Friday, December 26, 2014

Metanoia: Re-encountering Maurice Nicoll

It can be awkward to hear one’s tape-recorded voice. It is often embarrassing to see old photos of oneself in bygone fashions—say, in late-1970s disco wear.

Worst of all, though, is reading a book you once thought canonical and realizing that it was and always will be nonsense. You feel stupid to have ever given it credence. But then, you think, I was twenty then.

I have just re-read Maurice Nicoll’s The New Man after a forty-year hiatus, and it has brought home how gullible I was in the Gulliver years. Nicoll was a physician and former student of C. G. Jung who met G. I. Gurdjieff, became a student of Gurdjieff’s estranged disciple P. D. Ouspensky, then wrote a five-volume compendium about it all called Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspenky. (Gurdjieff and Nicoll are the left and right bookends in the photo above.)

Gulliver taught his own version of the so-called Gurdjieff Work, relying heavily on Nicoll. We used to sit endless hours reading aloud from the Psychological Commentaries. In this way, by coopting a piece of a teaching that he wasn’t authorized to teach in the first place and using it to instruct students in his own personal way, Gulliver was like countless other so-called teachers who take up a so-called system and give it their own personal spin. It’s all about control.

Meanwhile, the world spins out of control: madness into more madness.

Gulliver was no different than the new preacher in town who hangs out his own shingle, calling his storefront the New Church of the True Word—a tormented character out of Flannery O’Connor, who may not believe what he preaches. But the teacher, like the preacher, controls the game. The teacher or preacher answers to no one else. Doesn’t have to. Doesn’t want to.

That was Gulliver. He used the work of a student of a student of a “master” to “teach” us, thereby somehow turning himself into another “master”!

The problem for the searcher, especially the youthful searcher like me in 1971, is distinguishing the real teacher and teaching from the false, the wise from the empty. I was not good at such distinctions when I was twenty. Returning to Nicoll, and finding him empty, is shocking to me today. Looking into his book, as I do below, is a way of coming to terms with my own youthful folly and the man who led me astray.

So what does Maurice Nicoll say in The New Man?

The Old and New Testaments, he tells us, are filled not only with contradictions but with “cruel and repulsive meaning.” But not to worry! All sacred writings contain “an outer and an inner meaning,” according to Nicoll. All that’s needed to grasp the “higher, inner, concealed, or esoteric meaning” is a special “understanding.”

Gurdjieff taught that a highly developed understanding was necessary to “receive higher influences” (think of entering the kingdom of heaven). Nicoll’s use of the term understanding is a knowing wink to the Gurdjieffian. The New Man is filled with such winks. For example, Noah’s ark was “constructed in three storeys,” according to Nicoll. But of course it was! Gurdjieffian doctrine says that man is a “three-story factory” in which “higher hydrogens” are manufactured out of “lower” ones. Taking the ark as such a “factory” means that everything in the Old Testament story can be reinterpreted in Gurdjieffian terms. Let’s have at it!

In fact, Nicoll was an early proponent of a school of Gurdjieffian letters that dares not speak its own name—hinting, hinting, all the time hinting that everything religious or spiritual can be interpreted with the Gurdjieff key, while never referring to Gurdjieff, who never acknowledged his own influences. Jacob Needleman, a Jewish professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, would corner the market on this type of pseudo-exegesis beginning in the 1970s.

In 1974, the year I graduated from college, I read The New Man and found it thrilling. I had left Christian worship six years before and had gone in neck-and-crop for Gurdjieff. The master’s claim that his work was “esoteric Christianity” was a double-edged sword for me, and I’m not sure which side was doing the cutting. The esotericist in me thought that, ha ha, I knew more than any simple-minded church-going Christian about what Christianity really meant! However, the lapsed Episcopalian in me, while pining for childhood experiences of Christ in His church, may have been wondering if Gurdjieff wouldn’t one day lead me back to Jesus. In fact, something did so, though Gurdjieff may have been more hindrance than help.

According to Nicoll, the Gospels speak mainly of a possible inner evolution called “re-birth.” This, Nicoll maintains, is their central idea. In fact, I have found only one instance (John 3:3) in which Jesus speaks directly of being “born again.” But references are not Nicoll’s strong suit. The New Man contains no bibliography, no footnotes, no hat-tips to fellow exegetes. Maurice Nicoll appears to stand on his own firm foundation proclaiming a “new” meaning for two thousand years of Christian teaching—although, as I have noted, he is actually standing on Gurdjieff, who stood on—what exactly?

Nicoll’s great insight is that truth in the Gospels, as in “all ancient Scriptures,” is “represented by means of a visible object.” (Did I hear you say Eureka?) Most of The New Man is spent assigning meanings to the visible objects described in the parables. These meanings always have some connection with the Gurdjieff teaching, although Nicoll never uses that proper name.

And so we learn, for example: “Water does not mean simply water. . . . In the ancient language [known only to esotericists like Nicoll] water means Truth. But it means a special kind of Truth, a special form of knowledge called ‘living Truth.’ It is living Truth because it makes a man alive in himself, and not dead, once the knowledge of it is assented to and applied in practice. In esoteric teaching—that is, teaching about inner evolution—a man is called dead who knows nothing about it.”

Likewise, Nicoll proclaims child to mean “a person small in understanding.” Given this key to the two words water and child one is already qualified to understand a parable in a new way! Nicoll: “Christ said: ‘And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only, in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.’ (Matt, x, 42) Here a literal-minded person will think that all that is necessary is to give a cup of cold water to a child. But if water means Truth, then the phrase refers to the handing on of Truth, however poorly. And ‘little one’ here does not mean a child (in the Greek) but a person small in understanding. . . . All this cannot be logically expressed, but it can be psychologically understood. And this is exactly the intention of the ancient language we have begun to study.”

Even historical terms don’t mean what they say, according to Nicoll. A “Pharisee” is not a Pharisee but “a man that pretends, that keeps up appearances for the sake of outer merit, fear, praise, the man who in himself is perhaps even rotten. The Pharisee, psychologically understood, is the outer side of a man who pretends to be good, virtuous, and so on.” Not even “Jews” are Jews. “The Jews in the Gospels represent not actual, literal people, but a certain literal level of taking everything belonging to higher Truth. Everyone is a Jew who cannot get from the sense of the letter to the psychological meaning.”

So much for salavation history!

In Nicoll’s advanced understanding, Jesus is only a remarkably well-developed man who reached “a certain definite stage … in his individual evolution. … What has to be grasped is that Jesus had to undergo inner growth and evolution. He was not born perfect. … On the contrary, he was born imperfect in order to carry out a certain long-prophesied task. He had to re-establish at a critical period in human history a connection between the two levels called in the Gospels ‘earth’ and ‘heaven,’ and this had to be done in himself practically, so as to reopen a way for influences from a higher level of the Universe of Total Being (which extends up through different degrees of the Divine Being to Absolute Being) to reach mankind on earth and so make it possible for Man to have a possibility of inner development and also for some kind of intelligent culture to exist for a definite period or cycle of history.”

Enough! In that one sentence (which, believe me, is only the sound of Nicoll catching his breath) are so many bits of Gurdjieffian code, so many winks to the inner circle, so many phrases that it would take a book of nonsense to explain. Oh, Lord, it shocks me beyond belief to think that I accepted every word of this as my own private Gospel forty years ago, when I read and re-read The New Man as though it were a newly discovered personal memoir of Jesus of Nazareth.

You could tell me that I had been a Scientologist, and I would not be more shocked.

God must be merciful! He has let me live.

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