Gurdjieff International Review

Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson

Commentary by Martin Seymour-Smith

Thirty years ago twelve of us spent many years in central Asia, and we reconstructed the Doctrine by oral traditions, the study of ancient costumes, popular songs, and certain books. The Doctrine has always existed, but the tradition has been interrupted. In antiquity some groups and castes knew it, but it was incomplete. The ancients put too much stress on metaphysics; their doctrine was too abstract.

Gurdjieff said this in 1923 to a questioner into the origins of the doctrine that, about a decade earlier, he had started to teach. The influence of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, which contains the essence of the doctrine, has been profound but generally unobtrusive. It contains, although in sometimes deliberately obscure form, the gist of that peculiar teaching which is expounded by P. D. Ouspensky in his more immediately lucid and accessible In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching—a book that, since its publication in 1949, just after Ouspensky’s death, has been read by millions. Furthermore, at the end of his life, Gurdjieff—despite the differences between the two men that had developed—gratefully acknowledged (in his always broken English) Ouspensky’s book with the words: “This what I said.”

Jacket design by Gregory K. Wilkin

Why, then, not choose In Search of the Miraculous here, instead of Beelzebub’s Tales? The reason is simple: without the “system” or doctrine taught by Gurdjieff, there would be no In Search of the Miraculous. And Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is Gurdjieff’s own “science-fiction”-style exposition of the teaching that he, in collaboration with others, synthesized and evolved. Thus he started a movement, known among its participants as “The Work,” which influenced a multitude, sometimes publicly but more often privately. Kipling, J. B. Priestley, and Aldous Huxley are just some of the better-known writers who were influenced by the doctrine; but many more American senators, British members of Parliament (not, however, holders of high office), businessmen, bankers, and others have been involved—either with Gurdjieff himself, or with Ouspensky, who taught his methods, from the early 1920s onward. The doctrine is the most convincing fusion of Eastern and Western thought that has yet been seen. It makes Blavatskyism or Transcendental Meditation look simpleminded or even exploitative; but, just as Kepler acknowledged in the popular astrology of his day a “pearl in a heap of dung,” so “The Work” grants something precious at the heart of those and other more popular movements.

Elements of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity (especially Eastern Orthodox), the Kabbalah, Sufism, Pythagorianism, and other religions and systems are present in the doctrine. Ouspensky’s invaluable book, much of which quotes Gurdjieff (“G”) speaking in the first person, is earnest, obsessed with various ideas about reincarnation (Gurdjieff called this notion “near the truth, but only approximate”), and at first acquaintance rather more in line with the popular “mysterious East” than otherwise. No one could accuse Beelzebub’s Tales of being earnest; yet all those who have persevered with it have acknowledged a tragic masterpiece. Gurdjieff believed that his reconstructed doctrine contained much of the truth about human existence; he thought truth difficult; he therefore made intense difficulties and created many obstacles for anyone who wished to discover it.

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (or Giorgiades, to give the Greek version of his name), the product of a marriage between a Greek father and an Armenian mother, was born at Kars in (then) Russian Armenia in 1866. His father, Ionnas Giorgiades, was, significantly, a grazier by necessity but an askokh, a bardic poet such as those who once recited Homer in ancient Greece, by true profession. After a plague (1873) had exterminated his cattle, he turned to the timber business. From his earliest years Gurdjieff had heard his father recite folkloristic and mythological poems, and also stories of the famous Turkic “wise fool,” Mullah Nassr Eddin, who became one of Gurdjieff’s comic role models, and whose pithy and paradoxical style he adapted in such sayings as “as irritable as a man who has undergone full treatment by a famous European nerve specialist.” The boy was brought up to be a priest. There were six other children.

Gurdjieff liked to strain people’s credulity as well as to shock them—he was a great believer in shocks: these, usually very temporarily, make people become what they really are. Beings, he would earnestly state, live on the surface of the sun—which is icy cold. Apes are descended from men.

His style was deliberately opaque, colloquial, jocular, almost light. The book in question, his main work, was scribbled in pencil in Gurdjieff’s native Armenian, then put into Russian by Russian pupils; for the English version we are mainly indebted to the English editor and writer Alfred Orage, who worked on it in close consultation with Gurdjieff. Orage had given up his highly successful career as editor of the New Age in the early 1920s, in order to study with Gurdjieff.

Of all this century’s spiritual teachers Gurdjieff was unique in that he determinedly sought to undermine his pupils’ devotion to him personally—to the extent of renouncing their genuine love for him—in order to make them think and act for themselves.

For some twenty or thirty adventurous years Gurdjieff sought knowledge and wisdom in the company of others, men and women, who wanted to answer fundamental questions—such questions as: Why am I here? Why are we here? Is there a purpose to life? In what way, if in any at all, are men capable of immortality? What are the laws of nature, and how much can we know of them? He gave a fictionalized account of those years in his simplest and most immediately accessible book: Meetings With Remarkable Men. It was made into a film by Peter Brook under the same title in 1979; the screenplay was written by Brook himself, under the close guidance of Gurdjieff’s own appointed successor, Jeanne de Salzmann, who died in 1990 at the age of 101.

The best-known period of Gurdjieff’s life came in the early 1920s. After opening his school, which he always referred to as for “the harmonious development of man,” in various cities—he had to move frequently owing to the Russian Revolution and the subsequent European political situation—he set up at an old priory, the Prieuré, at Fontainebleau. Here he obtained some newspaper publicity, the vast majority of which was footling and wildly inaccurate. But he did not repudiate it: He wanted to attract the right kind of pupil, and he also did not scruple to soak rich Americans or others for the money he needed.

His wheeler-dealer methods repelled Ouspensky who, a Russian, was more secretive and earnest than Gurdjieff, part of whose method of teaching used humor and shocks to impart the lesson. Many distinguished people such as Orage and Dr. Maurice Nicoll (hitherto a devoted Jungian) came to him; some such as Orage and Nicoll lasted the course, but many, such as the then well-known doctor James Carruthers Young, did not. Rich men did not like to submit to the indignity of having their cherished opinions challenged as worthless, or being set to dig ditches only to be told to fill them in again—or, perhaps even worse, to be told, when they had performed a task well and quickly: “Must be done in half the time.” But those who stayed were eventually encouraged.

Then, in late 1922, Gurdjieff received the New Zealand story writer Katherine Mansfield at the Prieuré. Then at the height of her fame, and there because she valued the system as taught to her by Ouspensky and, chiefly, by her publisher Orage, she was already riddled with tuberculosis. Medical treatments had worsened her condition. Gurdjieff looked after her, made her feel welcome, and gave her a spiritual peace which she would have lacked anywhere else. By the time of her sudden but inevitable death in January 1923 she had expressed her gratitude to Gurdjieff and to the doctrine. But this did not prevent Gurdjieff becoming known as the “charlatan who killed Katherine Mansfield.” However, no student of Mansfield, however reluctant, has been able to do less than defend him in this matter. He made her last days radiant; and himself lies buried near her.

In 1924 Gurdjieff had a near-fatal car accident. He seems to have foreseen it, even to the extent of forbidding a woman who had regularly traveled with him on like occasions from doing so on this one. Miraculously, he recovered. But he gave up all hope of continuing at Fontainebleau in the old style, with plenty of pupils. Instead he decided, although quite determinedly not a “bon ton writer,” to leave his own record of the doctrine. He had finished by the end of the 1930s, although the final volume of what is collectively known as All and Everything (Meetings With Remarkable Men is the first1 of the trilogy), the essays of Life Is Real Only Then, When “I Am” were never completed. The books circulated among pupils during the rest of Gurdjieff’s life which ended in Paris in late 1949. Beelzebub was published in 1950, the other two books later. Gurdjieff always had a few pupils around him after his accident, but never a “school” in the sense that the Prieuré had been.

Some of the more advanced psychological parts of the doctrine have never been given in writing; a few books have been written by those who never met Gurdjieff or studied with his groups, and who have simply tried to take over his mantle. But there is a core of reliable literature to help to elucidate Beelzebub, and among this Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous is still paramount, although many English-speaking people have preferred the long and detailed Commentaries on the Teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky by Maurice Nicoll. “The Work,” however, was supposed to be taught in a “school;” it insists that its essence can only be learned in a school, and not from books. It is assumed that there is an almost relentless resistance to self-knowledge built into man: that human beings can only survive—and that in no “personal” sense—by help from one another.

The problem for the post-Gurdjieffian student, though, is which school? There are many, some following directly on Gurdjieff; but others follow on Ouspensky, and are markedly aggressive toward Gurdjieff—who is said to have given out the ideas, but in an incoherent form. Others believe that this piecemeal and teasing method of Gurdjieff himself is the only way to keep the student awake and to teach him to work things out for himself. Those, therefore, who now discover the ideas for themselves—usually through books—must make their own decisions. There are many Gurdjieff pages on the Internet, some of them useful—they give salutary warnings about spurious schools, of which there are many.

The first important thing to note about this doctrine is that there is, explicitly, no room at all for anyone in it who does not approach it itself in a truly critical and skeptical spirit. It has a cosmology and a psychological system—and a method, often harsh or comic but in any case entirely in the hands of the teacher, of helping people to become conscious. But a complete sincerity is required, a sincerity that goes quite beyond devotion or faith as those are ordinarily understood.

For The Work teaches that men and women as they generally exist are, for most of the time, asleep. As Gurdjieff’s great predecessor the Persian poet Rumi put it:

Your life in this world is like a sleeper who dreams he has gone to sleep. He thinks, “Now I sleep,” not knowing that he is already in a second sleep.

We are—as we normally exist—machines whose workings depend entirely upon external stimuli. When we wake from natural sleep we are not in fact in a state of full consciousness, though we imagine that we are. Thus pupils were told to “remember themselves” as a constant exercise: to try to be aware of their real circumstances, to treat what they had believed to be their real selves as mechanical, to try to discover their chief faults (“chief feature”) which might give them a notion of what they had to put right in themselves. The personality of a person was carefully distinguished from his or her essence, which could be immortal but which had to educate itself, and to do that by learning to subdue the personality that had been formed around it by external circumstances; yet to form a personality was an indispensable part of the process. The ultimate secret lies in transforming the immediate impressions that are received: these are, literally, food, but not of the grosser physical kind. The process of transforming can only be described as miraculous.

In 1923 Gurdjieff told Professor Denis Saurat that he had come to Europe because:

I want to add the mystical spirit of the East to the scientific spirit of the West. The Oriental spirit is right, but only in its trends and general ideas. The Western spirit is right in its methods and techniques. Western methods alone are effective in history. I want to create a type of sage who will unite the spirit of the East with Western techniques.

The “human machine” presented by Watson, Skinner, and other behavioristic psychologists seems to have much in common with what Gurdjieff taught. But Gurdjieffian psychology is in fact quite different. Man is indeed a machine, as he ordinarily is. But even in the ordinary case he is occasionally awakened by shocks. He reacts as a machine but he has the capacity within himself not to do so. Behavioristic psychologists (and adherents of the notion that conventional scientific methodology by itself can plumb the mystery of a godless universe) do not thus acknowledge any exterior spiritual authority, or any need for a feeling of gratitude that we have been granted existence. And man contains within himself, as indeed has been taught by mystical doctrines from time immemorial, all the attributes of the cosmos. In the brain exist, in addition to an intellectual, an emotional, and an instinctive center, a “higher” emotional and a higher intellectual center. But none of our centers work at their full potential; of the higher centers we have only distorted hints in dreams and visions. The sex center, which should be directly in connection with the higher emotional center, works wrongly, through other centers and not as itself; the intellectual and emotional centers should work in harmony, but do not do so. We are, as we are, incapable of anything even approaching “objective” thinking. As Pareto2 and so many others have insisted, we are irrational creatures pretending to be rational.

Beelzebub’s Tales gives a mythological account of how all this, and wars and misunderstandings and poverty and the other human ills, arose and of how it may be possible to amend the current state. The doctrine it inimitably expounds is gnostic and kabbalistic in at least the sense that it presents not an utterly perfect God-creator such as Saint Augustine presents, but an unknowable, material “Absolute” whose powers become gradually diminished in an elaborate (and grandly poetic and imaginative) cosmology of inevitable diffusion of energy. This process still serves what we call “Nature,” but, the doctrine goes on to explain, something went very wrong with the situation of the people of this planet, which as a consequence is in a very bad part of the universe (which teems with life). Nowhere has the myth of “original sin,” the notion of Man having “fallen” from a state of bliss, been more vividly or imaginatively stated than in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, which, read with an open mind, can (and has) transformed lives and given them true meaning.

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This is a reprint of Chapter 94 of Martin Seymour-Smith’s The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written: The History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today (1998) Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, a Citadel Press Book.

1 Oops, Meeting With Remarkable Men is the second of the trilogy, not the first. Eds.
2 Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, 1848–1923. Eds.

Copyright © 1998 Martin Seymour-Smith
Published by arrangement with Carol Publishing Group
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