The discussion here of the revision of The Tales is not intended to be a critical broadside against the Gurdjieff Foundation’s publication of the revised version of The Tales.
Several things are interesting about the 1992 revised version. Discussing them will, I believe, be instructive to readers of The Tales. Let’s simply begin with known facts about the revision.
Mme de Salzmann ordered it. She said Gurdjieff asked her to revise it. However, the book was not published until after her death, and thus no one was ever able to ask for more details from her.
Under normal circumstances, revising a book written by a literary genius and edited by one of the best editors of the age (A R Orage) is an absurdity all on its own.
Who would ever do such a thing?
I can think of but one example; various Shakespeare plays get revised for a specific performance. But no one in their right mind seeks to usurp Shakespeare’s original manuscript.
And yet, the Gurdjieff Foundation did try to usurp the original masterpiece. Aside from revising it, it removed the original version from publication and ran a kind of marketing campaign for the sadly flawed new version. People from the New York Foundation visited groups and proclaimed the virtues of this imposter of a book. Reading of the text was recorded.
The sleeve notes to the new edition read
Beelzebub’s Tales is an “ocean of story” and of ideas that one can explore for a lifetime. It is majestic in scale and content, challengingly inventive in prose style, and, for those very reasons, often approached with apprehension. The first English language edition of the Russian original appeared in 1950. Since then, readers have recognized the need for a revised translation that would clarify the verbal surface while respecting the author’s own thought and style.
This revised edition, in preparation for many years under the direction of Gurdjieff’s closest pupil, Jeanne de Salzmann, meets this need. Originally published in 1992, this translation offers a new experience of Gurdjieff’s masterpiece for contemporary readers. It is presented in a sturdy cloth edition that echoes its original publication.
These sleeve notes were part of the marketing narrative. Hopefully, whoever wrote them experiences remorse for doing so. Let’s deconstruct…
1. “Often approached with apprehension”
I can think of no reason to approach The Tales with apprehension, but if that’s possible, there’s nothing that the flawed new version would do to reduce such apprehension.
2. “The Russian original”
There never was a Russian original. Russian typed manuscripts were part of the drafting process before the master edition in English was produced. No version of this book was published in Russian before Gurdjieff’s death. Nor would that have been likely as Soviet Russia had revised the Russian alphabet while Gurdjieff was doing the original work on the Tales. The initial drafts were written and typed in old Russian script. Gurdjieff never approved a Russian version of the book before his death but did have some chapters read out to Russian audiences.
More importantly, any close analysis of the 1992 revised version will quickly reveal that it is an English translation of the French version of The Tales and nothing to do with any Russian manuscript.
3. “Since then, readers have recognized the need for a revised translation”
Who are these mythical readers? No doubt, they are the figment of the marketer’s imagination. He/she conceives of some amorphous and anonymous group of readers yearning to be free of Gurdjieff’s original work.
4. “Would clarify the verbal surface”
The sleeve notes writer here invents a concept that will live in infamy. Books have a “verbal surface.” They do indeed. Those are the words that you find on the pages.
So the question this raises is, “in what language did Gurdjieff write the Tales.” In my view, the following extract from In Search of the Miraculous gives the answer:
“A universal language is possible,” said G., “only people will never invent it.”
“Why not?” asked one of us.
“First because it was invented a long time ago,” answered G., “and second because to understand this language and to express ideas in it depends not only upon the knowledge of this language, but also on being. I will say even more. There exists not one but three universal languages. The first of them can be spoken and written while remaining within the limits of one’s own language. The only difference is that when people speak in their ordinary language they do not understand one another, but in this other language they do understand. In the second language, written language is the same for all peoples, like, say, figures or mathematical formulae; but people still speak their own language, yet each of them understands the other even though the other speaks in an unknown language. The third language is the same for all, both the written and the spoken. The difference of language disappears altogether on this level.”
The language in which Gurdjieff wrote the English version of The Tales is most likely the first of the above three languages to which he refers. He wrote the German version in a different version of that language and so on.