Dr. Sophia Wellbeloved, UK

Sophia Wellbeloved completed her Ph.D. in the Theology Department at King's College, London in 1999. The second revised edition of her thesis, Gurdjieff, Astrology & Beelzebub's Tales, with a foreword by Wallace Martin is forthcoming from Solar Bound Press in December 2002. She is a member of the Advisory Board for the annual All & Everything Conferences in England.

Her new book 'Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts' has come out in October 2002. In the concluding paragraph of the Introduction Sophia Wellbeloved writes: 'Although we will experience the terms given here without the practical methodology through which Gurdjieff taught and, without his stories, I have sought within the definitions to bring an awareness of just how much remains to be explored in the field of Gurdjieff studies. More especially, I have sought to provide an impetus that may open the way for a critical appreciation of Gurdjieff's texts.'

GIG: First of all congratulations on a well written and interesting book! The contents cover nearly all Gurdjieff's important ideas and are based on your research. How long did it take you?

SW: Thank you. I'm glad you like it, though I am wondering about the 'nearly all' you mention above, I did'nt think I had missed defining any of Gurdjieff's teaching terms, do you think there is anything left out?

GIG: I have not found any missing ideas, but if I do you are the first to know!

SW: Some definitions, to do with Gurdjieff's texts and the connection of his cosmic laws with astrology, result from my own research, however, all the definitions of Gurdjieff's own teaching terms, i.e. aim, consciousness, come from him, either via his own texts, Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous, Views from the Real World, or from pupil's accounts of the teaching, i.e. Bennett, Nott, Tracol, and others. It took me three years to write.

GIG: As far as I know you are the first person to submit a theses for Ph.D. on Gurdjieff. That it was accepted at the King's College in London confirms the status of Gurdjieff in the academic world. I would like to hear your comments on this change of attitudes that started already in the eighties?

SW: There have been two theses, that I know of, before mine, one thesis on Beelzebub's Tales in the US, and one on Bennett and the Fourth Way, in the UK, and Gurdjieff's influence has also begun to be recognized in theses on music, painting, and writing.

I didn't consider doing research into Gurdjieff's texts until the 1990s. I had no idea that attitudes were changing and so I was surprized to be welcomed into the academic world so fast. Then I realized that there was a lot of interest in Gurdjieff, that his teaching was being mentioned in undergraduate and post-graduate courses. Overall though, people still didn't recognise the name Gurdjieff, I notice a big change in this now, when people ask me about my research or writing and I mention the name, far more people, and not just specialists, have heard of him.

GIG: I am, like no doubt many of the readers are, interested in reading your theses Gurdjieff, Astrology & Beelzebub's Tales soon coming out as a book. Where did you get your knowledge of astrology?

SW: In the 1960s and 1970s an interest in astrology was part of the counter-cultural revolutionary passion for things anti-rational, for all things occult, mystic, and Eastern, it was 'what was around'. I came across it specifically through a teacher in the Work who had been with Maurice Nicoll and who included astrological ideas and interpretation of dreams as a part of her thinking and explorations. It didn't occur to me at the time that she was unusual in this, that no one else mentioned dreams in groups. I also had friends who were becoming professional astrologers and a lot of it seemed to transfer to me by osmosis. Being in an atmosphere of astrological studies, gave me the feeling that I knew something about it, but fortunately I didn't know all that much. Had I known more, I think it would have hindered my research, I knew just enough to recognise the sets of correspondences in the Tales and that set me off on the path of discovery. In a sense, the person I learned astrology from was Gurdjieff, because, once I had begun to recognize the links between his cosmological laws and the functioning of the zodiac, I learned astrology from exploring his book, and the book sent me off to learn more. So I began to educate myself, mainly in Theosophical astrology, which was popular at the time he was writing.

The whole period of research was an extraordinary time, it was a strange feeling, to discover that he had structured his book as a zodiac and to know that I was the first person to recognise what he had been doing and gradually to go through the process to uncover the structure some fifty years after publication.

GIG: One of your themes in Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts are the changes by Gurdjieff himself and more recently Madame de Salzmann in the form the teaching, mainly as an answer to the changing times. The changes by Madame de Salzmann resulted in what you call 'New Work'. This means that the New Work is not a struggle and going away from the teacher 'to try your own wings', but instead a 'receptive New Work'. This has had the effect of the pupils and group leaders staying on indefinitely and leading towards what A.G.E. Blake calls the 'Gurdjieff Church'. What are your thoughts on these changes?

SW: There seems to be an inevitable process of 'institutionalizing' a teaching after the teacher's death. It is a paradox that while all religious institutions seek to protect and preserve the teachings, they do tend to kill them. I think it is because institutions cannot but become part of the establishement in one way or other, they are formal, have charity status, they gain property and structures, while teachers are revolutionary and thus anti-establishment. It is unkind to blame institutions in this, they do have a valuable role, and the two kinds of teaching probably need each other. In Work terms, each seeker becomes the reconciling force between the active force of the teacher and the passive force of his institution.

You can see this in the history of Western Christian monasticism, in a succession of men and women, who rejected the religious institutions of their day and set off to live in a new way on their own, soon attracted others, become a small community, got well-known for their spiritual qualities, were given land, property, money, and within a couple of generations had become the establishment which is rejected by the next spiritual seeker.

GIG: You put your finger on an important issue when you wrote that the Work is in the process of becoming and being made into a Tradition (M. de Salzmann, Tracol, George). In a previous interview Sy Ginsburg said: "All & Everything Conference is the best hope for the Gurdjieff tradition to avoid the trap of becoming an institutionalized religion".

SW: Yes, the conference gathers a number of people from a variety of Work backgrounds. But at the same time the Work is also being mixed in with other teachings, re-interpreted and re-expressed by other revolutionary teachers, who have had no experience of the Work as taught by the Foundations and this also ensures that the ideas go on and that the spirit of them goes on, though not in a form or mode that is predictable.

GIG: You have made a big effort in updating many of the concepts and giving them a fresh touch hoping that it will 'provide a way for a critical appreciation of Gurdjieff's texts'. Are you in contact with other writers whose studies we can expect to come out?

SW: I don't think I made an effort to update anything, what I did was to record all the stages that a teaching term has gone through from early days in Russia to Paris in the 1940s. Once this is done it brings to light the way Gurdjieff changed, modified or contradicted his own ideas. I was impressed by the number of times he stresses that he does not want to be taken literally. The result is that the definitions do provoke questions rather than give definitive or final explanations.

I think that this book and my work on Gurdjieff's texts will undoubtedly open the way for further academic research, probably not by established academics because they already have their own fields, I expect that Gurdjieff studies will be taken up by young academics who have yet to establish their own area of interest. I am sure that in the next ten years there will be a great deal of work published.

GIG: What is your advice for those people, who come in contact with the ideas and want to study them further?

SW: If you mean 'study' as in belonging to the teaching, then I wouldn't advise one way or the other; but for anyone interested in the Turkic Oral tradition or in occultism in Russia in the early twentieth century, in astrology, Gnosticism, Theosophy, modernist literature and music in Paris and New York in the 1920s and 1930s, or any of the many fields that Gurdjieff's teaching and writings touch upon, then studying Gurdjieff's ideas, his influence, and those he was influenced by, is an absolute necessity.

Copyright © Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff Internet Guide - October 2002