Wellbeloved, Sophia

Fathoming the Gist

Gurdjieff’s own instructions on reading his texts are to read them three times, each time differently. The first reading should be as we are already mechanized to read, the second as though out loud, and only thirdly should we try to fathom the gist. I connect these three reading modes with Gurdjieff’s law of three, that is, passive, active and reconciling ways of reading. The first two modes may seem achievable, although I doubt that anyone has managed to get through the convoluted sentences of Beelzebub’s Tales without trying to understand what they mean; but what about Gurdjieff’s required third, reconciling mode of reading, attempting ‘to fathom the gist’?

One of the helpful areas in which to begin this quest is with the song-contests of Kars, the city where Gurdjieff grew up. These contests are still going on and there is a useful account of them, valuable for anyone interested in Gurdjieff’s texts in Yildiray Erdiner’s The Song Contests of Turkish Minstrels: Improvised Poetry sung to Traditional Music, New York and London: Garland, 1995. He writes of how the singers, Ashoks, were judged on their abilities not only musically, in singing or playing and improvising, but also in knowing how to throw their competitors of balance through insults, jokes, and sexual innuendo. They had to be familiar with the Koran, able to ask and answer riddles and exploit the weaknesses of their opponent in anyway they could. These contests demanded considerable critical ability, from the singers, the audience and the judges who had to decide on a winner.

Thus we can see that as well as growing up with a story-telling tradition Gurdjieff also grew up with a critical tradition which enabled the listener to evaluate the stories and the performances of the Ashoks.

If we try to fathom Gurdjieff’s texts with the help of this critical ability we can begin to explore his writing in terms, for example, of jokes, insults, riddles, and when we appreciate that the text is constructed using these strategies, in order to provoke specific responses, we can begin to wonder what he intends us to understand.

However, perhaps because he denied writing literature, many readers agree to distance Gurdjieff from literature and so the useful traditions of literary criticism are not often brought to bear on his writing. But Gurdjieff himself demanded a critical mind, see his aphorism 27. ‘If you have not by nature a critical mind your staying here is useless’ (Views From The Real World: Early Talks Of Gurdjieff . London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, p. 275) and often tells us not to take what he writes literally (see Views pp. 14-5, 201, 260).

Of the many forms of literary criticism available, there are books which explore the Archaic Epic Traditions, (Sumerian, Greek, Turkik) and reading them brings to light many of the themes patterns and methods of setting out stories which can be found in Gurdjieff’s writings. I give some of the titles I have found useful below. I have also included Frye’s work on the Bible, as there are many Biblical references in Gurdjieff’s texts. But if these are not available, or you don’t find them useful, it is worth exploring, seeing what you can find and reading the bits that interest you.

In terms of Gurdjieff’s teaching, that understanding depends on the relationship of knowledge to being, we can see that the knowledge of critical methods is one form of knowledge that is not only useful but necessary for readers to acquire, if they wish to engage in a process of understanding, i.e. of fathoming the gist of his writings.


IN the first paragraph in speaking of G's friendly advise you say"the second as though out loud". In the book he says" Second-as if you were reading aloud to another person". Don't they seem very diferent?

steven marino, United States
added 2003-05-22

The Difference
Yes, the quote is different than the original and is not meant to be an exact quote either.

However, for the purposes of the article, "fathoming the gist" of Beelzebub's Tales, Dr. Wellbeloved has used a shortened version of Gurdjieff's "Friendly Advice".

Reijo, Finland
added 2003-05-22