George Ivan Gurdjieff
He who can love can be; he who can be can do; he who can do is. — George Ivan Gurdjieff
After his car accident, the ‘dance teacher’ as he called himself, George Ivan Gurdjieff — one of the most unusual luminaries of the twentieth century — spent all his time at the ‘Cafe des Arts’ writing his great opus. Why he would write in that location is a mystery: there is no noisier, more irritating cafe, perhaps in all of Paris. It’s not just the prices that are absurd (about 8 euros for a ‘petit café’ these days): the service is highly pretentious, the decor outrageously kitsch, the noise of traffic deafening — you can’t hear yourself think. Why would Gurdjieff, a man with intelligence and means, not retire the countryside to a nice peaceful setting to write? When someone asked Gurdjieff this question he replied: ‘because I am a man and not a dog’.
After three years and thousands of pages of writing, in which he claimed to have created an entirely new world system of wisdom, Gurdjieff destroyed his manuscript: no one, he claimed, would ever understand what he had to say. He next proceeded to write the outrageously unreadable baroque monstrosity called ‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson’ — perhaps the biggest practical joke in all of literature — later he told his students that in order to be understood, it had to be read three times. The incredible struggle of reading was designed to liberate the reader from automatic or mechanical thinking; very few have actually finished Beelzebub — personally, I got only half way through this terrifying text.
During his time in Paris, Gurdjieff kicked-out all his disciples and lived as a recluse — his only acquaintances were waiters and children. The service called him ‘Mr. Bonbon’ because he always had a pocket full of sweets which he handed out to children. Gurdjieff survived Nazi occupation by selling and trading carpets, tobacco and whiskey; apparently, he helped save a number of Jews. There are many of such tales that you can read in the superlative biography: ‘Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth’. I’ve only mention some of the tamer anecdotes of this larger-than-life being — who got into duels, escaped a dessert sand-storm on stilts, outsmarted the Bolsheviks by faking a scientific expedition, snuck into Tibet when few outsiders were allowed, searched for ancient maps of ‘pre-sand’ Egypt, and created secret lineage of human development, which still flourishes to this day.
Paris is as good a place as any to do what Gurdjieff called ‘the work’, or soul development. To thrive here you need to be a bit of a lunatic, at least a poet of circumstance: here you face your own inadvertence and shadow, become conscious of your own idiotism — a phrase he invented. Gurdjieff also coined the term ‘conscious suffering’ to describe this process. In Paris, as in every mega-city, you are constantly faced the human shadow at close proximity, with inadvertent suffering. You can either the dark metal break you, or transform it though alchemy into real gold.
“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.” Henry Miller
It was mostly Henry Miller, the underground American writer, who introduced me to Paris — a suspicious beginning certainly. I loved Henry (who I like to call by his first name) more than the rest of the American- writers-in-Paris genre — he was more courageous and less ‘literary’. His love of Paris felt like a liberation from the whole burden of the American continent, with its gigantic landscapes and industry, its lack of human intimacy, its grid like streets and snowy winters.
As a student in Montreal, I gobbled up everything Henry and his friends wrote, including Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell and the others. I read everything he wrote, and that includes the most obscure pillow talk, letters, and lesser works. For a while, I couldn’t tell the difference between my own thoughts and Henry’s. Whenever I tried to write something, I would have to throw it away because I knew that Henry could say it so much better. My early ambition was to meet Henry creatively but also go beyond him. Isn’t a genuine master’s wish for the student to surpass him, rather than just be another devotee?
I don’t know if I’ll ever dispossess myself of this ‘anxiety of influence’, which may have been, on a spiritual level, the force that brought me to Paris— although, on an external level, I followed a women here. Perhaps I owe my Paris adventures and misadventures to reading ‘Tropic of Cancer’ one Saturday Morning at the age of 19. This might sound silly, but I never recovered from reading Henry. For a young person to read the lines: ‘I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.’ is a call for liberation.
Perhaps, I took Henry too literally — and suffered the consequence. Henry’s weaknesses became my own as well: a tendency towards caricature and romanticism. And yet, Tropic of Cancer set me out on a path — made me a pilgrim. A longing was born in me, not to conquer the world, but to actually, for the first time, take a step towards it. For most of us live beside the world, above it or below it. When we find that longing to break the shell, then life is given a new spring — even if it is a ‘Black Spring’ to quote the title of one of his most devastating book. (Incidentally, even the title of Henry Millers are unsurpassed).
Henry Miller is an acquired taste. He belongs to people lucky enough to find him at the right moment of youth. I don’t read him much anymore, but he is always there, somewhere at the bottom of my consciousness. If I hadn’t met Henry, I might have had a different kind of life. Henry Miller is a door you walk though. On the other side of that door is a new life. Not that I recommend reading him. There is a great risk involved. You have take a leap.
Edgar Allen Poe
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? — Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe had a method of compressed composition. Every story or poem had to be unbroken and complete, short enough to be read in one sitting. Poe worked his way backwards: starting with the epiphany and methodically revealing the acts that led up to whatever stunning and ecstatic moment of terror he described.
Poe is beloved of many here in France — apparently Baudelaire actually prayed to him. Many other French artists, from Verlaine to Jean Luc Godard, have ascribed a saint-like quality to this master of bone-chilling horror vignettes. Why do Parisian writers have such an affinity for the dark luminosity of Poe? Well, for just that reason. Paris is a city of dark luminosity, a self-contained world just like a Poe short story, with its hidden epiphanies and sharp contrasts of light and dark. It’s form of beauty is highly intentional, contrived, artificial — and yet within those boundaries and constraints lie oceanic mysteries.
Another reason Poe is so popular in France: in a Poe tale pleasure and beauty are so highly valued. As Orwell pointed out in his essay on Poe, he is an aesthetic pleasure to read — a joyous transgression — even if it is about gouging out the eye of a cat with a pen knife. There is no apology in Poe for plumbing the depths of supernatural darkness in a full-on way. Poe doesn’t moralise, he dances. He is highly enjoyable to read — and perhaps enjoyment is marked French quality of being.
Poe was not only ahead of his time, but beyond this time, in a certain sense — to read a Poe story is not to study a dead writer of the past but an apparition of the future. It is well-know that Poe invented the detective story, that he prefigured surrealism and the psychoanalytic method, and is the patron saint of a lot of popular entertainment — and perhaps even heavy metal music. Poe was a man with a time machine, a true clairvoyant, who showed us the future world. He is science fiction before the genre was created. The effect of reading is homeopathic, like little drops of mercury they melt glossy surface of conventional life with liquid dreams, pointing to the beyond. Compression of image, compact meaning, what is implicit rather than explicit, epiphany — these are what Poe is all about.
This Christmas I’m carrying my Penguin paperback of Poe around with me like a Talisman, as protection against obscurity and demons. I’m late in discovering Poe, but he is a good companion, especially in winter. At the moment I’m reading, ‘The man who was all used up’. It describes a person who has become totally artificial, a collection of machine parts, a total deception of surfaces disguised as a human being. It describes the shadow of the contemporary man par excellence. It sends chills down my spine. We should be grateful for those chills.
Love is space and time measured by the heart. Marcel Proust
Writing autobiography is a highly capricious activity. Why? Because every person’s story is essentially a fiction. Biography is fiction, because it picks and choses certain ‘parts’ of a life, fuses those parts together, and pretends that this Frankenstein character is a whole being. The biographer remembers certain things, omits others conveniently — usually to suit the narrative of his or her ego. The ego is either self-aggrandising or self-effacing — it can’t be any other way. On the other hand, there is nothing essentially bad about our confessions: we couldn’t function without some kind of narrative.
Fiction may be truer than the truth, it may express the ‘hyperreal’—what is more true than mere facts. By providing insight into pains of the past that still haunt us and putting those to words, we liberate ourselves and others, perhaps even the ones who have hurt us. The purpose of ‘remembrance of things past’ — is to heal the haunted mind of the past. The whole ocean of truth can’t be contained in words, but we still might find some transparent bliss or golden thread.
What is the difference between autobiography and self-aggrandisement? A good autobiography is confessional, letting go of the past—it should be a bonfire, not a reification. It should liberate one from the past, not solidify the past into something monolithic. A happy life looks forwards and upwards, not backwards. Over time, the scars fade and become objects of beauty, references to a pain that no longer stings. There is a positive kind of ‘looking back’, a sweet kind of nostalgia, where one remembers one’s younger self and past relationships with affection. Nothing wrong with that.
Certain facts of the past are absolute, but our way of perceiving those events is always changing — the past can only be freed by liberating our perception of it. At times we reopening old wounds, in hope that they will bring illumination. Going into that jungle of the past with a machete might be a futile exercise; however, looking back occasionally could help remove an obstruction in the flow of our present life, if something is blocking that river. Actually, the river flows both ways — healing the past and creating the future simultaneously.
Why did Proust, spend so much time writing about ‘Lost time’? I tend to think that he didn’t have a choice. I imagine he couldn’t stand the mechanical drift of his own thoughts, so he took up the herculean task of trying to ‘think consciously’ about his life, rather than just be tossed on the shores of memory. Also, there is the sheer bliss in coming upon insight. Proust was mining the of fields memory in search of that ‘unconventional time’ which is timelessness. To search for those dark pearls is to search for a time that us neither biographical nor impersonal. It is the search for intimacy with our existence.
Samuel Beckett, Glen Gould, and Keith Jarrett
I shall state silences more competently than ever a better man spangled the butterflies of vertigo. Samuel Beckett
I’ve lived in French cities for more than half my life — Montreal and Paris mostly—and I think I’ve learned a few things about my countrymen from being in exile. There are hidden fires in Canadian ice and snow, but they are not always obvious, and they can be seen better from a distance. We are an odd bunch, my brood, pretty hard to read, absurdly modest, unnaturally cheerful and optimistic. Canadians are not really herd animals nor are we greatly individualized either, we are a people caught between civilization and wilderness, empire and frontier — old world and the new world, etc.
Glenn Gould — an archetypical Canadian — felt like an outsider in his own milieu. He preferred talking to truck drivers and working-class people than society types, and spent hours of daytime darkness his winter cabin in the far north, avoiding the vampires of culture. Personally, I can relate to his hunger for big empty spaces and winter darkness — and to a certain fear of social chit chat and ass-kissing. Glen Gould was a weirdo, which make him archetypal Canadian. If that sounds apologetic or self-effacing, Canadians are legendarily so. I’m sorry to say that …
I have great love for my homeland, but the fact that I escaped the ‘grids’ of North American city life was one of the miracles of my life. Not that I have ever been comfortable here, but Paris has allowed me to feel like an ‘other’ is a kind of freedom. (Je est un autre, in the words of Rimbaud.) Not that it’s a kind of freedom that I recommend necessarily, and it gets lonely being an immigrant — but the creative aspect is that you can reinvent yourself. You are not bound to the mechanical rituals of your own culture, and are forced to do a whole new dance.
When Beckett came to Paris, he decided to write in French. He felt he had become too proficient or ‘too good’ in English. Writing in a foreign language gave him a dissonance that both deepened the writing and gave it freshness. We lose this freshness when we get stuck in the repetitive grooves of cultural habit. Similarly, the Pianist Keith Jarrett, spent a great deal of time trying to compose with his left hand — to train himself, paradoxically, in innocence. Being an immigrant is just like that: living with your left hand when you are right handed, or visa versa.
When we are not a little awkward — when we know too much — we are in trouble. Unknowing, unlearning our mechanical reactivity, creates an access to a well of real creativity. True originality isn’t about being demonstrative or avant-garde in any gross sense, but is rather about touching ones ‘origin’ — fresh perception. Real originality or authorship means that our ordinary dogmas no longer give us any respite or pleasure. We only find pleasure in what arises from that deeper well.
You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it — it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you:”It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.” — Charles Baudelaire
You don’t need opiates to be drunk, in the sense that Baudelaire means. Breathing itself could be a kind of drunken bliss. Walking down the street or sitting with a child is enough. Whatever you meet could be a cause for drunken bliss and communion. Actually, most alcoholics can’t really get truly drunk anymore: the more they drink, the duller and more mechanical they get, the less they have access to a state of mystic drunkenness, which just means being in love with the mystery of life.
Baudelaire tells us we don’t need to be a ‘martyred slave of time’ because we can fall into communion with a wave, a bird, a star — with our own being. That is the point here: the fundamental nature of what appears could be bliss, a dance with being. Baudelaire not is waxing poetic about ‘altered states’ but the way things already are. And every child knows this, and every adult need to find a way to rekindle this original drunkenness.
One doesn’t need to be a barfly, in any case. There is drunkenness in sobriety as well, which might have something to do with virtue. Virtue, as the Greek saw it wasn’t a dull or moralistic project. It didn’t mean merely being ‘good’ as opposed to being ‘bad’, but aligning oneself with excellence. Through the bliss of happy discipline and the pursuit of excellence, we can escape being a ‘martyred slave of time’.
To be too literal and reductive is the opposite the poet’s meaning. Religiosity and moralism is slavery, but virtue and spiritual rapture is not. The ‘martyred slaves of time’ are those people who live in one dimension, who have no poetic relationship with time and space, who are trapped in a ‘flatland’. They develop rigid moral structures to prevent themselves from ‘falling off the wagon’, but end up living their whole lives on this little wagon, rather than walking with their own two feet.
And when you walk with your own two feet, you might stagger sometimes, you might be in a state of awe when you meet a cloud formation or a friend; you might fall in love and get hurt, suffer insomnia — you will certainly wake up often in various states of hangover. But then, if you are a real mensch, you get up again and reach for the bottle. Not the bottle of habitual poison, but the nectar of original creativity, the grapes of true nourishment.
Personally, I drink every day. But my drunken morning ritual is meditation, tasting that original bliss over and over again. That’s the best kind of wine, in my experience, but that’s just me. You can choose your poison — one man’s poison is another’s nectar. In fact, the alchemist know that everything is poison, if it is not taken in the right dose or context. One should take just enough poison to make one brave enough to cut through the shackles of time, or the zombies of mechanical reactivity — to access the bliss of the way way things are.
Fabrice Midal http://www.fabricemidal.com/http://www.fabricemidal.com/
Meditation is the last real revolutionary act that is offered us because it calls us, very concretely, to refuse the inhuman and the debased, which everywhere dominates the contemporary world. —Fabrice Midal (my translation)
I’m not a talker by nature — it’s funny that in my professional life I write and teach. My past life in Canada was always punctuated by silence — the silence of snow and pine forests. At the dinner table, there were large gaps, not always something to say, in contrast with the French diner table. I never learned the art of conversation, but I learned to listen. Now I write and talk as if to fill that gap in my education, and that ever-loud-talkative Paris is my teacher.
My favourite Parisian and talker is Fabrice Midal. Fabrice is a master communicator, meditation teacher, and philosopher. Listening to him talk is pure transmission, which is different than just listening to words spoken. Fabrice transmits possibility rather than concepts, he opens up worlds rather than restrictive ideology. But words are not his only way of talking: Fabrice communicates with a brightly colour tie, or his mad giggle, or sipping water.
If you have been around a diner table with French people, especially in the south of France, everybody speaks at the same time—it’s like an orchestra. People are strangely attuned to each other, and yet no one really listens! If they are talking about a certain kind of mushroom, that mushroom has to be the most important thing in the world. And everybody at the diner table has to shout as loud as they can to make a point (about the mushroom). It’s almost brutal. If you say something without substance, you get a shrug and sometimes hot air in your face — the archetypal French gesture is ‘shrugging and blowing hot air’. You won’t be taken seriously, unless you say something energetically. The refreshing thing is to be treated you as you are rather than as you should be — a marked difference between idealistic anglos.
Fabrice taught me a lot about phenomenology, the importance of the ‘thing it itself’. This is what has been so refreshing living here — the phenomenological realism of French people. Anglo Saxons tend to be more infected by idealism: they divide things into good and bad, right and wrong, up and down. The French can be highly conceptual, but they also consider the heart and the belly to be of utmost importance. That is why food and poetry are as highly valued, as well as reason.
It might be a bit quaint to make such generalizations in this age of globalisation, or sameness. Haven’t we killed ‘essentialism’ in modernity, isn’t everything and everybody an open book? Well, no. People have a history and a idiom. French literature is of the richest in the world — it is a whole cosmos. Descartes and Voltaire, in my view, may not be the best representatives of that tradition — but the great poets and painters here are too many to be named.
The thing about French culture, which values food, friendship and conversation, is that time is valued, time is of the essence. You take the time to share bread, to drink wine, to love poetry. If you think I am making a caricature, just walk around the streets of Paris. They are named for poets and painters, more than statesmen or economists or warriors. And none of the streets are a number, because the exceptional human is valued here, and he or she is not a number. At least not yet.
I invented colors for the vowels! — A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. — I made rules for the form and movement of every consonant, and I boasted of inventing, with rhythms from within me, a kind of poetry that all the senses, sooner or later, would recognize. And I alone would be its translator.
I began it as an investigation. I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.
Season in Hell, Delerium 2
Arthur Rimbaud, the patron saint of modern poetry and the quintessential enfant terrible, declared in 1871: ‘Il faut etre absolutement modern’. (We need to be absolutely modern). But what does this mean? Before we giddily accept Rimbaud’s words, we should point out how Rimbaud spiritually opposed the contemporary society with every fibre of his being. By modern Rimbaud didn’t mean forgetfulness of the past and ‘living in the present’: for him to be modern was to touch what was most ancient. The real modernist (as opposed to contemporary artist) makes a double-arrow-gaze towards the primeval dawn and the future revelation.
Rimbaud’s modernity meant ‘nowness’, which is different from merely ‘the present’. This nownesss was the opposite of fashion, which is really about nostalgia and replication. Rimbaud is not the new age; he is timeless rather than contemporary. For Rimbaud being modern meant the freedom to rearrange the syntax of life, to renew traditions and vocabularies, to bend time and space in a playful, symbolic, and radical manner. Only Rimbaud could declare, in the epic arrogance and ecstasy of a juvenile creator: ‘I invented colors for the vowels! — A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. I made the whirling world stand still’. What better definition of poetry could there be than to ‘make the whirling world stand still’!
Today our ‘season in hell’ is to live above and beside ourselves, lost in abstraction and noisy hallucinations, without time or space for gestation, in a landscape that is flat and materialistic. (Nothing above and below as John Lennon said: as if that would be a utopian paradise and not a dystopian nightmare). But to be really modern in the sense Rimbaud meant to rebel against that ultimate banality, to find a language that is both new and old, which opens us up to eternal energy.
Perhaps Rimbaud the adolescent (Rimbaud wrote all his best poetry between the ages of 17 and 20) had one foot in Eden and one foot in hell, living in the liminal space between Eden and the future of flying machines. Perhaps that is why he wrote a lot about wings — not airplane wings but the span of a dark angel. Rimbaud suffered the ultimate sacrifice as a consequence to early a flight into ecstasy.
Rimbaud is still dynamite to what is lifeless, bodiless, heartless, and artificial, in language and civilisation. Poetically and spiritually he was more of a conqueror and creator of the new world than Napoleon. For the men of the world aren’t that much, next to the men of the spirit. And the men of the spirit are always modern, because they are never bound to time. That is why we can read Rimbaud and still feel like we have been bitten by a snake, or hit by lightening.
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