Roses and Thorns, Thorns and Roses

 

Women of The Rope

I wish I could discuss roses with Pamela L. Travers. I wish I had the opportunity to ask her if she knew about Gurdjieff’s opinion of flowers? And if she did, how did she reconcile her spiritual teacher’s peculiar views with her own love for flowers and gardening.

Clearly, Gurdjieff hated flowers, he believed them to be dirty things, fake things.

Flower is dirty thing, is the poison of the earth, is masturbator thing. You know why created? For helping Kundabuffer. In old science it had evil reputation, it was material for black magic. Flowers not grow lawable.

Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, July 29, 1936

After lunch he went over to a pot of dead flowers and smelled them. Gurdjieff: Finish. Nothing they have. Involution. Never was otherwise. Never active element they have, such dirty thing. From birth was only involution. Always they are false.

Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, January 29, 1938

The quotes above are excerpts from the transcripts of certain meetings with Gurdjieff recorded by lesbian writers Kathryn Hulme and Solita Solano, published in 2012, Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope.

My habit was to rush out to the café across the street everyday and write down everything while still fresh in my mind. Katie also, when she was in Paris, did the same. We would then combine our recollections and establish sequences.

Solita Solano in Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope

These women were part of a special group which met regularly with Gurdjieff during the period between 1935-1939. On the back of the cover of Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope one reads:

In allegory he explained: You are going on a journey under my guidance, an “inner-world” journey like a high mountain climb where you must be roped together for safety, where each must think of the others on the rope, all for one and one for all. You must, in short, help each other “as hand washes hand”, each contributing to the company according to her lights, according to her means. Only faithful hard work on yourselves will get you where I want you to go, not your wishing.

Among themselves they called their group The Rope

There was a link between The Rope and Pamela L. Travers. The link was one of Gurdjieff’s disciples, American publisher Jane Heap, who was also the co-editor of the literary journal The Little Review.  The members of The Rope were part of Heap’s lesbian entourage in Paris, before she left for London on Gurdjieff’s instructions, in the fall of 1935. Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, reports that in the spring of 1936, Pamela and Jessie Orage (the widow of A.R. Orage, Gurdjieff’s emissary in New York) attended Heap’s study group of the Gurdjieff’s teachings in London. And, it was in March 1936 that Pamela and Jessie visited Gurdjieff in Paris at his favourite Café de la Paix, and then went to his flat where some of the members of the Rope were present.

It is possible then, that at some point Pamela became aware of Gurdjieff’s radical views on flowers. Luckily for her (she had a special affection for roses) Gurdjieff’s take on roses was more nuanced.  In Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope the image of the rose appears on three different occasions; in one instance as a figurative conduit for Gurdjieff’s idea of objective love, and on the other two occasions, as an illustration of his concept of the process of the acquiring of a human soul (according to Gurdjieff men are not born with a soul).

Gurdjieff’s concept of objective love

Alice: And roses, even roses? The Bible often speaks of roses.

Gurdjieff: For certain things roses are good-but must be in combination. Roses in the Bible are always mentioned with thorns. There is an old saying: ‘You can understand and love me only when you love -have a passion-for my thorns. Then only I am your slave.’ In old poetry, not your poetry but religious poetry, there is a very beautiful song that the nightingale sings to the rose: ‘Even though I hate your dirtiness, I must love you and sing to you.”

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, July 29, 1936

It seems that for Gurdjieff objective love is attained only when one is aware of the flaws in the object of one’s affection, a love that encompasses the good and the bad, conscious unconditional love. At least this is how I interpret his allegory.

Then somewhat in contradiction with his previous statements about flowers:

The rose is king of flowers. Always in Eastern literature is put with nightingale. Rose is loving-loving rose. And besides loving, rose can have many another emotion which idiot English have no name for. Yes, even nature can feel loving-like woman.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, January 30, 1937

Gurdjieff and the creation of the Soul

In Café de la Paix Gurdjieff started talking about roses, roses, how he felt, how next week would be thorns, thorns when the fourteen thousand franks becomes due on the car. But thorns, thorns in outer world were good because then there are roses, roses in the inner world. ‘Is law-for one dissatisfaction, always a satisfaction.’ Then he asked which I think would he rather have roses, roses in his inner world or in his outer world… then when I answered, he decided that was too complicated a question. He said, better I tell you one thing. This will make you rich for life, richer than your Mr. Rockefeller. There are two struggles – inner world struggle and outer world struggle, but never can these two make contact. (…) Only one thing –must make intentional contact between outer world struggle and inner world struggle. Then can make data which crystalize for third world of man, sometimes called world of the soul.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, February 2, 1936

After roses, roses come thorns. Only then with thorns can have man a possibility for happiness.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, June 12, 1936

In this case, Gurdjieff associated roses with his idea of the reconciling factor in our human suffering. The only way to transcend the pain we experience in our dualistic world is to become conscious of the struggles and use this awareness to work persistently on improving the self. Only by conscious suffering and voluntary work can one acquire a soul, or a rose in the inner world. Which means that one must accept that roses come with thorns. As Gurdjieff puts it, for every dissatisfaction there is a satisfaction. And vice versa.

As for Pamela, she loved roses and was moved by their mysterious, secretive nature. She loved the way in which, layer by layer, the rose’s petals protect its center, revealing its inner world only at the very last moment. In Pamela’s writings the rose appears as a symbol of womanhood, by opposition to the daisy, which she perceived as a child’s flower because of its openness.  This is why she chose to name the princess in her retelling of her favourite fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, Rose:

For instance, the Beauty, who has never before been given a name, is here called Rose-having regard not only to the Grimm’s “Dornroschen” (Rose in Thorns or Briar Rose) but also to Robert Graves’ Druidic language of the tress in The White Goddess, where he speaks of the ‘erotoc’ briar.

All the known versions of the story have in them this strong element of eroticism. Indeed, it can be said with truth that every fairy tale that deals with a beautiful heroine and a lordly hero is, among many other things, speaking to us of love, laying down patterns and examples for all our human loving.

Pamela L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty

For Pamela, as for most of us, love and sex are intertwined while Gurdjieff’s concept of objective love excludes sex. It seems he deemed it to be something dirty. Or maybe he was talking about how sometimes we mistake lust for love.

But conscious love, that is real love. You have only love based on sex; it is sickness, a weakness. You cannot have love. That which perhaps your grandfather had. Today, for everyone, love is based on sex and sex on polarity. So, if a person has a nose like this you love her; if she hasn’t a nose like that, you don’t love her.  Real love is objective; but in Paris objective love doesn’t exist. You have made the word sentiment for sex, for dirty things; you have forgotten real love.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris,

Although it would have been really interesting to discuss Gurdjieff and flowers with Pamela, what really tickles my curiosity is Pamela L. Travers’s own secretive nature.  Did she believe the only way to entice and keep a romantic partner was to remain elusive and mysterious? Or was this obsession with concealment reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s admonition to his pupils to never reveal their inner world, to be like actors on the stage of Life? 

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Feathered Omens

 

Picture of the feather

At twenty-four Pamela L. Travers was determined to be the master of her own destiny. Strong headed, propelled by the need to escape the limited existence commanded by the needs of her family, Pamela decided to leave it all behind and search for that elusive “something else”.

And as I grew, amidst all the abundance, I began to feel a wanting. Lacking nothing, I came to now lack – a longing, even nostalgia for something I had never known. In all the completeness, I was incomplete, a cup only half full. This ache, this lonely weight of heart came upon me always at sunset, when the long rays lay across the earth like stripes on the back of a zebra. ‘There must be Something Else!’ I would say. Achingly, I would say it. But all, I knew, was Here and Now, and if all, then within the all that Something Else awaited me, infolded, implicate. Was it an answer to an unheard question? If a question, how would I know the answer?

Pamela L. Travers, Now, Farewell and Hail, 1985

The call to adventure, in Pamela’s case, the call to Ireland, was too compelling to be ignored. And according to her, it urged her from her early childhood:

Brian Sibley:       You said to me earlier that from the moment you were born you knew that you would be leaving Australia and you would be coming back to Ireland. What was it that put that idea into your head?

P.L.Travers:         How do you know the idea was put in my head. I am perfectly convinced that I was born saying “Get me out of here.”

Brian Sibley:       But you were happy there?

P.L.Travers:        Very.

Brian Sibley:       So, was it something about Ireland that was calling you as it were?

P.L.Travers:        Well, you like to make that assertion, I don’t. It was just in me, that I wouldn’t be staying there, the others would say we’ll do this and do that when we are grown up and I used to say calmly but I will not be here. And I was always laughed at.

P L Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

At the time of the recording of this conversation, Pamela L. Travers’s biography was not yet written, and not much was known about the details of her life in Australia. And, Pamela disclosed only what she wanted to disclose which, it turned out, was often slightly misrepresented, especially when it came to her father. There are different possible interpretations for the reasons of these distortions, but what is now certain is that her father exerted great influence upon her young and impressionable mind.

By reciting Irish poetry and recounting Celtic myths, her father, quite unknowingly, planted a special seed in Pamela’s oversensitive imagination. The seed grew deep roots of fascination with Ireland and these roots, eventually, reached the Irish soil. As soon as Pamela arrived in Ireland, she contacted George William Russell (A.E.) who not only responded to the poem she sent him but also introduced her to his close friend, the legendary, W.B. Yeats. This is how Pamela, almost by magic, entered into the Irish literary establishment of that time. 

The prospect of her long trip across the ocean to the other side of the Earth must have been unsettling for young Pamela, even if the departure was desired. Fears and doubts must have been her companions, after all she was making a leap of faith towards the unknown. What made her answer the call to adventure? It is an arduous task, shun by most of us. How did she overcome these uneasy feelings? Was it the explosive combination of her inherent rebelliousness along with some youthful naiveté that allowed her to push through her doubts? One thing we do know is that she relied on the guidance from a feather.

A few days before Pamela sailed to England a bird’s feather drifted down to her feet as she was walking on the street. She stopped and scooped it up. Her biographer Valerie Lawson writes “Soft, but finely shaped, the tail feather might have come from a magpie. She tucked it into her handbag. This omen was to travel with her, those fifty days to London.”

The feather remained with Pamela for much longer than the trip to England. She kept it for the rest of her life.

The fact that Pamela saw in it a good omen, a sort of a sign of protection from above, confirms both that she needed reassurance and guidance at that moment in her life, and also that she was sensitive to the spirit world. Shamans believe that a feather from a bird can connect a person with the specific archetypal energies of that bird. Did the magpie have something to communicate to Pamela?

Interestingly enough a magpie is believed to indicate an encounter with the spirit realm and the metaphysical world but in a rather unusual way. Now this strikes me as a “funny” coincidence because Pamela did encounter the spirit world right from her arrival in Ireland. George W. Russell was a member of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society founded by the controversial Madame Helena Blavatsky. And he also claimed to be able to see fairies and enjoyed painting his visions.

As for W.B. Yeats, well, he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to the study of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities. Not surprisingy then, Pamela’s literary initiation was strongly influenced by the esoteric beliefs of George W. Russell and W.B. Yeats.

But that was only the prelude to her spiritual journey. The most unusual spiritual encounter, and the most influential one, was her meeting with the spiritual master and magi G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff

The least that can be said about Gurdjieff’s esoteric system and his teaching methods is that they were unconventional. He himself presented his system as The Fourth Way by distinguishing it from the other three known spiritual paths, namely those of the fakir, the monk and the yogi which all require “the most difficult thing, (…) a complete change of life, with a renunciation of all worldly things.” Gurdjieff’s Forth Way, which he also qualified as esoteric Christianity, did not require such renunciation from his pupils, his followers remained in the usual conditions of their lives.

The teachings, known as The Work were transmitted orally during meetings, often times preceded by a meal and Toasts to the “Idiots”, a ritual remotely reminiscent of the Masonic Toasts. Gurdjieff believed that “Alcohol opens, it shows many aspects of your interior; it is very important for knowing someone”. The Work consisted of these meetings and individually crafted exercises of self-observation and the performance of sacred dances, which Gurdjieff choreographed to music he himself composed with the help of Thomas de Hartmann.

According to Gurdjieff’s theory the average man functions on automatic pilot mode pushed by external circumstances. In order to transcend this ordinary unconscious state of existence, one must first awake to one’s nothingness and the fact that one lacks unity from within. To get his pupils to come to that realisation he used some questionable techniques of humiliation and applied mental shocks. One of his techniques to encourage his pupils to pursue their journey on the path of the Fourth Way was to convince them that man was born without a soul, and unless they developed one they would die as dogs and become food for the moon. He taught that the prerequisite for the development of the individual soul is the achievement of a unified sense of self, which is acquired by practicing self-remembering and total detachment from outside influences. The self-remembering as taught by Gurdjieff consists essentially of the practice of entering into oneself and sensing simultaneously with the body, the emotions and the mind one’s existence. As for attaining detachment, Gurdjieff instructed his pupils to “Create an ideal for yourself. This will save you from automatic attachments. Thinks about this consciously and automatically this will grow and form a center of gravity.”

Did Gurdjieff’s teachings help Pamela find the answers to her existential questions? Nothing is less certain, but he did teach her to be a questioner. Her friend, author Brian Sibley, says that she was an endless questioner and someone who never gave any straight answers. She was an adept of knowledge acquired through experience.

It is doubtful that young Pamela interpreted the appearance of the feather as a sign of her upcoming spiritual journey. She needed hindsight to see the connection. But don’t we all? Doesn’t this seem to be our human predicament? Things often make sense only with hindsight.

Mary Poppins Returns or the Movie Is Not the Book!

mary poppins returns 1

What did you do during the Christmas Holidays? I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. I had to, even though I knew, right from the start, that Emily Blunt’s interpretation of the Mary Poppins character was going to be the exact opposite of the original one, and that, despite Blunt’s preliminary immersion in the original material. (And that is of course none of her fault. She had a script to respect).

Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns just as its predecessor, has absolutely nothing to do with the stories from the books. The movie is simply a continuation of the 1964 big screen adaptation, and then some more. A lot of animated characters there, a lot of what Pamela L. Travers disliked in the first movie.

I don’t know if you watched the Facebook livestream of the World Premiere in Los Angeles presented by HSN (This in itself calls for a separate blog post, but I will probably refrain since it will be just me ranting about the mercantile exploitation of a mythical character) but my imagination nerve was stimulated by the fact that it was raining cats and dogs that evening, when it almost never rains in California. Wasn’t that a funny coincidence? I couldn’t help but think that maybe Pamela L. Travers was crying once more, just as she did at the premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964. And now, after seeing Mary Poppins Returns, I still think that my interpretation of the rain as a meaningful synchronicity remains plausible. Not that Mary Poppins Returns is a bad movie, it’s just not Mary Poppins, not the one conjured up by Pamela L. Travers.

When asked what she thought of the first film Pamela L. Travers replied:

 Oh, now you are asking me a very difficult and delicate question. I wept when I saw it. I thought ‘Oh what have I done’ when I saw that name coming up, Mary Poppins I thought ‘What have I done?’ And you must admit it is not very like the books.

Witness- The Woman Who Wrote Mary Poppins – BBC Sounds

I do admit that the movie is nothing like the books. But I also have to admit that the songs in it are just as lively and catchy as those in the first movie. My favorite song from Mary Poppins is A Spoonful of Sugar. It reminds me of my childhood and how my mother used to crush the Aspirin pill between two teaspoons and then put a drop of water and some sugar. Although she was not inspired by that song, we didn’t have Disney’s Mary Poppins during my childhood in Bulgaria. But that is the subject of another post.

A particular song from the new Mary Poppins Returns stuck with me and if you read the slightly modified version below, you’ll understand why 😉

A movie is not the book

So open up the book and take a look

Cause under the cover one discovers

That the King may be in shtook

Chapter titles are like signs

And if you read between the lines

You’ll find that your first impression was mistook

For the movie is nice

But the movie is not the book

The character of Mary Poppins as imagined or rather channeled by Pamela L. Travers (she insisted that she didn’t create Mary Poppins but felt visited by her) remains largely misunderstood. Both movies failed to reconcile the ambiguities in Mary Poppins. All the coldness, emotional distance and anger in the original Mary Poppins are completely erased. It is obvious then that the goal here was not to understand the purpose of the real character nor the deeper meanings of the original stories but to invent new ones for the entertainement of the public, a sort of visual/auditory fantasy feast.

The question then is which is the real Mary Poppins, the one from the books, the musical or the movies?

And for author Brian Sibley who was also a friend of Pamela L. Travers the answer is this:

Well, that’s the point. They all are Mary Poppins, and they are – together Mary Poppins. They are the whole of the Mary Poppins universe. Like many of the myths of antiquity, they are different tellings of the same essential story as understood by unique individuals, so that each telling has its own meaning. And each of us may prefer one version or another, and each of us may have a different experience and expectation of one medium or another, but all the versions to date exist as the entirety of Mary Poppins. 

Anything Can Happen If You Let It, Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell

Maybe that is so, maybe Mary Poppins can be many different characters. She is a master shapeshifter. And maybe once a fictional character leaves the head of its creator it takes on a life of its own. Maybe Mary Poppins got tired of being plain and vain and set apart from others. Maybe she wanted to experience a loving connection with the Banks family.

Mary Poppins Returns 3.JPG

 

But I doubt it! Just as I doubt that she came to solve any particular problem of the Banks family. Most people see in Mary Poppins a godlike figure coming from above to save the family, but that first impression is misleading. It is this obvious interpretation that transports the character into the fantasy world where it does not belong. By the way Pamela L. Travers disliked the word ‘fantasy’ and she made a distinction between ‘fantasy’ and ‘the work of imagination’.

I don’t think Mary Poppins is fantasy you see. It’s not a word I really like. If you look it up in the dictionary you will, and all of you when you go back to school look it up in the dictionary, and you’ll see what fantasy means, something unreal, phantasm or ghost. No, I think Mary Poppins is really very real, she deals with reality. And in order to, I would call it the work of imagination, and really to have anything to do with imagination and let your imagination have wings and soar you have to have your foot solidly on the earth, in reality. So, I don’t like that word fantasy very much though I know it is very popular.

Library of Congress (Washington DC) Performance. Interview. 1966-11-01, a Visit With P.L. Travers

The adventures in the Mary Poppins books are multilayered metaphors, allegories about our way of perceiving or misperceiving ‘reality’ and about the building blocks of our identities. And precisely because Mary Poppins does not come to help the Banks family with a particular problem that there is no plot in the books.

mary poppins returns 2

If you put aside the entertaining aspect of the movie, what would be the message of Mary Poppins Returns?  Keep the fire of childish hope alive? Maybe that way all your problems will be solved by some magical apparition from above? Or is it to remember that you were once a child? Let me tell you this is not the sort of remembering Pamela L. Travers was writing about. Her remembering was reminiscent of her spiritual beliefs. It had to do with the awakening of one’s consciousness, the awareness of one’s whole self in the present moment. But of course, you couldn’t find that in the movie, even if you looked between the screencaps. 

Corresponding with a Friend of Pamela L. Travers

Mary Poppins Anything Can Happen If You Let It

Last November marked the end of the second year of my blog project. The Mary Poppins Effect is now officially two years old and what started as a part-time hobby has now become an all-consuming fascination with the inner world of Pamela L. Travers and her Mary Poppins. Now, after spending two years with Mrs. Travers, I am giving myself the permission, at least for this blogpost, to call her simply Pamela.

One of Pamela’s friends, author Jenny Koralek, wrote about the character of Mary Poppins “…that as far as this so-called nanny is concerned “Appearances are Deceptive,” well, I dare say, the same conclusion can be drawn about Pamela herself.

She seems to have led quite an unconventional life, but unfortunately, the unusual aspects of her personal life are presented to the public in a rather narrow-minded way. However, her complex, rebellious nature deserves to be examined in a more compassionate manner.

Obviously, I would have loved to meet Pamela, but since that wish will remain just that, a wish, I consoled myself for the last two years with her writings. However, at one point it simply became imperative for me to reach out to someone who knew her well. So, after some hesitation, I mustered up my courage and a wrote a long email to British author Brian Sibley. I wanted to get closer to Pamela with the hope of gaining some new insights, and Brian Sibley is, in my opinion, one of the rare people who seemed, judging by the interviews I saw, to have had an enormous respect for her. What’s more, in the 1980s, Brian Sibley and Pamela worked together on a sequel to the Mary Poppins movie (unfortunately, that project never came to be).

You can imagine my exhilaration when I saw Brian Sibley’s name pop up in my inbox!

In my correspondence to him, I expressed the concern that people who have documented Pamela’s life, be it in a book or on screen, seem to have completely misunderstood her and simply labelled her as being an eccentric person. Brian Sibley responded quite wisely that even if my assertion was true, the fact is that “Of course, few of them knew her… Indeed, few of us who thought we knew her, truly did...”

And, this is exactly what is so upsetting and at the same time so fascinating about Pamela. Who was she? She was so self-contained and yet her vessel was so deep. Luckily, her writings remain and, as she said on many occasions, if one wants to learn about a writer one must study the writings. Only she did her best to cover her tracks.

I wanted to know what it was to be a friend of Pamela; especially when her friends and acquaintances who were interviewed for different documentaries seem to agree that she was not an easy person to be friends with. Even Brian Sibley mentioned in an interview that Pamela was a “demanding friend.” But she had great wisdom and great knowledge of so many things: literature, life, love, faith. She was prickly and difficult at times. But she was also someone of a towering intellect whose friendship I really valued.”  I asked Brian Sibley if he could share an anecdote or two to illustrate the nature of her expectations in a friendship relationship? This is what he generously accepted to reveal:

 B.S.     I guess I mean that she expected you to be the one who did all the running in the relationship and she could be prickly, or act ‘hurt,’ even with people she knew well if they said or did something that displeased her. I remember getting a note after I had not turned up for afternoon tea, following what had been a vague and unconfirmed invitation. The note said, in words to this effect: “For some reason, I had taken it into my head that you were coming for tea yesterday. If I were mistaken, I apologise.” The implication, of course, was that I needed to apologise!  There was always a sense in which you were ‘courting’ her… Also, although she made much of only being a ‘conduit’ for her writings, she was vain enough (like Mary Poppins) to enjoy praise even as she brushed it aside.

This last comment reminded me of what Jenny Koralek wrote about the character of Mary Poppins:

 Brusque as well as brisk, unbending, a “snappy dresser,” extremely vain, with absolutely no sense of humor and easily offended, she never “tells anyone anything” and is a convincing incarnation of the author’s deep understanding that not answering, not explaining leaves the possibility of going further.

I can’t help it but think that there is a lot more of Pamela in Mary Poppins than Pamela ever wanted to admit.

Difficult as she might have been, Brian Sibley was a true friend.

B.S.     Her friends – her real friends – were amused by and tolerated her eccentricities; others could find her overbearing, apt to play the grande dame. Despite these occasional irritants, I loved her and only now realise how privileged I was to spend so much time with her and just how many opportunities I missed to ask the right questions – to discover, as she might have said, “What the Bee Knows.”

Well, maybe Brian Sibley didn’t ask her the right questions (and even if he did, who knows if she would have answered), but he must have done something right because one thing is certain: Pamela liked him. Or why would she introduce him to her family? From what I have learned about her, she was an extremely private and secretive person.

B.S.     There was one very curious afternoon when I was invited to tea and turned up only to find Camillus (Pamela’s adopted son), his wife, and their children all present. In fact, the wife opened the front door to me: I was taken aback and made apologies and tried to excuse myself. But, “No,” I was told Pamela is expecting you.” I then realised that she had engineered the meeting for some reason of her own…

Well, the reason is obvious isn’t it? She wanted to let him in her inner circle, and this peculiar and clumsy way of doing it could be suggestive of her fear of rejection. It seems to me that she simply didn’t leave him the chance to refuse the invitation. I suspect that in general intimacy must have been a challenge for Pamela.

When I asked Brian Sibley if Pamela talked about Gurdjieff’s Work and her spiritual beliefs or spiritual work, he responded that their conversations were mostly about story, myth, and poetry.

B.S. She talked a lot about the Irish poets: Yeats, of course, and her beloved ‘AE’ and James Stephens (author of The Crock of Gold and 19 years Travers’ senior) who, she once told me in a uncharacteristically candid moment, had made an unwanted romantic overture to her. I asked her how she handled it and she replied: “I simply told him that the fragility of my youth would be crushed beneath the weight of his talent and intellect.”   

This memory reveals a quick-witted and funny Pamela and the response is definitely not something Mary Poppins would have said. Of course, intertwined as they may be, Pamela and Mary Poppins are two different characters.

Mary Poppins feels at home wherever she is. But, when in a recorded conversation with Pamela, Brian Sibley asked her where her true home is, she said that she would like to be able to answer just as Mary Poppins, but that she hadn’t achieved that yet!

This caused me to ask Brian Sibley if he would say that Pamela was a happy person.

B.S      Ah! Were you to have asked her that question, I suspect, you would have been given a lecture on unanswerable questions! I think she was ‘content’ which is not quite the same thing...

And indeed, it is not the same thing…

I am infinitely grateful to Brian Sibley for these lovely anecdotes and for making me feel a little closer to Pamela. Needless to say, my mind is now fired up with more questions to which I must find the answers.

A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers

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Christmas is just around the corner, which means that now is the right time to revisit Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable “The Fox at the Manger”.

It’s Christmas Eve in postwar London. The narrator along with three young boys takes part in the carol service at St. Paul’s cathedral. The young boys have brought their old toys for the poor children. Only, when the time comes to part with their toys, the boys swiftly change their minds and run off remorselessly in the opposite direction. The narrator witnessing their selfish behaviour affirms that “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere”. But the meaning of the story of the fox at the manger expands beyond this aphorism about love.

Right from the start, the title of the story hints of its unusualness, as Pamela L. Travers’s friend and collaborator, Brian Sibley, accurately noted when he first discovered the book: “What a bizarre, almost blasphemous idea: the wild, rough, red-haired chicken-thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.” The idea is certainly provocative and the fox’s discourse throughout the story challenges our well accepted ideas about good and evil, love and service. I can assure you that Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable is definitely unlike any other Christmas story you have ever read or listened to. The story begins in a Christian religious context, but then quickly veers off and dives into the author’s inner world of esoteric beliefs, such as this poetical reference to the mysteries of time and space, to the Akashic records where all past, present and future human events, thoughts, emotions and intents are encoded in the non-physical etheric plane of existence:  

What had been here – some stately office? A bank? A merchant’s hall? And before that, what? I wondered. If it is true the print and form of things remain forever, as they say, invulnerable and invisible – surely these children were dancing now through forgotten board-meetings, and shades of accountants. lawyers, clerks. Or, if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire of London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontosaurs; and beyond that we would whirl in lava, turning fierily through the air, nothing but elements.

Contrariwise, would not the City lords to come, in rooms that would rise from this fern and rubble, start up in astonishment at the fancied sight of willow-herb breaking through the carpet? And old cashiers scratch their heads, wondering if they were out of their wits or whether they had really seen three little boys run through the cash desk? Are we here? Are we there? Is it now? Is it then? They will not know. And neither do we.

When one of the boys asks the narrator “Why weren’t there any wild animals at the crib?” the narrator tells the story of the forgotten verse in the Carol of the Friendly Beasts, the one about the visit of the fox at the manger. The fox comes with a special gift for baby Jesus. The fox presents the Son of God with its cunning.  The idea is subversive as it goes against the teachings of the Bible where the fox is portrayed rather negatively. But in Pamela L. Travers’s story, the fox appears in its positive aspect: wisdom and discernment. And at the end, wild and cunning and selfish as it may appear to be, the fox proves itself capable of the ultimate act of love, self-sacrifice. “‘It was not sudden, the fox said, coolly. ‘I was a long time coming to it and it was not easy.’”

Of course, when the fox arrives at the manger, it is not welcomed by the tamed animals, but their rejection does not deter it from its plans. In response to the common disapproval of its character the fox says:

Reynard you called me, and that is my name. But if you use it to threaten me, ass, I bid you remember its meaning. It comes from Raginohardus, a name that means ‘strong in counsel.

The farm animals see the fox from a narrow perspective. They see the selfish predator, the thief of chickens, but then the fox turns the tables around on them and confronts them with the idea that man is no different than the fox and that chickens are made to be stolen. The fox did not invent the laws of nature it simply lives by them. “I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from the air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve, I do not know.” Does man really know? Nothing is less certain…

The dialogue between the farm animals and the fox also questions man’s place in Creation:

You speak like a slave, said the fox, mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forests no man has seen- do they not still go on growing? Will the fire at the core of the earth go out because man cannot warm his hand on it?

The fox also directs our attention to our all too human failure to see our life situations for what they are and the price we pay for not thinking for ourselves: “What would it profit me to run with the flock, shoulder to shoulder with woolly brother, when all it leads to is the basting dish.”

And as for the nature of the fox’s gift, well, it is ingeniously confounding, isn’t it? What use can Jesus have of cunning? I was dumbfounded by the fox’s gift, just as the farm animals in the story. Dumbfound and at the same time amused by Pamela L. Travers’s obstinate refusal to give explanations.

But what will you do with such a gift? I am puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” Pamela L. Travers’s answer to the questions of the ass is that it is not important to understand but to simply let it be. Although this is a wise advice, especially when confronted with unanswerable questions, in this particular case, I couldn’t let it be. Knowing a little (just a little) about Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual beliefs I was convinced that there was some hidden meaning to the fox’s gift, some allusion to something deeper. This was not an unanswerable question.

My doubts were confirmed. I learned that:

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff believed that in order to make progress in the world it is necessary to have the devil on one’s side.” and also that “St Paul speaks of the cross as a trick against the Devil whose own cunning failed to make him aware that by crucifying the Lord of Glory he was thus caught in a trap which would see his end. Jesus’s crucifixion releases the end time: the end time for the wicked angels who have governed mankind. The cross is then a kind of trick, an act of pre-ordained cunning, played on Satan.”**

Pamela L. Travers must have been aware of the ambiguities and subtleties of the issue, or why would she write: “ For wild and tame are but two halves and here, where all begins and ends, everything must be whole.”

If you are interested in the story of “The Fox at the Manger” you could listen to Brian Sibley’s radio adaptation. Music is omnipresent throughout the dramatization and it beautifully enhances the emotional tonalities of the story. British actress Dame Wendy Hiller lends her voice to the narrator in the story, and I am almost certain that she must have prepared herself for the role by listening to interviews given by Pamela L. Travers (or maybe they even met), because the intonations of her voice are strikingly similar to the dramatic way of expression of Pamela L. Travers.

And one last comment, Pamela L. Travers had a somewhat analogous difficulty relinquishing the character of the fox in the hands of Brian Sibley as she did with her Mary Poppins and Disney, but of course with lesser intensity, the stakes were not the same. Only in this case the adaptation is loyal to the original creation.

She, who didn’t bother with radios or television found it almost as difficult to entrust the Fox at the Manger’ to me as the children in the story found it to relinquish their toys. ‘How is the child going to speak? How can you possibly give Him a voice? Why don’t you call the children X,Y and Z, as they are in the book? I don’t want them to be given names, you understand, but how will we know which one’s speaking? Does quite so much of the narrative have to go? Couldn’t someone just read the story? I’ve read it many times – in cathedrals too! Does it have to be a play…?*

One must admire Pamela L. Travers’s constancy.

Happy Holidays!  

_____________________________

*  Excerpt from “A Good Gift, Thoughts on The Fox at the Manger” by Brian Sibley

** Tobias Churton, author of “Deconstructing Gurdjieff”

Mary Poppins Returns after Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks

Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the 1964 movie Mary Poppins will be in movie theaters this Christmas, which makes me think that now is the right time to start the discussion about the film adaptations of Pamela L. Travers’s Mary Poppins stories. In my opinion, the best way to start this discussion is with a review of Disney’s movie Saving Mr. Banks (2013) starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Pamela L. Travers.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) dramatizes the making of the movie Mary Poppins. The screenplay is based on the tape recordings of the meetings between Walt Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers in 1961, and because we see these tapes and we hear Pamela L. Travers’s voice at the very beginning of the movie, we are led to believe that everything that happens on the screen is factually accurate. However, most of what goes on is fictional. And that, even if Robert Sherman tells us in the official movie interview that everything we see is a replica of what happened in the studio.

What are the fictional elements in this movie and what difference does it make anyway?

Let’s start from the beginning. How did Saving Mr. Banks come to be?

It all began when Australian producer Ian Collie read Valerie Lawson’s biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote. He decided to make a documentary about the life of Pamela L. Travers and, while working on the documentary, The Shadow of Mary Poppins, he realized that there was “a good seed for a feature biopic”. His focus then shifted to the period of Pamela L. Travers’s life during which Walt Disney pursued the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories (which by the way spanned over almost 20 years). The screenplay finally zoomed in on the meeting between Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers which took place in California in 1961. At that time Pamela L. Travers had agreed to sell the rights to Mary Poppins, however her consent was conditional upon her approving the screenplay.

The Shadow of Mary Poppins

When Walt Disney Pictures were approached for the rights to use the tape recordings of these meetings, the negotiations ended up with Walt Disney Pictures purchasing the rights to the screenplay of Saving Mr. Banks and this is how Saving Mr. Banks became a tribute to Walt Disney. Ian Collie concedes that Saving Mr. Banks is not factually correct in all aspects but he believes that there is truth about the essence of Walt Disney and Pamela L. Travers.

It’s about that battle of wills between two polarising, contrasting figures, and that wonderful cultural battle between English literary high art and the king of populism, and her mistrust that he was going to sentimentalise it and make lots of money for his empire.

The cultural clash was real. However, nothing in the movie suggests that Pamela L. Travers’s views had any artistic/literary value. No scene in the movie acquaints the viewers with Pamela L. Travers’s literary background and her connections with literary giants such as George W. Russell, Yeats, T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw just to name a few. The only allusion (although unexplained to the uninformed viewer) to Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, George W. Russell, is in the scene where Pamela L. Travers (Emma Thomson), alone in her hotel room, is talking on the telephone with Mr. Russell. Only at that time Mr. Russell had long been dead. He died in 1935.

Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t explore either Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong love and extensive knowledge of fairy-tales and myths. Moreover, the movie remains silent about her spiritual beliefs, except maybe for the picture of a book on Gurdjieff’s teachings on Pamela L. Travers’s desk at the beginning of the movie, and a little Buddhist statuette that she unpacks in her hotel room in California. However, all these elements are of the utmost importance if one is truly interested in understanding the nature of the conflict between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.

Sadly, Saving Mr. Banks presents the disagreement between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney in an extremely simplistic way which prompts the viewers to pick a side: Creative Genius Walt Disney versus this delightfully malevolent character loaded with benign kind of vitriol, this nutty old lady who lives down the street, as, to my bitter disappointment, my all-time favorite actor Tom Hanks, described Pamela L. Travers.

But what if both opponents had their justifiable reasons? What if their differences were simply irreconcilable?

conflict

One thing is certain, it was not Walt Disney’s understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s psychic pain caused by traumatic childhood experiences that solved the conflict. Nothing was known about her childhood at that time and the idea that Mary Poppins comes to save Mr. Banks, and by that meaning that Mary Poppins comes to save Pamela L. Travers’s father, was not Walt Disney’s either. It was the interpretation of Jenny Koralek, a friend of Pamela L. Travers. According to Jenny Koralek, Pamela L. Travers agreed with that interpretation but even if that was so, the reasons for writing the Mary Poppins stories do not explain the reasons for which Pamela L. Travers finally agreed to approve the screenplay of the Mary Poppins movie.  In any event, Pamela L. Travers’s difficult childhood could explain, at least partially, the creation of the Mary Poppins character but it does not explain the inner conflicts that fueled her resistance to allow Walt Disney to translate the Mary Poppins stories to the screen.  

Saving Mr. Banks does not give a fair rendition of Pamela L. Traver’s inner battle. Viewers needed to understand that Disney’s interpretation of her fictional character shook Pamela L. Travers’s core beliefs about fairy tales and myths which were intertwined with her spiritual beliefs. Fairy tales were an important part of Pamela L. Travers’s inner world; she apprehended life through the metaphors and symbols of the myths and fairytales. Unfortunately, her mythical language was totally foreign to most people and that included Walt Disney and his team. Pamela L. Travers valued fairy-tales for their wisdom, and she simply couldn’t conceive of them as vessels for mere entertainment.

Fairy-tale is at once the pattern of man and then chart for his journey. (…) The fairy-tales are like water flowers; they lie so lightly on the surface, but their roots go down deep into a dark and ancient past. They are, in fact, a remnant of that Orphic art whose function it was to instruct the generations in the inner meanings of things. (…) Again, like flowers, the same fairy-tales spring up in different countries, always with the lineaments of first cousins and always alongside the parables of truth that make the religions of man. Like village school masters, they instruct the simple, while the high priests deal with the scholars. But essentially both are concerned with the same teaching. How to live and how to die is the subject of the Orphic art, no matter what guises it wears.

The Fairy-Tale as Teacher, Pamela L. Travers, 1950

Walt Disney had a different approach. He used fairy tales as means to escape reality, to just kick back and relax. But his tendency to remove all darkness from the fairy tales irritated Pamela L. Travers profoundly and that long before he approached her for the movie rights to Mary Poppins. She wrote reviews about his cartoon creations in The New English Weekly in the 1930’s and they were not flattering. Patricia Demers summarizes Pamela L. Travers opinion of Disney’s work in her book P.L. Travers: “At the heart of Disney’s ‘enlargement of the animal world’, Travers discovers a corresponding ‘deflation of all human values’ and ‘a profound cynicism at the root’.”

Pamela L. Travers believed, and with reason, that without darkness the fairy tales are unable to ignite in the child’s mind the questions which can only be answered by truth.

It is worth asking, I think, why we grown-ups have become so timid that we bowdlerize, blot out, retell and gut the real stories for fear that truth, with its terrible beauty, should burst upon the children.

I Never Wrote for Children, Pamela L. Travers, 1978

It is relevant here to mention that G.W. Russell, Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, taught her about poverty and the artistic integrity of the poets. She herself wrote poems and was convinced that Mary Poppins came out of the same well that poetry comes out of.

Yes he said that one should take the vow of poverty, especially poets. It didn’t mean that if you were offered a 100,000$ you would refuse it. But it meant that you would not be attached to it. You didn’t even need to give it away but you wouldn’t live by it.

Interview with Brian Sibley, The Womand Behind Mary Poppins

When one understands how important fairy tales and their meanings were for Pamela L. Travers and her artistic vow of integrity towards her art, her inner conflict becomes much more interesting and multisided. Only then can one appreciate the greatness of the gap separating Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.

Why did Pamela L. Travers give up her Mary Poppins? Saving Mr. Banks suggests that Disney’s understanding of her psyche established between them a special connection based on  both their childhood sufferings. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In 1968 British author Brian Sibley, while researching a biography of Walt Disney, reached out to Pamela L. Travers. This is what she wrote back (the quote below is from an essay by Brian Sibley published in A Lively Oracle, a centennial celebration of P.L. Travers Creator of Mary Poppins)

I am afraid there is very little I can say to you about Walt Disney. I did not care very much for the film he made of my books. Generally because, although it was a colorful entertainment, it was not true to their meaning. Nor do I like what he does with Fairy Tales, so I don’t think I am very useful person for your study.

Patricia Feltham, a close friend of Pamela L. Travers, said in an interview that what Pamela L. Travers told her during the filming of Mary Poppins was “almost unprintable”. And still, Pamela L. Travers gave up the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories? Why? Can financial worries be the only reason? Or is there something else? More about this in the next post on this blog. 

P.L Travers and G.I. Gurdjieff or the Masters of Mystification

Pamela L. Travers Gurdjieff

During her lifetime Pamela L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was deliberately secretive about her personal affairs. “Although warm and open, in interviews she declined answering any questions relating to her private life, or her age. Her official date of birth was 1906; in fact she was born in 1897” wrote a journalist from The Independent, a British newspaper. But, she was born on August 9, 1899.

And she did not believe in truth based on facts. 

He (Galileo) is famous for – ‘Nevertheless, it moves’. The story is known to everyone; but the recantation of his recantation has nowhere been recorded. How could it have been? The only people near enough to hear it were his inquisitors, and had they heard it, his fat would have been in the fire. He never said it- except of course in his accurate heart. But in his unconscious shaping of the hero, the folk required that it be said, the story required that it be said; the truth had somehow to be told that Galileo was not a liar. So, mythologically, Galileo was required to say it. IT IS A TRUTH, BUT IT IS NOT A FACT…So you see how the mythmaking mind works, balancing, clarifying, adjusting, making events somehow correspond to the inner necessity of things. It is tension, the uncompromising insistence on both ends of the stick – black and white, good and evil, positive and negative, active and passive – that gives the myth their ambivalent power.

The World of the Hero, Parabola, 1976

Not surprisingly then, when it came to questions about her interest in writing an autobiography, Pamela L. Travers held that mere statements of facts prove insufficient for the deeper purpose of understanding the inner development of an individual.

Oh, no. Being born, going to school, having measles or not, being married or not, wouldn’t really be an autobiography for me – it would be more of an inner statement, how one grew within, the hopes, the difficulties, the aim. But as I never do want to write anything about myself, no autobiography.

And to complicate matters further for those who would have been interested in the details of her personal life, she did not hesitate to distort facts. One example is her made-up story about her early childhood in Australia. She repeatedly told interviewers that she had spent the first years of her life playing in the sugar cane fields in her father’s sugar plantation. One example of this distorted childhood memory can be found in Patricia Demers’s book, P.L. Travers, and another one in a recorded conversation with British writer Brian Sibley, P.L. Travers, the Woman Behind Mary Poppins. 

This embellished childhood memory was so well spread by Pamela L. Travers that it appeared at the time of her passing in many obituaries published in various newspapers. Here is what one journalist from the New York Times wrote: “Her father was a sugar planter, and Miss Travers recalled growing up near the Great Barrier Reef in a tropical world of sugar cane, shells and mangoes.” 

The truth was much less luxuriant. Her father, Travers Goff, worked in a bank and struggled with his alcohol addiction which in all probabilities contributed to his early death. Pamela L. Travers was seven years old at the time of his passing.

Why did Pamela L. Travers change the facts of her early childhood? Was she trying to escape from a painful past or was she protecting the memory of her father? Or, could it be that her mind was so imbued with myth and fairy tales that she ended up perceiving her own reality as myth and thus malleable to fit her inner needs? 

It is interesting to note that her spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff also displayed tendencies towards mystification and anyone who has read his book “Meetings with Remarkable Men”, will agree that the adventures recounted in that book are remarkably fairy tale-like and probably not at all factually accurate.

This mythical aspect of Gurdjieff’s personality was described by Pamela L. Travers in her article George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1877–1949) 

GEORGE IVANOVITCH GURDJIEFF (1877–1949). These brackets enclose seventy-two years of a life that, in spite of all that has been written about it, is incapable of exact documentation. It is a fact that Gurdjieff died in 1949, but since he gave his age differently at different times, the date of birth given here can only be approximate. This was all part of his enigma, of the sense he gave of deliberately playing a role, or, as P. D. Ouspensky wrote, after their first meeting, of being a man “poorly disguised.” His whole life, for the biographers, has the air of an authentic myth, in the sense of something heroic and significant but not to be apprehended except in so far as he could, by these very disguises, mediate it to the general understanding.”

It is worth asking, although there will be no certain answers, was Pamela L. Travers’s elusiveness a conscious imitation of the ways of her spiritual teacher? Was she attempting to give a heroic and significant overtone to her own life?  Or was she, in part, attracted to Gurdjieff and his teachings precisely because they both shared this tendency for mystification and love of myth?

It is an interestingly paradoxical fact that Pamela L. Travers, although often in the public eye due to the nature of her craft, wished to remain anonymous and “go down in myth”. This wish was stated many times to interviewers at different periods in her life. What is then the truth behind this fact? Was she, by being vague and elusive, hoping to ascertain the meaning and significance of her life? Was she trying to attain some sort of immortality? Or was she simply trying to protect herself from the praying eyes of the outside world. Maybe she craved the freedom to explore life as she intended without risking rejection. Maybe she didn’t believe people could understand her. This seems to be a plausible suggestion. She did not exactly live a conventional life: she never married, she had romantic relationships with both men and women, and her relationship with her adopted son Camillus was in constant turmoil.  But all this will be the subject of future posts.