Book Review: On A Spaceship with Beelzebub: By A Grandson of Gurdjieff by David Kherdian - 1991

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On a Spaceship with Beelzebub: By a Grandson of Gurdjieff

By David Kherdian

Globe Press Books. New York. 1990.

A review by C.K. Garabed

Published in The Armenian Weekly

May 18, 1991

As with so-called Classical Music, David Kherdian’s book can be appreciated on various levels. At the most elementary level, the newcomer to music who is immediately taken with the overtures of Von Suppe would have his counterpart in the reader who would enjoy Kherdian’s story of a man and his wife who, along with others in the groups that they join, seek knowledge. At more advanced levels, the seasoned listener to Beethoven would reflect the level of interest of the reader who would “experience” the odyssey of the spirit in the quest to solve the mystery of identity. In Kherdian’s hands this quest is rendered, as one might expect of a poet, sensitively and romantically.

He describes his need for freedom as being that which ultimately brought him to the Gurdjieff method of self-development. This method, known as the fourth way, incorporates the disciplines of the traditional three ways, namely the fakir (body), the yogi (mind), and the monk (heart), but adds conscious labor and intentional suffering. “I teach these two things only,” Gurdjieff had said.

Kherdian’s story is a personal account of his interaction with groups dedicated to the Gurdjieff discipline and an intimate narration of his reactions and feelings towards members of the groups. It documents the stages of development of some of these relationships – travels to New York, California and Oregon and a final parting after twenty years of “work.” In the actual descriptions of these relationships, Kherdian draws on his poetic powers of observation and narration to describe his and his wife’s emotions, reactions and interpretations of events and relationships. To a spiritualist, some of the group sessions may have the trappings of a séance; to a psychologist, group therapy. To Kherdian, it is a revelation of his evolution from a thinking animal to a sentient human.

Who was George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff? He was born in Russian Armenia and was raised and educated in the city of Kars. His first tutor, Father Borsh, Dean of the Military Cathedral, is described by Gurdjieff in his Second Series, “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” Of lasting effect is the following description of guidance given to the young Gurdjieff:

“Concerning sexual desire, he once told the following:

If a youth but once gratify his lust before reaching adulthood, then the same would happen to him as happened to the historical Esau, who for a single mess of porridge sold his birthright, that is, the welfare of his whole life; because if a youth yields to this temptation even once, he will lose for the rest of his life the possibility of being a man of real worth. The gratification of lust before adulthood is like pouring alcohol into Mollavallian madjar (new wine).

Just as from madjar into which even a single drop of alcohol has been poured only vinegar is obtained and never wine, so the gratification of lust before adulthood leads to a youth’s becoming a monstrosity. But when the youth is grown up, then he can do whatever he likes; just as with madjar – when it is already wine you can put as much alcohol in it as you like; not only will it not be spoiled but you can obtain whatever strength you please.

Gurdjieff sought answers to the question: What is the sense and significance of life on the earth in general and of human life in particular? As a young man he traveled through Central Asia and the Far East in search of hidden knowledge and proposed to bring the West the teachings of the East by way of his method. He founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Chateau de Prieure, near Fountainebleau, France, in 1922 and attracted many notable people to his following. It was a near-fatal automobile accident that cut short his career as a teacher and cast him in the role of a writer for the dissemination of his ideas. That he possessed a tremendously powerful and well-developed personality is beyond doubt. What is also likely is that he was possessed of the characteristics of a charlatan or con man. When pressed for money, he wouldn’t hesistate, as in Samarkand, to capture sparrows, clip them, dye them yellow and sell them as canaries, and this by his own admission. By insisting on Conscious Labor in his system, Gurdjieff knew that spiritual benefits were in the offing; but he also knew how far could go also in solving “The Material Question.”

Most references to Gurdjieff allude to his Greek parentage but the Armenian connection comes in Chapter 1 of the First Book of Gurdjieff’s First Series titled “An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man,” or, “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” from which concept Kherdian apparently derives the title of his book, (The Second Series is titled “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and the Third, “Life is Real Only Then, When I Am.” The entire three-series collection was given the umbrella title, “All And Everything.”)

To get back to the Armenian connection, Gurdjieff himself describes his native language as being Greek but that Armenian was his favorite (having been born and raised in Armenia) and his book “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” was deliberately written partly in Russian and partly in Armenian. Gurdjieff decries the low state into which the noble Armenian language has fallen in modern times, describing the consonances that have taken on the tones of Turkish, Persian, French, Kurdish and Russian words, as well as deploring the treatment of the language by those Armenians anxious to become Russian intelligentsia. The English translation of “Beelzebub” is credited to A. R. Orage, the British editor whom George Bernard Shaw described as the most brilliant editor for a century past.

Regarding his own Armenian connection, Kherdian lays it on the line: “I didn’t have to be told that Gurdjieff was Armenian (mother Armenian, father Greek).” Of particular interest to Armenians is Kherdian’s recounting of the episode where, in distinguishing between animal and human attributes, he informs the leader of one of the groups that Armenians use one word to describe human death and another for animal death (mernil, sadgil), to which the leader replies, “So, it’s already in the language, then!”

I suppose Kherdian can be forgiven the occasional grammatical lapses that mar his work, but I don’t think it’s too much to expect of a published poet that he master the tools of his trade.

Kherdian’s wife is Nonny Hogrogian, prize-winning author and illustrator of children’s books.