junction is brought about in me. I see them, and they orient me.

But this is a personal affair. There are no enemies but internal ones. The universe has no need of my reconciliation and does not demand it of me. It remains my freedom, my choice. If I remain such as I am, closed, denying, member of the hand-to-mouth clan, I will not upset anything in an order I know nothing of, nor will I be any the less of it in that case, in function, until the day I die.

Around me everything is in transformation. What relation is there between me and all this? I often say “unfeeling nature,” without deriving from it any useful inferences for my development. A certain foresight on the part of nature tends to feed my illusions. George Gurdjieff lays stress on that in undisguised terms. He doesn’t mince his words:

Do not we, people, ourselves also feed, watch over, look after, and make the lives of our sheep and pigs as comfortable as possible? … In the same way Nature takes all measures to ensure that we shall live without seeing the terror, and that we should not hang ourselves, but live long; and then, when we are required, She slaughters us. [p. 1226]

Is it then enough to realize that Nature makes use of my functioning for purposes that are beyond my understanding? No, that is not enough. Not so long ago a personage of some influence swathed his sophisms in this idea (so disagreeable to the powers that be, which put him in prison).

If one day we want to discover the useful conclusion, it is important to look further than our nose. Little man should come down a peg. Can he speak of his “grandeur” before he has experienced the freedom he already has, and before he knows what sort of atonement may be due? He imagines opposing parties, even when there is only a son who, little by little, at the cost of unheard-of efforts, recognizes his father again.

~ • ~

1 Translator’s note: In French the word palais means both palate and palace. Rainoird makes a pun here. To make this text flow more naturally for English readers we have translated palais as domain.

Copyright © 2000 Manuel Rainoird
English translation by Martha Heyneman and June Loy
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2000 Issue, Vol. III (2)
Featured: Summer 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (2)
Revision: June 1, 2012