The aim of this series of articles is to provide the reader with information that may assist their efforts to profit from reading Gurdjieff’s collective writings. It is no secret that many people find Gurdjieff’s writings difficult.
Significant effort is required even to read the First Series, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, just once. Gurdjieff provides the following advice on almost the first page of the book. He writes:
[Written impromptu by the author on delivering this book, already prepared for publication, to the printer.]
ACCORDING TO the numerous deductions and conclusions made by me during experimental elucidations concerning the productivity of the perception by contemporary people of new impressions from what is heard and read, and also according to the thought of one of the sayings of popular wisdom I have just remembered, handed down to our days from very ancient times, which declares:
“Any prayer may be heard by the Higher Powers and a corresponding answer obtained only if it is uttered thrice:
Firstly—for the welfare or the peace of the souls of one’s parents.
Secondly—for the welfare of one’s neighbor.
And only thirdly—for oneself personally.”
I find it necessary on the first page of this book, quite ready for publication, to give the following advice:
“Read each of my written expositions thrice:
Firstly—at least as you have already become mechanized to read all your contemporary books and newspapers.
Secondly—as if you were reading aloud to another person.
And only thirdly—try and fathom the gist of my writings.”
Only then will you be able to count upon forming your own impartial judgment, proper to yourself alone, on my writings. And only then can my hope be actualized that according to your understanding you will obtain the specific benefit for yourself which I anticipate, and which I wish for you with all my being.
It will serve the reader well to read this advice carefully and take it seriously. Clearly, the first way he recommends for reading the book is habitual with no more attention than you would normally give to a book.
The second way he recommends—as if you were reading aloud to another person—is, as far as we know, unprecedented. Authors don’t tell readers how to read their book – especially not in such a precise manner.
It is a mode of reading that we never engage in. Few of us are well-practiced in reading aloud, and probably none of us are practiced in reading “as if out loud.” This is not the same as reading out loud to an audience, the expectation of the audience acts as a force upon you, causing you to pay attention to how you emphasize and enunciate each word. When your read “as if out loud,” the force of the audience is entirely absent.
Reading out loud to others is a three-centered activity. The moving center moves the vocal cords, the thinking center translates the printed word into sound taking note of punctuation, and the emotional center adds nuance. It is the same when you read “as if out loud,” even if you make no sound. (When you think the sentence, the vocal cords move anyway, even if you make no sound). The difference is that there is only your personal attention acting to motivate you. It is more difficult than reading out loud.
To read the whole of The Tales “as if out loud” will take a long time—somewhere in the region of 50 hours. If you do it for two hours every day, then it will take about a month.
Note that Gurdjieff does not suggest that you only need to do this once. The words “Read each of my written expositions thrice:” should, we believe, be taken to mean: Read each of my written expositions in three different ways.
If we take Gurdjieff’s advice seriously, which only makes sense, then it quickly becomes clear that he is asking a great deal of the reader.
Orage insisted that Gurdjieff’s writings constituted an objective work of art. ‘The book [Beelzebub’s Tales] is an objective work of art. Objective art consists of conscious variations from the original according to the plan of the artist or writer who strives to create a definite impression on his audience.’
That may be so, but we can only discover that for ourselves. Gurdjieff’s Friendly Advice informs the reader what effort he expects. We cannot form a reliable opinion without making that effort.
In the next article in this series we will begin to examine the proposition that Gurdjieff’s writings are indeed objective. As we progress with this series we will discuss how to read The Tales in the third way. Gurdjieff explains this, but he does not do so in his Friendly Advice.