Novel, Myth, and Cosmos
on the Nature of All & Everything, by G. I Gurdjieff
An e-book by Lee van Laer
There are numerous approaches to the complex cosmology presented in Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Overflowing with complex, obscure, and parabolic allegory, populated with beguiling details, it invites any number of attempts at possible explanations. Distracted by the allure of the many exotic trees, readers are tempted to overlook the forest; and yet this book is not just a botanical garden of the soul. It represents an ecosystem, which needs to be wholly understood in such as way so that we experience it as a living entity.
This, then, is an effort to look at the book from the 30,000 foot view; to see the forest, its rivers and streams, the continent it lies on, and perhaps even get a glimpse of the planet it inhabits and the orbit it occupies. That effort will force us to ignore the endless colorful details in the book in an effort to grasp the gist — that is, the substance or essence, the main point, of the novel. And novel it is; that is, a fictitious prose narrative or tale of considerable length in which characters and actions representative of the real life of past or present times are portrayed in a plot of more or less complexity. (Oxford English Dictionary.)
It’s easy to forget that the book is a novel; yet this is surely a substantial part of its essence. The primary function of a novel is to tell a story by exposing a plot; this serves both to entertain and inform, but it is most often understood as a form of entertainment, and—notwithstanding his protestations against bon ton literature—Gurdjieff has gone to great lengths to make sure the book is boldly entertaining, underscoring the fact that he fully understands he has written a novel.
So yes, it’s a novel; but it is also two other overarching things.
Second, it’s a mythology.
Mythologies are also meant to entertain, but their primary function is to impart meanings — whether hidden or apparent — to the social and religious consciousness of the society they arise in. They contextualize events and cause them to acquire a greater significance in the context of the world at large: a function which novels may serve, but which is not of necessity or by default a part of their essential nature.
A mythology is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena. As a mythology, it is a body of myths, relating to a particular person or belonging to the religious literature or tradition of a country or people. (OED).
We should note in passing that Gurdjieff would have contended his book was, on the whole, what he called a legominism, an invented word which means, “a record of events which have actually happened.” That is, even though the book functions as a parable and an allegory on many different levels, its underlying integrity depends on the assertion that it’s a factual record of events, not a work of fantasy.
It depends, in other words, on more than an intentional suspension of disbelief in order to create its effect. It depends, rather, on an invocation of belief. The tension between its supposed divine origins (a tale told by a fallen, but well-informed and well-connected archangel) and the self-professedly preposterous and absurd contentions it contains, deliver a massive set of contradictions designed to confound the reader with a mythology that both affirms and denies itself at the same time, forcing the reader to insert his conscious powers of discrimination over and over again during the course of the narrative with what become a nearly endless series of questions.
The narrative arc of this mythology, moreover, spans the ages from the beginnings of the universe through modern times, making it the very rarest of things: a fully contemporary mythology. Not enough attention has, in my opinion, been paid to this feature of the book.
Third, it’s a cosmology.
Cosmologies — that is, interpretations of the world according to systemized series of overarching ideas — are common thing in ancient societies. We have reached modern times, however, as inheritors of cosmologies, not inventors of them. By the time the Age of Enlightenment and what I call mechanistic rationalism arrived at center stage and world culture, all the cosmologies that would ever be were not just born, but had already gone through adolescence and were, in many cases, perhaps even close to senescence. Mechanistic rationalism has proved all too eager to not only see various traditional cosmologies to the grave, but throw them in — sometimes alive — and begin shoveling. Gurdjieff saw this tendency, and understood its destructive action, not only on societies at large, but also on the formation of the inward self, the self that sees and questions what there is in life. The self that sees and questions can only form itself around mythologies and cosmologies; and when one throws these material vehicles for the development of awareness and consciousness down the toilet, substituting an essentially meaningless worldview that reduces everything to mechanical action, the self that sees and questions will inevitably die. This is a supreme irony; because the self that sees and questions was what gave birth to mechanistic rationalism the first place. Little did it know it was birthing an Oedipal entity that would, metaphysically speaking, kill the authority of its own father and, figuratively, rape the authority of its mother.
Mankind stands, at the beginning of the 21st-century, in the midst of the wreckage caused by this destruction, surrounded by an increasingly complex world in which complexity is self justified. “Facts" are finally proven, as they always have been in the valueless world of minds contaminated by mechanistic rationalism, to be indistinguishable from lies, an eventuality foreseen by George Orwell in the 20th century, but only now coming to complete fruition. A world which devotes itself to outward understanding alone is doomed to a downward spiral of destruction. Indeed, Gurdjieff understood this all too well; and in the guise of his alter ego Beelzebub, he laments the cyclically recurring destruction of both understanding and civilizations as a result of these pathologies.
There is an urgent need for a new mythology and a new cosmology; and in a prescient action whose importance is only just now coming clearly into focus, Gurdjieff gave us one. This, then, is an examination of the man and his work, not just from the in some ways narrow (but in others transcendentally broad) perspective of his esoteric ideas, but also the democratized, everyman platform he proposed in his insistence on work in life.
Perhaps the greatest irony of Gurdjieff's legacy is the insistence with which many of his followers turned his work into an insular vehicle for self reflection, forming secretive, elitist organizations. This is so clearly the exact opposite of what the man intended; yet it is, in fact, an adage of his work that due to the law of octaves, everything eventually becomes its own opposite. How anyone could have expected his work and legacy to fall outside this law is a question.
It will probably prove impossible to, at the present time, restore any world-sense to the nearly immeasurable value of Gurdjieff's lifetime achievements; for the time being, they seem destined to languish in the obscurity into which events of the late 20th century thrust them. Much like Swedenborg, an earlier mystic of equally great stature, his ideas seem (weirdly) outdated. Yet they are anything but; and a brief — this piece cannot be considered as anything but introductory — overview of the situation seems in order, if we are to restore any sense of gravity to the enterprise as it moves forward in time.
Lee van Laer, February 2017