Notes on the 1992 Revision of The Tales

The Revision of The Tales

[An Excerpt from To Fathom The Gist, Vol 2 – The Arch Absurd]

Cultural Disparity

In various parts of The Tales, Gurdjieff chooses words that are culture and language specific. Here is an obvious example, from Chapter 12, The First “Growl”:

“It is necessary to remark that the books written by contemporary ‘writers’ there are, all taken together, the principal cause that the Reason of all the other three-brained beings is becoming more and more what the venerable Mullah Nassr Eddin calls ‘stuff and nonsense.’

The phrase “stuff and nonsense,” first noted publicly from its use in the British Parliament in 1827, was popularized by Lewis Carroll, in Alice In Wonderland. Alice responds to the Queen of Heart’s ruling, “sentence first—verdict afterwards,” with the words “stuff and nonsense.”

The Revision abandons this phrase in favor of “thinner than air.” It reads as follows:

“I must point out that the books fabricated by contemporary writers, taken all together, are the principal factor in diluting the Reason of all the other three-brained beings there until it has become, as the venerable Mullah Nasr Eddin says, ‘thinner than air.’

The origin of this phrase is clear. It is from the French version:

Il faut remarquer que les livres ainsi fabriqués par les « écrivains » de là-bas ont fini par donner aujourd’hui à la raison de tous les êtres tri-cérébraux la légèreté de l’ether.

The revisers clearly decided to add in Mullah Nassr Eddin, who is absent from the French text, and put a French expression in his mouth, all of which might be fine, we suppose, if the reader were French. We note here that the German text does not attempt to follow the English text at this point. It reads:

„Es muß unbedingt gesagt werden, daß die Bücher, die von den modernen ,Schriftstellern’ geschrieben werden, alle insgesamt die Hauptursache sind, daß die Vernunft der übrigen dreihirnigen Wesen dort mehr und mehr wird, was der ehrwürdige Mulla- Nassr-Eddin eine ,Narren posse’ nennt.

Roughly translated “Narren posse” means “fool’s antics,” which we expect would be meaningful to the German reader.

Incidentally in the French text, the title of Chapter 12, “Premiers grondements” is plural. The French word “grondements” has a wider meaning than “growling,” also embracing “grumbling” and “rumbling.” It could be translated as “first rumblings” as well as “first growlings.” The revisers chose not to follow the French version here.

We can consider the expression “cock and bull” in a similar way. It is a long-established English phrase that denotes invented fanciful stories. In the original text, Chapter 24, Beelzebub’s Flight to the Planet Earth for the Fifth Time, Gurdjieff writes:

“In general there reached the contemporary beings of the planet Earth a great many of such isolated expressions, uttered or fixed by various sensible beings of former epochs concerning certain details of a complete understanding from the epoch when the Center-of- Culture was Babylon as well as from the other epochs; and your favorites of recent centuries, simply on the basis of these ‘scraps,’ have with their already quite ‘nonsensical’ Reason concocted such ‘cock-and-bull’ stories as our Arch-cunning Lucifer himself might envy.

The Revision reads:

. . . and simply on the basis of these ‘scraps,’ your favorites of recent centuries, with their quite nonsensical Reason, have cooked up such balderdash as our arch-cunning Lucifer himself might envy.

Balderdash (unquoted) is thus substituted for “cock-and-bull” (quoted). “Balderdash” looks as though it was derived from the French text “sornette,” (quoted) although this translates better as “fiddlesticks” or “nonsense.”

Et tes favoris des derniers siècle échafaudent sur ces « lambeaux » avec leur par trop galimatieuse raison, de telles « sornettes » que votre archi-retors Lucifer pourrait, ma foi, les envier.

Etymologically “balderdash” originally referred to a mix of drinks (milk, beer, wine, etc.) and only later came to mean a senseless jumble of words. It is a poor word choice. It does not mean “invented fanciful stories.”

The term “cock and bull” may derive from the 17th century French term “coq-a-l’âne” meaning “from the cock to the ass.” It appears in Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues from 1611 and is defined as “an incoherent story, passing from one subject to another.”

The German text is:

Und lediglich auf Grund dieser ,Stückchen’ haben deine Lieblinge der letzten Jahrhunderte mit ihrer schon ganz närrischen Vernunft solch dummes Zeug zusammengebraut, daß selbst unser erzlistiger Luzifer sie beneiden könnte.
The words “Zeug zusammengebraut” can be translated as “made-up nonsense.” It is ironic that the topic of discussion in the text here is the way that the original story of The Tower of Babel came to be thoroughly misunderstood.

We have also encountered what may be a cultural style issue. It is, at the very least, difficult to explain. It comes from Chapter 43, Beelzebub’s Survey of the Process of the Periodic Reciprocal Destruction of Men, or Beelzebub’s Opinion of War, and reads as follows:

“Or again, when one of the contemporary beings of this peculiar planet, whose heart as they say always ‘sinks into his boots’ from fright when, for instance, a mouse runs past him, learns that so and so on meeting a tiger felt a little timid, then this ‘hero’ will be inwardly extremely indignant with him and will, without fail, in conversation with his friends, ‘foaming at the mouth’ denounce him and prove that he is a vile, criminal ‘coward’ for having been frightened by such a ‘mere’ tiger.

“And yet again the various books and manuals concerning also what must be done and how, and what must not be done on meeting a tiger or other similar being, are written by these ‘mouse- unflinching-heroes’ there.

The Revision renders the final paragraph above as:

“And here again the various books and manuals concerning what must be done and how, and what must not be done on meeting a tiger or other such being, are written by these ‘mouse-flinching heroes.’

We can see no reason why, given that Gurdjieff’s writing is so often ironic, that the revisers have chosen to destroy the ironic content of this paragraph—clearly telegraphed by the fact that “mouse-unflinching- heroes” is wrapped in quotes. Wrapping “mouse-flinching heroes” in quotes, if anything, achieves exactly the opposite meaning. Were the revision team blind to irony?