John Anthony West, USA interviewed by Guy Hoffman & Reijo Elsner
John Anthony West
is a writer and independent Egyptologist who has been studying and writing about
ancient Egypt for nearly three decades. In 1993 NBC Special, The Mystery of the
Sphinx, hosted by Charlton Heston was viewed by 30,000,000 people. West won an
Emmy in 1993 for Best Research for his work on the video. West's non-fiction
books include Serpent
in the Sky - The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, The
Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, and The
Case for Astrology. He has also written a book of short stories, a novel,
plays, and film scripts. Mr. West arranges 'Magical Egypt Tours' guiding his
guests through his discoveries in ancient Egypt. Much of the presentation of
'Symbolist' Egypt has come out early 2003 in the form of his Magical
Egypt series with four episodes of a projected six now available in VHS and
You can access Mr. West's homepage from here.
Reijo: We first met in a group meeting in London in Sam Copley's house in 1967. What I recall of you is from those years and of course also from your writings, some television appearances and your web site. Some years ago I found your web site and got in touch with you. I was surprised to find the same voice talking to me. What has changed?
John: Not that much. Waistline and beard color...and of course the concentration upon the symbolist interpretation of ancient Egypt. When we were in the group together I was just becoming acquainted with that extraordinary body of scholarship.
Reijo: Did you join the Foundation when back in New York?
John: I thought of it, went for an interview, then decided not to. But I've remained in contact with any number of Gurdjieffians and a few of the groups. The Work remains my emotional/intellectual/philosophical anchor as it were.
Reijo: You wrote in your article 'Encountering Gurdjieff' that one of the things you got out of the teaching was a kind of responsibility. 'It was no longer that easy to press my buttons' - and you felt you were more in charge of your own reactions. Has this effected your work in your studies of Egypt?
John: Not the work itself, really, but it certainly has allowed me to withstand the considerable abuse that all heretics attract without identifying with it, usually with a rather voracious grin. I actually enjoy the counterattack. You might call it The Way of the Scholarly Samurai. Without Gurdjieff I probably wouldn't have survived the onslaught.
Reijo: In 'Serpent in the Sky' you write that some of the discoveries and ideas of Schwaller de Lubizc and Gurdjieff are so similar that you thought they had known each other. How would you describe the main similarities?
John: The language was different, but the specific focus upon developing consciousness that Schwaller attributed to ancient Egypt was effectively pure Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff always called his system (a bit grudgingly) Esoteric Christianity and asserted that Christianity actually was derived from Egypt. This was apparent in Schwaller's interpretation of Egypt as well - except that in the process the doctrine largely lost the sacred science that had sustained Egypt and became, instead, a doctrine of faith. I like to call it Remedial Egypt; Egypt for Dummies. Schwaller on the other hand saw Christianity as a move to take the doctrine of Return (i.e., Salvation) out of the Temple where it was the property of an initiated elite and make it available to all. Unfortunately, as history teaches us, not many took advantage of that availability over the next two thousand years. The murderous savages calling themselves 'Christians' currently in control of the American government may represent the ultimate degradation of what once was Egypt - the octave at its nadir.
At this point the interview is taken over by Guy Hoffman, who went to see John Anthony West.
Guy: John, I’m very happy to be here with you. Now what is an independent Egyptologist?
John: That’s somebody who studies Egypt and knows something about it and doesn’t have the right letters after his name. So that Egyptologists don’t call me an Egyptologist at all. Sometimes just to irritate them I call myself a rogue Egyptologist because the view I espouse and disseminate is developed by the remarkable French philosopher, mathematician, orientalist with the unpronounceable name, R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz. So this anathema to academic Egyptology, and then add to that this whole investigation that calls for the re-dating of the Sphinx and with it the re-thinking of everything that they think they know about ancient history and they have a real heretic in the mist.
Also, what attracted me to Schwaller in the first place was that I was involved in the Gurdjieff Work. And here was Schwaller effectively documenting what Gurdjieff just put out there on a take it or leave it basis in terms of the high wisdom of ancient civilizations and the general—the opposite of progress, the redress of humanity over the course of the last six or seven thousand years. So this dynamite stuff, particularly when it’s backed up by scholarship that is irrefutable.
Guy: How did you find the Gurdjieff Work?
John: That was interesting. I discovered it in Spain when I was living on the island of Eivissa. I was there happily writing my novels and plays and scripts and so on. By a weird set of circumstances a very good friend of mine was a very good Dutch writer who lived a couple of houses down from me. One day I ran out of paper—the town was miles away, and there’s a rule in Eivissa which had hardly any electricity and no phones or no anything. And the rule was among the few of us who was actually getting some work done, everybody else was just stoned or drunk all the time, was that you didn’t invade anybody else’s space unannounced just because you were lonely or bored or blocked or whatever.
I was absolutely in the middle of something and I had no paper so I went over to Jan’s. I said, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to bother you but I need some paper. He said, okay, okay, okay—he was busy, too.
He went into the other room to get me some paper and I looked on his desk and he was drawing circles cut up like a pie. I said, what the hell is that, Jan? Well, he said, you caught me; I was keeping this quiet. I’m an astrologer and I do some pop astrology to bring in some money. I said, well, astrology is a bunch of bullshit, isn’t it? He looked me square in the eye and said, do you think I’m a fool? I said, no you’re a very good writer. He said, I’ve been studying this for twenty-five years. So my next question was of course, would you do my horoscope? And he said, no; get the stuff and do your own horoscope.
John: He handed me a bunch of old books, most of them sort of philosophical and said figure it out. So I went back home with these books and came back a few days later with an imperfectly drawn horoscope. But I got convinced from those books that there was something going on with astrology. So I started studying it and doing charts on my own. Jan, who kept his interest in astrology quiet; but me, with my big mouth, everyone had to know. So it got around—the subject of astrology.
There was this strange guy who used to wander around town all by himself, a lonely guy, a good painter. His name was Cliff Smith. He would walk around with these giant standard poodles named Gregory, and he came up to me one day and said, if you’re interested in astrology, you might be interested in this book, and he gave me The Theory of Celestial Influence by Rodney Collin. So I took the book, and this really interested me a lot though I bristled at the notion that you couldn’t get anywhere on your own, that you needed a school. But anyway, I was really interested and then Cliff very cautiously and very diplomatically because he knew I was a wildly intolerant, opinionated young guy fed me Ouspensky and Maurice Nicoll and some of the others, but he wouldn’t let me read Gurdjieff.
Guy: Why is that?
John: Because he figured I couldn’t handle it.
Guy: Oh, okay.
John: And he was right. But I was fascinated with In Search of the Miraculous, an extraordinary book. I started to realize that I can’t do this by myself. A lot of things became clear that were not clear. Clear in the way that I knew that but I couldn’t put it all together. I think knowledge is like that. It’s like Michelangelo, when he talks about a statue and says the statue’s all there, all you have to do is chop away the excess marble. So I think with knowledge we already know everything, we just have to carve away the ignorance. And finally he gave me All and Everything and I read the little introduction where Gurdjieff said (laughing), this book will teach you that everything you know is completely wrong.
John: I was full of myself in those days. I was getting published and I was very happy with the stuff I was writing and I was ready to throw the book against the wall and I suddenly realized if he got me that angry in one paragraph this guy must know what he’s doing. So then I started reading and then I had a big smile on my face as I was reading this impossible book—learning how to think by following those sentences down the line with all those crazy words. At a certain point I realized Gurdjieff was right and I had to get myself involved in one of the schools that was doing the work. The choice in those days, this was ’63 or ’64, was New York, Paris and London. I was then going out with a woman who subsequently became my first wife. She was an actress and had to function in England. So I moved to England and joined, with some difficulty, one of the groups that made it very difficult to find them in those days. So anyway, I got myself into a group that was led by Sam Copley who had studied with Maurice Nicoll.
I had a novel published and I got very friendly with my editor. We were good friends and we used to go out drinking together in the pubs. One day we were in one of pubs and the subject of astrology came up. He said that's a bunch of crap. I said, as a matter of fact, there’s certain amount of scientific evidence; some direct, most of it indirect, but if you put it together you would have a case for astrology. He said, I would like to see that. And I brought in the evidence and he said, it was very interesting, would you do a book on it? I said, if you paid me money I would do a book about anything.
In doing the research, somebody in my group said, you should read the novel that is in two parts: Her-Bak by Isha Schwaller de Lubicz. So I got these novels out and I hated them as novels actually because the characters were all cardboard and there was a kind of patronizing and arrogant attitude to the writing. But the portrait of Egypt that was coming out was absolutely fascinating. And Isha kept referring to Schwaller’s three volume magisterial interpretation, which is called the Symbolist interpretation.
With great trepidation I went to the British Museum and sure enough they had a copy that no one had ever opened. In those days French books were always sealed and you had to cut the pages to read the book With my barely rudimentary French I started flipping through the book and I said, this guy has done it, he has put together the sacred science of the ancients. And then I was hooked. I stopped working on the astrology book as such.
And for six months; eight months; every day I went to the British Museum with the dictionary in front of me, plowing my way through Schwaller de Lubicz. By the time I got done, my reading French was pretty good because Schwaller is not easy. And then I incorporated a long chapter on Symbolist Egypt which really didn’t belong in the astrology book, but I couldn’t resist putting it in there introducing Schwaller to English speaking readers
Guy: Was there any relationship between the Gurdjieff Work that you were already in and what was in the book?
John: Yes and no. In other words not formally, but it was obviously the same thing, the same, uh, … the same total dedication to acquiring a higher level of consciousness that we all have, at least in principal, within us.
Guy: How long were you formally in the Gurdjieff Work?
John: From ’66 to ’73.
Guy: And why did you leave?
John: One, there was this attitude that runs through Gurdjieff groups, a sort of a more conscious than thou attitude. And it was pretty institutionalized for my anarchic spirit. And what was it called? The Institute …
Guy: For the harmonious …
John: For the study of the harmonious development of man.
John: And after seven years I got this feeling that it was 10 percent harmonious development and 90 percent institute. So I put in my seven years. For some people that’s their life.
Guy: I put in the same number of years.
John: I would love to be back in the Movements, and even the group work—I have something to contribute to it myself at this stage.
Guy: So how does the Work help and support you now? I mean, have you been able to incorporate the Work in your life?
John: Oh yes, sure. Without it I would have exploded long ago. Particularly with my rogue Egyptology …
Guy: Your what?
John: My rogue Egyptology.
Guy: Oh, rogue (laughter)
John: Which attracts the abuse of the entire Egyptology community which actually I enjoy. In the Gurdjieff Work, you know, it’s very difficult to try to remember to remember yourself.
Guy: Very difficult.
John: Look, I’m in a position where I’m obliged to do this, otherwise I’m a victim. In fact my screen saver as you see is the two words of advice that I consider the most important in my life; in anyone’s life is USE EVERYTHING.
Guy: Use everything.
John: That’s Gurdjieff.
Guy: What is the most important thing you learned in the Gurdjieff Work.
John: That everything is there to be used and no matter what happens to you, you can either get victimized by it or you can use it for your own inner development which, I must say, is incredibly difficult to do.
(The ringing of the telephone. Pause)
Guy: Was there anything in your childhood that left an impression on you that was the beginning of your search to eventually find the Gurdjieff Work?
John: At a pretty early age I realized that I was living in a lunatic asylum. At thirteen I knew that everyone – I didn’t use the terminology - but I knew everyone was asleep
John: I knew that they were lying to themselves, they were lying to each other, that the whole thing was a sham. I was incapable of dealing with it. When I got to college I was supposed to do what all nice, little Jewish boys do and that was take over my father’s business. By the time I was nineteen, I was in my junior year and I knew I didn’t want to do this; I hated college.
I had a roommate in college who was interested in classical music and at some point I got into the Beethoven Late Quartets. And when I heard those something registered; there’s something going on out here that I don’t know about that is measurably important. And when I was in the Army I went to France and went into the Chartre Cathedral and then said, AH, something is going on here, somebody is doing something here that has nothing to do with the asylum.
Guy: Was it something that you felt or something that you could see?
John: No. No. It was a deep gut, soul impression. It was overwhelming; it was, in so far as I ever had a revelation at this time.
John: That changed everything. But I still didn’t connect the dots. In other words, in having this tremendous experience and recognizing that this was true art and I didn’t have the terminology to call it objective art, but this was a tremendously powerful impression that I carried with me so when I finally came across the Gurdjieff Work, all of this was explained to me that I was accessing objective art.
Guy: If you were to meet someone who expressed an interest in the Gurdjieff Work, what advice would you give them?
John: I churn the waters. And those who take the bait reach out further. And then if they’re seriously interested, I try and put them in touch with somebody who is running a group. It’s relatively few who seem willing to understand that you can’t do this work with your head. It has to be done from within and it’s constant and it’s not pretty and it’s no fun, but without it you’re trapped in the asylum. The only escape from the asylum at all is the ability to take on the responsibility of your own reaction to things, and this is next to almost impossible to do it. I do it; (laughing) I work at it.