I would first and foremost like to follow an age-old injunction that every writer, before giving out any advice or critique to anyone else, should obligingly give an honest account of their journey. So before doing an appraisal of the 27th All & Everything International Humanities Conference I offer a short yet pertinent brief.
Having turned my youthful corner into the age of responsibility during the late 1960s and early 1970’s, I, very much like youth today, found myself entering a world embroiled in an unwanted war. Twelve years of Irish Catholic parochial education and growing up in the suburbs of Boston had done seemingly little to prepare me for the inevitable life question of “What now?” when entering the stream of life. Having narrowly escaped the Vietnam draft at nineteen and being somewhat suspect of the “sex, drugs, and rock & roll” response to the troubled times by many of my peers, I discovered myself by answering the perennial call toward adventure, living out of a backpack for the next eight years in true Jack Kerouac fashion. At one point within that quest, in a bookshop in Athens, Greece, while looking for an answer to the Grail question of “What ails thee?” a copy of P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of The Miraculous fell into my hands. Having devoured its contents when next tramping about the Judean desert of Israel, I several months later found myself back in northern New England, where I began my association with the ideas of G. I Gurdjieff via a life-long friendship with Keith Buzzell.
“The Work,” as students of Gurdjieff’s life and work refer to their quest, is not a philosophy, religion, or ideology. It is a myth, invoking a call toward self-discovery and a journey of awakening into the world of value, purpose, and obligation. Very much a myth for these times from my perspective, and in keeping with what I witness today as youth’s hunger for that which corroborates the higher, deeper, more noble aspirations regarding the human journey. The early years of my friendship with Keith Buzzell, a practicing house-calling physician in the wilds of Maine, filled a gap within my education which eventually led me back into academia, where I undertook the makings of a secondary school science educator. The gifts bestowed while following these twin paths (Work and education) for the past thirty to forty years have been immeasurable, where the view from my “real world” experience via these paths shapes the following review of this year’s A&E Conference.
Parallel to the system of ideas found within the corpus of Gurdjieff’s mythic offering I have found the scholarly research into the history of world mythologies by Joseph Campbell to be of immense service and help when wrapping my thoughts around these miraculous gifts which celebrate the artistry of life and living. Campbell posits the four cardinal functions, or the aim and purpose, of myth to be 1) the Mystical: that whichopens and reveals the whole mystery and wonder of life and the universe itself; 2) the Cosmological: the dimension of science and the laws governing the universe; 3) the Sociological: the moral guidance and the societal injunctions governing personal behaviors given one’s time and place, and 4) the Pedagogical: how to live a human life under any circumstances, and often wrapped into grand stories.
A quarter of a century before George Lucas offered us Luke Skywalker’s view from the planet Tatooine in Star Wars (Campbell’s favorite modern myth), where these four functions serve the archetypal Hero’s Journey in search of value and higher meaning, G.I. Gurdjieff came out with his fictional character of Beelzebub traveling through a uniquely fictional yet familiar universe offering us an objectively impartial view of man and our world. Yes, the devil is in the details, and to follow Gurdjieff’s main character of Beelzebub pondering the “bobtailed reason” of humans who, unlike any other form of planetary life, manifest the strange need to destroy one another’s existence, posits a trail of thought demonstrating remarkable prescience. Gurdjieff’s colossus of a myth is timely in that it is accessible by anyone and is remarkably free from the dogma and trappings usually associated with similar pursuits emanating out of our collective past. Nurtured and developed over the past seventy-two years, this planetary myth, which Joe Campbell foresaw as the only valid and serviceable myth for today, stands as a preeminent lifeline to normalcy within these unprecedented times.
Living in a largely demythologized world today, I have once again found the annual All & Everything International Humanities Conference a welcome oasis and a rich repository of personal strivings to “fathom the gist” of Gurdjieff’s legacy. That 2022 marks the conference’s 27th turnout speaks clearly to the sustaining power of Gurdjieff’s cosmology and opens the possibility, I believe, of new directions within this evolving work. The individual yearly offerings continue to represent exercises in thought reflecting a lifetime’s distillation of experience around topics of pertinent interest. Mirroring Einstein’s sense that the thinking that got us into this current situation of man isn’t the thinking that will get us out of it, Gurdjieff buries “the dog” (the sense or gist of his cosmological meanings) deeply, where often arcane language and allegory demand that we actively engage our thinking on such matters.
This year’s offerings once again did not disappoint! From Ricard Miller’s Shifting Roles – Speculating on the Meaning of Ten Books in Three Series (a reference to the complete series of Gurdjieff’s writings) to Jim Metzner’s What’s Wrong with This Picture? (Mistakes and Otherness), and Lee van Laer and Toddy Smith’s Beelzebub and Endlessness and A Pole Star and An Ass, respectively, all explored the numerous subtleties of Gurdjieff’s cosmological creation, leaving a bountiful repast upon the public table. Richard Hodge, with his exploration of being in “Being” inBeelzebub, and Ed Gogek’s Gurdjieff and the Oneness of the World’s Religions furthered the ponderings of inner possibilities with their “peek over the garden wall,” capping off a four-day celebration of collegial exchange. An exchange marred perhaps by the necessity of the world pandemic dictating once again a virtual modality, yet offering an opportunity to explore the hybrid vigor possible for future gatherings where both the richness of in-person contacts as well as the online virtual option become actualized, opening a far greater richness of possible exchange.
What resonated and encapsulated best what The Work holds out as potential and possibility, and the direction I believe this Work must follow to serve the future, was A Post-Gurdjieff Beelzebub and A Purgatorial Story offered by Tony Blake. Both his talk and theatrical performanceserved as vibrant “reminding factors” that beckon one to recapitulate not only boldly and creatively what this mythic journey is about but what we each uniquely must do with its experiential understanding. The pedagogical component of the myth (“fathoming the gist”), extracted and preserved across the spectrum of first-generation followers of Gurdjieff, today calls for what the “Grandchildren,” those less identified with the man or his teaching, must now do. From my educator’s perspective, the key question today becomes how that gift of pedagogical wit and wisdom relates to, enlivens, and inspires the next generation relative to the myth’s sociological function. Joseph Campbell’s understanding and answer to that same question was that it was Art and the artist’s function to breathe life into the stories that mark one’s time and place. Many myths commence when just that fruit is plucked, often as an act of disobedience, and only then does the adventure begin.
With an average of 55-60 participants from across seventeen countries worldwide engaging daily I was most notably struck by the relative absence of youth in the audience. This speaks loudly to my educational bearings and may serve well toward the A&E Conference Committee asking how it may better serve the “What now?” or “Where do we go from here?” questions that mark the end of every year’s gathering. The world is in a crisis on multiple fronts, which demands sober and insightful thought as well as action from all those who hear that mythical call toward life’s adventure. It is within the nature of receiving any gift that the key to reciprocity is always hidden, so I too would invoke the wise words echoed in Tony Blake’s presentation from Star Wars Gedi Master Yoda: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Where it is often spoken about within Gurdjieff groups and meetings that there is some incomplete element in his mythic offering, I believe that “element” is the fruit of our labor that we must now run with. The time has never been nearer and clearer, or the call any louder than now. ◆
Keith Badger is a tracker, naturalist, writer, and educator. For twenty-seven years he taught Field Ecology and Wilderness Survival at the university and secondary level.