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Beelzebub’s Tales: More “Complexly Profound” Than Meets the Eye?

When it comes to esoteric books, nothing is stranger, more cryptic and incomprehensible than Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson: An Objective Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man (1950), written by the Greek-Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949).

At a whopping 1,238 pages and replete with invented words that defy pronunciation, such as “Heptaparaparshinokh” and “Almznoshinoo,” completing the book is no easy task – as I myself just discovered.

The first sentence of chapter one, The Arousing of Thought, reads:

“Among other convictions formed in my common presence during my responsible, peculiarly composed life, there is one such also – an indubitable conviction – that always and everywhere on the earth, among people of every degree of development of understanding and of every form of manifestation of the factors which engender in their individuality all kinds of ideals, there is acquired the tendency, when beginning anything new, unfailingly to pronounce aloud or, if not aloud, at least mentally, that definite utterance understandable to every even quite illiterate person, which in different epochs has been formulated variously and in our day is formulated in the following words: ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and in the name of the Holy Ghost, Amen.’”

According to author John Chambers in an article about Gurdjieff in Forbidden Religion (2006), Beelzebub’s Tales has attracted renewed interest in recent years, with many concluding “that the novel – and its author also – may be more complexly profound than was previously thought.” Among members of the All and Everything International Humanities Conference – which includes scholars, artists and scientists from around the world – the book is a topic of extensive and serious discussion, as are Gurdjieff’s other works. (This year’s conference was held in Greece in late-March.)

The protagonist in Gurdjieff’s magnum opus is of course Beelzebub – the devil. Unlike the traditional Judeo-Christian devil, however, Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub is a redeemed being, who has, as it were, paid for his sins and attained a level of high spiritual development. Some interpret the book as an autobiography of sorts, suggesting that Gurdjieff is Beelzebub himself.

At the beginning of the book, we find Beelzebub onboard the spaceship Karnak, accompanied by his grandson Hussein, as they make their way through space towards Beelzebub’s home planet, Karatas. During the journey, Beelzebub uses the time to teach Hussein about the “three-brained beings” (humans) dwelling on Earth whom he has studied and lived among.

The book consists of long, dry talks by Beelzebub on topics of benefit to young Hussein’s education, with a focus on the various troubles of humanity. Some of the topics covered include the history of the Earth and the “fall” of humanity, hypnosis, objective art, and war. Even sexual hygiene and polygamy are covered. I even recall mention of a famous German scientist who devised a way to magically create “delicious chicken soup”…or something along those lines. (Parts of the book are so bizarre and seemingly ridiculous that the reader is left completely perplexed.)

Gurdjieff wrote Beelzebub’s Tales, from 1924 through to 1931, as an attempt to preserve his teaching (called the Fourth Way) in a form that would remain undistorted – hence the unique, coded style of his writing. Much of it was dictated by Gurdjieff, with some of his students assisting as scribes.

As to why the book is so difficult to read and understand, apparently Gurdjieff did this on purpose, in the hope that it would challenge and awaken the reader. (Gurdjieff believed that our normal waking state is a form of sleep, and that most books only encourage this state.) That the book is long and complicated also helps to ensure that those who could be bothered reading it are certain to have a sincere interest in Gurdjieff’s ideas. Gurdjieff once remarked: “I bury the bone so deep that the dogs have to scratch for it.”

Whatever one makes of Beelzebub’s Tales – a work of profound spiritual wisdom or the nonsensical ramblings of an eccentric guru – one has to agree that it’s unlike anything ever written. On a side note, I know from experience that second-hand copies of Beelzebub’s Tales are easy to find in New Age bookstores. My own copy, which I purchased second-hand, is in extremely good condition, which makes me wonder if the previous owner read it at all. Perhaps, like many spiritual seekers, they attempted to read it but quickly gave up!

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  • http://aseeker.typepad.com Ann Seeker

    From your review, I would guess that you did not follow Gurdjieff's instruction to read it 3 times:
    1st – “at least as you have already become mechanized to read all your contemporary books and newspapers.”
    2nd – “as if you were reading aloud to another person.”
    3rd – “try and fathom the gist of my writings.”
    I found that reading it aloud really helps and does listening to one of the excellent recordings that have been made by 2 of Gurdjieff's direct students. You can find them at http://www.gurdjieff-legacy.org.

  • Joel Benavidez

    This is your third post now, and I always find myself getting caught by your titles, and the content only pulls me in deeper. I need to get ahold of this book. I was involved in an international art project of sorts a few years back called Neurocam, and it was designed to alter the perceptions of it's participants. I loved being in that strange and novel place. This book seems like it might do it for me. Thanks Louis! You're already contributing so much to the MU team!!!

    Cheers,
    -JB
    + Member