Reading Gurdjieff: On Literature

Aside from what was written about journalism in his introduction to Meetings with Remarkable Men (see p. 14-28), Mr. Gurdjieff writes more broadly, through the character of an unnamed intelligent elderly Persian, about the subject of literature. I’ve gathered only some brief notes here from the material. I do recommend reading the book for yourself; there is a PDF version at the Gurdjieff Work Library. I have also added a personal note after the notes.

Purpose of Literature

  • Contemporary civilization is an empty and abortive interval for the process of perfecting humanity. Contemporary civilization serves no purpose but the pursuit of pleasure and is only dimly aware, if at all, that in the past, its purpose was self-perfection. Self-perfection is not the same as the contemporary idea of self-improvement, but that is another subject.
  • In respect to the development of the mind, one of the chief means is literature. This may surprise some who—although they purport to be familiar with Gurdjieff—believe that literature is useless for any development.

Word Prostitution

  • Literature of contemporary civilization he calls “word prostitution”.
  • This is caused by the whole of the attention of the author being placed on exterior polish and beauty of style, rather than the quality of thought or exactitude of transmission.
  • This wastes the readers’ time on infinitesimal, almost null ideas. The crime of contemporary literature is that it wastes the readers’ time of their already short lives to convey almost nothing but style with almost no substance for the sole purpose of making money by pleasuring its readers. Hence “word prostitution.”
  • Categories of books:
    • Popular science books of empty theories, lacking real knowledge or understanding of reality.
    • Novels devoted to human weaknesses, especially the vice of “love”.
    • Descriptive books by those who have never experienced what was described (e.g. travelogues by authors who never travelled anywhere.)
  • Problem of grammarians and languages, and thoughts inexpressible in other languages, resulting in compromises of transmission of meaning.
  • Contemporary literature does nothing for feeling or instinct; intellectual predominates individuality.
  • Contemporary literature has no soul.

Literature with Soul

  • Historical data available to contemporary civilization gives them the information that literature of former civilization gave a great deal for the development of the mind of man, and its effects could be felt centuries later.
  • Quintessence of ideas can be transmitted by anecdotes and proverbs formed by life.
  • He gives a precise example of this with the Persian story of the conversation of the two sparrows.
    • In the past, from horses, noise, rattling, rumbling, odor, and food—the sparrows would obtain satisfaction for essential needs.
    • Now, from automobiles, there is more noise, rattling, rumbling, odor, but no food—the sparrows would obtain no satisfaction for essential needs.
  • He recapitulates: In the past, literature existed for the purpose of perfecting humanity. But today, the aims of literature are entirely exterior.
  • People of the East aren’t interested in Western literature because, for novels, they feel its emptiness, and instinctively assume an attitude of contempt towards their long descriptions of maladies arising in their psychic states due to weakness, will-lessness, unworthiness, and degradation; and for scientific and descriptive literature, they sense and feel the writer’s complete lack of knowledge of reality and any genuine understanding of the subject.
  • As for illiteracy among people of the East, people would gather round a single literate reader who would read or recite literature for them.
  • “Anyone reading or hearing this book feels clearly that everything in it is fantasy, but fantasy corresponding to truth.”

Personal Note

There is a personal side for me on the subject of literature. For some reason, I learned how to read before I went to elementary school. As a young boy, I would walk to a small library not far from where I lived. I read everything in the childrens section, then the young adult section, and then the adult section. When I was a little older, I would ride my bike down to the larger main branch library with a gray duffel bag and fill it with the maximum number of books I could take out at once. Sometimes there were books that could not be checked out and I would stay for hours reading in the library itself.

Because it was what I loved, I went to university to study literature. The university library there was even more impressive. But before long, I realized that I could learn everything at the university on my own, and that I was wasting time and money there, so I left after one year.

Then I was working full time in whatever job I could get, and I could buy my own books. I vividly remember buying every sacred text available at the bookstore: the holy bible, the koran, the bhagavagita, etc., in search of some sense or meaning to our existence.

Years passed and I slipped into a deep depression. I carried out my responsibilities, but the rest of the time, I slept.

One day, while at a book store, I took a chance on buying a strange, intriguing novel—I had not read any books in a long time. It was like I had opened a door to a room I had not occupied for a long time. I began reading books that had influenced this book, and in turn, their influences, and so on. It wasn’t the literature Gurdjieff spoke about, but it rekindled in me the search for it, and search for it, I did, and found it.

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