In his Death of a Hawker Janwillem Van de Wetering, the distinguished Dutch author of books on Zen Buddhism who achieved literary fame (and the pleasure of seeing his novels made into a TV serial) by turning to detective stories, introduces the character of a wealthy but bizarre dealer in dubious goods imported from Africa and Eastern Europe, who organizes in his Amsterdam boathouse “toasts to the idiots”, where every guest has to explain aloud his or her particular brand of idiocy. Although George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949) is not mentioned, the copyright on the toasts to the idiots is his, and Van de Wetering surely knows it. In the novel, not everybody appreciates, and the crypto-Gurdjieffian hawker ends up killed.
Van de Wetering’s are detective stories, although there is always a Zen lesson to be learned. In real life, most of the toasted idiots maintained a warm affection to Gurdjieff, and his legacy was passed to generation of pupils who were even more enthusiastic about a master they had never met personally. Just like Buddhism, perhaps the Gurdjieff legacy was translated differently in different countries, not only because of language. James Moore, Gurdjieff’s only serious biographer and an old hand in the British branch of what Gurdjieffians simply call “the Work”, has now decided to write and publish his long awaited memory Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered (Hove: Gurdjieff Studies Limited, 2005.)
This is not a book about Gurdjieff, whom Moore never met. It is an affectionate tribute to Moore’s teacher Henriette Lannes (1899-1980,) a study into internecine political struggles within the Gurdjieffian community, and a quintessentially British book. Family and personal memoirs of Moore make the story more than a mere record of the Lannes group, but the book will retain its Britishness even without the intimate details. British Gurdjieffians seem seriously intent at remaining British while being Gurdjieffian, and the author confesses, about the two other main foci of the Work, that Paris was mysterious and the U.S. remote. This may in part explain the internecine struggles, although all secretive and esoteric groups are inherently prone to schism. Moore, however, delights in a style which smells of the pub at the corner, genuine ale, and Yorkshire pudding. At times, it may even be difficult for non-British to understand. When a character is compared to “Desperate Dan”, one wonder how many outside the Isles may have in their libraries both Gurdjieff’s canonical works and a collection of British juvenile magazines such as the Beano or Dandy, where one would find Desperate Dan. (We at CESNUR do, but only because our popular culture collection and the idiosyncrasies of this reviewer and Gordon Melton’s tried to collect every single English-language comic with a vampire as a character, and vampires occasionally appear in these so called “British funnies.”)
Apart from Desperate Dan, there is a lot the reader would never know about the Work in England without reading this book, including who really organized London’s World of Islam Festival in 1976, the stormy relationship between Gurdjieffians and Traditionalists of the Guénonian or Schuonian persuasions, what the British Work community contributed to Peter Brook’s movie on Gurdjieff and how it reacted to it (although, in retrospective, the movie may appear less dreadful that it seemed to both friends and foes back then in 1979.) Invaluable insights are gained about anybody who was somebody in the Gurdjieffian subculture from the late 1950s to 1980.
There should be a reason why the book almost ends with Lannes’ death in 1980, although it is not stated very explicitly. There are only five pages about 1980-2005, the period when Moore emerged as the finest Gurdjeff scholar in the world and was, in a way, rewarded by being thrown out of The Gurdjieff Society in 1994. By then, there was an “official” approach to the Work which did not condone independency. Yet, as Moore aptly shows, what “orthodoxy” means in the Gurdjieff milieu is, and always was, questionable. Not only would Gurdjieff himself probably have found the whole idea of a Gurdjeffian “church” ready to excommunicate dissenters laughable, but by the 1990s (or, more accurately, well before, and including Lannes) almost every senior teacher in the Work was mixing liberally the master’s ideas with almost everything else, from Krishnamurti to Turkish neo-Sufism and various forms of yoga. Indeed, the book vindicates Colin Campbell’s idea of a “cultic milieu,” with Workers crossing borders to Scientology, Subud, Soka Gakkai, Transcendental Meditation, the Divine Light Mission, and almost anything else.
“Cultic,” indeed. Moore’s self-deprecating humour occasionally leaves the reader wondering whether he is intentionally depicting himself as the stereotypically “brainwashed cultist,” somebody who spends years making puppets and preparing puppet shows as his main focus while the external world worries about the Bomb, the Cold War, and Vietnam, only to be told by Lannes after a minor incident that the puppets should go and be burned. Is Moore a cultivated version of Madonna answering critics of her conversion to Rabbi Berg’s controversial brand of Kabbalah by wearing a provocative “Brainwashed Zombie” T-shirt? Yes and no. Gurdjieffians here are liberally offered to the external observer’s gaze as lost in a dream. But Moore’s lesson, Lannes’ lesson and in fact Gurdjieff’s lesson is that so is everybody else. At least, Gurdjeffians do know that they are asleep, and try to awaken. We are all brainwashed cultists, just as Madonna would say. Some realize it. Some don’t. The cults of science, sex, money or business are not better, perhaps worse, than other cults. But, if everybody is a cultist, perhaps nobody is a cultist; if everybody is brainwashed, nobody is brainwashed. And this is, perhaps, as good a starting point as any for that self-remembering journey that the book is all about, although by the end of the story neither us nor, perhaps, Moore will believe that “orthodox” Gurdjieffians will be the only one who will, in the end, remember themselves.