In these few hundred words, I can only offer a fleeting impression of Beezelbub’s Tales to his Grandson by G I Gurdjieff. It’s such a complex and perplexing book. This work of a thousand plus pages carries the subtitle An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man. It is here on the very first page we meet out first incongruity: While the title implies a series of tales, its subtitle positions itself as a work of criticism, a theoretical discussion. A friend suggested the book to me, describing how the story-telling is so far-fetched and yet we are driven to read on to discover the author’s intentions in writing the book.
I tried a few chapters and was still unsure so I paused to check out the book’s history. It was first published in English in 1950 though composed in Russian and Armenian between 1924 and 1927. I was surprised to discover the book was included by critic, Martin Seymour-Smith, in his 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. I discovered Gurdjieff intended the book to be treated as a text book, to be read over and over, for it contained the totality of his philosophical ideas. Much much time has been invested in this text since it was first published. So I read on, accepting that the book seeks to share a novel blend of eastern and western thinking. The narrator tells tales of his visits to numerous places and times over the centuries, including India, the Middle East, Russia, and the United States, giving detailed descriptions of his encounters with people in these various settings. There are also accounts of his visit to ancient civilisations such as Babylon.
Focusing on it as a modernist text, this book challenges many ideas about literature and life itself. Firstly, the narrator is an extraterrestrial who speaks with authority on so many aspects of human history and human society, including language, medicine etc, but it is all presented in a seductively simple manner, for he is talking to his grandson as they travel in their spaceship. This work is such a study of voice in itself alone. When I say the tone is seductive, I recall the writings of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, author of The Diary of a Seducer. One may be led to think he is writing about a dashing man about Europe when he is actually seeking to seduce readers to consider some serious existential questions.
Gurdjieff’s narrator is constantly inventing new words as well as new ideas and concepts. This can be disorienting, just as Gurdjieff intended, because one of his key claims is that we need to do some work and start thinking in fresh ways to break out of our intellectual stupor which has been our inheritance for way too long. He bemoans the way the human race took a wrong turn so long ago when it began to overvalue the pyscho-organic need to wiseacre (and in turn to super-wiseacre).
In considering Gurdjieff’s treatment of earlier civilisations, I am powerfully reminded of how the human race has been at evolution for a very long time, and our forebears have tried many different ways of being through those various eras and civilisations. I guess this served as a counter view to the world’s sense of triumphalism and advancement in the 1920s. And the value of the book as a reminder of the long journey of the human race still offers a lot of benefit today.
Beezelbub is an interesting name for the author to choose for the narrator. We immediately recognise it as a pre-Christian god, though later it became associated with a major demon in the Christian tradition. I get the sense that many of Gurdjieff’s subjects considered in this book are calculated to stimulate discussion amongst serious thinkers wanting clarity about the place of the human being in this world. This is what the book is about- raising awareness. At the time of writing, Gurdjieff had established an Institute for the Harmonious Development for Man, though as I understand it, following a serious car accident, he very soon after dismantled the Institute and followed a more literary path (which included public book readings and private gatherings to explore his ideas).
In a nutshell, Gurdjieff claims we need to break out of our hypnotic stupor to gain a sense of unified consciousness in order to know who we really are -an expression of the divine- after which we can rely more on our own perceptions of reality, which reminds me of a beautiful quote of his: ‘For our sins, God has sent us two kinds of physicians, one to help us die, the other to prevent us from living.’ “
This is an amazing work of literature. As it turns out, wordy as it is, it is only the first of a trilogy of Gurdjieff’s writings outlining his philosophical ideas in his All and Everything series.