Brief Notes for All & Everything Conference Seminar on Chapter 14
‘The Beginnings of Perspectives Promising Nothing Very Cheerful’
Looking at the
tradition or traditions of stories within which Gurdjieff has decided to frame
his narrative enables us, as readers, to place the text outside the confines of
his own teaching theory, and read it in relation to the wider context of its own
cultural, mythological, scriptural and philosophical origins.
Gurdjieff uses the word beginnings in his title and so we might expect to find some references to origins or beginnings. In terms of myth those which explain/explore the beginnings and origins of, for example, creation, the moon, of man, of the beginnings of agriculture are termed aetiological myths, (from aetiology the science or philosophy of origins and causes).
The word perspectives can mean either an optical instrument, microscope or telescope, or a view as in vista, or a representation of the view, so a means of viewing or a view. Put together this suggests the origins of views which in ‘promising nothing very cheerful, we could understand as ‘unpromising views’, maybe pessimistic views.
Gurdjieff does start this brief chapter with a direct mention of Atlantis, this myth has its written origin in Plato’s Timaeus and has retained a place in story-telling ever since. It is an early story which has itself been the origin of pessimistic views about humanity, civilizations, catastrophic destruction and uncertain futures, brought about by human as well as natural causes.
Concerning the loss of Atlantis, which is what Beelzebub mentions here, its sinking into the sea is likely to be read by a Gurdjieff reader as a reference to his notion that human conscience has sunk into the subconscious. Especially as the sea is often a symbol for the inner deep. But a wider look at the Atlantis myth, as an idealised ‘higher’ civilization which fell due to natural catastrophe, shows it to be within the pattern for other Falls presented in the Tales. The first disaster came about due to the comet Kondoor’s collision with earth, this itself was a cause, which led to the creation of the Moon and Anulios, and to the changes Beelzebub mentions here in the life span and quality of vibrations of earth beings. Later in the Tales Beelzebub will return to the Fall of other great centres of culture, in the past Babylon, in the future Paris.
The notions of recurring catastrophes, comes down through Western European culture from Babylonian astrological thinking of around the third century BC and reflects their ideas about time. They understood that the universe would come to an end recurringly, one end would be by flood, being the result of a line up of planets in the sign of Capricorn, and one end by fire being the result of a line up of planets in the sign of Cancer (these are the solstices, winter and summer).
The flood story is an excellent one to point out how a story can be interpreted to indicate a change of thinking. In the Biblical Fall Adam and Eve’s loss of grace and expulsion is the cause and origin of time, (mirrored in the Tales by the expulsion of time from the Sun Absolute which resulted in the created universe). The Biblical flood myth ends in God's covenant with Noah that he will never again send a flood, a Christian interpretation of the story might see this as a challenge to the Babylonian cyclical thinking about time, when there will be flood after flood, and that is how it has often been presented by theologians. However, Hebrew thinking about time was as much cyclical as was the Babylonian, and in fact the Bible records catastrophe after catastrophe, Fall, Deluge, Egyptian captivity, division of Israel into Israel and Judah, conquest by Assyria and Babylon. Gurdjieff's catastrophes, Atlantis included, belong to the Babylonian tradition of thinking about time in relation to cycles and echo Biblical catastrophes.
The notion of the end of time belongs to Millenarianism, in which rather than established ritual adjustments to the cycles of time there is a large scale apocalyptic crisis, brought about by revolt against the established order. After divine intervention, unjust enemies are vanquished, time comes to an end its slavery replaced by the freedom of eternity. Millenarianism has its own sets of stories, (see the Biblical Books of Daniel and Revelation, and early Christianity). The hope of a revolution which will destroy corrupt order and establish a new and better one, has taken many forms including that of Marxist theory.
Revolts and revolutions are interventions to disrupt the cyclical flow of time, both sets of thinking could and did overlap, and both are present in the Tales which tells stories of revolt, stresses the remembrance of mortality, our ‘end’ and expresses a recurring but downward spiral and which seems to suggest a final end. In generalized terms we could understand the adjustments made to accommodate seasons and other natural cycles as an acceptance of time while Millenarian revolt is rejection of time.
Beelzebub tells Hassein of the cause or origin of changes, that is of temporal events. All the causes of change in the beings' presences occurred after the sinking of Atlantis. The changes they made themselves were the cause of further changes made by Great Nature. These changes explain the origins of men on all land masses. This reference to Great Nature, suggests the Earth as Mother, determined to feed her children the Moon and Anulios, and connects with stories of the Earth as our Mother, from whom we come, our origin.
Then Beelzebub explains the causes, heredity, conception and other factors which mean that the beings exteriors are all alike. He explains that the differences in colour of skin and formation of hair are caused by the place of birth and upbringing. Again these are themes of origins how we came to be similar and how different.
The question of war and why it exists is another source of stories, here the cause of the capacity for war is due to a fundamental trait of the general psyche which remains undefined, this occurs along with egoism, self-love and other abnormal functions of the psyches, the most terrible being their ‘suggestiblity’ i.e. passive changeability, being subject to time, to being changed.
Beelzebub starts with the large cosmic disaster caused by the comet and goes on to outline a series of resulting disasters for the planet earth, humanity as a whole, and for the psyches of individual beings. He ends this chapter by giving the causes of the Tales, these are the interest Hassein has shown in earth beings and also the need to ‘pass time’. Beelzebub will explain the strange psyche of men via the tales of his six descents, each of which itself had different causes.
There are other kinds of aetiological myths but they are not represented here. The origins of the perspectives within which these tales will be told are myths of catastrophe and multiple Fall, and thus we should not expect anything ‘very cheerful’ to result. As readers we have already learned how time came to be created, in the subsequent chapters we will learn that time itself causes change decay and death. In summation this chapter tells us not to hope, that our prospects are bleak, are as he says ‘nothing very cheerful’.
The Turkic oral tradition within which Gurdjieff grew up meant that he had at his disposal a fund of stories commonly known. When a story was told about an event or person, all the ‘family’ of related facts would also be known, much as when a story is told about someone in our own family, we can understand it in a way that a stranger could not.
As Gurdjieff readers we may already feel part of an exclusive family in that we have some knowledge of his teaching ideas and can recognise expressions of them in the Tales, but Gurdjieff drew on our common Western European family of stories and ideas, among them, Babylonian myth, Biblical stories, Greek myth, and Plato’s writings. If we can not recognise the references he makes to these origins we shall miss a great deal of the material that is offered to us.
After he read these notes, Malcolm Mitchell sent me some comments which amplify what it is we should be missing and I have included these below:
If we cannot recognise the references Gurdjieff makes to these origins we shall miss a great deal of the material that is offered and mistake wider originality, or ‘genius’, as exclusive to Gurdjieff himself. Reading his material thus blinkeredly, we may well exacerbate fixations on Gurdjieff's own personality and history/mythology, in unconscious acceptance and reinforcement of a new 'Gurdjieffian' tradition - whereas Gurdjieff himself can be seen as consciously re-presenting traditional materials to us. He gives this 'representation' with the ultimate suggestion (clarified implicitly in the final chapter of the Tales) to be ourselves 'master' rather than 'slave' of the material within such traditions - Gurdjieff's own included.
Gurdjieff offers tools and materials to use to free ourselves, to grow, to clear out the old to make room for something new, something real. Such specialist tools and materials can inevitably, to some degree, be used for purposes other than those intended for them - as perhaps to build ivory towers or fashion emperor's clothes. Such dangers are naturally part of the price, or 'hazard', of their great essential potential. To appreciate this as a functional dynamic, we must not forget but always try see afresh what Beelzebub/the Tales is intended to destroy; and in seeing the workings of this in our own psyche, grasp a key factor in why Beelzebub is thus 'The Devil' to us.
For information about ancient astrology I am indebted to:
Campion, Nicholas, The Great Year, Astrology, Millenarianism and History in the Western Tradition. London: Arkana, 1994
this is ‘an examination of the mythical roots of a series of ideas and beliefs about the nature of time and its relationship to history’ (Campion, p. 4).
and I recommend the following edition of the Timaeus, which has an introduction, and appendix on Atlantis by Desmond Lee who also did the translation.
Plato, The Timaeus and Critias. London: Penguin Classics, 1977.
Malcolm Mitchell is the author of The Hog’s Wholey Wash: A Complete Allegorical Manual on Consciousness and Cosmos. London & Bath: Ashgrove, 2002