Is There an 'Original' Beelzebub's Tales?

Wellbeloved, Sophia

The text of Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson emerged over a period of time as the result of a set of processes which are closer to the oral tradition of story-telling than to the contemporary notion of a writer sitting down to write his text from beginning to end. Although we do not have an exact record of the many steps through which the Tales came into being we do know that there there were a variety of languages, translations, alterations in response to readings, and a continual process of translation, not only from from other languages into English, but also re-translations from English back into other languages, (some of these processes are mentioned in the notes below). Thus there cannot be said to have been any 'original' version of the Tales from which the final English language version sprung.

I am grateful to Paul Beekman Taylor who gave me much additional information about the processes that led to the 1950 published version of the Tales and which I have incorporated in what follows. Gurdjieff wrote brief notes from which he gave extended dictations, so even if we had the notes they would not give an 'original' text. He destroyed all the notes. Olga de Hartmann says that she took down all of the Tales from Gurdjieff in Russian, but there is no evidence for this and there is evidence to the contrary. Gurdjieff also dictated to Lilly Galumnian in Armenian. When Gurdjieff was in cafes writing notes from which to dictate, he wrote in several different languages, and he never minded mixing languages together.

In Orage Gurdjieff had an editor who served him well, Gurdjieff discussed every single piece of the text with Orage who records that Gurdjieff knew exactly what he wanted.

The Russian notes/text may not have been approved by Gurdjieff as it was an intermediate stage of the writing, part of the process through which the Tales progressed into English. In 1927 Gurdjieff decided that he did not want to have a Russian text at all. He referred to the Russian notes sometimes with de Hartmann and Orage for finding correct vocabulary.

In regard to the published Russian text there is another complication, Paul Beekman Taylor told me that Gurdjieff knew pre-Bolshevik Russian, whereas the published translations are in post-Bolshevik Russian, which has different constructs, the pre-Bolshevik for example has no adverbs. This means that a detailed examination of the text in post-Bolshevik Russian would not be helpful in analysing what Gurdjieff wrote, even if it was exactly what he had written.

In relation to Gurdjieff's comments in the first 'Arousing of Thought' chapter, concerning which language he ought to write in, Gurdjieff himself advises us that we should not take what he says or writes literally. Readers tend to choose specific bits of the Tales that they want to regard as 'literally true', but all readers do not chose the same bits to be 'true'. Thus Gurdjieff's written remarks about the language he uses ought not to be taken literally.

If Gurdjieff's text is taken as literally true, then there really was a space ship in the sky in 1921, containing Beelzebub, Hassein and Ahoon. If we do not accept that then we have to go for an interpretation of the text in its entirety. Thus his language, in whatever 'original' language he wrote or thought is primarily something to interpret, a symbolic, mythic or metaphoric truth. In all these cases we the readers must interpret what is written. The English language version, which is the only one Gurdjieff saw and approved just before he died is the one which was most important to him because his teaching was directed towards America and the English speaking Americans.

Here are some further notes on the processes involved in creating the text taken from 'Gurdjieff, Astrology & Beelzebub's Tales'. New Paltz, NJ: Solar Bound Press, 2002, pp. 28-30.

"There are conflicting dates given for when Gurdjieff began the Tales. According to Olga de Hartmann Gurdjieff started to write the Tales on 16 December 1924. Taylor writes that in August or early September, Gurdjieff had already mentioned writing the Tales, and suggests July or early August as a starting date. Gurdjieff himself gives 1 January 1925.

After several false starts, in which he intended to write short scenarios with the aim of spreading his ideas through the cinema, Orage told Nott that Gurdjieff began the Tales after a moment of revelation:

"he had a revelation of the book from beginning to end. In two or three hours he dictated a sort of synopsis and sent it to me. I said that it was utterly unintelligible and could not be shown to anyone."

The English language text of the Tales is the product of a long process that is situated somewhere between the literary and the oral traditions of story telling. The creation of the Tales involved many people, both individually and in groups. Descriptions of the process of writing and translation vary and so the process itself also probably varied. Louise Welch, an American pupil of Gurdjieff’s, writes:

Orage’s work that summer (1925) and the next in Fontainebleau was to translate into English the material Gurdjieff had ready. First it had been translated from Gurdjieff’s Russian to pidgin French, then into approximate English. Orage worked over the manuscript under the sharp eye and acute ear of Gurdjieff.

However, Nott reports Orage as saying:

"Gurdjieff is constantly re-writing and revising. [...] He writes in pencil in Armenian; this is translated into Russian, and then into literal English by Russians: it is then gone over by one or two English and American pupils at the Prieuré who have only a rough knowledge of the use of words. All I can do at present is to revise the English when it obscures the sense.”

Peters recounts that:

"an Englishman had been assigned to make a rough, preliminary translation from the French version of the book, and my job was to listen to it and read it and to make suggestions as to vernacular and Americanisms that would correspond as clearly as possible to the French version which I was also to read."

Taylor records that:

"those I have talked to who were there [at the Prieuré] in those years - Nick Putnam (who made an entire translation into English on his own), my mother, Philip Lasell, Bernard Metz [...] and Jessie Orage [...] say that Gurdjieff rarely wrote, but dictated most of his book, though he endlessly scribbled notes for dictation in cafes. What Orage received was then, not only written in broken English but at two removes from the original."

Thus the writing ‘required the organisation and training of a number of teams.’ Orage and Jean Toomer were entrusted with the task of editing and polishing the literal English.

Gurdjieff worked on the Tales indoors and in the garden at the Prieuré, in cafes in Paris and Fontainebleau and during expeditions by car. Sections of the Tales were read aloud to individuals and groups, to Gurdjieff’s old and new pupils and friends, ‘to chance acquaintances and even to complete strangers’. "

The following books are referred to and recommeded further reading:

Taylor, Paul Beekman, ‘Deconstruction of History in the Third Series’, All & Everything, Proceedings of the International Humanities Conference, ed. H. J. Sharp et al, Bognor Regis: privately pub., 1997
Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer. Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1998

de Hartmann, Thomas and de Hartmann Olga, Our Life With Mr Gurdjieff . enlarged and revised C. T. Daly and T. A.G. Daly, London: Arkana, 1992, (1st pub. New York: Cooper Square, 1964)

G. I. Gurdjieff, The Herald Of Coming Good. Edmonds: Sure Fire, 1988, (1st pub. Gurdjieff, G., The Herald Of Coming Good: First Appeal to Contemporary Humanity, Paris: privately pub., 1933.

All and Everything, Ten Books in Three Series: First Series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950

Second Series: Meetings With Remarkable Men, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, (1st pub., 1963)

Third Series: Life Is Real Only Then When “I Am” New York: Triangle, 1975

Nott, C. S., Teachings of Gurdjieff: The Journal of a pupil. An Account of Some Years with G. I. Gurdjieff and A. R. Orage in New York and at Fontainebleau - Avon, London: Arkana, 1990, (1st pub. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961)

Journey Through This World: the Second Journey of a Pupil, Including an Account of Meetings with G. I. Gurdjieff, A. R. Orage and P. D. Ouspensky. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969

Peters, Fritz, Gurdjieff (Boyhood with Gurdjieff 1st pub.1964, and Gurdjieff Remembered 1st pub.1965), London: Wildwood House, 1976

Welch, Louise, Orage With Gurdjieff In America. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982

Bennett, J. G., Gurdjieff: A Very Great Enigma. Coombe Springs: Coombe Springs Press, 1963
Witness: The Story of a Search. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962
Gurdjieff: Making a New World. London: Turnstone, 1976

Patterson, William Patrick, Ladies Of The Rope: Gurdjieff’s Special Left Bank Women’s Group. California: Arete Communications, 1999

Webb, James, The Occult Underground. London: Opencourt, La Salle, 1971 (a)
The Flight From Reason: Vol I of The Age of the Irrational. London: Macdonald, 1971(b)
The Harmonious Circle, The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and their Followers. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980
The Occult Establishment. La Salle: Open Court, 1985

Moore, James, Gurdjieff And Mansfield. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980
Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth, London: Element, 1991

Copyright Dr. Sophia Wellbeloved & Gurdjieff Internet Guide