Origins

XenuDoes anyone ever tell the truth about where they came from?

Would the Book of The Law have had the profound effect that it did have if it hadn’t been dictated by Aiwass? Does it matter where the Book of Coming Forth by Night came from? Would people be drawn to Stáv if it had not been passed down through forty-four generations of the Hafskjold family? Couldn’t Westcott have started the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn without a charter from the elusive Anna Sprengel? Who knows the truth of Julius Evola‘s childhood? No-one even knows for sure in which year Gurdjieff was born. Anton LaVey produced not one but two fictitious biographies.

What is it about esoteric teachings that seems to necessitate these bizarre stories? There are a number of mundane explanations. First, there is the obvious lure of the charlatan. Quite a lot of people are both gullible and stupid and I’m sure it is easier to convince such people to part with their time and their cash if they think you have a supernatural mandate. Many great philosophers have died in poverty while many uninspiring frauds have grown rich on their victims’ credulity. But there is real value to be found in all the traditions and teachings I mentioned above. There may be chicanery as well (actually, there usually is, which is a fact worth considering itself) but the origin stories cannot be completely explained as attempts to defraud. Second, there is the public relations angle. Many people, especially those seeking metaphysical knowledge, have an aversion to novelty. Such people, when asked to choose between, on the one hand, a recently concocted fusion of Eastern martial arts and European runelore and, on the other hand, an ancient tradition passed down from father to son for over a millenium, are likely to choose the latter. If such people can be helped in their quest by telling them that the former is the latter then surely that is a good thing? Perhaps something like this was behind LaVey’s comment to a journalist investigating his past: “I don’t want the legend to disappear. There is a danger you will disenchant a lot of young people who use me as a role model.” But this still doesn’t seem to explain it all.

Consider received texts. One of the arguments often used to show that they are not really received is the fact that they are always written in the style of the recipient. Critics point out that Liber AL vel Legis is unmistakably written in the same style as Crowley’s other literary output and therefore Crowley must be the author himself, rather than a scribe for Aiwass as he claimed. The counter argument is that the recipient understands the message he receives in terms of his current knowledge and thus, when he comes to express it, he inevitably does so in his own style. Thus John Dee the cryptographer and linguist received messages in an angelic language that he had to decipher, Crowley the Qabalist in Cairo received a message rich in Qabalistic imagery, gematric correspondances and references to Egyptian mythology, and so on. Whichever interpretation you prefer, this does illustrate an important point about metaphysical teachings, a point most explicit in the method of Gurdjieff.

The first time Gurdjieff tried to bring his teachings to the West, he was based in Russia. He taught in St. Petersburg and Moscow, primarily to fairly wealthy people with an interest in science. A prime example is his famous student Ouspensky, who was an accomplished mathematician and studied the philosophy of science but had distinctly mystical tendencies (not unlike Rudy Rucker.) In such circumstances, Gurdjieff presented his teachings as the ‘true science’ and made extensive use of astronomy, optics and harmonics to explain his ideas. This approach is perhaps best explained in Ouspensky’s book In Search of the Miraculous.

However, in 1922, Gurdjieff moved to Paris and founded the Institute for The Harmonious Development of Man. Here, in different circumstances, his teaching took on a very different flavour. He strongly disapproved of theoretical discussions and even discouraged any attempts to put his teachings into words at all. Clifford Sharpe wrote: “All the teaching is strictly practical. Only enough theory indeed is given to provide a language in which the results of self-study can be recorded and mutually related.”

Finally, Gurdjieff presented his ideas in a third form. He wrote a series of books entitled All and Everything. These books are, again, a completely different presentation of his thoughts.

However, anyone who studies his work seriously will find that all three presentations deal with the same fundamental concepts. On the surface, the three presentations seem quite different but that’s because they are just that: presentations. Gurdjieff faced the challenge that faces every person who wishes to bring to other people new knowledge. People who have not experienced the experiences about which he would teach them do not have the terminology with which to be taught. However, he could not merely present them with new terms because without the relevant experiences the terms would be meaningless. A glossary gives you new ways to express knowledge you already possess, it cannot teach you anything you do not already know. So he was forced to construct analogies and false-but-useful theories in order to give his students somewhere to begin. These analogies and theories obviously need to differ depending on the different needs of different students. But underneath these varied presentations, the core was always the same.

One can consider origin stories in much the same way. The first two explanations I suggested were largely concerned with other people: either helping or hindering them but always deceiving them. Both explanations take it for granted that the origin stories are false and differ only in the motive ascribed to the liar. A third explanation in the same category may simply be self-delusion or insanity.

But to assume that the story is false before we even begin is an unnecessary restriction. Children are taught Newtonian mechanics in their science lessons. We now consider such theories to be inadequate as they have been superseded by Einstein’s theories of Relativity and the theories of Quantum Physics. But we do not consider Newton’s theories to be false. We do not consider the science teacher to be a liar or a fraud for teaching Newtonian mechanics. Why not? If such a child were to go on to teach his friends what he had learned at school, would he be a liar? What if his teacher had actually told him that what he was learning wasn’t true but it was the best he could do for now. If the child still passed on what he was taught, would he be a liar then?

Rather than obsessing over the historical truth or falsity of origin stories I think it is more useful to consider their purpose. What is the core behind each of the stories of received texts, Secret Chiefs and fictitious biographies? I do not mean to suggest that there is a single lesson that lies behind every story, but that the best stories have multiple levels of exegesis. Of course, the worst are indeed fraudulent bollocks. So how do you tell the difference? If you take a story as true, what does it allow you to do?

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Published in: on September 6, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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