Fourth Way Perspectives

Book Review
On a Spaceship With Beelzebub:
By a Grandson of Gurdjieff

by David Kherdian
Globe Press, 276 pp.

First-generation Armenian poet David Kherdian has his "first taste of impersonal love" when he meets John Pentland, British businessman and lord, the man Gurdjieff appointed to lead the Work in America. He describes Lord Pentland as "an unusual man, with capacities that were beyond my judgment" (reviewer's italics). Then he observes, "I was beginning to feel an emotional connection.... Perhaps I could give him my trust, perhaps I could learn what I needed from him and achieve the freedom I craved." But there is also the fear: "If l entered the work I would have to give up my art."

So begins David Kherdian's turbulent ride into the esoteric world of self-remembering and self-observation which carries him into the forbidden terrain of his "I"s (a concept he, curiously, never explores in any depth and which he speaks of as "modes"). He will spend more than a dozen years attempting to observe himself as he really is. He will see much and the great strength of On a Spaceship with Beelzebub is that he has the courage not to spare himself. He is a self-described spoiled child, whiner and complainer, blamer with a lust for fame and a compulsive need for respect; a man who harbors grudges, seeks revenge, sees men as rivals and always, at bottom, feels—"I've been cheated, they owe me."

His early days in the Work are rich in self-impression. During the day-long Sunday work he discovers: "I couldn't seem to make myself work at something I myself had not chosen. I didn't know how to work with other men—having always worked alone—and I had never learned the necessary physical skills that most boys learn from their fathers." In group meetings he admits: "I was envious of the two leaders in front, and I wanted to ask impressive questions and be noticed." However, a year or so later, the seeing ends and the conclusions begin: "I began to notice that my questions and observations were not being attended to as I felt they should have been...Lord Pentland was often harsh, and even cruel to me." Oddly—even in hindsight—he doesn't see that he was asleep in his "I."

The Moment of Truth

Of two of the events which follow, this reviewer has his own impressions, for in the fall of 1975 Kherdian and his wife, Nonny, were transferred into the same group as my wife, Barbara, and I. The Kherdians made themselves instantly felt in opposite ways. Nonny, an artist, was often in tears, her emotional center overwhelming her. Meanwhile, next to the wall in the last seat of the second row, his bearded face silent and often scowling, sat David. Only once do I recall him asking a question. Interestingly, he records it in his book. Speaking to Lord Pentland about writing a poem, he observed that life is breath and that "the body of a poem was the breath of its line." Interesting, but David was full of "David" that night, and like us all, was looking for affirmation. But Lord Pentland was not one to feed false personality. Looking on impassively, he let the electricity build, then said with a hint of derision: "Oh ... [so] you've published a book of poems." The words stripped "David" bare. That moment an "I" died. Unfortunately, self-love raised it from the dead. When a teacher cuts an "I" away from a student, the shock splits the forces that glue the "I" together. In that stark emptiness hovers the moment of truth: either the student sees to the true source of his identification or he shuts down and defends. "The truth shall set you free," says Jesus. Yes, but first it kills you. But, of course, when we love our "I" more than we love the truth...

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