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Strangers On A Train

The 8:03am Hurstbridge line train to Melbourne is overcrowded this morning: you can feel the stress and tension emanating from passengers as they huddle together, glance at nearby faces or seek escape via an Apple iPod or mobile phone game.  It's as if Connex's operations staff have learned of Fritz Leiber's occult science Megapolisomancy --- predicting the future via neo-Pythagoriean geometry, architecture and population masses in large cities --- and are using the railway network as a Monte Carlo simulation.

This morning something is different.
Next to me a fellow passenger is reading a book.  It's not the usual Dan Brown or Peter Carey airport novel.  I recognise the distinctive red cover of William Patrick Patterson's Struggle of the Magicians (Fairfax CA: Arete Publications, rev. ed., 1998, xxiv + 325): a chronological history of the Gurdjieff Work told through the Transmission struggles between the Graeco-Armenian magus George Gurdjieff and his major pupils, told against the backdrop of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1930s Depression, and two World Wars.  The volatile events mirror an intense struggle to find the core self amidst intellectual currents, polarisation and the unintended effects of psychopolitical struggles for power.

We strike up a brief conversation after I mention I'd also read Patterson's book.  "This is the second time I've read it," he confides. "I have a bunch of these books around."  I reply that Patterson has some insights on the Teacher-Student relationship; that it synthesises anecdotes from the secondary literature such as C.S. Nott and John Godolphin Bennett; and places the Gurdjieff Work in an exoteric historical context.  The exchange lasts only a few minutes until the train hurtles towards my destination: West Richmond station.  Disembarking, I think I'm probably never going to see this passenger again, and that Gurdjieff's pupil Pyotr Uspenskii always kept meetings secretive and low-key, the likely effect of the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions.

Monte Carlo creates this randomness in crowds: opportunities for "novelty" if you seize them.

My short abstract for Struggle of the Magicians and a couple of key quotes:

Traces the relationship Gurdjieff had with key initiates: Pyotr Uspenskii, A.R. Orage, J.G. Bennett, Fritz Peters, Jean Toomer, and others.  Through a diary format, summarises the genesis and evolution of The Work from multiple perspectives.  Contrasts how Gurdjieff's cosmology and philosophy were interpreted by key people.  Sets The Work against the backdrop of revolutions and world wars.  Essays on 'chief features' and transmission problems.  New essays on 'Gurdjieff and Fritz Perls' and 'The Teacher-Student Experience'.

Footnote quote from Marcel Detienne & Jean-Paul Vernant's Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991):  'There is no doubt that metis is a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behaviour which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience acquired over the years. It is applied to situations that are transient, shifting, disconcerting, and ambiguous, situations that do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation, or rigorous logic.' (p. 180)

'The highest aim of man is to be cunning.  I speak of real cunning, not the dirty means of the world.  The magus is cunning.  The magus is the highest that man can approach to God, because only he can be impartial and fulfil obligations to God.  In old times the magus was always made chief because he had cunning.  Other magus could do either white or black magic but the magus who had cunning and canning could do both white and black and was chief of the initiates.' (p. 180).

'It will happen by itself. There is no need for us to worry about it.  Ideas will spread, maybe in our lifetime and maybe after us. Most of these ideas will enter into scientific or philosophic language, but they will enter in the wrong form.  There will be no right distinction between doing and happening, and many thoughts of ordinary thinking will be mixed with these ideas; so they will not be the ideas we know, only words will be similar.  If you don't understand this, you will lose in this way.' (p. 186).

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 7, 2008 8:02 AM.

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