Dr. Welch, circa 1980

Gurdjieff International Review

Dr. Welch Reads Beelzebub

By David A. Young

Dr. William Welch likened Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson to “an elephantine allegory of the meaning of life and the purpose of man’s existence, a book difficult for the uninitiated to penetrate, but described by one critic as a veritable flying cathedral of a book, and by another as a true source of knowledge unparalleled in the twentieth century.”1

This book, as read by Dr. Welch, is soon to be released in compact disc format. In this recording, we hear an authentic voice, resonant, powerful, deep and rich. Whenever Dr. Welch was visiting the Foundation groups in Toronto or Halifax, he was always the one who was asked to read Beelzebub’s Tales, and for many years he read frequently at the New York Foundation as well as Armonk. He reads with gusto and élan. It is clear that he loves the book and knows it well.

But something else lends authority to his reading. At the time of the recording, he was one of the ever-smaller number of people still alive who had known Gurdjieff. He met Gurdjieff in the 1930s, took an active part in the New York group in the following years, and eventually became the president of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York, a post he occupied for the last thirteen years of his life. When Gurdjieff was in New York, Dr. Welch would meet with him almost every night and participate in his movements classes and groups. Of course Dr. Welch also knew Ouspensky, attending his lectures in New York, and he also joined in the work at Franklin Farms with Mme Ouspensky. But it was primarily his relationship with Gurdjieff that informed his reading of Beelzebub’s Tales.

During the time that Gurdjieff was very ill, Dr. Welch was called on by Gurdjieff’s doctors to obtain a very new medicine. Gurdjieff was told the medicine would be sent immediately.

“Why not Doctor come?” Gurdjieff asked. So within hours, Dr. Welch had his first passport—through a friend in the State Department—and was flying from New York to Paris to serve as attending physician through what would prove to be the last days of Gurdjieff’s life.

Dr. Welch examined Gurdjieff as soon as he walked in the door of his flat in the rue des Colonels Renard and told Gurdjieff that he belonged in a hospital. To the amazement of the other doctors in attendance, who for several days had been telling him the same thing, Gurdjieff agreed.

Dr. Welch writes:

I shall not try to describe the actual moment of his death, for although I was present, and the events that occurred were unique in my experience, I do not know their significance and have no way of expressing them in a proper context…

For myself, what I must acknowledge is that the death of Gurdjieff was the death of a man ‘not in quotation marks.’ And I have seen many men die.2

In the fall of 1992, a few people close to Dr. Welch, realizing how privileged they were to hear him read, wished to record his telling of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson for future generations.

Their first thought was to use a recording studio, but Dr. Welch, then eighty years of age, was already having trouble walking. A studio was just not practical. Instead, the recording took place in the Welch apartment, where a little group gathered to lend their attention to the reading. Thus it became a Work project—with an eye not only on the future but also on the present moment.

High-quality recording equipment was purchased, and the readings were held on Sunday nights starting at 9:00 p.m. Dr. Welch would read for about half an hour and then there would be discussion, sometimes lasting until almost midnight.

This recording, although less polished than any studio recording would have been, is much more vital. At the apartment, the window was always open a little. Dr. Welch liked it that way. Sometimes we hear from outdoors the sounds of the city—a siren or the cry of children. Sometimes we hear the sound of rustling paper. Sometimes Dr. Welch or Mrs. Welch comments briefly.

The recording project ended two years before Dr. Welch’s death. His voice was still resonant and had more warmth and feeling than ever before, but the pace of his reading had become slower and slower. He was going blind. As he said more than once: “Old age is not for sissies.” Dr. Welch

Finally, he was reading the last chapters from a special machine that magnified the type. This was very cumbersome because he had to move the paper continually under the machine to make each new word appear. Even so, he would sometimes get into a rhythm and it would go very well. Dr. Welch died before recording the last part of the chapter on America. This missing section, read by one of his élèves, is included in this recording to make it complete.

There is no doubt that Dr. Welch honoured and revered Gurdjieff—but he was no sycophant. He reads with a twinkle in his voice. He questions everything. In the last few years of his life, he often repeated the statement: “We don’t need answers. What we need are better questions!” In everything he did, he always retained a delightful sense of irreverent humour in keeping with the tone of much of Beelzebub’s Tales itself.

The following selections from Dr. Welch’s autobiographical book, What Happened in Between, may serve to provide a glimpse of his earthy wisdom, his humour, his mastery of the English language, and the lighter side of his relationship with Gurdjieff:

His abdominal girth was heroic and his presence in the Turkish bath, while not gargantuan, was at least the match of Rodin’s Balzac. He held court, when in New York, in the vast hot room of the Luxor baths on West Forty-sixth Street, an iced towel flipped around his bald head, his tiny feet splayed out under his vast belly above the expanse of which he poured himself tumblers of Perrier water, belching roundly, proclaiming with gutty satisfaction to no one in particular, ‘Bravo, Perrier!’ 3

Dr. Welch continues his verbal sketch of the scene in the Turkish baths:

Other patrons must have wondered at the enigmatic, caramel coloured, fiercely moustached figure of Gurdjieff picking his way with feline grace from the hot room to the steam room to the Russian room, ultimately to lead his band of followers to the marble staircase going down into the neo-renaissance pool…

We would line up on either side of him as he took a sitting position in the middle at the top of the staircase… At measured intervals, we would follow his lead in unison, and slip down one step at a time, until we were finally sitting chin deep in the chilly pool.

I was astounded to read some years later that among the bemused adepts who participated in this droll ritual, one believed himself to have been initiated into some special level of illumination in the course of his gradual, and ultimately total, immersion. I am afraid my only illumination derived from the shuddering chill to which I never became wholly acclimated, as my fundament and its anterior appendages were finally plunged into the icy water.4

Much of Gurdjieff’s teaching was imparted while dining:

‘I, seven-times Doctor,’ Gurdjieff said to me one night as I sat next to him, finishing his soup, while the remains of a sheep’s head awaited its turn.

‘In Paris, I have two hundred élèves, all doctors.’ He looked into my eyes and I smiled agreement to what we both knew was the baldest misstatement.

Why he said such things I have no idea, but his braggadocio never seemed offensive—indeed I waited for him to make his outrageous boasts, as if he had always been my grandfather…5

In this recording of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Dr. Welch reads from an early draft of the 1992 edition, and there are only minor differences between the text used by Dr. Welch and the version ultimately published.

Although not all readers welcomed the 1992 revision, which closely follows the 1956 French edition, Dr. Welch felt that it had much to recommend it. Cynthia Pearce, a senior member of the New York Foundation in the 1960s and 1970s, once said that there would be many translations of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson in future years, and that each one would have its own particular virtues and failings. Those of us who had struggled for years with the 1950 edition came to love it regardless of the typographical errors and difficult passages. (In some ways, it was like the King James Version of the Bible: although there are other, more modern, more accurate editions, they don’t have the same ring.)

But whichever edition Dr. Welch read, his love and understanding of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is the essential point. And the greater the understanding of the reader, the more the listener may glean from this extraordinary book.

Dr. Welch’s daughter, Patty Welch Llosa, says of this recording:

It is so thrilling to hear his voice again and I have found that in those last slower chapters it has an extraordinary vibrancy and joy. He so loved life in all its juiciness! I feel the most telling impressions I have of him are of his enjoyment of everything. Of food: ‘Every meal should be a fiesta.’ Of people: In his later years he loved to watch them walk by from the front stoop where he would stand in the sun and invent stories about them for us. And always of life itself: ‘It’s a cornucopia of good things.’ The other element was his recognition of the human-ness of human beings. Mother [Louise Welch] was always in search of understanding, I was always in search of perfection and higher things, but he loved life right where he lived it.

~ • ~

1 William J. Welch, What Happened in Between, A Doctor’s Story (New York: George Braziller, 1972), p. 140
2 Ibid., 140–141
3 Ibid., 132
4 Ibid., 133
5 Ibid., 127



It is planned that this compact disc product of Dr. Welch reading Beelzebub will be made available for ordering in the coming months. Consult the Traditional Studies Press website for further details and announcements.

Three selections follow. To listen, you will need a sound card, speakers, and MP3 player.

The Arousing of Thought, MP3 format

AMONG other convictions formed in my common presence during my responsible, peculiarly composed life, there is one such also—an indubitable conviction—that always and everywhere on the earth, among people of every degree of development of understanding and of every form of manifestation of the factors which engender in their individuality all kinds of ideals, there is acquired the tendency, when beginning anything new, unfailingly to pronounce aloud or, if not aloud, at least mentally, that definite utterance understandable to every even quite illiterate person, which in different epochs has been formulated variously and in our day is formulated in the following words: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and in the name of the Holy Ghost, Amen.”

Becoming Aware of Genuine Being-Duty, MP3 format

Having said this, Hassein drooped his head and became silent; and Beelzebub, looking at him affectionately, began to speak as follows: “I advise you, my dear Hassein, not to put such questions to yourself yet. Do not be impatient. Only when that period of your existence arrives which is proper for your becoming aware of such essence-questions, and you actively mentate about them, will you understand what you must do in return.”

Prayer and Despair, MP3 format

“I repeat, my boy: Try very hard to understand everything that will relate to both these fundamental cosmic sacred laws, since knowledge of these sacred laws, particularly knowledge relating to the particularities of the sacred Heptaparaparshinokh, will help you in the future to understand very easily and very well all the second-grade and third-grade laws of World-creation and World-existence.”

Copyright © 2003 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2003 Issue, Vol. VI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2003