Tobias Churton’s Deconstruction of Gurdjieff

Cover Deconstructing Gurdjieff

P.L. Travers was a pupil and a lifelong follower of the somewhat controversial spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. And, it must be stressed right from the start that his teachings are difficult to grasp by people not versed in esotericism. I know I struggled with them enormously at the beginning. And those who are less spiritually inclined readily categorize him as a charlatan. The debate remains.

Gurdjieff was a peculiar character. He did some strange things and, on some occasions, gave downright weird advice to his followers. But then, he also told them not to take anything at face value. His teaching methods were unorthodox, and they did involve humiliation tactics in a group work dynamic, and forced alcohol consumption in the form of the ritual “Toasts to the Idiots.” He believed that human beings needed shocks from outside in order to awaken to their inner truth.

He also used drugs and hormones with a closed group of his pupils known as the Rope. Peculiar or not, he managed to create a system and a following to our present days, and thus he deserves to be taken seriously even if only to understand the psyche of the people who needed his advice. And since I am very much interested in P.L. Travers’s psyche, I had to take Gurdjieff into account.

I didn’t know anything about him until I began investigating the life and literary works of P.L. Travers. To my surprise, I found out that there is an enormous amount of literature on the subject of Gurdjieff and his teachings.

He wrote four books: The Herald of Coming Good, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grand Son, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life is Real Only Then When I am. (The Herald of Coming Good is the only one that was published during his lifetime.) There are also the transcripts of some of his meetings with his pupils during different time periods of his teaching, there are books written by his pupils, books by his modern-day followers, and books explaining his esoteric ideas. Plus, there are the biographies. And I wanted to read a biography,  I wanted to gain some insight into Gurdjieff’s personality in order to better understand the potential causes for his immense influence on P.L. Travers.

Now how was I to choose the right biography? Well, simple. I followed my intuitive pull to a title. I chose a book by its cover. Deconstructing Gurdjieff by Tobias Churton.

I liked the idea of deconstructing something into its forming parts in order to gain a better understanding of its inner workings and what is more, Gurdjieff metaphorically described human beings as machines operating on autopilot. So, I found that there was a certain humor in the title, a tiny mischievous wink in Gurdjieff’s direction.  

Tobias Churton

My intuition didn’t disappoint me, intuition rarely does.

Tobias Churton 2

What makes Deconstructing Gurdjieff  an enjoyable read is the combination of Churton’s expertise in Western Esoterics with his good sense of the historical context of Gurdjieff’s life and his psychological understanding of Gurdjieff’s complex personality.

The effect of Churton’s deconstruction is the exact opposite, the construction of a portrait that is, in all probabilities, closer to who Gurdjieff really was.   

Gurdjieff worked to awaken people from the sleep of the automaton. The automaton was an identity through which the will of others, not of the real “I Am”, the authentic being, was expressed. Human beings were unconscious of their unconsciousness.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

In his book, Churton successfully describes the socio-cultural background of Gurdjieff’s humble upbringing in Russian Armenia and Gurdjieff’s innate temperamental traits.  The reader will also be well informed of the different underlying currents of the Gurdjieff’s system, namely the Yezidis tradition, Sufi tradition, Rosicrucianism, Hermetic Masonry, Pythagorean ideas as well as influences of the esoteric and scientific thoughts in Paris during the 1880s and 1890s.

Carte Gurdjieff

(Picture from Deconstructing Gurdjieff, by Tobias Churton)

Others before Churton have made the connection between the Sufi influence and Gurdjieff’s teachings, but Churton is the first to link the teachings to the Gnostic tradition and Free Masonry.

When Gurdjieff came to reorganize his clubs of students in New York in 1931, he divided the membership into exoteric, mesoteric and esoteric. The rule of three he habitually employed is familiar to the thinking Masons.

The Gnostic conception of body, soul and spirit, evident in Fabre d’Olivet, becomes for Gurdjieff the basis for therapeutic interest in reharmonizing bodily instinct, feelings (soul) and thinking or mentation (mind) to generate awakening from the dream of ordinary, externally directed consciousness, to a higher being or state of being.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

On a more personal level, what I find interesting in Gurdjieff is his imaginative mixture of mystic theories, science and psychology, and even a little bit of science-fiction. The result of this amalgamation is original but in my very humble opinion, ambiguous. To me, the most appealing aspect of his teachings is the psychological aspect but then psychology is not a synonym for spirituality. And this is something that Churton insightfully brings to the reader’s attention.

It seems to me that Gurdjieff has either confused the spiritual with the psychic, eliminating the spiritual, or simply regarded the spiritual as a state of special powers attendant on the acquisition of interior psychic and bodily harmony.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

Not long ago, I reached out to Churton via email with a long list of questions. For the benefit of the readers of this blog, and with infinite gratitude to Tobias Churton, and with the desire to avoid any unintentional changes in the meaning of his response, I am reproducing integrally certain portions of his correspondence:

TC: He (Gurdjieff) was not a scientist; he was not a university professor. He was only a teacher in the sense of a craftsman passing on his advice from an assumed superiority. He did not ever explain precisely what HE knew, or thought he knew. That is, he was unable to produce a successor or true inheritor. This is not unusual in the prophetic field!

He was an autodidact, who got the best out of his life as best he could.  I think his activities going up and down the Transcaspian Railway – even if we only take his word for it – show us that he was a manipulator of people and circumstances to suit himself. That he had wisdom about the follies of the human species we  recognize. That wisdom I tried to illuminate in my book. But he was a “player.”

He was Gurdjieff, and it is unwise, I believe, to follow this kind of figure. I agree with Crowley’s view that some of Gurdjieff’s methods, as revealed at the Prieure, were rather “artificial.” He did not like being attached to people who came to him. His personality, however, had magnetism, and he knew it – though not enough to bring in the money he believed he deserved to live on. He was sore at the loss of his income after the Revolution. Who can blame him?

He was an amateur in a field where there has not been anything like a professional magus since, perhaps, and arguably, the Renaissance, or late antiquity. Such men or women can hardly be judged “objectively.” The myth is as much the man as it is a myth. 

I think I showed that “Meetings with Remarkable Men” can hardly be taken entirely at face-value, and that is not a new insight in itself, but I think I have shown where we can see “scissors and paste” and highlighted Gurdjieff’s instinctive attitudes.  I think my suspicions about his leaning on Freemasonry for his ideals is probably correct and justified.

I am sometimes slightly amazed that Gurdjieff has attracted some serious seekers after spiritual truth, but then, there are not that many non-Indian gurus about in the modern period! I believe people like exploring the mystery of their own being, and almost any guide can encourage the self-interest. Gurdjieff’s methods intrigue, partly because they blend rationality with irrationality – just like the human mind itself.

His perception about contrary “brains” is a reasonable metaphor, but is likely to confuse most people, and lead them into quandaries.

Now, about that last point, we must give Gurdjieff some credit about his theory of the three-brained being. The latest scientific discoveries revealed that our bodies have indeed three brains. In recent years scientists have discovered that the heart contains some 40,000 sensory neurons which “opens the door to vast new possibilities that parallel those that have been accurately described in the scriptures of some of our most ancient and cherished spiritual traditions.

And a similar discovery was made in relation to our gut which apparently comprises some 100 million neurons.

However, I do hope that science never comes to prove Gurdjieff’s strange concept of man being food for the moon. More on that in a future posts on this blog.

 

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? 

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.

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.

Gurdjieff and the Symbolism of the Carpet

Mary Poppins Gurdjieff

Lately I have been listening to a recording of a conversation between British author Brian Sibley and Pamela L. Travers, which was recorded in the late 1980: P.L. Travers, The Woman Behind Mary Poppins.  And, conversation is truly the right word to describe this recording because of the fluidity of the exchanges. Brain Sibley successfully follows the rhythm of Pamela L. Traver’s answers and it feels almost like a dance, an exquisite waltz of words swirling into the forms of the memories, personal beliefs, and opinions of Pamela L. Travers.

When I listened to the recording for the first time, I was already aware that Pamela L. Travers believed that one should not force the meaning out of a story; that it is sufficient to ponder on the story, love it for itself, and hold the questions inside and let the story unravel:

The myths never have a single meaning, once and for all and finished. They have something greater; They have meaning itself. If you hang a crystal in the window it will give off light from all parts of itself. That is how the myths are; they have meaning for me, for you and everyone else. A true symbol has always this multisidedness. It has something to say to all who approach it.

Pamela L. Travers, The World of the Hero (1976) 

Knowing that Pamela L. Travers was a true lover and connoisseur of myths and fairy tales, it was interesting to listen to her discussion with Brian Sibley about whether fairy tales could be considered as a form of wishful thinking or not. Not surprisingly, Pamela L. Travers refuses to give a lecture on the subject but advises Brian Sibley to read the stories and to discover for himself the true nature of the wishes made in these stories. And then, she remembers how once she refused to read a typescript of a seminar on the interpretation of fairy tales:

There is a famous Jungian analyst who writes about fairy tales and I imagine very well indeed. But I was shown the typescript of a seminar she gave to her pupils and she said: ‘The first thing you must to with a fairy tale is analyze it.’ and I thought, here I will read no more. Because the first thing you must do with a fairy tale is to love it! And keep it inside yourself as you do what you love, and it will send up its meaning to you eventually. To analyze it seems to me profanity.

Pamela L. Travers was probably referring to Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz who was a student, then colleague and collaborator to C.G. Jung and eventually his successor at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and who was famous for her many books on the psychological interpretation of fairy tales.

Apparently, Pamela L. Travers’s point of view on the hidden meaning in fairy tales was shared by others in the field of mythology, and Dr. von Franz was not ignorant of their criticism:

Again and again investigators and specialists on mythology attack Jungians on the grounds that myth speaks for itself; that you have only to unravel what it says, and you don’t need psychological interpretation; the psychological interpretation is only reading something into it which is not in it; and that the myth with all its details and amplifications is quite clear in itself.

Although an interesting debate, the purpose of this blogpost is not to discuss whether psychological interpretations of fairy tales are relevant or not. The purpose is to discuss an idea that crossed my mind while I was reading Dr. von Franz’s book, The Interpretation of Fairy TalesI came across the symbol of the carpet and Dr. Franz’s exposition about its possible meanings, and a connection to Pamela L. Travers and her spiritual teacher, George I. Gurdjieff formed itself in my mind. Let’s begin with the symbolism of the carpet as explained by Dr. von Franz:

In European civilisation the carpet was not known until we came into contact with the East. The nomadic Arab tribes, who are still famous for their carpet weaving, say that the carpets they use in their tents represent the continuity of earth which they need to prevent them from feeling that they have no soil under their feet. […] It also protects them from the evil influences of foreign soil.  […] The symbol of the carpet with its designs is often used as a symbol for the complex symbolic patterns of life and the secret designs of fate. It represents the greater pattern of our life, which we do not know as long as we live it.  The purposiveness of an individual life pattern, which gives one a feeling of meaningfulness, is very often symbolized in the carpet. Generally, carpets, especially Oriental ones, have those complicated meandering patterns such as you follow up when in a dreamy mood, when you feel that life goes up and down and along and changes around. Only if you look from afar, from a certain objective distance, do you realize that there is a pattern of wholeness in it. The secret design woven into a human life is much more intelligent than human consciousness.

Now, interesting fact, Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher George I. Gurdjieff was also a merchant of carpets. His carpet trade was witnessed by P.D. Ouspensky and described in his book In Search of the Miraculous:

The sale of these carpets was in itself remarkable. G. put an advertisement in the papers and all kinds of people came to buy carpets. […] A Persian used to come to him to mend carpets. One day I noticed that G. was very attentively watching how the Persian was doing his work. […] Next day I came in earlier than usual. G. was sitting on the floor mending a carpet exactly as the Persian had done. Wools of various colors were strewn around him and in his hand was the same kind of hook I had seen with the Persian.

And then, Ouspensky writes about Gurdjieff’s description of the making of carpets in certain parts of Asia where entire villages participated in the weaving process:

… all the work is done to the accompaniment of music and singing. The women spinners with spindles in their hands dance a special dance as they work, and all the movements of all the people engaged in different work are like one movement in one and the same rhythm.

Apparently, inspired by this memory Gurdjieff composed the Carpet Weaving as one of his exercises known as the Movements. You can listen to the music here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kbls2wJEsI

During his lifetime Gurdjieff composed (with the help of Thomas de Hartmann) numerous dance exercises for his pupils, the purpose of which was to work simultaneously with the intellectual, emotional and moving centers in each person and to open up higher parts of these centers. (For a brief summary of Gurdjieff’s system read Pamela L. Travers, Gurdjieff, and the Father Figure Connection). Gurdjieff’s Movements were composed of different groups of exercises with different purposes. Those known as the Occupational Movements such as the Carpet Weaving were mean to reflect the essence of a particular craft or activity and were performed in a group to give the dancers the sense of working as a unified whole.

And, not only did Gurdjieff sell, mend and included carpets in his Movements, but he also incorporated them in his immediate environment (probably with the intent to produce particular effects in the perceptions of his pupils). Here is an account of one of the early pupils who met Gurdjieff in his living quarters outside of Moscow:

There was no area not covered, either by carpets or hangings of some sort. A single enormous rug covered the floor of this spacious room. Even its walls were hung with carpets which also draped the doors and the windows; the ceiling was covered with ancient silk shawls of resplendent colours, astonishingly beautiful in their combination.

Views from the Real World, Glimpses of Truth 

(collection of early meetings with Gurdjieff)

It would have been lovely to have had the opportunity to discuss with Pamela L. Travers the symbolic meaning of Gurdjieff’s carpet business and his metaphysical weaving of the lives of his pupils. It would have been interesting to hear her thoughts on this subject. Or maybe she would have simply told us that there is nothing surprising about that and that we all have these sorts of symbolic patterns in our own lives and the fact that we cannot recognize them does not make their existence less real.

Conversation with Olga Mäeots, the Russian Translator of P.L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion

Moscow Excursion Pamela L. Travers

Do you know Mary Poppins? Not the Disney character, but the magical nanny originally created by the Australian born author Pamela L. Travers? Probably not. And, most of you probably don’t know much about the life of Pamela L. Travers and her literary work unless, of course, you have seen Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks; and in that case, your perception of Pamela L. Travers has been, for entertaining purposes, distorted.

The publication of Pamela L. Travers’s first biography, Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson (first published in Australia in 1999) rekindled the interest in both Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers. It inspired the screen writers of Saving Mr. Banks, and the making of two documentaries: The Secret Life of Mary Poppins and The Shadow of Mary Poppins. And, Mary Poppins, She Wrote still continues to make ripples in the awareness of its readers. One such recent ripple is the rediscovery of Pamela L. Travers’s first book, Moscow Excursion, by the Russian librarian and translator Olga Mäeots.

Moscow Excursion was first published in 1934, a few months prior to Pamela L. Travers’s first Mary Poppins book, and it consisted of a collection of letters recording the author’s visit to Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932. However, in her letters Pamela L. Travers obscured the identities of the people she met during her travel and only designated them by the letters A, M, T, Z, V. Olga Mäeots, a true fan of Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers succeeded, after many years of research, to identify some of these characters and to shed light on some important historical data. The translated and annotated Russian edition of Moscow Excursion was published in Russia in 2016 and was very well received by the public. 

Olga Mäeots agreed to answer a few questions about her experience of translating and commenting Moscow Excursion for the benefit of the English-speaking readership.  

LS: Not many people know about Pamela L. Travers’s first book Moscow Excursion. How did you discover it? 

OM: Many years ago, I was writing an article about Pamela L. Travers and saw this title in her bibliography. Of course, I got curious: it was PLT’s first book and she wrote about Moscow! I kept this fact in mind for some years and finally found the book, read it, and realized that it is full of enigmas.

LS: Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, Pamela L. Travers tells the reader that all the characters are “synthesized personages” and that she had given them fictitious initials for names throughout the book.” What made you doubt her statement?

OM: To translate a book, a translator needs to understand what the author has been writing about. Very often I had to stop and check myself to see whether I understand the text adequately or not. There are so many strange details and remarks that could be considered as exaggeration or a caricature, but finally it became obvious that PLT was very precise in her descriptions; one just has to find the facts that matched them. It was so with the description of a film British tourists were shown on their way to Russia. And with horseshoes in a palace, in the office of Tsar Nikolai, and with a cemetery in Leningrad. If these details were real, the people should be real, too. Historical facts I have learned helped me to check my translation and proved its adequacy.

LS: What motivated your decision to translate the book in Russian and did you decide to investigate these hidden identities right from the start?

OM: Moscow Excursion is an interesting well-written book and I wanted other people to read it  as historical evidence, and as talented fiction. I was not going to make any research at first. Research starts as a part of the translation process and the evidence I had found made me understand how little I knew – about PLT, about that period in history. (Cultural relations between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world in the 1930-ies still needs research. In Soviet Union, there are only friendly, positive memoirs, for example, G.B. Shaw’s or Romain Rolland’s which were published during Soviet times when books got official approval – critics were never mentioned.) 

LS: How much time did it take you to complete your investigations? And are they really completed? 

OM: The project is not completed as new data appears from time to time. It took me about 5-6 years to translate and make commentary. 

LS: I understand that your translation of Pamela L. Travers’s book was very well received by the Russian readers. To what do you attribute this success? 

OM: In the post-Soviet times, we have become aware that we know not all, we do not know enough about our history, and that new evidence is important. Also, a foreign view is always intriguing. I was afraid that PLT’s critical position would arise indignation of Russian readers but it never happened. First of all, she is protected by her popularity as a famous and beloved children’s author. Secondly, the book brings new interesting facts about our nearest past. And finally, what is more important for me, the reception of the book proves that Russian society is not any more unanimous in its opinions as it was in Soviet times. So, every reader could find something positive in PLT’s book to balance the blow on one’s patriotic feelings. Religious people approve of her remarks on the neglected state of churches; theater goers are interested in her theatrical impressions; anti-communists are happy with her critics of Bolshevism, and so on. Anyhow, my task in the commentary was to help readers realize that PLT was an interested traveler, though she was disappointed to a considerable extent. 

LS: What do you think is the value for the Western world of all the information you have uncovered? 

OM: First of all, the facts I have found contribute a lot to the portrait of the famous writer and present an almost unknown period in her biography; a period that was crucial for the shaping of her views, and her attitude to the contemporary world. But what is more important, PLT’s book proves to be an important evidence about the state of minds in the1930s. The book returns us (to a considerable extent due to my research and commentary) to many forgotten names (or supply new evidence about them) such as Hubert Butler or Herbert Marshall and cultural events which are important for our understanding of the epoch. The Russian-Soviet theme seems to be very inspiring at that time.

I hope that the book, with my commentary, will be published some day in some English-speaking countries. I don’t cherish any vanity hopes but am sure that it will be an interesting and important reading. 

Hopefully, Olga Mäoets’s dream will soon come true.