“The sole remaining task for Philosophy is the analysis of language.”(Note 1)
The science of reading or interpretation is known as hermeneutics, Latin hermeticus, from the name of the Greek messenger god and bearer of secrets, Hermeneus or Hermes Trismegistus, “thrice-greatest.” The form Hermeneus is derived from the accusative of the name hermen “interpreter"(Note 2), while Trismagistus is a title in Egyptian myth. The Neo-Platonists identified him as the logos, or divine spirit. Though the mythic connections of Hermes with religious doctrines are complex and manifold, my point in beginning an essay on reading Gurdjieff with Hermeneutics, from, is that Gurdjieff’s work is infused with hermetic ideas. Gurdjieff often referred to the saying “as above below,” coined in the vision of Hermes recorded in The Divine Pymander of Hermes, a work translated from Arabic into Greek, and into English in the 17th century.(Note 3) “As above below” suggests simply that the lower world of man reflects the higher world of gods, that physical substances reflect ideological forms.
Milton’s Neo-Platonic formulation is similar:
. . . What if Earth
Be but a shadow of Heav’n, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on Earth is thought”? (V, 574–76)
Mercurius, the name of Hermes in Roman myth, fits Gurdjieff who is an archetype of mercurial man: shape-shifter, trickster, deceiver and messenger. Like Hermes and Mercury, Gurdjieff mediates between higher and lower worlds of being. Philologically and critically, “hermeneutics” is an appropriate word for a reader’s art of interpreting the language of Gurdjieff. It is clear that Gurdjieff invites a hermeneutic reading
in his preface directions how to read his masterwork:
“Read each of my written expositions thrice:
Firstly - at least as you have already been mechanized to read all your contemporary books and newspapers.
Secondly - as if you were reading aloud to another person.
And only thirdly - try and fathom the gist of my writings" (Note 4)
Though these steps may seem clear-cut, they involve more complexity than may appear to the untrained eye. To begin with, they parallel the art historian Erwin Panofsky’s three stages of art criticism: description, analysis and interpretation. Gurdjieff’s triad is similar but more complex. Look carefully at each. The first, to read the book in the same fashion one reads books and newspapers suggests various categories of printed texts. On the one hand, newspapers inform readers of current events, offer editorial opinion, political propaganda, photographs, and advertisements that exhort readers to buy products. In brief, newspapers contain a plethora of material that invites reader circumspection. They challenge his capacity to cull meaning that suits his personal interests and needs.
On the other hand, books are divided generally into fiction and non-fiction. Fiction, if you like, consists of stories, while non-fiction comprises history, instruction, self-help advice, and so forth. The French novelist Michel Butor teaches his students of French literature that fiction is purposely soporific; that is, whether read in bed, on a train, in a library or study, on a garden bench, stories translate readers out of their quotidian existence into other, often exotic worlds. In brief they take readers out of waking awareness into a sleep state in which they are hypnotically unaware of quotidian “reality.” Books and newspapers are disposable. Once read they may be discarded without a sense of loss. They rarely tax one’s repository of memory.
Look at Gurdjieff’s direction for a second reading: as if to another person. Reading to another involves orality. While newsprint is dead on a page, oral performance is alive with infinite possibilities of form and style. Oral language has, for instance, prosodic patterns of tone, volume, pitch and rhythm that can be varied by the oral performer and perceived in different ways by the listener, since what a listener understands of oral performance depends upon his knowledge of vocabulary, sensitivity to tone, and capacity for paying attention. A psychological tension between giver and receiver of speech is always present. Many of us have fallen asleep while attending to another’s speech. Of course, a reader can provide a shock to wake his listener up. If one were reading in a sauna, for example, one’s attention would be shocked the instant water is poured on the hot stones.
The relation between presenter and receiver, like the relationship between Hermes and those to whom he carries messages, depends significantly upon the point of view of the presenter, his location of position vis-à-vis his audience. Speaking from a church pulpit, from behind a classroom lectern or an x-ray display are defined and fixed stances between speaker and listener. In each case, the listener is invited to assume that the speaker is in a superior position, and thereby is wont not to question what he hears. Reading aloud to another gives the speaker occasion to pay attention to his oral performance, to encounter a text in a different manner from the printed page. One can learn from what one speaks. Before a book or newspaper, the reader is alone, but while reading to another, he is in a discursive or dialogic relation in which he is liable to anticipate listener’s ability to understand what he is saying.
Gurdjieff’s direction for a third reading involves neither one reader before any number of books and newspapers, nor a reader of a book before a listener, but a single reader before one book. “To try and fathom the gist” of the book presents a grammatical complexity to begin with. If Gurdjieff had written “try to fathom” he would be directing a single action, but “to try and fathom” involves two actions: an effort and an act, rather than an effort to act. The editors of the 1992 version have reduced that double act to a single one. Neither the French nor the German translation can replicate the English “try and.” The French has: “Et la troisième fois, en tâchant de pénétrer l’essence de ce que j’écris” (“to penetrate the essence of what I have written”), and the German reads: “Und erst Drittens versuche in das Wesen meiner Schriften einzudringen” (“try to penetrate the essence of my writing”). The revised Russian text has “пытайтесь вникнуть в суть мною написанного” pitaityes vniknyut v mhoyu napisannovo (“try to plumb the author’s gist”). (Note 5)
To “fathom,” has a customary context in plumbing the depth of water from a surface location. The etymology of fathom is the length between the hands of outstretched arms and the extent of an embrace with the arms, and the word’s Latin and Greek antecedents confirm the sense of a spreading out. These senses concord well with Gurdjieff’s image of a dog buried deep representing meaning. “Fathom” pertains to both a mental and a physical measure, and by this term Gurdjieff directs his reader to perform an autopsy of his writing, a visual plumbing of the depths of his meaning. The depth is designated metaphorically by the term “gist,” a word reflecting the French gîte, a place of residence, a central location and, thus, a core of sense. “To fathom the gist” is an extraordinary locution, a mark of the collaborative genius of Gurdjieff and his editor Orage: a pithy representation of Gurdjieff’s hermeneutics.
The chapters in this book display Gurdjieff’s concern with language, not so much in theory, but in practice; that is, in attention to possibilities of meaning, translation, and words whose contexts inform particular sense. One can assume that Russian was the core language of his literary imagination. Though he announced in The Herald of Coming Good, p. 47, that “the original [Tales] is written in Russian and Armenian,” there are no extant examples of his Armenian writing. The Russian that he dictated was translated into English from the start and edited continuously until 1931 when Orage published a draft of All and Everything for private distribution. A full Russian text of the work that incorporated corrections of and additions to the English was completed in 1933. Russian and English were, then, the core languages of the work. The German translation made by Louise Goepfert March during the same period, and the French translation that was published in 1956, the revised English version published in 1992, and a re-edited Russian text that appeared in 2000 are all surveyed in the chapters of this book, with particular attention to language. Gurdjieff read with little difficulty English, German, French and Russian, the languages in which All and Everything was published.
I do not attempt to scrutinize the origins and meanings of Gurdjieff’s neologisms, his inventions of words that denote attitudes, acts and materials whose dictionary synonyms compromise his intentions. I do not attempt to study in depth or analyze Gurdjieff’s ideas that comprise what is known loosely as his “system.” That task has been done many times and is being done continuously. I am concerned rather with the language he uses to elaborate those ideas, particularly what meanings lie beneath the surface of some significant words. In the chapters which follow I explore sub-textual meaning in Gurdjieff’s English words; that is, the meanings that can be discovered beneath the surface or literal sense of words. Words have lives of their own and despite whatever intentions authors have for them they are in themselves nucleate forms. That is, each word is in effect a story and a history. It has been argued persuasively by historical linguists and philosophers such as Heidegger that a word at any given time can be delved to reveal its entire grammatical and semantic history.
As Mikhail Bakhtin asserts in The Dialogic Imagination, words are embedded always in the history of all the literature of others in the chain of cultural discourse. An example I have used in the classroom is the work freak, a word Gurdjieff uses frequently. In one passage, Beelzebub’s describes some residents of Earth as “various freaks” (208). Dictionaries enumerate several meanings for the noun “freak,” and Beelzebub uses the term for those who are not “normal men,” following dictionary synonyms like “monster” and “deviation from nature.” In Gurdjieff’s day, freaks were circus attractions in the United States. Currently, a freak is a term for someone who displays an excessive attitude toward something, such as a “Jesus Freak,” a video-game freak, and so forth. The term derives from Old English freca “wolf,” hence metaphorically “bold warrior,” and one of excessive rapacity. So, the morphological history of the word has come full circle.
Another example is the word “kind” which, in Old and Middle English meant “nature,” and whose cognate “kin” identifies family or blood tie. The meaning of “kind” has drifted toward “generous,” itself a term which has an etymological sense of blood relationship. Shakespeare brings two senses together in Hamlet’s pun on his murderous uncle who is “a little more than kin and less than kind” where “kind” means both “natural” and “generous.” In effect, “generous” has the signification of “good blood.” Gurdjieff uses the term “kindred vibrations” (Tales 144) for certain natural processes. To be “kind,” no matter when the term is used, implies to act according to nature.
There is another way to look at the shape of the worlds of words. Every word is a graphic image that stands for a sound that can be preformed with different prosodic patterns that convey a meaning or several meanings interpretable in a number of ways. Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphics, similarly, are pictures that represent meaningful words. Comparable are the Medieval Northern European runes whose pictures of things can be understood in and of themselves as well as sounds and words. The rune is at once picture, sound and morphological particle. The sciences of etymology and ontology need take into account all these basic relationships.
Gurdjieff was adept at fitting his own language to the occasion. He was not one to try to imprison meanings in words, but would rather let words reveal themselves. For Gurdjieff, a spoken word without sense is merely noise, and a written word without depth of meaning is dead, what Beelzebub labels “twaddle” (Tales 804). Every word studied in the chapters of this book illustrates the range of his writing from the 1912 Struggle of the Magicians to the 1933 The Herald of Coming Good. Each word is a story in itself as well as the nuclear core of a broader story, or a hub of many stories. In the perspective of Mikhail Baktin, Gurdjieff’s literary style is heteroglossic; that is, it mingles multiple meanings in a single narrative unit. I should not fail to notice that in Gurdjieff’s world of language words are performed by mouth, pencil or pen, dance gesture and musical instrument. Gurdjieff’s language is like shot silk: what one sees depends upon the angle of vision.
[Note 1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921), cited by Hawkings, p. 175.
[Note 2] See Partridge, Origins: A Short Dictionary of Modern English.
[Note 3] Pymander is from Greek poimandres “man-shepherd.”
[Note 4] All and Everything, vii. Robin Bloor has explored the gist thoroughly in To Fathom the Gist. It is difficult to understand why the editors of the 1992 edition substituted “first, “second,” and “third,” for the 1950 version adverbs when they are the correct forms for enumerating series.