Washington’s characterization of
as being “fond of threes” is,
in my opinion,
akin to writing that Einstein was “into light”
or that Heinsenberg “was beset by uncertainty.”
- James A. Moffatt -
"Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon
is nothing more and nothing less than a lie:
a fantastic tale, which is so far removed from the reality of that which it purports to explain,
that it is nothing more than a bedtime story to be told to children who welcome sleep’s reassuring comfort. It is a new version of a familiar story: one that has been told and re-told by rational and reasonable people whenever they have been confronted by those mystics and misfits who, strangely enough, have always seemed to be amongst us. In order to deal with these outsiders’ crazy ideas and grandiose claims–those that challenge the authenticity of a well-reasoned, orderly understanding of ourselves and the Universe–reasonable and rational people must rid themselves of these alien creatures."
James A. Moffatt
o what must be done.
On Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon
or How To Wiseacre, Lie, & Document Your Ignorance For Fun & Profit
The following review is a modified version of my commentary on Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon which appears in my book, An ‘Alien Intelligence.’ In that work, I adopted Northrop Frye’s framework for separating the mythical from the historical, and approached Gurdjieff as “a figure who drops into history from another dimension of reality, and thereby shows what the limitations of the historical perspective are.” # 1 While I do not believe, literally, in Gurdjieff’s otherworldly origins, I do think that he was an “alien” in the sense that his being and intelligence differed in nature to the point of incompatibility with our usual understanding of what it means to be human. Likewise, ‘the fourth way’ differs so radically from any other body of knowledge with which I am familiar that I believe it is useful to regard it as representing an “alien intelligence.” In my opinion, the benefits of treating Gurdjieff as a figure who transcends the established historical and psychological perspectives justify assuming such an admittedly peculiar viewpoint.
In his book, Washington ostensibly seeks to answer a legitimate question: why did Madame Blavatsky and her “spiritual heirs” appeal to so many Westerners, including many prominent artists and intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century: such as W.B. Yeats, Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, A.R. Orage, P.L. Tavers, Christopher Isherwood, and many others. But Washington’s question is as phony as anything that the figures, who he seeks to expose, ever dreamed of doing. For it is abundantly evident from his tawdry treatment of these ‘gurus’ and his refusal to provide an informed discussion of their work and their teachings that he has answered it, to his own satisfaction, before he begins his “investigation.”
Peter Washington rejects the idea of esotericism a priori. Consequently, everything that he presents as evidence in Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is prejudged and hopelessly slanted. Accordingly, Washington puts forth the tautological “explanation” that these spiritual figures attracted extraordinarily desperate and gullible people because only those, who were extraordinarily desperate and gullible, could regard such “misfits” as legitimate teachers and find profound meaning in their bizarre ideas. In essence, Washington has fallen back on the rationalist-skeptic’s preferred means of addressing all things “mystical” and “esoteric”: put forth ad hominem arguments, posing as rational discourse and debate, in order to discredit ridiculous ideas–thereby, doing away with the more demanding task of examining and discussing them intelligently. In effect, attack the messenger in order to avoid the messier and more challenging task of discussing the message.
Quite simply, Peter Washington’s book attests to the fact that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Because he knows something of the documented facts of the lives of Blavatsky, Krishnamurti, Steiner, and Gurdjieff, he assumes that he understands them and their work. More importantly, he seems to believe that, because he is not a follower of any of these teachers, his independence affords him a greater degree of objectivity and more comprehensive insight into them than that which their pupils possessed or subsequent generations of adherents are capable of realizing. But that point of view can only be credible if it is based on a substantive discussion of these figures’ teachings–something that Washington does not provide. Instead, the entire posture of his telling of his preposterous tales is that of the incredulous, rational witness shaking his head in disbelief at the sheer folly of those true believers who are incapable of recognizing that they are being duped, while sneering at their gurus–whose spiritual pretensions are matched only by their predatory vulgarity. This “insight” allows Washington the license, he believes, to explain the appeal of Madame Blavatsky and her “lineage” in terms of the psychological failings of their followers and the socio-cultural context in which disillusionment with rationality and self-sufficiency gave rise to the irrational appeal of spiritual compulsion and voluntary subservience.
Washington’s unrelenting adherence to untenable prejudices and circular arguments is evident throughout MBB in his treatment of not only the gurus themselves, but the many redoubtable figures who were prominent members of their inner circles. The likes of Annie Besant, Lady Emily Luytens, P.D. Ouspensky, J.G. Bennett, and A.R. Orage–to name but a few–are portrayed as otherwise accomplished and intelligent people whose essential character flaws and weaknesses led them to fall under the spell of self-aggrandizing pretenders to arcane spiritual knowledge and esoteric secrets. To borrow a mode of motivational attribution that Peter Washington shamelessly and indiscriminately applies throughout his book, it seems to me that he has “a pathological need” and pursues a “highly erratic and irrational course” in forwarding his “fanciful and “imaginary” accounts and assessments of these acolytes’ lives. This leads to his maddening habit of building these figures up by adducing evidence of their exceptional qualities and significant achievements–only to turn around, in the next breath, and demean and dismiss them for their mind-numbing gullibility and slavish devotion to their masters.
Washington consistently slants his considerations of these characters by repeatedly insinuating loaded terms into his accounts and interpretations of their actions to describe that which a more impartial or fair-minded chronicler might interpret or recount in a much less pejorative or–perish the thought!–perhaps even a positive light. Hence, instead of saying that Ouspensky was passionate about the importance of Gurdjieff and his work, Washington describes him as being “obsessed” and “besotted” (one of his favourite terms) by the “sinister” and “cruel” (two more repeat offenders) Gurdjieff. With such repeated instances of twisting and skewing all sorts of incidents in various pupils’ lives, Washington consistently slanders both the gurus and their followers: effectively, reinforcing the circularity of his argument that only the misguided, the forsaken, or the deluded could find meaning or sustenance in the folderol and fancies proffered by these faux mystics and misfit mediums. Such dealing from the bottom of the deck recurs throughout MBB and makes a mockery of Peter Washington’s “scholarship.” Of course in order to spot a cheat at the table, one must understand the game and how it should and should not be played. In those terms, the most offensive and sleazy aspect of Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is that its dishonesty is not apt to be readily or easily identified by those who have not studied the lives and teachings of the book’s principal characters.
As much as I find Washington’s depiction and interpretations
of the lives and works of Blavatsky, Steiner, and Krishnamurti deeply offensive,
I will focus, within this review, on his ludicrous misrepresentation and
misinterpretations of Gurdjieff and ‘the fourth way.’ I know more
about Gurdjieff and his teaching than I do about any of the other major
figures in MBB. As such, I am very familiar with the sources from
which Washington has twisted and distorted the facts to forward his confabulations.
Moreover, Gurdjieff is the key figure in Washington’s fanciful establishment
of Madame Blavatsky’s lineage of spiritual con artists. As I shall
argue, his linkage of Theosophy and ‘the fourth way’ is not only wrong,
but clearly attests to his superficial treatment of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff.
Having focused on their personalities, he has completely missed the essence
and the significance of their teachings and their work.
... part of the complementary fascination with barbarism and primitivism which colours the politics of Fascism and works of art from Lawrence’s novels to Stravinsky’s early ballets. Gurdjieff’s doctrine was war and his method of teaching was to stir up productive strife with all the means at his disposal. #8In light of such abject nonsense, it is difficult to know where one might begin in responding to Washington’s torturous distortions and delusions. How anyone could possibly equate anything in Gurdjieff’s teaching or even his methods–which were, admittedly, sometimes harsh and frequently extreme–with “barbarism,” “primitivism,” or “Fascism” is completely beyond my understanding. #9 As to the characterization of Gurdjieff’s doctrine as “war” ... well ... in a word, Mr. Washington: no! I suppose one might say that, metaphorically, G.’s doctrine was war, but it was the psychopathology of the human psyche and its manifestation in all manner of primitivism and barbarism–especially war–which Mr. G. was seeking to overcome. Moreover, Gurdjieff was unequivocal in asserting that all aspirations to ‘good works and brotherly love’ were condemned to fail as long as human beings remained in their state of sleep and ignorance. It was that belief which put him at odds with Theosophy and all forms of occultism that ignored the necessity of seeking psycho-transformation through systematic self-study. Unless a teaching provided a rigorous method for the awakening of consciousness, Gurdjieff claimed that it could not lead to the acquisition of higher knowledge or the awakening of Self and the concomitant realization of self-mastery: the essential pre-requisites to any meaningful intentions regarding ‘good works and brotherly love.’
The only truth in Mr. Washington’s remarkable statement is his description of G.’s use of “productive strife”–which is fitting, insofar as it is in keeping with his tendency to capture neatly, in isolation, some aspect of Gurdjieff or his work, while completely misunderstanding and misrepresenting its broader significance. This is especially evident in his discussion of Gurdjieff’s ‘acting.’ In introducing Gurdjieff, Washington cites Ouspensky on G.’s ‘acting,’ provides an excellent discussion of how it complicates any interpretation of Gurdjieff’s character and motives, and then proceeds to ignore it for the rest of the book! There is, then, no consideration of Gurdjieff’s claim that he was a “conscious actor”: that he played parts in accordance with his own undeclared purposes. As I have argued, in An ‘Alien Intelligence', it is impossible to provide a meaningful commentary on Mr. Gurdjieff and his work without addressing this definitive quality of his public face–to look beyond his persona and his performances in order to weigh and ponder the significance of his extraordinary essence. In a sense, Peter Washington’s failings may be excused to some extent: for, in attempting to provide a “balanced” account of him, Gurdjieff’s biographers–James Webb and James Moore #10–have ignored the significance of his ‘acting’ and, as a result, failed to come to terms with Mr. G. By “normalizing” Gurdjieff, they have lost sight of him: effectively doing away with the substantial body of evidence which attests to the fact that G. was, on some level, a man of higher consciousness and being. Peter Washington goes Webb and Moore one better by further twisting and tweaking their tales of Gurdjieff’s follies and fortunes to degrade and demonize him as being nothing but a fake and a phony of epic proportions.
Of course, Washington’s viewpoint forces him to account for Gurdjieff’s revered status amongst so many of his pupils. He accomplishes that task by attributing it to their character defects and by hinting darkly, without any corroborating evidence, about the numerous pupils whom Gurdjieff allegedly drove to madness and suicide. Not surprisingly, Washington makes no attempt to understand how the master-student relationship may have coloured and shaped Mr. G.’s otherwise strange behaviour and relations with his followers. # 11 Furthermore, there is no acknowledgment of the Sufi concept of malamat–“the path of blame”–whereby a master intentionally acts in outrageous or incomprehensible ways to shock and violate his pupils’ expectations and assumptions. At the very least, this intriguing and unexpected formulation should merit some consideration if one were truly serious and open-minded in attempting to assess a figure as enigmatic and mysterious as G.I. Gurdjieff. But Peter Washington provides no such explanations because, in order to do so, he would have to delve into a meaningful discussion of Gurdjieff’s teaching and esoteric doctrine–and Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is devoid of any significant discussion of the ideas, principles, or methods of ‘the fourth way’ or the esoteric tradition. Instead, Washington settles for the comfortable and reassuring course of seizing upon every instance of Gurdjieff’s transgressions–real and imagined–as further and better proof of his sinister being and malicious intent.
As an example of Washington’s insight into ‘the fourth way,’ we find that his discussion of ‘the law of three’–one of the two fundamental cosmic laws that Gurdjieff asserted underlie every manifest aspect of Creation–consists of the statement that Gurdjieff was “fond of threes.” # 12 That bit of brilliance comes from a man who spends four hundred pages smugly dismissing and defaming others for their intellectual failings and dishonesty. Washington does not offer anything by way of commentary about ‘the law of three’ because, clearly, he does not know anything about it. Consequently, he tosses off this smirking aside to further his depiction of Gurdjieff as being a crank and a quack. However, to anyone who has made a serious attempt to understand the meaning of Gurdjieff’s ‘fondness for threes,’ it is obvious that Mr. Washington is inappropriately proud of not only documenting, but celebrating his profound ignorance. In the same vein, one wonders how anyone–let alone a professor of literature–could profess to have grasped the significance of Mr. G. and his teaching, without commenting on his writing! But this lack of intellectual rigour makes perfect sense when one understands that Washington’s purpose is not to understand Gurdjieff, but rather to slander him. For the purposes of his book, Gurdjieff (as well as Steiner and Krishnamurti) is the spiritual successor of the arch-phony, Madame Blavatsky, and as such he, too, must be a charlatan, whose teachings reveal nothing more than the ease with which people are duped by those pretenders to inclusion in esotericism’s hierarchy.
While Gurdjieff had expended considerable time and effort studying Theosophy and attempting to substantiate Madame Blavatsky’s claims, he eventually rejected her teaching–finding it wanting in terms of both its legitimacy and its lack of practical guidance to self-transformation. #13 Although Washington acknowledges this fact, he refuses to accept it–as it is essential to his thesis that the links between Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, in the great chain of spiritual con artists, must be maintained. If along the way, truth and honesty are sacrificed, so be it. Mr. Washington is not about to let anything get in the way of a good story. Accordingly, he glibly dismisses Gurdjieff’s twenty-odd years of heroic search and study, which resulted in his uncovering of ‘the fourth way,’ by equating his spiritual odyssey with that of the infamous Madame Blavatsky:
... it is all too easy to dress up a vacant period in one’s life as a mystical retreat or an occult apprenticeship when there is no one to gainsay the fact ...” #14
While this is true–for no one really does know what Gurdjieff or, for that matter, Madame Blavatsky did during their years of travel and seeking after truth–it is equally true that it is all too easy to dismiss a teaching or system of ideas as nonsense when there is no one present to argue the fact. Put to that test by anyone possessing even a rudimentary knowledge and understanding of Mr. G. and his work, Washington’s grasp of ‘the fourth way’ would crumble like a house of cards. More to the point, if he made the effort necessary to understand a teaching as brilliant and complex as ‘the fourth way,’ Peter Washington might very well be intrigued by the question of how G. managed to discover this profound and mysterious body of knowledge. Yet, it is precisely because he does not understand ‘the fourth way’ that his treatment of Gurdjieff is utterly ridiculous.
When I first began studying ‘the fourth
way,’ I was surprised to discover how many derogatory references to Gurdjieff
I came across in my reading. Inevitably, those criticizing G. adduced
no evidence for their opinions and gave no indication that they possessed
any understanding of his work. Although I regarded Gurdjieff as a
figure of incalculable importance in human history, I was soon resigned
to the view that he was not going to be widely recognized as such in our
time. In writing about him, I have chosen previously to ignore his
critics–because, for the most part, I find nothing substantive to which
I might reply. In that regard, I am thankful for Madame Blavatsky’s
Baboon–because, despite all its failings, its size and scope does provide
a substantial body of material to rebut. For his part, I believe
that Peter Washington does a very good job of representing the skeptical
viewpoint of those rigid materialists who reflexively dismiss all things
“mystical” and “esoteric”–even though they never seem to have the slightest
idea as to what mysticism and esotericism entail. What Peter Washington’s
supercilious polemic–disguised as intellectual history–documents is the
extent to which learned moderns stubbornly refuse to grant serious consideration
to the mystical/esoteric tradition. The lies and intellectual myopia
that guide and inform MBB attest to the fact that Lentrohamsanin–the character,
in Mr.G.’s Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson, whose egoism and hyper-rationality
leads him to undo the saintly work of the cosmic messenger, Ashieta Shiemash–is
alive and well, and selling a great number of books. As such, the book
and the positive reactions it has garnered provide a pretty good indication
of just how the wind is blowing these days. Is it any wonder that,
in this climate of over-reaching intellectualism and spiritual stagnation,
Gurdjieff and his work exist on the fringes of contemporary thought and
In Gurdjieff: Making A New World
#17, J.G. Bennett addresses questions raised by Gurdjieff’s extraordinary
being and his profound teaching. In order to properly consider Gurdjieff’s
mission and the significance of his rediscovery of ‘the fourth way,’
#18 Bennett poses an intriguing question: “Is there an ‘inner circle’ of
humanity?” Given that there are numerous reports of and allusions
to brotherhoods of highly evolved human beings, who possess superhuman
powers and wisdom, Bennett suggests that their existence should be treated
as a serious hypothesis. He notes that Buddhists, Tibetan lamas,
and various orders of Sufis all hold that there exists a group of wise
men or Masters who have watched over the destiny of humankind and have
intervened, from time to time, to avert a calamity or to change the course
of events by injecting new modes of thought corresponding to the needs
of a changing age.
...a hierarchy at the head of which are superhuman beings, who may or may not live in human form; but who, in any case, have a direct insight into cosmic purposes and processes and who can exercise powers that are entirely beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. #20As Bennett points out, this strong view of the inner circle’s existence has been very popular with writers of fiction and, as a result, has been debased. Furthermore, it also resonates with Madame Blavatsky’s “Masters,” who served as her esoteric sources–the claim which Peter Washington has such a great time trashing and which is congruent with his dismissal of the very idea of esoteric knowledge. However, as much as it may seem reasonable to discard the idea of the inner circle existing in the ‘strong sense,’ Bennett believes that the question demands careful consideration and is, at the very least, a much more subtle matter than most people suppose.
Within the limits of this work, it is not possible to go into a detailed examination of this question of the inner circle’s existence. However, I believe that it is most illuminating to compare the approach of Peter Washington and J.G. Bennett to this topic. Bennett precedes his discussion by examining the history of an esoteric lineage he calls “The Masters Of Wisdom”: the Khwajagan dervishes of central Asia, who played a significant role in the history of the region between the eleventh and fifteen century A.D., and the Naq’shbandi Brotherhood who were their successors. He claims that there is a direct relation between the latter group and Gurdjieff–insofar as Mr. G. incorporated many of their ideas and techniques into his teaching. #21 In tracing the history of these two Sufi orders, Bennett discusses many of the revered spiritual figures associated with them, provides an outline of some of their doctrines and disciplines, and speculates on their possible influence on the evolution of the area’s culture and social organization. Significantly, his treatment of the topic is informed by the fact that he had travelled extensively in that region, had visited several dervish communities, and because he spoke Turkish–the lingua franca in that area–had been able to communicate directly with members of those orders. As he notes, his access to dervish communities was much more restricted than that which Gurdjieff would have been granted–in part, because Mr. G. would have been recognized as a man of elevated spiritual attainment and great seriousness of purpose and, quite simply, because it would have been much easier to make contact with such groups during the time when G. had been pursuing his spiritual search than it was when Bennett visited them, many years later.
In contrast to Bennett’s speculations, Peter Washington would not stoop to discussing anything as ridiculous as the existence of an inner circle. Given his exposure of Madame Blavatsky’s claims regarding her contact with “the Masters” and his contention that Gurdjieff was HPB’s spiritual heir, he is not about to entertain such nonsense. However, the matter is much more complicated than Washington allows. In The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge, #22, K. Paul Johnson puts forth the thesis that, although HPB’s Masters were fictional creations, they represented real historical figures with whom HPB made contact in her travels through the East. He argues that Blavatsky’s invention of the Masters disguises the identities of the numerous esoteric teachers and religious figures who were the true sources of her teaching. In essence, Johnson argues that Madame B.’s claims to have been in contact with the inner circle, in the strong sense, are a misrepresentation of her direct communications with the inner circle, in the weak sense.
Of course, Peter Washington would be unlikely to grant Johnson’s argument any consideration for the simple reason that the concept of esoteric teaching is meaningless to him. Then too, Madame Blavatsky’s status as a spiritual fraud is the foundation of his entire book. Having marshalled the considerable body of evidence against her, Washington proceeds to elevate HPB, even as he demeans her, to the status of grandmother cum midwife of the New Age. In effect, he pays her the dubious compliment of portraying her as a phony of such power and influence that she was effectively the source of a wave of irrationality and anti-intellectualism, posing as alternative spirituality and esoteric knowledge, which would wash over the Western world throughout the twentieth century. Furthermore, in order to demean Gurdjieff, Steiner, and Krishnamurti–those whom he identifies as HPB’s successors–Washington begins to play fast and loose with the truth in a style that might have made even Madame B. blush. In that spirit, he makes the following bizarre statement about Gurdjieff’s putative connection with Blavatsky:
Yet though he avowedly rejected Theosophy, Gurdjieff turned a similar ideology–including a universal doctrine, a detailed cosmology and (crucially) a Brotherhood of Masters–to good account. How far he took this ideology from HPB it is impossible to say.” #23Well, aside from the fact that it is entirely possible to say that Gurdjieff did not take his “ideology” from HPB, Washington’s line of “reasoning,” in connecting the two, is absurd. While he states correctly, that Gurdjieff rejected Theosophy, he immediately qualifies that statement by saying that G. “avowedly” rejected Theosophy. According to Washington, then, Gurdjieff rejected Theosophy–but did not reject Theosophy. This is called wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. He then proceeds to elaborate on his peculiarly schizoid argument by citing similar elements in Theosophy and ‘the fourth way’–especially, the existence of a Brotherhood of Masters–as evidence that Gurdjieff somehow embraced HPB’s doctrines. However, he adds, again correctly, that the existence of a hidden brotherhood is a common idea amongst the mystics of Central Asia. That insight leads Washington to conclude that “it would be unwise to derive Gurdjieff’s teaching too closely from Blavatsky’s, especially as his teaching methods developed in a very different way.” # 24 To sum up then, Peter Washington says that Gurdjieff rejected Theosophy–although not really–but we should not make too much of that connection because G. might have taken the notion of a Brotherhood of Masters from Central Asia and, at any rate, his teaching really is not all that similar to Theosophy.
Is it that clear? Wait! It gets better. Washington furthers his argument about the alleged links between Madame Blavatsky and Gurdjieff by stating that, while their teachings really are not that similar, there does exist a “very striking similarity between their characters and the patterns of their lives.” #25 The similarities, that Washington sees, are not that Madame B. and Mr. G. both travelled widely in search of esoteric knowledge, and later brought their teachings to the West. Instead, he asserts that they staged their careers in very similar terms–although Gurdjieff, as was his wont, did everything Madame Blavatsky did, but with a more bombastic flourish and on a grander scale. Once again, Washington’s lame attempts to establish correspondences and connections, that simply do not exist, are exasperating to anyone who knows anything about Theosophy and ‘the fourth way.’ The most striking similarity, which I see between Madame Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, consists of the fact that Peter Washington’s analysis of their lives and work is superficial, titillating, shoddy, and laughable.
Putting aside for the moment the simple fact, that the similarities between Theosophy and ‘the fourth way’ are easily outweighed by their differences, even Washington’s suggestion about the importance of the Brotherhood of Masters does not stand up to scrutiny. For Madame Blavatsky, the Masters were the source of her authority: she repeatedly cited their direction, their advice, and their desires as the basis on which her followers should choose their course of action (which, coincidentally, seemed to concur with that which she favoured). That she used the Masters’ alleged omniscience to manipulate many of those within her circle for her own purposes is beyond doubt. By contrast, Gurdjieff’s discussion of the Masters’ existence was much more equivocal and indirect. His numerous references to “schools” document his belief in the existence of an inner circle of Masters who have been responsible for preserving higher knowledge and transmitting it to the outer circle of humanity. In Bennett’s terms, Gurdjieff clearly believed in the existence of the inner circle, in the weak sense. However, on some occasions, he also spoke and wrote about the existence of higher beings and sources of intelligence who were concerned with the planetary events and humanity’s evolution. In those instances, it appears that he is asserting the existence of an inner circle, in Bennett’s strong sense. But no matter how he conceived of their existence, Gurdjieff never used the Masters to direct or manipulate his pupils. On the contrary, because ‘the fourth way’ is a path of understanding, he demanded that his pupils evaluate the validity of his claims through their own efforts. If they accepted him as their teacher, they contracted to follow his directions and were encouraged to ‘draw on his hanbledzoin’–the energy of the astral body which he had accumulated through his spiritual development–in order to meet the challenges he presented them. However, they were never asked to believe ‘any old tale’ because some ethereal presence in the Himalayas or Central Asia was said to demand it.
In sum, Peter Washington’s wild and frantic swings between affirming and denying the connections, said to link Madame Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, point to the desperation with which he attempts to twist and force facts to fit an untenable thesis. The more he pursues his exposé of Madame B. and her lineage, the more he reveals the lengths to which he will go–and must go–in denying the legitimacy of the esoteric tradition. However, if one does acknowledge the existence of an esoteric tradition, the case of Madame Blavatsky becomes much more nuanced and intriguing. For despite all of HPB’s misconduct, there remains the following great unanswered question: how is that, in The Secret Doctrine–a work published more than a hundred and twenty-five years ago–Madame Blavatsky anticipated many of modern physics’ most intriguing concepts and theoretical perspectives? That is, how did she describe cosmogenesis–the origins of the universe–in terms of point sources or singularities, the quantum vacuum, seven dimensional hyperspace, and a hierarchy of broken symmetries which generate form from formlessness and matter from nothingness. #26 It would seem to me that somehow–whether from direct contact or plagiarism or, most likely, some combination of both–HPB drew from esoteric sources in compiling The Secret Doctrine. If so, that would comprise compelling evidence that, contrary to Peter Washington’s assumptions, the esoteric tradition is a repository of higher knowledge and insight into the nature of man, the universe, and the gods. It would be most instructive to hear Washington’s explanation of what is really going on here–but, of course, he never really considers the content of HPB’s or G.’s teachings because he knows that, in the spiritual con game, they amount to nothing more than props and patter. #27
In stark contrast to Washington’s dogmatic skepticism, Bennett’s consideration of the inner circle is not impelled by a need to disprove its existence, but rather to attempt to understand its role in humanity’s evolution. His examination of “The Masters Of Wisdom”–in which he presents the history of the Khwajagan and Naq’shbandi dervishes–recounts the lives of a host of remarkable figures who were revered for their spiritual attainment and service, and whose impact on their cultures and times was incalculable. On each occasion that I have read his account–and I have done so several times–I am shocked to realize the extent of my ignorance about an entire current of history. In effect, I am reminded–as I am whenever I expand my knowledge of esotericism–that Ouspensky was correct when he stated that there are two currents of history, the exoteric and the esoteric, and that we know practically nothing about the second. Bennett’s chronology of the dervishes’ activities in Central Asia is nothing more than a perfunctory review of a sliver of esoteric history, but to anyone, who approaches the topic with an open mind, his account and accompanying speculations, regarding their significance, serve as an arresting reminder of how little we really know about anything. #28
At the very least, Bennett’s work reveals the superficiality and formatory thought behind the learned moderns’ attitudes towards esotericism. Peter Washington gives voice to the temporal and cultural chauvinism of the post-technological mentality: the assumption that esoteric teachers and orders are nothing more than pretenders to arcane knowledge. As such, there is never any serious consideration that there exists a tradition which transmits methods of self-transformation, whereby its adherents realize higher states of consciousness and being, attain spiritual and mystical insight, and gain objective knowledge of ‘all and everything.’ Nevertheless, as Bennett points out, Gurdjieff insisted that, in order to understand humanity’s current condition and its place in the cosmos, it was necessary to understand the history of esotericism–to not only acknowledge the existence of this second current, but to grasp its significance in the evolution of human history. In that spirit, Bennett writes that:
We cannot hope to understand Gurdjieff unless we attempt to share his sense of the historical significance of spiritual traditions. ...(he) was convinced that there is an eternal unchanging core of wisdom to which mankind has always had access. He frequently referred to traditions four or five thousand years old, that were still preserved when he travelled in Asia, as well as to more ancient teachings going back to human origins. #29Gurdjieff’s position on the necessity of apprehending the significance of esoteric spirituality– the so-called “perennial philosophy” or “secret teachings of all ages”–once again reminds us that, in attempting to understand him and his work, we are confronted with an ‘alien intelligence.’ In effect, Bennett’s question as to whether the inner circle’s existence should be understood in the strong or weak sense is applicable, I believe, to how we should understand Gurdjieff as an alien intelligence. Was he a man who, through his contact with schools, had acquired higher knowledge and sought to introduce it to the West? Or was he an emissary, sent by numinous beings and higher intelligences, to intervene in the course of human history? As much as such speculation may seem to be chimerical, I regard this as being a serious question. Gurdjieff and ‘the fourth way’ occupy a level of consciousness and project an intelligence that differs so radically from everything comprising that which we take to be human knowledge and understanding as to make such a seemingly bizarre question not only meaningful, but essential.
Of course, if we grant the idea that Gurdjieff was ‘an alien intelligence,’ we confront, by definition, the limits of our knowledge and understanding. As Bennett says, there is something fanciful about the idea that, in speculating about the existence of realized beings or higher intelligences, we can discern or even imagine their natures or purposes. To acknowledge these limitations does not mean, however, that questioning the existence of these higher beings and intelligences is meaningless. Doing so is a significant reminder, I believe, that there exist higher realms of consciousness and being to which we are connected and to which we should aspire by remembering our sacred being-obligations. To self-remember means remembering that the Self we seek to know exists above the level of reality we apprehend in terms of our personal, subjective state of consciousness. In order to realize that state of self-perfection, we must understand the nature of the forces that condition and imprison us in our state of waking sleep and, at the same time, remember that there are sources of consciousness and light, coming to us from Above, which will nourish and guide us in our efforts to lighten the sorrows of our Creator and know ourselves as what Beelzebub calls ‘similitudes of the Whole.’
In light of these considerations, the following commentary by Bennett on Gurdjieff’s role as both an intermediary for and an emissary of higher beings is most significant:
... Gurdjieff held himself out to be a source of higher energy upon which people could draw. He also, though not so specifically, referred to himself as being in contact with a higher source, and said that by drawing upon this higher source, the work for which he was responsible would be able to spread and gain strength in the world. #30Bennett goes on to say that, in the last months of his life, Gurdjieff spoke about “an organization of higher order” which was being established in the world. According to G., this organization would be open to those whose spiritual development allowed them to generate and transmit higher energies and, therefore, would be capable of participating in its work. Bennett adds that G.:
... certainly did not refer to this organization as being of his own creation. He spoke of it in an objective way, as something which was being done of which he was aware and with which he was associated, but not in a central capacity–not as the leader or originator. I think he wished to convey to us that we should, after his death, have the opportunity, if we were prepared and able to work as required, to become connected ourselves with this source, and in turn become a means for the transmission of this higher energy to those who require it. #31Although he wavers on Gurdjieff’s attitude towards the nature of the inner circle, Bennett cites this remarkable declaration as evidence that Mr. G. did subscribe to it existing in the strong sense. I think that it is especially telling that Bennett describes Gurdjieff as speaking of the “organization of a higher order” in “an objective way.” As much as Mr. G.’s penchant for bombastic displays and extravagant claims are well documented, what is less readily acknowledged and appreciated is how so many of his commentaries and observations, on topics all and sundry, are imbued with an authority which is distinct in its objectivity. C.S. Nott was struck by this unique quality: saying that what Gurdjieff said “registered not only in his mind but in the feelings, in such a way that you could not help but think seriously about it.” #32 In the same vein, Ouspensky observed that, when he was in G.’s apartment in St. Petersburg, it was impossible to tell a lie.
These claims are entirely congruent with my impression of Mr. G.’s presence and everything that he said in his early talks: those which are reported in Views From The Real World and In Search Of The Miraculous. There is a clarity, coherence, and impartial certainty in everything that Gurdjieff says which impresses me, each time I read the records of his lectures, as being nothing more and nothing less than profound statements of truth. The extraordinary depth of his integrity and seriousness create an impression of a uniquely realized presence which is almost palpable. Thus, when he spoke to Bennett, “in an objective way,” about a higher source and his knowledge of a organization of higher order, it seems clear that he was admitting to the existence of an inner circle, in the strong sense. However, this was not the only occasion on which Gurdjieff spoke or alluded to the inner circle in this way.
Bennett states that, on more than one occasion, Mr. G. said: “Even I, Gurdjieff, have my teacher” and that he would sometimes add: “I am never separated from my teacher, even now I am communicating with him.” #33 In a similar vein, he told “The Rope”–a special group of women with whom he worked in Paris, during the 1930s–that: “I am a small man compared to those who sent me.” #34 Finally, there were numerous occasions on which Gurdjieff said that he was “Ashieta Shiemash” #35–the most saintly Messenger from Above in Beelzebub’s Tales–and yet others, when he declared: “I am Beelzebub.”
In Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson, both Ashieta Shiemash and Beelzebub are alien intelligences: actualized beings who provide an objective perspective on the peculiar psyches of the ‘three-brained beings of the planet Earth.’ However, it is important to note that, despite the fact that they are higher beings who have taken an interest in the welfare of humankind and the evolution of the planet Earth, both of these numinous presences are demonstrably fallible. Ashieta Shiemash’s very saintly labours on behalf of humanity are undone by Lentrohamsanin; Beelzebub encountered the Earth and its peculiar three-brained beings after he was exiled to our solar system, by higher powers, as punishment for sticking his nose into something that was not his business. Repeatedly, within Beelzebub’s Tales, we learn that even these higher beings make serious mistakes and miscalculations–that even those, who seek to help humanity, cannot simply do so by magically waving a cosmic wand and thereby making us harmonious and whole. Thus, while Gurdjieff may have been a higher man–a man “without quotation marks”–he needed help, from both those above and below him. #36
If Gurdjieff equates himself with
the higher being who narrates Beelzebub’s Tales, there is little
question as to whom his grandson, Hassein, should be compared. Hassein
represents human beings’ essential immaturity and ignorance. Yet,
because he is only a child, there is nothing fixed in his condition: he
possesses the potential to develop himself and become an actualized
being. Hassein’s fascination with his “favourites,” the ‘three-brained
beings of the planet Earth,’ is a sly commentary on humans’ childish egocentrism
and self-satisfaction–that which leads us to regard ourselves as being
what G. mockingly terms “the acme of Creation.” Through Hassein’s
singular interest in humans–something akin to an avid interest in an ant
farm–Gurdjieff satirizes our solipsism, our belief that the universe exists
for our purposes and nothing more. Yet, Beelzebub’s fondness for
tenderness towards his grandson, his desire to assist him in the proper
development of his being, and his recounting of his periodic visits to
Earth–as well as those of numerous Messengers from Above–are all indications
and signs that higher sources of consciousness and spirit are continually
watching over and speaking to us in attempt to assist and guide human beings
in their efforts to awaken to reality and consciously evolve.
While Peter Washington would have a field day
with that quotation, his commentary would, undoubtedly, serve only to demonstrate
how his perceptions and interpretations of Gurdjieff, ‘the fourth way,’
and esotericism are completely upside down. In that light, it seems
fitting to point out that lies also come to people in the form of the truth.
Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is nothing more and nothing less than a lie:
a fantastic tale, which is so far removed from the reality of that which
it purports to explain, that it is nothing more than a bedtime story to
be told to children who welcome sleep’s reassuring comfort. It is
a new version of a familiar story: one that has been told and re-told by
rational and reasonable people whenever they have been confronted by those
mystics and misfits who, strangely enough, have always seemed to be amongst
us. In order to deal with these outsiders’ crazy ideas and grandiose
claims–those that challenge the authenticity of a well-reasoned, orderly
understanding of ourselves and the Universe–reasonable and rational people
must rid themselves of these alien creatures. Writing them up to
write them off is an old favourite when it comes to time do what must be
done. For, as we all know, if you tell a lie often enough, even the
most reasonable and rational people are apt to believe it.
1. This idea, that Gurdjieff is a figure who transcends
the historical and psychological perspectives, is derived from Northrop
Frye’s commentary about Jesus as a mythical figure whose appearance in
the Gospels reveals the limits of the historical perspective. See
Northrop Frye, The Double Vision, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1991), p. 16. 2. Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon:
A History Of Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to
America, (New York: Schocken Books, 1995). 3. For example, Washington
describes Gurdjieff’s wife, Mme Ostrowska, as having been “a Polish prostitute,”
(p. 170) but according to James Moore, author of Gurdjieff: An Anatomy
Of A Myth, she was a member of the Czar’s court who was rumoured to have
had a troubled past. This is hardly unequivocal evidence that she
was a prostitute. Washington also describes Maurice Nicoll’s work
as consisting of “a series of books which reinterpreted Gurdjieffian doctrine
in light of psychoanalysis.” (p. 369) That claim is utter nonsense!
Although Nicoll studied with Carl Jung, there is nothing in his five volumes
of commentaries on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky or in any of his other ‘fourth
way’ writings that even hints of a Freudian perspective. Finally,
in discussing the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Transcendental Meditation
movement, Washington refers to the yogi’s influence on pop stars and “celebrated
enthusiasts”–including the Beatles and Bob Dylan. (p. 371) As something
of a Dylan fanatic, I have read numerous books and hundreds of articles
about him, but I have never come across any reference to Bob taking up
TM. In a book, which is chock full of laughable assertions, the idea
that Dylan was doing TM struck me as being particularly hilarious.
Just imagine Bob Dylan doing any mantra in his inimitable manner: “Om mani,
padme, hum!” Admittedly, these inaccuracies
and misrepresentations differ widely in terms of their significance, but
they are but the tip of the ice-berg. Mr. Washington’s command of
the facts of his work fails to support the supercilious tone which he assumes
throughout MBB. For a dissenting viewpoint
on Washington’s treatment of Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy, which is posted
on the internet, go to: http://home.pacbell.net/amsec/theo2b.html.
An article by W.T.S. Thackara–entitled Notes on Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon–is
reprinted (with additional material) from Theosophical History (6:8), October,
1997, pp. 309-15. Thackara documents the many errors that plague
Washington’s discussion of Theosophy. For K. Paul Johnson’s criticism
of Washington’s numerous “factual errors” regarding Blavatsky and Theosophy,
see Note #22. 4. Although details regarding it are sketchy, at best,
the Great White Brotherhood is said to be a circle of realized Masters
or Mahatmas who comprise the unrecognized planetary government. Although
they possess supernatural powers and work to benefit humankind, their efforts
are opposed by the Lords of the Dark Force–Black magicians. 5. Report
of the Society for Psychical Research, 1886 in Gertrude Marvin Williams,
Madame Blavatsky: Priestess Of The Occult, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Inc., 1946), p. 273. In The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and
the Myth of the Great White Lodge, (Albany: State University of New York
Press, 1994), K. Paul Johnson writes that, in 1986, the Society for Psychical
Research published a critique by Vernon Harrison, a handwriting expert,
in which he challenged some of the essential elements of the SfPR’s original
report. According to Johnson, theosophists have interpreted Harrison’s
critique to be a repudiation of the original investigation and, therefore,
as a vindication of Blavatsky. However, Johnson argues that this
is hardly the case: there remain many unanswered charges against Madame
Blavatsky that supported the original report’s conclusions. 6. In
his report, The Sources Of Madame Blavatsky’s Writings, Coleman stated
that Isis Unveiled contained some “2000 passages copied from books without
proper credit” and that The Secret Doctrine was “permeated with plagiarisms.”
(Madame Blavatasky: Priestess Of The Occult, pp. 374-75) 7. MBB,
p. 170. 8. MBB, p. 170. 9. Apparently, Frederick Crews does
not share my disbelief. Reviewing MBB in The New York Review Of Books–The
Consolation Of Theosophy, Parts I and II (Vol. 43, No. 14, September 19,
1996 and Vol. 43, No. 15, October 3, 1996)–Crews takes up Washington’s
linkage of Gurdjieff and fascism in order to fashion “an argument” which
falls just short of blaming Gurdjieff for the rise of the Nazis and World
War II! 10. Two major biographies of Gurdjieff, in English, have
appeared: James Webb, The Harmonious Circle, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons,
1980) and James Moore, Gurdjieff: The Anatomy Of A Myth, (Rockport, MA:
Element Inc., 1991). 11. For an excellent discussion of G.’s relations
with his most prominent pupils– Ouspensky, Orage, and Bennett–I recommend
William Patrick Patterson’s wonderful book, Struggle Of The Magicians:
Exploring The Teacher-Student Relationship, (Fairfax, California: Arete
Communications, 1998). 12. MBB, p. 190. Washington’s characterization
of Gurdjieff as being “fond of threes” is, in my opinion, akin to writing
that Einstein was “into light” or that Heinsenberg “was beset by uncertainty.”
13. For a description of Gurdjieff’s assessment of Theosophy, in
terms of the “principal lines” of esotericism, see P.D. Ouspensky, In Search
Of The Miraculous, (New York: Hartcourt Brace & Company, 1949), p.
286. 14. MBB, p. 175. 15. C.S. Nott, Teachings Of Gurdjieff,
(New York: Samuel Weiser Inc., 1961), p. 49. 16. G.I.. Gurdjieff,
Herald Of The Coming Good, (New York: Samuel Weiser), p. 12. 17.
J.G. Bennett, Gurdjieff: Making A New World, (London: Turnstone Books,
1973). 18. Although many commentators on Gurdjieff and his work have
described his teaching as an amalgamation of various esoteric disciplines
and doctrines, that assertion is at odds with Gurdjieff’s contention that
‘the fourth way’ was a very ancient teaching which he had rediscovered.
Describing ‘the fourth way’ in terms of the principal lines of esotericism,
he states that: “The teaching ... is completely self-supporting and independent
of other lines and it has been completely unknown up to the present time.”
(In Search Of The Miraculous, p. 286) In
An ‘Alien Intelligence,’ I discuss this matter in more detail: drawing
on William Patrick Patterson’s arguments from his book, Struggle Of The
Magicians: Exploring The Teacher-Student Relationship. 19. G: MANW,
p. 53. 20. G: MANW, pp. 51-52. 21. It is important to distinguish
between G.’s “teaching”–that is, his ways and methods of instructing–and
his “teaching”: the body of knowledge identified as ‘the fourth way.’
While it is undoubtedly true that Mr. Gurdjieff incorporated exercises,
disciplines, rituals, observances, and practices from many esoteric schools
into his methods of instruction, it is quite a different matter to conclude,
on that basis, that the ‘fourth way’ teaching–the system which G. taught–was
drawn from those sources. As William Patrick Patterson argues, those
who believe that ‘the fourth way’ is a compilation of knowledge, drawn
from numerous esoteric sources, have things backward. He asserts
that, as an ancient, unknown teaching, ‘the fourth way’ comprises a more
fundamental, unrecognized line of esotericism. In his view, the commonality
of elements in ‘the fourth way’ and various esoteric teachings may be attributed
to the fact that the latter are derived from the former–rather than the
other way around. 22. K. Paul Johnson believes that both HPB’s supporters
and her critics have tended to overstate their cases regarding her relationship
with the Masters. The former are too quick to discount and deny claims
regarding Madame B.’s dishonesty and dissembling; the latter are equally
arbitrary in simply dismissing the Masters as being nothing but a fabrication
of HPB’s fertile and devious imagination. Johnson describes Peter
Washington’s discussion of the psychological basis of Westerners’ infatuation
with self-proclaimed gurus as providing “brilliant insights.” However,
he also states that Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is “marred by factual errors”
concerning the Masters. He claims that Washington mistakenly attributes
to Madame B. “dozens of fanciful teachings about them (the Masters) which
were in fact elaborated by C.W. Leadbeater years after her death.” (The
Masters Revealed, p. 248) 23. MBB, p. 170. 24. MBB, p. 171.
25. MBB, p. 171. 26. I am indebted to Christopher Holmes for
bringing to my attention the extraordinary parallels that exist between
modern physics and HPB’s The Secret Doctrine. As Dr. Holmes points
out, The Secret Doctrine is not easy going and, therefore, he had to expend
considerable time and effort in working out exactly what Madame Blavatsky
is saying about cosmogenesis. Nevertheless, the results of his efforts
make for fascinating reading. For a detailed discussion of HPB’s
doctrine and its implications for modern thought, see: Christopher Holmes,
Divine Masters: On H.P. Blavatsky & The Cosmogenesis of The Secret
Doctrine, (Zero Point Publications: Kars, Ontario, 2002).
Attentive zeropoint readers may have noticed that I repeat this question–regarding
HPB’s anticipation of critical concepts in modern physics–in my review
of Christopher Holmes’ The Heart Doctrine. I do so because it is,
in my opinion, an extraordinarily important matter to ponder. 27.
When I asked a friend of mine–a highly educated, extremely intelligent
man, who has an extensive background in the philosophy of science–how he
explained HPB’s anticipation of so many of the critical concepts in modern
physics, he replied: “Coincidence!” That may not be the dumbest comment
that I have heard in my life–but it is certainly in the running.
If I were to tell my friend that several of contemporary theoretical physicists’
critical concepts are essentially recapitulations of Madame Blavatsky’s
discoveries and that, furthermore, I regarded their theoretical speculations
as being nothing more than a “fortunate coincidence,” he would regard me,
quite rightly, as being mad! And, oh yes,
my friend described Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon as “a great book.” 28.
Of course, as learned moderns, the idea–that there exists an esoteric tradition
which is not only as sophisticated as modern science, but may be more comprehensive
and insightful–is difficult to entertain. This is especially so when
Central Asia is identified as an important locus of esoteric organizations
and activities. To most Westerners, that region is most readily associated
with poverty, religious fundamentalism, ethnic divisiveness, and entrenched
backwardness. Furthermore, when its inhabitants do not conform to
our expectations and directions, there seems to be widespread agreement
that it is entirely appropriate and justifiable to bomb them into a state
of acknowledging the progressive sensibilities and enlightened comprehension
that are the basis of Western civilization’s self-professed superiority.
It is the height of arrogance and narcissistic self-satisfaction to assume
that, simply because we are uninformed about the area’s revered spiritual
figures and orders, their cultures, and their times, they are, therefore,
insignificant. 29. G:MANW, pp. 29-30. 30. G:MANW, pp. 29-30.
31. G:MANW, pp. 77-78. 32. G:MANW, pp. 77-78. 33. TOG,
p. 49. 34. G:MANW, p. 80. 35. SOTM:ETT-SR, p. 180. 36.
Bennett writes that, according to some interpretations, Ashiata Shiemash
is Zoroaster. However, he adds that there are three other interpretations:
“He was a historical character who had really lived in Asia thousands of
years ago. He was also the image of the prophet of the new Epoch
who is still to come, and he was also Gurdjieff himself.” (G:MANW, p. 60)
Bennett says that he thinks all four interpretations are valid.
Bennett also adds that “the name, Ashiata Shiemash, is derived from the
Turkish word, Ash, meaning food, and the words iat and iesm which refer
to eating. According to this interpretation, Ashiatashiemash personifies
the principle of reciprocal feeding.” (G:MANW, p. 61) 37. ISM,
Complete Book/CD Listing, tables