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Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
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Chapter Seven: Sabbatical
A life entangled with Fortune is like a torrent. It is turbulent and muddy; hard to pass and masterful of mood: noisy and of brief continuance.
-- attributed to Epictetus
King Crimson can be seen as an experimental laboratory for the combining and recombining of living musical strains - for the production of "recombinant do-re-mi," to borrow a phrase from the title of a recent book by Billy Bergman and Richard Horn. Fripp reminds me a bit of Miles Davis in this respect: a subtly energetic electromagnet into whose force-field any number of leading musicians have found themselves drawn, only to have their musical genes reshuffled and to be ejected back out into the world with a different perspective. Several Crimson graduates went on to perhaps less experimental yet more lucrative pastures: Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), Ian McDonald (Foreigner), Boz Burrell (Bad Company), John Wetton (Asia), and Bill Bruford (who toured with Genesis in 1976). KC graduates also made solo albums: McDonald and Giles (McDonald and Giles, 1971), Gordon Haskell (It Is and It Isn't, 1971), Pete Sinfield ("Still," 1973), and Bruford (four albums between 1978 and 1981).
British rock, particularly British progressive rock (whatever "progressive" may mean or not mean), is like a club or select society: the more you find out about it, the more you realize that practically everybody in the club has played in practically everyone else's group at one time or another. You can start almost anywhere you want and trace any number of interconnections, for instance: Cream to Blind Faith to Traffic, whose Dave Mason coproduced Family's debut album; Family's John Wetton was Roxy Music's bassist for a spell, Roxy Music's first synth player was Brian Eno, who used Phil Collins as a session drummer, who was Genesis' drummer behind Peter Gabriel, who worked with Fripp, whose later band the League of Gentlemen featured former XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews and whose bassist Sara Lee went on to play with Gang of Four. And so on.
It would be silly to say that Fripp, or anyone other single person, was at "the" center of this tangled mass of perpetually mutating strands of double-helical do-re-mi. Yet the Crimson King was inarguably one of the ribosomal focal points of creative synthesis, touching, in his eccentric way, all the musicians he worked with, and leaving his decisive stamp on the history of rock in the early 1970s and beyond.
Of the classic heavyweight progressive rockers, who had laid down a more convincing legacy than King Crimson? By 1974 Yes had lost themselves in grandiosity beyond all reasonable bounds (though continuing to play to huge popular acclaim); Emerson, Lake and Palmer were grandstanding with thirty-six tons of equipment and labored flashes of lasers and psychedelic music-hall brilliance; Procol Harum were drifting into repetition and stagnation with Exotic Birds and Fruit, less than a mere shadow of their one-time life and soul. Faced with such examples of dinosaur burnout, and listening to the records of all these groups today, I come away with a feeling that King Crimson's music of the period sounds infinitely less dated - Fripp, though he may have faltered from time to time, never completely lost sight of the goal. He was clearly in it for the music. It might be remarked that Fripp, in disbanding King Crimson in 1974, simply knew when to quit; like the Beatles in 1970, he knew when the dream was over, when to continue following the accustomed path meant certain creative death. But then, one of the marks of the superior creative talent is precisely knowing when to quit, when to seek out a new vision.
As hinted at in the previous chapter, particularly grating to Fripp was the commercial/music-industry aspect of the whole progressive rock spectacle. In the October 1974 Melody Maker interview where he explained his reasons for disbanding King Crimson, Fripp said that successful rock bands often "originally start out to service a need but you now have a situation where, being creative, they have to create needs in order that they may continue to exist. In other words, they've become vampiric." On the subject of the music itself, in 1987 Fripp dismissed early progressive/art-rock music as "a badly cobbled pastiche of a number of badly digested and ill-understood music forms."
A sense of no new worlds left to conquer, of the exhaustion of a particular set of possibilities. For an artist, to stay in the same place is to go backwards, to stop growing is to die.
As for Robert Fripp - who disbanded King Crimson in the face of what seemed to him insurmountable cosmic, business, and personal obstacles, and who effectively erased himself from the musical scene - for the moment, late 1974, he was indeed gone, top of head blown off, wandering around without a sense of ego. The Faustian pact was over, just like Lennon's dream. Music itself had stymied him, the presentation of meaningful music no longer seemed a real possibility.
Fripp wanted to wrap up his unfinished business, however, and did so in a number of projects, among them putting together The Young Person's Guide to King Crimson, a double-album "greatest hits" package which pointedly omitted "Schizoid Man." The album included a detailed chronology of King Crimson I-III compiled by Fripp from record and concert reviews, conversations with musicians, and Fripp's own journal entries. This was also the period when Fripp worked on preparing USA for release, recorded Evening Star with Eno, and appeared with Eno in a few small-scale European concerts.
On the break-up of King Crimson III, Fripp calculated that he had enough money to pay his bills for three years. And indeed, even in his disoriented frame of mind, he was hatching a personal three-year plan consisting of preparation, withdrawal, and recovery. His activities of the first year - winding up his affairs - would prepare him for a decisive withdrawal from the music industry - and effectively from the outside world - at J.G. Bennett's International Society for Continuous Education at Sherborne House, following which he would survey the inner and outer landscapes and decide what to do next.
It is quite possible that Fripp's transformational experience at Sherborne - which is, if obliquely, the subject of this chapter - cannot be understood by anyone who has not undergone something similar. It is just possible, however, that some inkling of what was involved may be got by reviewing the historical backdrop of his experience. Since Fripp's subsequent music and public posture was deeply affected by his encounter with the Gurdjieff/Bennett tradition, and since only the most superficial information on that tradition was dispensed by the music press in the course of reviewing Fripp's work, I offer here a somewhat more substantial summary for the interested reader.
In recent years Fripp has publicly distanced himself from the Gurdjieff/Bennett tradition, preferring to claim only that he speaks for his own school, Guitar Craft. It was not so long ago, however, that he was splicing Bennett tapes into his albums and quoting Gurdjieff in his articles. It may in part have been the rock press's open hostility and ridicule of Fripp's apparent conversion to a "mystical cult" - though as far as I can make out, the Gurdjieff work is neither mystical nor a cult - that led him to his present position of reserve.
Who was George Ivanovich Gurdjieff? It appears that, even when he was alive - he died in 1949, his date of birth is uncertain, probably 1877 - if one asked ten people who knew him, one would receive ten different answers. Bennett wrote a biography of Gurdjieff, and his ultimate assessment of the man was that he was "more than a Teacher and less than a Prophet. He was a man with a true mission and he devoted his entire life to it. He needed people who could understand his message and yet he was compelled to make the message obscure and hard to understand. Therefore, he had to look for those who could acquire the required perspicacity and also the singleness of purpose to carry his work forward. Today , twenty-four years after his death, there are thirty or forty people in different parts of the world who are capable of transmitting the teaching, but there are very few who can look beyond the man to his message."
Since Gurdjieff's death, work with his methods has continued in formally and informally organized groups scattered across many countries. Any attempt to penetrate the real meaning of Gurdjieff's work leads to the inescapable conclusion that such meaning can be grasped only through sustained personal effort over a period of months and years - through self-observation, certain exercises carried out under the instruction of a qualified teacher, and a commitment to work on oneself in the context of a supportive community of fellow-seekers. Gurdjieff taught not so much a doctrine or creed as a method or a way, and it was a way whose transmission through mere books was deemed impossible.
Nevertheless he wrote a number of books himself, and a fair number of his followers, often after considerable gnashing of teeth and soul-searching - given the admittedly ineffable nature of the subject-matter - have over the years committed their thoughts on Gurdjieff, his ideas, and his methods to the printed page. In 1985 J. Walter Driscoll, in collaboration with the Gurdjieff Foundation of California, published Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography, a remarkable listing of over 1,700 books, articles, reviews, unpublished manuscripts, and other items in English, French, and other languages. Through this source one can gain some considerable insight into the identity of this enigmatic figure and the profound impact he had on any soul so fortunate or unfortunate as to grapple with him.
Gurdjieff was born in the Armenian town of Alexandropol. With a Greek father and an Armenian mother, he had what one might call a flexible Middle Eastern appearance - one he would learn to shift, chameleon-like, at will, impersonating one or another race according to the demands of the moment. (With shaved head and groomed moustache, in his youth he looked perhaps not unlike the majestic Tony Levin.)
Gurdjieff's father was a successful, even rich, cattle herder until his animals were wiped out by a pestilence; after the loss of all his wealth he worked as a carpenter and at other jobs. Most important to Gurdjieff, however, was his father's avocation as an asokh, or story-telling bard, for which he was widely known, having at his command hundreds of songs, poems, legends, and folk-tales. From him Gurdjieff inherited not only treasures of ancient wisdom from a rapidly vanishing oral tradition, but a tendency to view the world in allegorical terms, as a surpassingly rich drama with elements both tragic and comic.
Gurdjieff was trained privately in medicine and Orthodox religion, but at some point around the age of twenty, driven by a need to seek answers to life's ultimate questions, he left his home environment and embarked on a lengthy series of travels around the Middle East, Central Asia, Tibet, India, and Egypt, at times alone and at times in the company of a number of other singularly committed individuals who called themselves "The Seekers of Truth."
Tales of Gurdjieff's many expeditions and wanderings over this twenty-odd year period are told in his autobiography, Meetings with Remarkable Men. The modern Western reader is bound to find much in this spiritual travelogue astonishing and almost literally unbelievable. Miracles, prodigious psychic feats, exotic customs, and a faraway fairy-tale or medieval atmosphere pervade the book. Gurdjieff portrays a fluid, teeming life at the mythical center of the world, the cradle of civilization - a life in which currents of the great organized world religions mix with esoteric teachings, in which traditional Asian cultures run up against the forces of modernization - a world in which contemporary Europeans are viewed almost universally as soulless fools, a world in which Western dividing lines between body and spirit, matter and psyche, the mundane and the paranormal blur and vanish under the searchlight of the seeker's unremitting will to know.
Enduring the harshest physical hardships, learning to be a trader, carpet dealer, businessman, fix-it man, con man, and consummate actor, drawing on his knowledge of some sixteen languages and dialects, Gurdjieff spent these years studying himself and the world, accumulating convincing evidence for the existence of higher powers, and meeting many, as he put it, "remarkable men" - gurus, yogis, fakirs, story-tellers, teachers, holy men, healers, monks - some situated in fantastically remote areas, hidden in monasteries unknown to the world and completely inaccessible to Westerners, where esoteric teachings had been transmitted orally for centuries, even millennia.
In 1912, convinced that he had discovered and mastered a certain knowledge whose core of truth is found in all genuine religious traditions, and whose lineage went back to pre-Babylonian ages, Gurdjieff went to Moscow, where he began the teaching efforts he would pursue the remainder of his life. One of his students was P.D. Ouspensky, with whom he would split in the 1920s, but who wrote a systematic account of Gurdjieff's early ideas and methods, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, a book which Gurdjieff approved and cleared for publication shortly after Ouspensky's death in 1947.
The practical philosophy that Fripp was developing during his three-year retreat from the music industry, which he would put into practice in his musical work of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and which would turn up in full bloom in his Guitar Craft courses after 1985, owes much to Gurdjieffian ideas that Ouspensky relates in In Search of the Miraculous. The overarching theme of the book is the idea that in our normal state we human beings are asleep, unconscious, running on automatic. Our ideals, morals, ideologies, religion, art, and lofty philosophizing are all a sham, the product of instinctual groping in the dark, automatic mental associations, wishful thinking, bloated egotism, laziness, shallow romanticism. "It is possible to think for a thousand years," said Gurdjieff. "It is possible to write whole libraries of books, to create theories by the million, and all this in sleep, without any possibility of awakening. On the contrary, these books and these theories, written and created in sleep, will merely send other people to sleep, and so on."
The individual human organism is merely an animal, according to Gurdjieff, a self-deluded machine, following the course of least resistance, slipping unconscious day by day to its ultimately inevitable death. Occultist students would ask Gurdjieff about life after death, reincarnation, and so on, and he would reply that for most people, death is indeed the ultimate end, you go out like a light and that is it. Only for those who had persistently labored to develop a soul, a real, permanent, unchangeable "I," was there any possibility that some essential quality of their being would survive the death of the physical body.
Fripp in his teaching does not speculate on the afterlife, but he shares the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky insistence on man in his normal state as a dozy automaton. It is a paradoxical doctrine, echoed through the ages in many teachings, including the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: we have no free will, development of one's freedom can begin only with a clear-headed recognition of one's absolute slavery to circumstance, mental associations, emotion, instinct, genetics, biochemistry, the laws of nature. Ouspensky quotes Gurdjieff as saying, "Every grown-up man consists wholly of habits, although he is often unaware of it and even denies having any habits at all ... The struggle with small habits is very difficult and boring, but without it self-observation is impossible." From Fripp's Guitar Craft Monograph III: Aphorisms: "It is difficult to exaggerate the power of habit."
The Danish philosopher and religious thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), regarded as the fountainhead of twentieth-century secular and religious existentialism, maintained that the average person, going about his or her daily routines automatically, is as incapable of sin as he or she is of repentance. Kierkegaard, who spent his life as a writer championing conscious subjectivity as the sine qua non of authentic existence, and who wanted the words "The Individual" inscribed on his tombstone, was wont to find, as was Gurdjieff, confirmation of his own views in the words of Socrates: "Know thyself." Gurdjieff put it like this: "Individuality, a single and permanent I, consciousness, will, the ability to do, a state of inner freedom, all these are qualities which ordinary man does not possess. To the same category belongs the idea of good and evil, the very existence of which is connected with a permanent aim, with a permanent direction and a permanent center of gravity ... Permanent truth and permanent falsehood can exist only for a permanent man. If a man himself continually changes, then for him truth and falsehood will also continually change."
Sometimes Gurdjieff would refer to his methods as the "Fourth Way." The first three ways were the way of the fakir, the way of the monk, and the way of the yogi. The fakir struggles with the physical body, devoting himself to mastering incredibly difficult physical exercises and postures. The way of the monk represents the way of faith, the cultivation of religious feelings, and self-sacrifice. The yogi's approach is through knowledge and the mind. Gurdjieff said of his Fourth Way that it combined work simultaneously on the body, emotions, and mind, and that it could be followed by ordinary people in everyday life - that it required no retirement into the desert. The Fourth Way did involve whole-hearted acceptance of certain conditions imposed by a teacher; it also involved supreme effort to devote oneself continuously to inner work, even though one's outward worldly roles might not change that much. In spite of his insistence that work without a teacher was impossible, Gurdjieff stressed each individual's responsibility:
By its very nature, the Fourth Way is not for everyone. Knowledge is not deliberately hidden, Gurdjieff would say, but most people simply are not interested. The former leader of a Gurdjieff group in Boston, Meggan Moorehead, told me of Gurdjieff's "five of twenty of twenty." Only twenty per cent of all people ever think seriously about higher realities; of these, only twenty per cent ever decide to do anything about it; and of these, only five per cent ever actually get anywhere.
What then is this "work"? Those in the Gurdjieff school write of "work on oneself," and often capitalize the concept, as in "The Work." Gurdjieff time and again insisted on the importance of direct transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, and emphatically warned of the grave dangers of attempting to learn exercises from a book or cramming one's head full of abstract spiritual notions on one's own. Those who have met an authentic teacher know the sense of presence so important to the whole process, the teacher is an embodiment of the knowledge of which he or she speaks, and in a sense what he or she says is of little importance compared with the student's opportunity to observe what he or she is. Descriptions of Gurdjieff by those who worked with him are filled with references to his effortless bearing, his economy of movement, his feline grace, his almost overwhelming physical presence as well as his spontaneity and earthy sense of humor. A student in Gurdjieff's Moscow circle described his first meeting with the teacher: "He looked at me, and I had the distinct impression that he took me in the palm of his hand and weighed me."
Although knowledge is not hoarded secretively, there are inevitable difficulties and pitfalls in efforts to share it with outsiders. Jesus called this "casting pearls before swine." Gurdjieff said students of his methods would find themselves "unable to transmit correctly what is said in the groups. [Students] very soon begin to learn from their own personal experience how much effort, how much time, and how much explaining is necessary in order to grasp what is said in groups. It becomes clear to them that they are unable to give their friends a right idea of what they have learned themselves." Ouspensky relates that in the early work with Gurdjieff in Moscow and St. Petersburg, it was strictly forbidden for students to write down, much less publish, anything at all connected with Gurdjieff and his ideas; somewhat later, Gurdjieff relaxed this rule, accepting as students many who subsequently published accounts of their experiences in the work.
Having, I think, caveated the whole matter sufficiently into the dust, I offer here a brief outsider's summary of what was involved in the work of Gurdjieff's groups.
Relaxation. Many of Gurdjieff's exercises involved or began with some sort of gradual relaxation of the muscles, starting with the muscles of the face and working downward through the body. Fripp has said that we can do nothing when not relaxed, and since his time at Sherborne has practiced a regular routine of relaxation in the morning before breakfast; such a ritual, led by a qualified instructor, has been worked into the Guitar Craft seminars. Along with relaxation goes a type of exercise for sensing the different parts of the body "from the inside." For Gurdjieff's groups, this might have involved, for instance, lying on one's back and concentrating all of one's awareness first on one's nose, then on one's right foot, and so on.
Other Exercises; The Movements. Ouspensky relates a series of what he found to be "unbelievably difficult" physical/mental exercises that Gurdjieff had picked up in various esoteric schools during his travels. In general, these involved some precise and exact combination of counting, breathing, sensing of body parts, and movements, to be done in some coordinated sequence. The famous "movements," often done to music Gurdjieff had composed himself, were dances based on those Gurdjieff had observed and participated in, notably among sufis and dervishes, and in ancient hidden monasteries. Gurdjieff taught that the movements were not merely calisthenics, exercises in concentration, and displays of bodily coordination and aesthetic sensibility: on the contrary, in the movements was embedded real, concrete knowledge, passed from generation to generation of initiates - each posture and gesture representing some cosmic truth that the informed observer could read like a book.
Division of Attention. Gurdjieff encouraged his students to cultivate the ability to divide their attention, that is, the ability to remain fully focussed on two or more things at the same time. One might, for instance, let half of one's attention dwell in one's little finger, while the other half is devoted to an intellectual discussion. In the division of attention, it is not a matter of going back and forth between one thing and another, but experiencing them both fully simultaneously. Beyond the division of attention lies "remembering oneself" - a frame of mind, permanent in the hypothetical perfected person, fleeting and temporary in the rest of us, in which we see what is seen without ever losing sight of ourselves seeing. Ordinarily, when concentrating on something, we lose our sense of "I," although we may as it were passively react to the stimulus we are concentrating on. In self-remembering the "I" is not lost, and only when we maintain that sense of "I," according to Gurdjieff, are we really awake. Like mastery on a musical instrument, such forms of heightened self-awareness can be developed only with years of practice.
Hands, Head, and Heart. With many variations and complications over the years, Gurdjieff's theoretical picture of the human organism boils down to a tripartite model consisting of three "centers": the moving, the emotional, and the thinking. Becoming a genuine person involves coordinating the three centers and becoming capable of conscious labor and intentional suffering.
Abstract Symbolism. Gurdjieff was fond of elaborate theorizing - the construction of intricate symbolic systems embodying or representing the relationships between phenomena at all levels of existence from the atom to the universe. Ouspensky devotes pages and pages to Gurdjieff's concept of "octaves" - the musical scale do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do taken as a sort of universal yardstick for determining the measurements and proportions of all of nature's parts. (The theory of octaves had a tremendous impact on pianist Keith Jarrett, who read about them in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Gurdjieff's longest, most allegorical, and most difficult book.) Some Gurdjieff students and groups gloss over the octaves or dispense with them entirely. My own feeling is that the theory of octaves has a lot in common with medieval Western musical theorists' preoccupation with theo-numerological speculation based on interval integer ratios and their symbolic significance. In point of fact, Gurdjieff had studied the medieval alchemists and on occasion was prone to speak of the human organism as a sort of alchemical factory for the transformation of various material and psychic substances.
It seems that where there is music, and where there are people who philosophize about it, there will be some form of numerology and arcane quasi-mathematics. Since both musical pitch and musical rhythm are readily represented in numerical forms, the urge to find primal mathematical significance in music is almost impossible to resist. A contemporary example of this perennially seductive train of thought is Peter Michael Hamel's book Through Music to the Self.
Another symbolic thought-form Gurdjieff worked with was the enneagram, a circle with nine points around its circumference. Said Gurdjieff, "The enneagram is a universal symbol. All knowledge can be included in the enneagram and with the help of the enneagram it can be interpreted ... A man may be quite alone in the desert and he can trace the enneagram in the sand and in it read the eternal laws of the universe. And every time he can learn something new, something he did not know before."
Through the elaboration of the law of octaves and the meaning of the enneagram, Gurdjieff offered his students alternative means of conceptualizing the world and their place in it. When I say "alternative," I am suggesting that Gurdjieff sought alternatives to rational, linear, language-oriented exposition and rhetoric (though he was by all accounts also a spellbinding speaker). In other words, Gurdjieff's ideas could be only partially expounded in ordinary words and sentences; to go beyond language he drew on music (he played several instruments and Bennett tells of him improvising unearthly melodies on a small organ late at night), dance, and visual symbols such as the enneagram.
Furthermore, it is my impression that Gurdjieff was happy to talk theoretically with students who were theoretically inclined, but that the theory itself is not an indispensable part of his overall teaching. Or, to put it slightly differently, Gurdjieff used, for instance, the complicated machinery of the law of octaves in order to teach his students to think. And in some respects the process of thinking was more important than the theoretical content of what was thought.
Conditions. Gurdjieff laid emphasis on the idea that the seeker must conduct his or her own search - and that the teacher cannot do the student's work for the student, but is more of a guide on the path to self-discovery. As a teacher, Gurdjieff specialized in creating conditions for students - conditions in which growth was possible, in which efficient progress could be made by the willing. To find oneself in a set of conditions a gifted teacher has arranged has another benefit. As Gurdjieff put it, "You must realize that each man has a definite repertoire of roles which he plays in ordinary circumstances ... but put him into even only slightly different circumstances and he is unable to find a suitable role and for a short time he becomes himself."
In 1918 the turmoil of the Russian revolution forced Gurdjieff and a small group of devoted followers out of Moscow to Essentuki in the Caucasus. For the next four years the core group moved from place to place, from Tiflis in Georgia to Constantinople to Germany. In 1922 Gurdjieff finally managed to establish a more or less stable base of operations, which he dubbed the "Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man," at the Château de Prieuré in Fontainbleau, near Paris. The Institute's varied activities attracted many new people to Gurdjieff's ideas, and in 1924 he went on a short visit to America where he stirred up much interest and started a group in New York. He returned to France. At this moment of the beginnings of success on a larger scale, Gurdjieff was nearly killed in an automobile accident. During his long recuperation his teaching activities came to an almost complete halt, but from this time to 1935 he did manage to write his three primary works, Beelzebub's Tales, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life Is Real Only Then, When "I Am."
If Beelzebub's Tales is an elaborate modern mythological tapestry and Meetings is a spiritual travelogue, then Life Is Real Only Then is a portrait of the creative process in fluid motion. Gurdjieff's most self-revealing book, it takes the reader into Gurdjieff's own associative thought-processes, for instance in those passages where he writes about writing itself, the trains of thought that led him, when still a young man, to renounce all use of his exceptional psychic powers, the somewhat brutal methods he used to whip his New York followers into shape, and his superhuman, insomniacal efforts to keep his Institute functioning and together on a sound financial footing in the Fontainbleau days. Life Is Real was never finished - it ends poignantly with a colon.
In the 1930s and 1940s Gurdjieff worked with small groups in Paris, where he lived, and New York. Gurdjieff himself was ultimately an enigma to Westerners, even to those who knew him best. It is doubtful that we will ever know the "person" behind the tremendous force of personality he exerted upon all who worked with him. In times of the greatest personal crisis, he would withdraw into the circle of his family. He placed extreme demands on his students, but seemed to demand infinitely more of himself. Teacher or prophet, rogue or saint, wily man or gracious servant of God, Gurdjieff today is gone, and among some of his followers there lingers an eschatological atmosphere, a memory-afterglow of a not-so-distant time past when the infinite was concretely embodied in time.
John G. Bennett, an on-and-off student of Gurdjieff's, was another kettle of fish altogether - Western, modern, more recognizably human. To Bennett's autobiography, Witness: The Story of a Search, Fripp contributed a back-cover blurb which reads: "If a stiff Englishman like Mr. B. could do it, there's hope for the rest of us. In our time and culture we had a teacher who went through all the steps himself, took the leap, and came back to explain how we could do the same. When I found him, the top of my head blew off."
Bennett did not disguise himself the way Gurdjieff did, with layers of acting, multiple personas, irony, sarcasm, ambiguity - with rumors of scandalous personal conduct intentionally encouraged, nor with a misty, shadowy, mythologized, fairy-tale past. Bennett's autobiography reveals sincerity, openness, doubt, curiosity, and compassion from beginning to end. But like Gurdjieff, Bennett traveled widely, had at his command numerous languages, educated himself in religion, underwent many profound inner experiences, and led groups of students to unlock their own human potential. As he tells the story in his autobiography, although various spiritual leaders had urged him at various points in his life to strike out on his own path, it was not until near the end of his years that he felt fully confident to assume the mantle of the teacher. Bennett relates how Gurdjieff had told him in 1923 that one day Bennett would "follow in his footsteps and take up the work he had started at Fontainebleau." In 1970, following the promptings of a still, small voice from within that said, "You are to found a school," Bennett organized the International Academy for Continuous Education. The name was chosen "to indicate on the one hand its Platonic inspiration and on the other to emphasize that it was to offer a teaching for the whole life of the men and women who came to it."
Bennett writes of his inner transformative experiences with clinical accuracy, in a measured, matter-of-fact tone that is sufficient to throw the skeptical off guard. His first significant brush with unseen realities came in 1918, at the age of twenty, when he was blown off his motorcycle by an exploding shell in France during the first World War. Taken to a military hospital, operated upon, and remaining, to all outward appearances, in a coma for six days, Bennett recalls that some part of his awareness was not completely gone, he saw his body from the outside, he could feel the other injured men in the room, he heard voices from time to time. Hanging between death and life, "It was perfectly clear to me that being dead is quite unlike being very ill or very weak or helpless. So far as I was concerned, there was no fear at all. And yet I have never been a brave man and was certainly still afraid of heavy gun fire. I was cognizant of my complete indifference toward my own body." This experience set his life on a new course - he describes the return to normal existence as the return to a body that was now in some sense a stranger.
Bennett developed a passion for the Turkish language and got a job in the British Intelligence Service in Istanbul. He was to become gradually convinced that his soul had come from somewhere in the East, and was puzzled as to why he should have been born in England. (Hasan Shushud was much later to explain to him, "The wind can blow the seed across continents. The wind is blowing towards England now. That is why you were born here.") But even as a young man, he was fascinated by the rich Asiatic tumult of life in Istanbul, and by the very different structure of the language, which seemed to indicate a whole way of thinking, a mode of being quite foreign to Europeans. Contact with Islam, with dervishes, with many clashing cultures, forced Bennett to certain practical conclusions: "All day long I was dealing with different races: English, French, Italian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Russian, Arab, Jews and people so mixed up as to be no race at all. Each and every one was convinced of the superiority of his own people. How could everyone be right and all the rest wrong? It was nonsense."
Studying Persian and Turkish literature, Bennett soon met a certain Prince Sabaheddin, who in the course of many philosophical conversations introduced him to a wide range of religious and occultist ideas, including Theosophy and Anthroposophy. At this time a pattern in Bennett's life began to develop: he was, on the one hand, engaged in strenuous professional activity that required a great deal of his energy - on the other hand he felt determined to pursue the search for a deeper reality. It was a struggle between two worlds that he carried out nearly his entire life.
It was through Sabaheddin that Bennett met Gurdjieff - a meeting he called "the second decisive event of my life." Gurdjieff was in Istanbul en route from Tiflis to Europe, working with students, giving lectures and demonstrations. Ouspensky was in town at the same time - Bennett met him also, and was later to become his student - but working more or less independently from Gurdjieff. Bennett's reaction to meeting Gurdjieff was typical. Impressed from the outset by "the strangest eyes I have ever seen," Bennett spoke about his experiments in hypnotism. Gurdjieff listened attentively, and Bennett "felt that he was not so much following my words as participating directly in the experience. I had never before had the same feeling of being understood better than I understood myself." After Gurdjieff responded with a lengthy, masterful spoken dissertation on the theory and practice of hypnotism, Bennett, spellbound, felt "acutely aware of my own inadequacy. I was sure that he could answer my questions - but I did not know what questions to ask."
Bennett was an accomplished mathematician, and the conversation turned to a theory of the fifth dimension he had recently developed as the result of a vision. Gurdjieff again listened seriously. Finally he responded, "Your guess is right. There are higher dimensions or higher worlds where the higher faculties of man have free play. But what is the use of studying these worlds theoretically? Suppose that you could prove mathematically that the fifth dimension really does exist, what use would that be to you so long as you remain here? ... Change ... will not come about through study ... It is like a man who knows all about money and the laws of banking, but has no money of his own in the bank. What does all his knowledge do for him?"
Although deeply moved by Gurdjieff's words, and the manner in which they were spoken, at this stage Bennett still found outer life "too full and too interesting to leave place for so exacting a discipline as Gurdjieff was likely to demand."
It is impossible in these pages to recount Bennett's material and spiritual pilgrimage in full detail. In 1923, on Ouspensky's advice, he stayed at Gurdjieff's Institute at Fontainebleau for several weeks, and in his autobiography recounts the atmosphere of feverish activity, the difficult physical labor, the psychological exercises, the work on movements, Gurdjieff's taunting, goading, and kindliness. Bennett - enthusiastic, receptive, overworked, and physically ill - was inspired at Fontainbleau to grand numinous insights the likes of which it would be presumptuous and foolhardy of me to attempt to condense into a few phrases.
Gurdjieff, who led Bennett at every step, ultimately invited him to stay for a period of two years, after which, he said, it would be possible for Bennett to continue to work alone. Bennett felt he could not accept the offer - he was not yet ready. He returned to England. For the next twenty-five years Bennett pursued his double life: man of affairs, coal researcher, industrial advisor; and writer of spiritualist/theoretical tomes, student of Ouspensky, seeker, reluctant leader of his own discussion groups.
In 1948 Bennett returned for the last time to Gurdjieff, who was living and taking students in small lodgings in Paris. Gurdjieff astonished him by picking up his education precisely where it had been left off at the Institute two and a half decades before. Gurdjieff's diagnosis of Bennett's state was much the same: "Now you have much knowledge, but in Being you are a nullity ... You think too much." Once more Bennett plunged into exercises, readings, the work.
Shortly after Bennett's arrival in Paris, Gurdjieff suffered another terrible car accident. Refusing all medical help, he slowly nursed himself back to seemingly almost-normal health, but it appears that his recovery this time was not complete. By mid-1949, at which time Bennett was regularly going back and forth across the English Channel between his worldly commitments and his apprenticeship with Gurdjieff, Gurdjieff's health was rapidly failing. On October 28, by Bennett's account, Gurdjieff's American doctor finally "took the situation in hand, and moved him to the American Hospital. He tapped his dropsy. Gurdjieff watched, smoking a cigarette, cracking jokes and saying 'Bravo America.' He lay down, and never rose again. He passed into a peaceful sleep, and his breathing gradually died away. At eleven a.m. on Saturday morning, 29th October, he was dead. The autopsy showed that most of his internal organs were so degenerated that no doctor could understand how he had lived so long."
Gurdjieff's death left Bennett in confusion. He felt he had not yet undergone the complete, conscious death and rebirth spoken of in traditional sacred doctrines and conceived by Gurdjieff as true liberation. He continued to work in groups, but felt that it was going nowhere. Clearly distinguished among his friends and fellow seekers as especially gifted, he continued to waver: "I was increasingly aware of the limits of my strength, and even more of my wisdom. I could never dare to take the risk with the inner world of others that Gurdjieff was prepared to take."
Subsequent travels to the Holy Lands and Persia brought Bennett into renewed contact with living sources of religious traditions in all their timeless mystery. In the late 1950s he was attracted to the Subud phenomenon, whose central experience was the latithan, a sort of intense guided meditation that led to immediately and radically altered states of consciousness. From the descriptions Bennett gives, it appears that the latithan may have been somewhat similar to the methods used by the likes of the Guru Maharaji, the Indian boy-teacher who swept through the West in the early 1970s (and cleaned out the minds of several of my friends in the process) - dramatic, instantaneous psychological results of somewhat dubious significance.
After extensive work with the latithan, Bennett concluded that he "had ceased to work on myself and had relied on the latithan to do what I should be doing by my own effort." In 1960 he abandoned Subud and resumed the disciplines Gurdjieff had taught him. After long inner deliberations he joined the Catholic Church, which, as I have already mentioned in this book, he regarded as "the custodian of a mystery that it does not understand." He met the one-hundred-and thirty-six-year-old Shivapuri Baba in Nepal.
Bennett, who had lived a full personal and professional life, subjected himself to a wide variety of disciplines, met and studied under different teachers, and worked on himself seriously since the 1920s, gradually came to trust the promptings of his own inner voice. In 1962 he was sixty-five, and, as he put it, “For the first time, I was daring to be myself.” He organized seminars and guided students with a new confidence. Throughout the 1960s he devoted much thought to modern education, and began to seek out alternatives. Hasan Shushud, a Sufi from Bosphorus, eventually managed to convince Bennett that he should take the leap, exert his independence from all existing groups, and follow his own path.
The final chapter of Bennett's autobiography concerns the steps he took to found his International Society for Continuous Education, and the philosophy behind it. With regard to the modern world at large, Bennett was a pessimist in the short run and an optimist in the long run. Like his New Testament namesake, John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, Bennett believed in imminent apocalypse: in 1973 he wrote that "we are in the early stages of the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ which heralds the end of the present world." The old world would disintegrate before the end of the twentieth century. But Bennett did not prophesy outright doom and destruction; rather, he called on men and women to work to create a counter-movement that would lay the foundations for the new world.
Bennett pointed to familiar threatening signs: morally unchecked acceleration of technology - with "knowledge" (that is, largely uninterpreted information) doubling every ten years or less, and visionary leadership able to interpret this information ever more scarce; proliferation of nuclear weapons; population explosion and unstable food supplies; growing scientific evidence of global climatic changes; gigantic government and corporate structures unable to control the chain of events. Bennett foresaw a time of panic and breakdown, during which faith in traditional institutions and governments would be irrevocably lost. After a transitional period of thirty or forty years, a new social order would arise: "It will be neither capitalist nor communist, neither national nor international but consist of largely self-supporting experimental settlements learning to help one another to survive. The big cities will slowly be depopulated and fall into decay. National governments will be replaced by agencies, whose main function will be to maintain the distribution of vital supplies. Life will simplify."
Bennett saw his Society for Continuous Education as a place where people who were already to some degree aware of the world's coming cataclysmic changes could be "trained to perceive, to understand, and to withstand the strains of the world process." His long life's search had led him to the conclusion that some version of Gurdjieff's methods, supplemented by techniques from other sources, could provide the requisite training. Aside from cultivating productive transformation in its participants' consciousness, the Society and similar experimental communities would stand as beacons of light, for all to see, and perchance to imitate, in a world inexorably slipping into a global dark night of the soul.
In 1971 Bennett bought Sherborne House, a huge, stately old building surrounded by gardens and meadows, which had served as a boy's school, in the Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire. (According to Fripp, the school had been the model for the boarding school in the movie If.) On a lecture tour of colleges in the United States he rounded up some ninety candidates for his training. With the help of his wife and several assistants, Bennett inaugurated the Academy on October 15, 1971. The derelict state of Sherborne House provided plenty of work for the trainees: cooking, washing, and heating facilities were inadequate, and much had to be improvised. Students who had fancied themselves in for a few months of utopian dalliance in agreeable countryside surroundings were rudely awakened. Uncomfortable conditions, hard physical work, lectures, the Gurdjieff movements, discussions, psychological exercises, and conflict were the order of the day. The First Course lasted some ten months; Bennett graduated his first "class," whom he encouraged to return home and share what they had learned with small groups.
Bennett administered a Second Course for new students in 1972-1973, and a Third in 1973-1974. He planned to give five such courses and then, in 1976-1977, "to invite [back] those who have shown themselves capable of transmitting what they have learned and are ready to make a step forward." The Fourth Course, beginning in October 1974, was to be Bennett's last. He had been seeking a place in America where he might found a community and school along the Sherborne lines, and in October purchased Claymont Court, a farm and mansion on nearly four hundred acres of scenic property in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia. Pierre Elliot, a boyhood friend of Bennett's, who had worked with both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, was chosen to head the American Society for Continuous Education.
Bennett, who had worked unceasingly on these projects for several years, died on December 13, 1974. As his wife, Elizabeth, put it, "His control over his physical organism was such that very few people at Sherborne knew that so short a time was left to him."
Gurdjieff spoke of the awakening of the individual; Bennett took this message and gave it a global political meaning. Gurdjieff concentrated on shocking people into awareness; Bennett spoke openly of co-operation, selflessness, humility, preservation, and love.
Fripp at Sherborne
To Fripp, Bennett was "living proof that if a creepy, uptight Englishman, with severe emotional problems, could become a human being through dint of effort, so could I." However, in recent years Fripp has been at pains to point out that he is "not an advocate of Mr. Bennett's ideas. I recommend Mr. Bennett's ideas to virtually no one. I'm an advocate of Guitar Craft, I speak for Guitar Craft. But Mr. Bennett would be inappropriate for nearly everyone I know. Not for me. But I'm not an advocate for Mr. Bennett at all."
Fripp attended the Fifth Course at Sherborne, beginning in October 1975 and lasting for ten months. It must have been an emotional time for all concerned, with the great teacher recently deceased, and with his widow - who had been one of Gurdjieff's several female assistants in Paris - in charge of the proceedings.
Fripp gave one of his accounts of his Sherborne year when Stephe Pritchard, during the 1981 Recorder Three interview, asked him, "In what ways do you think Gurdjieff has influenced you?" Fripp answered, "Well, I probably wouldn't be here now, certainly not in this form, if I hadn't come across that." Fripp described how, during the ten-month course at Sherborne, students were allowed to leave the premises only one day every three weeks. "We lost three people to the asylum in my year and overall twenty per cent [of the students] left ... It was very, very hard work; it was the difference between working on the inside and the outside, that if you're feeling a bit pissed off you can go to the pictures or watch television or get drunk or do whatever. But in Sherborne you had to sit there and find a way of dealing with it - the expression would be working with it - not easy. The woman I was living with left me while I was there which was awful for me - I was pretty suicidal - it was not easy. But, on the other hand, that was certainly the beginning of my life, if you like." Fripp went on to describe the day's regimen, which began with rising at six in the morning (at four-thirty if one had kitchen duty). Morning psychological exercises were conducted at quarter to seven, followed by breakfast at seven thirty. At eight-thirty began the day's work with practical skills, including metal work, stonemasonry, carpentry, and so on. "In addition to practical work we had cosmological lectures, there were remarkable Gurdjieff movements, sacred kinesis; but essentially it was very practical, the school wasn't primarily theoretical." Many issues that came up during the year "confounded the mind," proving unamenable to rational analysis. The living quarters were cold, uncomfortable, and lacked privacy (Fripp shared a dorm room with five other men). Psychologically provocative situations constantly arose among the residents. And to top it off, Fripp even came to believe the house was haunted.
Because of the manifold opportunities thus offered to confront himself, Fripp later looked back on his year at Sherborne with gratitude. He has spoken of the profound value of having one's grandiose self-image mercilessly deflated by harsh physical and psychological conditions. As he tells it, most of the hundred or so people who attended the course came there with some more or less definite feeling that they had been specially selected by God to save the world. Fripp's own fantasy, rudely shattered by Sherborne's regimen and realism, was that he was to become an ordained minister, perhaps to carry on as rock star and man of the cloth simultaneously. As it turned out, by the time he left, although he felt he had been given an inkling of life's inner purpose and significance, and a more explicit sense of the dynamics of his own individual psychic economy, he had no plans other than to allow the future to present itself.
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Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
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