Fourth Way Perspectives

Book Review:
The Reality of Being

by Jeanne de Salzmann

Of the growing number of books that attempt to define or in some way speak about the Gurdjieff Work, the recently released The Reality of Being is an unanticipated, if somewhat unusual, addition. It is unanticipated because the author, Jeanne de Salzmann, passed on some 21 years ago and during her 101 years of life published very little. The book is of interest for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Mme de Salzmann had a long and close relationship with Mr. Gurdjieff that began in Tiflis in 1919. Of their initial meeting, she said, "The first impression of Gurdjieff was very strong, unforgettable. He had an expression I had never seen, and an intelligence, a force, that was different . . . a vision that could see everything." When asked his impression of her, Gurdjieff said, "She—is intelligent." By this he meant, as he would later explain, "Intelligent means he who directs his body. If the body directs, you are a nullity, a peasant—if you direct your body you are intelligent." Having studied and taught forms of music and dancing, including that of Jacques Dalcroze, it was natural for her to become one of the leading dancers in Gurdjieff's dance exercises commonly known as the "Movements."

Indefatigable & Instrumental Force in the Work

She was with Gurdjieff from their first meeting in Tiflis, and then on a dangerous trek across the Caucasus to Constantinople, to Europe, and to the establishment of his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré in France, to his last years in Paris where she assisted at his meetings. According to the editors, "Before Gurdjieff died he charged Mme de Salzmann to live to be 'over 100' in order to establish his teaching. He left her all his rights with respect to his writings and the Movements, as well as the music that de Hartmann had composed with him."

In the years after Gurdjieff's death, de Salzmann was an indefatigable and instrumental force in creating the framework of institutions that preserved and made available the ancient, esoteric teaching of The Fourth Way that Gurdjieff brought to the world. It should also be noted that it is commonly believed her second child, Michel (1923–2001), who upon her death in 1990 succeeded his mother as head of Institute Gurdjieff in Paris and nominally the other foundations, was fathered by Gurdjieff.

From the beginning, the unusual nature of The Reality of Being quickly becomes apparent. Besides a foreword, introduction and an ending biographical note, it primarily consists of extracts from de Salzmann's notebooks. These give a flavor quite unlike any other Work book. The material is organized primarily by themes, though it is stated that the first four chapters are generally from the notebooks of the 1950s. Otherwise, the material is not organized chronologically (so that one might get a glimpse of her development over time). The pattern is perhaps circular or spiral. The exact origin of the material presented is not entirely clear, but her writings apparently have come out of her personal experiences and ponderings of the Work.

The extracts have been edited by, as it says in the foreword, "a small group of Jeanne de Salzmann's family and followers." (Why "followers" and not students?) As the original notebooks—with the exception of one snippet—are unpublished, the extent of editing remains a question. The sense is that the editing, perhaps to make the writings somewhat less personal, may have created at times a certain awkwardness to what will be for many, and especially those new to Work ideas, an already difficult text.

Lord John Pentland, Mme de Hartmann and Mme de Salzmann

Lord John Pentland, Mme de Hartmann and Mme de Salzmann

Many Monographs Are Rich & Beautiful

The notebook extracts consist of 140 monographs, each generally a few pages long and titled as to their general content. The writing is often quite detailed and of considerable density for those with limited experience of the Work. A typical example: 60. Only with a stable presence:

    Before beginning any Movement, I must find this energy, this state in which there is a relation between the mind and the body. The feeling comes by itself. The movement is an expression of this state. Without this state, from where will my movement come? At first, I try to open to an energy that comes from a little higher than my head, and that passes in me. This allows a consciousness that I otherwise do not know. I need to keep it within me, while at the same time my body is in movement. The two need to be absolutely together. This energy is more important than anything else. I am in movement, but the energy remains the same and is stronger than the movement. In order to stay related to this energy, I need to be in a rhythm of a certain intensity and strength…. For a relation to appear [between body and mind], there needs to be a movement from one toward the other. The relation creates a new energy, which needs to become a Presence that is stable, like a second body.

Another example: 15. Hypnotized by my mind:

    An inattentive mind is filled with thoughts. In a passive state it is constantly creating images and applying them to what I observe. The images provoke pleasure or pain, which is recorded in my memory, and illusions form around desires for satisfaction. In observing from a fixed vantage point, this mind creates a kind of separation, an opposition, a judge that reacts to everything with a preconception based on what has been learned. The writing, in this case an apt description of the functioning of the dualistic, formatory mind, can at times go into too much detail and thus become difficult to follow. Though the book in places may seem a bit "wordy" and repetitive of subject matter, some of the monographs are rich and beautiful in their subtlety and depth of understanding. They penetrate subjects, such as sensation, that have been presented only in limited ways outside of oral transmission.

To take another example: 99. Life is in me:

    In the beginning, sensation is almost the only instrument for self-knowledge. It can give a power to watch over many things and to repeat experiences that we can then identify. This creates an inner world. Later, consciousness will have to become deeper, more interior. Yet the impulse to look into the depth of oneself is an indispensable step in the evolution of consciousness. Nothing is either certain or pure without this.

One wonders if there could well be a more serious issue with giving such detailed descriptions. The Work is an individual work of self-exploration and self-transformation under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Clearly Mme de Salzmann did a tremendous amount of work on herself and gained a great deal of knowledge—self-knowledge. That said, it is questionable if it is advantageous to make such material available to all levels of students in the Work, much less the general public. Gurdjieff gave us the basic ideas, such as the function of the formatory mind—"can't count beyond two" and "sees everything in black-and-white." It is a student's work to verify this, as she did. In this way, the teaching comes alive and understanding in its true sense, that is, a potency, in accord with one's level of being and self-knowledge, is realized.

The editors' apparent reply to this is that, "Like every experiential account, the inner journey Mme de Salzmann describes can really be understood only to the extent the reader himself can live the experience. . . . Each person reading or hearing these texts will be able to recognize what he or she knows and, perhaps more important, what he or she does not know, thereby opening to a sense of the unknown that Mme de Salzmann would call the threshold to reality."

Jeanne de Salzmann attending a function of Annie Lou Staveley's in Oregon

Jeanne de Salzmann at the first showing of the film “Meetings with Remarkable Men” in 1978, in Berkeley, with (possibly) Charles Wright of the San Francisco Foundation and Lobsang Phuntsok Lhalungpa, respected Tibetan scholar and preserver of its spiritual and cultural traditions.

Did Mme de Salzmann Really Intend the Book for Publication?

All of this brings up what is really the essential question: was this material intended by de Salzmann to be published? If so, why did it take 20 years to edit and publish and why not a French edition first, as it was presumably written in French? Is it reasonable that Mme de Salzmann, who was responsible for the publication of Gurdjieff's writings, could't publish her own writings or at least give instructions in this regard? The editors' answer is that they believe so. They cite a remark she made at age 91, "I am writing a book on how to be in life, on the path to take in order to live on two levels." The editors go on to say, "When she died 10 years later, she left the notebooks intact, carefully preserved. To those closest to her, this was a clear sign of the legacy she intended for this material: to help complete Gurdjieff's writing on a true vision of reality. . . ." Thus, on the basis of a remark that could well be taken either metaphorically or in reference to completely different material, and the fact she didn't destroy her notebooks, the material is published to "complete Gurdjieff's writings." The word complete is questionable. Yes, some believe that because Life Is Real Only Then, When "I Am"ends with an ellipsis, Gurdjieff did not complete the teaching. But he finished the book in 1933. He had 16 years left to complete it, if that was his intention. Rather than incompletion, isn't it more reasonable to interpret the ellipsis that the last chapter ends with as a charge to the reader—having been given the teaching and its practices—to now complete the teaching in himself?

Preaching to the Choir?

While one may argue that some of the decisions taken by de Salzmann in the course of 40 years following Gurdjieff's death are open to question (the edited version of the First Series begun in 1957 but not published until 1992 comes quickly to mind), there is really no question that she worked diligently on all three lines of the Work, mandated all the Movements be filmed so as not to be lost, was highly respected by Gurdjieff's direct senior students, particularly Lord John Pentland who led the Work in America, and came to a very high level of understanding.

But does this material simplify or complexify the Work for a beginner? Or are we once again (the film Meetings comes to mind) preaching to the choir? Providing such detailed instruction in book form can easily give readers the sense they have climbed "the stairway" and "passed the last threshold," and are now on "the way." The editors, whomever they may be, talk about readers "recognizing what he or she doesn't know, thereby opening to a sense of the unknown that Mme de Salzmann would call the threshold to reality" but this demands a high level of self-sincerity and this, as Gurdjieff said, is the "first barrier." A big one.

C. S. Nott asked Gurdjieff, "What about people who have never met you. . . . How will they be able to understand Beelzebub's Tales?" Gurdjieff's reply must have shocked Nott, "Perhaps will understand better than many always around me. . . . I not wish people identified with me. I wish them identified with my ideas. Many who never will meet me, simple people, will understand my book."

—Dick Myers


1. The first impression. Jeanne de Salzmann, The Reality of Being, 1.

2. When asked his impression. Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff, 122.

3. Intelligent. From a meeting, July 22, 1943, Paris, France.

4. Before Gurdjieff died. De Salzmann, 299. Over the years the rights to his writings was a contentious issue with members of Gurdjieff's family. It was finally settled with an agreement negotiated by Lord Pentland. The original, unrevised First Series of All and Everything is not copyrighted. All subsequent editions are edited and thus copyrighted.

5. Notebooks of the 1950s. It would have been interesting to have notes from this period following Gurdjieff's death, giving insights into what Mme de Salzmann was facing and reasons for her visits to René Guénon and Karlfried Graf von Dürckheim and attendance at Krishnamurti's summer gatherings in Switzerland, or the "Salzmanino" of chapter 35.

6. This book was edited by. De Salzmann, xviii.

7. An inattentive mind. Ibid., 34.

8. In the beginning. Ibid., 210.

9. Like every experiential account. Ibid., xviii.

10. Lord John Pentland. Gurdjieff told him, "You are like Paul; you must spread my ideas." J. G. Bennett, Witness, 262.

11. What about people. C. S. Nott, Further Teachings of Gurdjieff, 77.

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