I have a writer’s block with respect to history, and my creativity drops to zero in writing up scientific results, but I am so far still capable of chatting away, albeit in rather poor syntax, and even worse grammar, to a small circle of friends. That’s how I’ve wasted quite a few sheets of paper since my return from my bicycle trip across the desert West last August: blather, perhaps semicoherent no doubt, but a self-expression of a sort to be preferred over complete social isolation.
I would like here to compare the teachings of the Russian Imperial subject George Gurdjieff, exiled to France after the 1917 Revolution, to those of the Yaqui Indian Don Juan Matus, resident of northern Mexico, in the context of the lack of confidence in the completeness of the scientific world picture.
I find it significant that Gurdieff was discovered by the independently wealthy Ouspensky in the first year of the First World War, the graveyard of the nineteenth century’s optimistic estimate of the power of progress. So today in the shadow of The Bomb we have a new gospel of the same message, this time written by a Los Angeles-born Chicano who majored in anthropology at UCLA: Carlos Castañeda, whose 7th book recapitulating Don Juan’s teachings I borrowed from Old Mister Cunningham’s downtown-Oakland bookstore and reread last week.
In one sense the possibility — the virtual certainty — of at least the near-extinction of the human species, not to mention the ending of our present civilization, in a future nuclear holocaust [I think that’s the spelling, but I’m not sure] generalizes individual mortality. We all die, perhaps tomorrow . . . is now true in an unprecedented sense of the words. Many born-again (which means superficial and unthinking) Christians affirm that nuclear weapons are the end time predicted in the Book of Revelations, just for one example of a popular-cultural realization of this fact.
But in another sense the quantum-mechanical general-relativistic restatement of the general laws of physics, a restatement which abolishes intuitive imaging of the physical world. We are composed of particles which are described by, as they say, wave packets.
—– longwinded digression No. one: Bell’s Theorem, which has been experimentally verified, is the latest negation of our ability to obtain images of reality. Two polarized particles, when separated, both behave as if of unknown orientation until you measure the state of one of the pair: then the other one, even if half a world away, will behave as if of state opposite to the first. It’s all required by the laws of quantum mechanics, folks, and you’ve got as much chance as anyone else in figuring out how it comes about . . . . The Gödel’s Proof of the 1980s, I say . . . . did you know that there’s an expensive comic book on the market, with lavishly illustrated stories about time travel where it always turns out all wrong? — entitled ‘Bell’s Theorem’. I kid you not.
That twentieth-century revolution in the general laws of physics, I was going today before my train of thought snapped completely at the burden, which abolishes any intuitive image, has made mystics of us all. I am nothing if not unoriginal in this matter; everyone is saying it: witness a bestseller describing physical Science as The Dancing Wu Li Masters. This brings an impasse to the scientific enterprise, a sense of futility. The world view of the human race cannot be scientific, or otherwise said the scientific world view does not offer humanity an explanation, since no one can understand it.
This attitude, that you have to rely on the equations, even if they’re incomprehensible, is evident as early as the eighteenth century, the classical flowering of modern science after the ‘synthesis’ of Isaac Newton which could offer a description of gravity but no explanation, since even he agreed that action at a distance is incomprehensible. “Go on ahead,” the mathematician d’Alembert advised newcomers to the differential calculus, “and faith will come to you later.” Since Bohr and Einstein faith, in the sense of a harmonious inner sense of the justness of physical law, is theoretically forbidden.
So the first parallel between the teachings of George Gurdieff as transmitted by Dmitri Ouspensky and those of Don Juan as told by Carlos Castañeda is that the mental universe of the evangelist, the disciple who writes the literary canonization of the teaching, is in the process of collapse. To embellish this would involve the Bolshevik Revolution being analogous to the Summer of Love and the Vietnam War, which only brings out my mentor’s memorable dictum:
“History repeats itself: first time tragedy, second time farce.”
— so let me begin a digression on the Marxian method.
The idea of seeking progress by seeking the resolution of contradictions, which may be a mystical approach to unanswerable conundrums, although if it is I don’t care, resonates with me. It is only by means of parables, paradoxical parables at that, that the Word Incarnate taught the people, says the Bible, not that I believe it. Marx continually opposed a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, materially understood, just the opposite of the way they were understood by his master Hegel. Perhaps that’s why I always take what my teachers have told me and tried to find some truth in the opposite.
An example is Descartes. Heilbron agreed with Sontag on the day the two met me at the Doe Library circulation desk, that I was hard to teach mainly because it had taken me three years to agree with him, what made Descartes the first modern philosopher. All the textbooks, and Heilbron himself, had said this was so because Descartes had been the first to construct a comprehensive, credible (that is, supposedly scientific) non-Aristotelian world view, but I had written a paper for Heilbron’s seminar which addressed just that question and came to the unsatisfactory conclusion that Descartes was modern because he wrote in French for a nonspecialist audience. And even after admitting that my conclusion was unsatisfactory as opposed to the traditional view I had not admitted that the traditional view was correct. A couple of years’ reading other books had persuaded me I had been wrong, and I admitted to Heilbron the correctness of the traditional view as soon as I realized it, which happened to be after I had listened to a lecture of his to a group of undergraduates, but he was upset because that was just what he had been telling me all along.
In other words, — as you all know — I will take the view opposite to what I am told. This quality I find characteristic of Mister Marx as well . . . . end of second digression.
So as I was saying before I went off chasing yet another so to speak red herring, Ouspensky and Castaneda both are staring at the destruction of their civilizations as they take down the words of wisdom of their respective gurus, both of whom spew large quantities of bullshit in the course of delivering their surprisingly similar teachings.
You must understand that this aristocratic Ouspensky wrote a journalistic examination of the world as four-dimensional within a couple of years (1907) of the time that an obscure Carpathian Pole generalized Einstein’s 1905 Special Theory of Relativity into a four-dimensional mathematical description of space, and Ouspensky’s own ignorance of generalized nonmathematical treatments of time as the fourth dimension of space dating back as early as the eighteenth century, coupled with the ignorant adulation of the East European reading public of a writer who appeared to be dealing with the latest advance in Western European science, deluded him into believing himself an advanced thinker, so the the bullshit cosmology in which Gurdieff wrapped his message differed greatly from the bullshit cosmology in which Don Juan embedded his teaching when speaking to a late-twentieth century anthropology graduate student. In any case both evangelists stress that they’re never sure when their respective gurus are figuratively speaking, and so admit to a skeptical reader that the bullshit quotient, so to speak, of what they are transmitting may well be quite high.
The most important requirement for the beginner to both The Fourth Way [that’s Gurdieff: vegetable, animal, intellective soul all developing simultaneously, instead of separately as in the first 3 ways] and to the life of the Warrior [that’s Don Juan: doors to different realities open only for the “impeccable” warrior] is that he learn to lose his self-importance. You’ll agree that’s classic. Young Buddhist monk arrives at monastery eager to learn the secret of live (I mean life), is told to clean stables for next year. Gurus usually insist you obey their most demeaning instructions — you all have a pretty good idea of the scene.
But even through the medium of a grad school dropout too thin-skinned to keep working as a public schoolteacher you must agree these ways of putting it are elegant.
Gurdieff teaches we are machines. Nothing but machines. Writing poetry is as creative as filling out a crossword puzzle; integrating a mathematical surface to make gravitational attraction invariant no matter what the choice of co-ordinates used to describe it in four-dimensional space is equally as subhuman as stringing different-colored glass beads together along a string to make a necklace since both the doers lack awareness of self when doing them. He presents a view of human creativity which focusses unwaveringly on the creator rather than the creature.
Carlos Castaneda reports Don Juan told him the impeccable warrior must joke while risking his life in order to extend consciousness. If anything, he explains his process of ingesting hallucinogenic drugs, risking death from sorcerers, demons, insanity and worse with too much irreverence. The Immanent One is The Eagle, who eats our ball-of-cotton souls at our deaths with its beak. We may as well describe the world as The Big Fart, to hear his corny jokes with Carlos.