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Gurdjieff and the Arch Preposterous - Gurdjieff's hidden autobiography

Did Gurdjieff use the Hermetic Code in his writings?

G. I. Gurdjieff was one of the most remarkable esoteric teachers of the twentieth century and his allegorical masterpiece, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson has attracted many interpretations. Such seminal writings, according to Joy Lonsdale, were constructed with the aid of an encipherment known as the Hermetic Code.

Joy Lonsdale believed that Gurdjieff used this code in Beelzebub's Tales and demonstrated her theory by applying it as a key to the six 'descent' chapters of that book. (126,000 words)

A Gurdjieff autobiography?

This study is unique because it examines Beelzebub (All & Everything) from the autobiographical standpoint. This Fourth Way book has been out of print for some years. Buzzword is not qualified to critique its interpretation but, for Gurdjieff and Ouspensky scholars, we include below the beginning of a talk about it that the author prepared for the 2000 International Humanities Conference, a peer group forum for the study of Beelzebub's Tales.

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Read the start of the talk here:


It is my view that the writings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff are written in a style based upon the tradition of the Hermetic adepts of all ages who, to perpetuate their esoteric teaching, wrote their material with the assistance of a special allegorical cipher called "The Hermetic Code".  This is a blanket term for all allegory, metaphor, simile or single key words employed by such writers to indicate, and pass on to those who could understand, their knowledge of the mental process described by them as The Magnum Opus (The Great Work).  Over the years, and as knowledge grew, this Code has gradually been deciphered, and with this assistance many types of literature have yielded previously unsuspected esoteric meanings.
 With the use of a working knowledge of this Code, I have endeavoured to interpret the "descent" chapters in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson in a book entitled "Gurdjieff and the Arch-Preposterous: An Hermetic Descent into the Mind"  but I also consider that this Hermetic Code can be applied to the whole of G's writings.  In particular, I feel it must be used to interpret the very first chapter of Beelzebub's Tales, "The Arousing of Thought", for he tells us himself that this "should be the preface for everything further".  In light of this, and with the kind co-operation of Mr Sy Ginsburg to act as reader in my absence, I wish to present this paper to the Conference.
 In the beginning of "The Arousing of Thought", Gurdjieff makes an "utterance" in conformity with the Christian Trinity, saying that he does so with "a full wholly-manifested-intonation" and goes on to describe the nature of this intonation.  He takes confidence in this outward utterance, saying he could now be quite at ease as far as the notions of religious morality are concerned, and could be beyond all doubt assured that everything further in his new venture would proceed "like a pianola".  There are two initial and specific points to be considered here;  first, if he were strictly adhering to the old Hermetic or true gnostic belief in the unity of everything and, second, if he had been following the admonition of his old grandmother to "not do as others do", it was quite in order for him to make this manifested "utterance" in this instance, for it is to be particularly noted that he uses this word and does not swear on the Trinity.  It is said that Sir Isaac Newton, now acknowledged as having had Hermetic understanding, once steadfastly refused to swear on the Christian Trinity when it was a requirement for his being ordained as a Fellow at Cambridge University; the reason for this would have been that as a true gnostic he well knew that the Trinity was part of the Christian myth.  Gurdjieff, therefore, in making such an "utterance" with, shall we say, "tongue-in-cheek", is, on the one hand, only appearing to conform with the usual religious morality of the time.  On the other hand, he is not going against his own convictions.  Further, he leaves a way open for his readers to look below the surface at a hidden meaning. 
 Worked into the third paragraph on the first page of this chapter is also a lesson in the art of positive thinking, for it is a fact that when beginning anything new, one should really be quite at ease and have the utter conviction beyond all doubt that everything will proceed, as is said, "like a pianola", for this instrument, if working correctly, plays the precise piece required.
 In this first chapter, on which we are told Gurdjieff spent a great deal of time, rewriting it over and over again until he felt he had "buried the dog" to the deepest level, he sets the scene and gives us an insight into the whole basis of his writings.  He did not know how to begin, he tells us.  Begin with what?  Oh, the devil!  Precisely.  In allegorical language, "devil" is one of the numerous words used to describe the conscious mind.  If, therefore, we do not understand that we must begin the process within our own mind, we will never reach the required end result.  Once this fact is realized, the work must begin now, not put off "till tomorrow".  To accomplish this type of work, we do not need the knowledge of "bon ton literary language", but must endeavour to make a hole in the window-pane (open the eye of understanding) with our own crazy lame goat (our conscious mind) for, as Gurdjieff tells us, there are many "languages" we can follow and some will have a "veil" cast over them.  It is this veil, or in the present case, a code, which we should learn to recognize, when the inner meanings behind it may be revealed.  Gurdjieff tells us in this first chapter that "every stick has two ends"; this phrase can allude to the two aspects of mind, conscious and subconscious, but we must also apply it to his own convoluted writings, for oftimes in the Tales a phrase or sentence, or even a whole paragraph, has its "other end" which gives quite the opposite meaning to that which appears on the surface; instead of an original independent language - the language of the gods, we might call it - coming to us from the remote past,  Gurdjieff has given us another of his own making, a "kind of clownish potpourri", which has been used for creating a "ludibrium".  Even though G himself does not use this word, it aptly applies to the Tales.  It means a play, usually full of mockery and derision, outwardly making fun of something, in this case man and his world, but with much hidden meaning. This was used as a diversionary tactic by the old writers, many of whom were men of distinction, who did not wish to be associated with certain esoteric ideas for fear of reprisals, but who were, nonetheless, sympathetic to them, and even actively engaged in them.  Such authors often ran the risk of having their "ludibrium" backfire, becoming themselves, quite unjustifiably, a "laughing stock", as happened to John Dee with his "angels", and for anyone not understanding Beelzebub's Tales this no doubt could be said to apply to its author as well.  Gurdjieff tells us he is not writing to become rich and famous or to establish a career, for he has "actualized" his own career long ago, and has long been standing on firm feet, (the feet being symbolic of spiritual understanding);  he therefore makes it apparent right from the beginning he has a definite aim in his writings and they are not just to "titillate" us.  In preparing to relate the story of the Transcaucasian Kurd, one which he says is very dear to him, he tells us that he had decided to make the "salt" of this story one of the basic principles of the new literary form he intends to employ for the attainment of the aim he is pursuing.  In telling us that what he refers to as salt in this story is otherwise called "Tzimus" by "contemporary pure-blooded Jewish businessmen", he is already embarking upon Hermetic allegory, for salt has a specific meaning in alchemy and a Jew is an initiate.  Therefore, in the story of the Kurd, we must recognize one of the basic principles of the Royal Art - once such a process is begun it must be carried out with the utmost zeal and enthusiasm until the end, for the fulfillment of such a task is indeed an initiate's most important duty.  The mention of a "Jericho jackass" has much significance, for if we remember the story of the initiate Jesus riding upon an ass into Jerusalem, via way of Jericho, the inner meaning of Gurdjieff's little cameo should be apparent - it is the allegorical way of showing that the conscious mind is about to be carried across the barrier to the city, the subconscious. To achieve this, the initiate must work and burn with intense effort so that his whole face (his conscious mind) is aflame (with the heat of concentration) and his eyes (allowing him to see with inner understanding) stream with the tears (or sweat) of such effort.  (I wish to mention here that Nicolas has informed me that the word "jackass" has been mistranslated from the Russian, and should in fact be "idiot";  I feel this does not alter the basic interpretation, for our Kurd "carries on to the very end" of the process and would thus become a "super idiot" able to enter Jerusalem, the subconscious).  The "fellow villager" represents the ordinary mind of the uninitiated majority, not themselves understanding but intent on ridiculing the initiate's efforts and endeavouring to divert him from his path.  Our Kurd resists this and carries on with his intention of consciously being able to recognize the "separation" of his soul (subconscious) from his body  (conscious mind) and eventually effect their reunification.  In the next paragraph Gurdjieff tells us we need not feel compelled to go on reading his book (or, by implication, to study his teaching) just on appearances alone, or because we have "paid good money" for it, but if we do so, we must go on eating the "noble red pepper" and suffer its heat unto the end.  Once one becomes familiar with allegorical language, it will be readily seen that the words noble and red both allude to the higher level of consciousness the initiate may attain in his efforts, and the heat referred to is the concentrated attention required to achieve it.  After his brief comments on the English words "soul" and "sole", Gurdjieff very adroitly brings in the concept of our "consciousness" and our "subconsciousness", and hopes that this first chapter will compel us to reflect actively.  This is really the "Tzimus", or salt, of his writings, for it encapsulates the real purpose of the Hermetic or alchemical work, that is, the initiate must allow that which is last and lowest in him (here allegorically called "sole") to become one with that which is first and highest in him (his "soul").  By reflecting (a bending back) we reverse the normal activity of our conscious mind so that it may turn inwards towards its subconscious centre.  We go through life the wrong way up, so to speak.  If we contemplate Card No 12 of the Tarot (The Hanged Man) it is apparent that the feet are raised above the head.  The feet are symbolic of spiritual understanding, the potential within our conscious mind, and this must be raised to a higher level - sole must become one with soul.  There are many instances in allegorical tales where a covering on the feet, such as boots, impedes this understanding.  We are next told that thanks to three definite peculiar data crystallized in his entirety during various periods of his preparatory age, he is "really unique" in "muddling and befuddling" people.  So were the Hermetic writers of old.  However, if we look closely, even with our false consciousness, the clues are always there, for in the next paragraph he tells us that an impulse of curiosity may give rise to the desire for knowledge, and that this assists in our having a better perception and even a closer understanding of the essence of any object on which the attention might be concentrated.  The heat of the red pepper again applies.
 He then begins to give us an account of these three specific data, the first of which became the chief directing lever of his entire wholeness.  This is the story of his grandmother who, when dying, enjoined him very emphatically to never in life do as others do - to do nothing or do something nobody else does.  Any woman in allegory represents reflective power, a function of the conscious mind not usually used - it is a force which is unnatural to us.  Even in the description of this little scene of his last talk with his grandmother, we are given the clue of reversal in the words right (subconscious) and left (conscious) - he "kissed the right hand", and note it is the left hand which is said to be dying, just as in allegory it should be, representing as it does the conscious mind. 
 Gurdjieff then gives a cameo description of a neophyte's first experience of the meditative process.  He paints a quaint picture of his getting into a bin (his own mind) where during Lent (a time of sacrifice), food for pigs is stored (this is the usual slush fed to the conscious mind);  in a different state of mind (brought about by his change of thinking, a reversal of thought) he is suddenly without food and drink (now denying the conscious mind its usual flood of thoughts) until the return from the cemetery (a place of the dead) of his mother (again, reflection) whose weeping (concentrated effort) at finding him gone and searching in vain (conscious mind temporarily cut off) "overwhelmed" him (first contact with a higher level is overpowering to the inexperienced neophyte and hence must be very brief).    He then emerges from the bin (comes out of his meditation) and standing first of all on the edge (the foggy state between conscious and subconscious) with outstretched hand, ran to her and clung to her skirts (conscious mind needing the comfort of being in its own familiar domain) stamping his feet (endeavouring to understand) and imitating the braying of a donkey (an old allegorical way of depicting the invocation of a "god").  Again we must note that a donkey (or ass) is mentioned and we are told it belonged to a bailiff (this being the watcher in the mind).  Always thereafter at "Shrovetide" he pondered upon this event. Shrovetide is the period of days before Ash-Wednesday, the first day of Lent, called so from the custom of sprinkling ashes on the head; this was his reminder of his first experience, for ash is a residue of fire, concentrated attention.  This little allegorical story aptly portrays the first realization of a neophyte that his mind has a dual aspect, and pictures the resulting turmoil of impressions which this brings.  He tells us that after this experience he then walked with his feet in the air (he has discovered and understood the art of reversal of thoughts) and must thereafter use his hands (this representing the method of working through the conscious mind using will-power) so that his level of understanding (now raised upwards through the soles of his feet) will increase.  See again how this story ties in with his mention of "sole" and "soul".  He goes on to tell us that on the fortieth day after the death of his grandmother, all the relatives gathered in the cemetery for a "requiem service".  The number forty, so often used in allegory, denotes a period of meditation, and does not necessarily mean an exact length of time;  in this instance, where a death is reported at the end of the forty days, Gurdjieff is completing his descriptive portrayal of the way the death of the conscious mind eventually occurs (for even all its relatives, or all its aspects, are in the cemetery) which thus releases the "soul", the subconscious.