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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


George Gurdjieff

Philosophy and Art in Gurdjieff's 'Beelzebub': A Modern Sufi Odyssey by Anna T. Challenger (Value Inquiry Book Series: Editions Rodopi B.V.)   Philosophically analyzes the tropes and literary devices used in Gurdjieff's masterpiece, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, that are used to jolt the reader into radical transformation. Challenger contextualizes the forceful contribution of George Gurdjieff's world-view is a cosmopolitan, non-sectarian, a-Islamic Sufism, defined not as a universal group of Muslim mystics but as an individualistic tradition of seeking truth wherever it can be had, especially at the meeting place of the world religions. Anna T. Challenger captures both the depth and the magic, and she presents Gurdjieff as one from whom we, too, can be instructed. Hers is not yet another book on the subject: anecdotal, impressionistic, journalistic. While acknowledging the force of Gurdjieff's teaching, she avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality and identification. She is critical in the Sufi sense of not accepting anything without having first personally realized it. And she is committed, having undertaken a labor of love in the form of personal gratitude.

Taking Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson as the center, Challenger gives an account of Gurdjieff's work that is learned and extensively researched, but at the same time original, imaginative, and fresh. She comments at length on Gurdjieff's connections with Sufism, stressing in a new way the extraordinariness of Gurdjieff's methods and style, so important in a teaching tale: a combination of Socratic confrontation, Kiekegaardian indirection, and Zen austerity that conspire through humor, obliqueness, shock, illogic, and non‑linearity to bring the reader face to face with his or her presumptuousness and inconsistencies, so as to clear the debris toward a way that could possibly lead to a more authentic awareness of the self.

But where Challenger breaks entirely new ground, not only in Gurdjieff studies but in the history of ideas, is the connection she establishes first between Gurdjieff and Dante Alighieri, and then between Dante and Sufism. Heeding Gurdjieff's own claim that his chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory" is the "heart" of the Tales and therefore of his writing as a whole, Challenger goes on to juxtapose that chapter to Dante's Purgatorio, unearthing surprising parallels that complement the contents of these works. By her endeavors, Gurdjieff is enriched through Dante, and Dante is seen in the light of Gurdjieff's robust and uncompromising ways‑each in his own way responding with reverence to the gift of life.

Having established Gurdjieff's connections with Dante, Challenger's research takes her beyond Dante back to Sufism, that is, back to Gurdjieff himself. She revisits Islam and the Divine Comedy, a book written in 1919 by Miguel Asin Palacios, a priest and Professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Madrid, to discover that the extraordinary Dante, the divine Dante, got his entire model for his famous work from Ibn 'Arabi, a proto‑sufist, who wrote some twenty-five years before Dante's birth. Challenger's research, however, is not done for its own sake; it is not archeological, but genealogical, establishing links as well as contrasts. Unlike Ibn 'Arabi's and Dante's Satan, Gurdjieff places Beelzebub at the center of his Tales. Beyond good and evil, he takes seriously the antagonism necessary for the evolution of the process of becoming human. And lie brings home that this antagonism, the struggle of the higher and the lower, the tension between Heaven and Hell, are right here, on Earth.

As is well‑known, Gurdjieff composed piano music, put together theatrical performances, wrote stories, and directed dancing groups. He took art seriously. Challenger responds to this seriousness with a chapter on Gurdjieff's views on art. At a time when the idea of art pour l'art was rampant, he took a different stance. Art is not for its own sake, but for the sake of humanity. Closer to Leo Tolstoy than to Eduard Hanslick, and against the subjectivism that apotheosizes the creator, for Gurdjieff art serves a function: the fulfillment of our spiritual needs, the creation of consciousness.

Challenger, however, does not only give us a much needed presentation of Gurdjieff's theory of art and the influence of that theory on several artists. She goes on to place Gurdjieff's Tales, his philosophical literary art, in the larger context of some of the greatest works of literature. She does this not to present her own aesthetic, but to link the theme of travel, central to the Tales, with that of the epics of Gilgamesh, Homer's The Odyssey, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, Dante's Divine Comedy, Voltaire's Candide, and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. This is a veritable tour de force.

Gurdjieff lamented the fact that he had not studied more of the classics. Challenger does it for him, and in doing so she articulates his thoughts as he might have seen them reflected in the peregrinations and embodied in the actions of the heroes of these great works, the core of these thoughts being the transformation of the being of human beings. Travel, Challenger is aware is analogous to living or to experience or to the experience of living; it involves an estrangement and an alienation of the ordinary self and then a return to art extraordinary one. We are only in this return. By abandoning the familiar acrd living in what is alien, we come to ourselves. This movement of alienation and return is completable but never completed. Only in our becoming are we more than what we are. Not accidentally does Nikos Kazantzakis begin his Odyssey with Odysseus' restlessness in Ithaca, his itching, as Herman Melville would put it, for things still unknown.


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