I confess to a partiality for spiritual autobiographies. I also admit that this partiality is, in part, the product of some of my least admirable impulses, including a fondness for debunking, gossip, and often-unreasonable suspicion of authority figures.
There are other reasons for my partiality towards the genre, however. These include an interest in how people perceive and understand their experiences, my historian’s curiosity about the inner workings of organizations and movements, and seeking resonance within the experiences of others.
In On a Spaceship with Beelzebub: By a Grandson of Gurdjieff, David Kherdian (poet, author of many books and, along with his wife, publisher of Stopinder) manages to satisfy my various interests and impulse with the story of his involvement in the Gurdjieff Work, a journey that began in the 1970s.
The New York Gurdjieff Foundation in the 1970s
After some biographical details, Kherdian describes how he and his wife, Nonny Hogrogian (both in their 40s at the start of their search), began their quest for a Gurdjieff group. After a few false starts, they eventually join the New York Gurdjieff Foundation, then under the leadership of Lord Pentland.
Their experiences at the Foundation prove both frustrating and fruitful, probably in equal measures. The atmosphere is not friendly and both are occasionally subjected to humiliations delivered by both leaders and peers. Still, they remain committed to The Work and its promise, becoming very involved with Foundation activities, reaping the real benefits of working in a “school” atmosphere. Of the many shared in this book, I found one particularly moving:
During their first experience on a housekeeping crew Nonny faced both external and internal resistance to vacuuming an ugly rug. The external resistance came in the form of a closet full of mismatched and non-functioning vacuum cleaners and attachments, the internal from Nonny’s revulsion at the rug’s colors. Eventually, she takes matters into her own hands, literally:
“Nonny sipped her coffee and looked out the window. ‘The strangest thing happened. I went back into the room, got down on my hands and knees, and picked that ugly rug clean….’ I waited for her to continue. ‘When it was over, I felt this incredible lightness of being. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s still with me, although it’s beginning to fade.’”
As Lord Pentland remarked upon hearing this story: “You see why we call this the work.”
Still, Foundation culture and program doesn’t suit them. This is perhaps, as an acquaintance notes, because they are “too hot-blooded.” This same acquaintance arranges for them to meet Annie Lou Staveley, a former pupil of Jane Heap and the founder of Two Rivers Farm, a communal work center in Oregon. Impressed, the couple moves cross-country to become students of Mrs. Staveley and members of her community.
A Move to The Farm
In the tradition of several Work communities, including Mr. Gurdjieff’s Priure and the Ouspenskys’ Franklin Farms, Two Rivers Farm operates as an intentional community. Mrs. Staveley served as leader, teacher, and guide.
While the book does not spell out the exact relationship between Mrs. Staveley and Two Rivers Farm to the Foundation, the reader can piece together some understanding. Mr. Gurdjieff set a well-established standard for chucking students out on their respective ears, something that Jane Heap (perhaps) attempted to emulate with Mrs. Staveley. Mrs. Staveley returned to America from England (where she worked with Heap) and began teaching independently. Mrs. Staveley did, however, continue to maintain a relationship with Madame de Salzmann and had some contact with the Foundation here in the United States.
The couple’s time at Two Rivers proves more enduring than their tenure at the Foundation. They remain for nine years, eventually living full-time at the farm and founding its book publishing business. Over the years they have the opportunity to meet fellow Work students and leaders
Striking Out on Their Own
Eventually, David and Nonny leave the farm and begin working and developing groups independently. The story of their leave-taking at Two Rivers Farm is somewhat distressing: It isn’t clear that Mrs. Staveley really wanted to see them go. In addition, community members are likewise ambivalent about the departure and it appears that several long-standing relationships were lost as a result of the couple’s leave-taking. The book concludes with some descriptions of their lives after leaving the farm, suggesting that they themselves needed a period of readjustment before reestablishing themselves elsewhere.
This is a well-written book, though I would have expected no less from a well-established professional writer. I found it fascinating, entertaining, and was able to finish it relatively quickly. Still, I was also profoundly moved by much of what I read and recognized many of the Kherdian’s experiences in the Work as similar to my own.
I would take care to note two things to potential readers:
- The Kherdians were in an unusual position when it came to pursuing the Work: Self-employed and having no children, they were able to continue the Work in ways (i.e. moving about the country in order to join a group of their choice, living in an intentional community) that many people can’t. There is much of value in their story, but it should also be noted that this story may be atypical of most individuals who are currently in the Work.
- The description of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York reflects the culture of that Foundation in the 1970s and does not necessarily describe the way Foundation groups now operate. (See the section below on spiritual abuse.) Similarly, the description of Two Rivers Farm is likewise situated in a specific period of time and may not reflect what the farm is like today.
It should be stressed that this book is an autobiography first and foremost. While there are some fine insights into Work ideas and experiences, it is not an introduction to the Work, and some background in Gurdjieff’s history and philosophy will provide a richer reading experience. Still, non-Gurdjieffians should find this to be an interesting glimpse into a little-known culture.
The Risks, and Rewards, of Reading Gurdjieffian Autobiographies
Which “I” is the Subject? Which “I” is the Reader? Which “I” was the Writer?
Gurdjieffians who are acquainted with the doctrine of humans lacking a permanent “I” will recognize the problem of a Gurdjieffian autobiography: Which “I” writes the Gurdjieffian autobiography? And which “I” does it describe? While I don’t think these questions forbid the writing of such autobiographies, being aware of them can provide rich material for author and reader alike.
As a reader of these tales, I am also reminded of my lack of unity. At times I found myself cheering the Kherdians when they identified and walked away from inappropriate behavior on the part of Foundation leadership, on other occasions I rolled my eyes at David Kherdian’s sensitivity at having his “corns” pressed by Lord Pentland and others. It occurs to me, however, that my own reactions may likewise be inconsistent. I’m reminded once again of Mr. Gurdjieff’s seemingly paradoxical aphorisms that at once suggest the necessity of a “critical mind” even while being aware of one’s nothingness.
Food Vs. Trap
Gurdjieffian readers may find that these autobiographies can be both nourishment and trap. When we, as readers, are at our best, we can apply our critical faculties as we further digest the memories and insights of both our predecessors and contemporaries in this work.
The trap (or traps) are more subtle. There can be the tendency to compare oneself with the writer, perhaps envying the writer’s experiences or aspiring to experience such states. As I’ve also noted, smugness can also rear its ugly head, as can spiteful vindication when a well-known work figure is shown in a poor light. All of these revelations can provide material for a Gurdjieffian reader, though its nutritional value may be suspect.
Groups, Teachers, and the Spectre of Spiritual Abuse
Some readers of this book may come away troubled by depictions of what, by today’s standards might be termed borderline “spiritual abuse.” I count myself as one of these readers.
The topic of abusive behavior within both traditional and non-traditional religious groups has been a subject of interest for some time, and while the anti-cult hysteria of a few decades ago has calmed significantly, awareness of how religious leaders and communities can sometimes exploit and injure adherents remains an important topic in religious and mental health circles.
The Kherdians are never subjected to some of the more egregious examples of spiritual abuse perpetrated by some cult leaders: They aren’t sexually exploited, forced to turn over large amounts of money, worked until they become ill, or subjected to prolonged sessions of being berated by others. Still, the leaders that they work with, particularly at the Foundation, can appear to be cold, uncaring, confrontational, and in some cases, cruel. The tendency of Work leaders and students to “liquidate” relationships with those who leave their organization is likewise troubling..
Parsing the problem of spiritual abuse along with a teaching that requires radical self-awareness, even and especially when such awareness proves remarkably painful, is beyond the scope of a book review. What I can say is that I have always been treated with respect by both rank-and-file members of my group as well as both local leadership and visiting “guides” from other Foundations. It is important to consider, however, that I entered the Work some 30 years after the Kherdians and in a very different part of the country.
I’d also note that the confrontational approach sometimes used within the Foundation was certainly consistent with Mr. Gurdjieff’s own methods, as well as the techniques used by both therapists and so-called human potential groups in the 1960s and 70s. Still, there remains material for Gurdjieffians to ponder and wrestle with when considering how the Work has operated over the years, its effectiveness, its dangers, and the reasons why a less confrontational approach appears to be en vogue today.
All of the above considerations put me into question, certainly. I have pondered and will continue to do so. But what endures for me from this book is a short passage, close to the end, in which David Kherdian experiences a state that points to a startling realization, one that I have sensed, but never fully articulated. The backstory is important: During an all-night work period, workers were given a movements class at 3am. During the movements, Kherdian had a realization about his state and situation:
“At the same time, it was hard in a very different way. I felt completely on my own. Nothing was familiar. All at once, I was in the grip of fear, and I knew, as I had never known before, that everything is not going to be all right. I had been an optimist all my life. All my life I had believed that everything would be all right—in the end—and now I saw, unmistakably, that nothing would turn out by itself. I was alone with my work and my life and, although this was something I had always known with a part of myself, I knew it now with the whole of my being.”
As someone living in an age and a country where optimism is not only in short supply, but might rightly be considered a form of psychosis, Kherdian’s words resonate with me. Neither Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, nor the Work in its orthodox/heterodox manifestations, make any promises about things turning out all right in the end. Those of us who are currently paying in advance for this Work are often warned of the importance of being aware of our own impending deaths, as well as the deaths of those around us. Perhaps this awareness, described by Mr. Gurdjieff as the “sole means” of destroying egoism such that the human species might live, forces us (or ought to force it, if we actually follow his advice) to consider, time and again, what we value, what we are willing to pay, and the worth of a life lived in hope of consciousness, even if all comes to naught.
Information and Disclosures
Book: On a Spaceship with Beelzebub: By a Grandson of Gurdjieff by David Kherdian, originally published by Inner Traditions in 1998.
Availability: Can be purchased at Amazon or read for free as part of your Scribd membership.
Disclosures: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review. This review does contain affiliate links.