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.

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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.

Pamela L. Travers, Gurdjieff, and the Father Figure Connection

Meetings With Remarkable Men

Pamela L. Travers was a lifelong follower of the spiritual teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a controversial spiritual teacher of the last century. She was first introduced to his teachings by his disciples Alfred Richard Orage, the editor of The New English Weekly, a publication to which Pamela L. Travers contributed between 1932-1949, and Piotr Damien Ouspensky.

Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, speculates in Mary Poppins She Wrote that Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual motivation was rooted in her snobbish nature and her desire to always set herself apart from others. Now this evaluation appears, at least in my opinion, to be superficial and judgmental, especially when Lawson never met with Pamela L. Travers. The real question is (if one truly wants to understand Pamela L. Travers) what in Gurdjieff’s teachings resonated so strongly with her inner being? This is a complex question on which I am still pondering, and sincerely I don’t know if I will ever find its answer. But, while reading Gurdjieff’s book Meetings with Remarkable Men an interesting observation popped up on the surface of my mind. However, before I share my personal observation, I will briefly expose the principles of Gurdjieff’s teachings for those who read this post and are not familiar with his Work.

According to Gurdjieff the average person is a sleeping machine endowed with a dormant essence, an embryo of a soul which has the capacity to grow and develop into its potential higher destiny. Gurdjieff warned his students that the failure to develop one’s essence would lead one to a harsh ending; he said that a man who fails to develop his soul would die like a dog and become food for the Moon. Now that is one strange idea …. One of Gurdjieff’s biographers, Tobias Churton speculates that maybe Gurdjieff’s aim was to scare his students and force them to take the Work seriously.

The Components of Gurdjieff’s System:

The Law of Three

The Law of Three expresses the natural interplay between the three essential forces that bring everything into manifestation in our world: affirming, denying, and reconciling or positive, negative, and neutral. Gurdjieff stressed that the third essential force often goes unnoticed.

The Law of Seven

All events that are brought to completion have seven distinct phases that correspond to the notes of the musical scale. Gurdjieff believed that at specific moments one must apply an appropriate shock or things will not manifest in the material world. These specific moments correspond to the transition between mi and fa and between si and do (if I understood this part correctly. In all honesty the Law of Seven and the Table of Hydrogens, which I am not even trying to summarize here, completely escaped my grasp. I will have to read some more…)

The Ray of Creation

The Ray of Creation follows the musical scale and the numbers corresponding to each world correspond to the number of laws governing each level. The higher we move up the less laws and more freedom. According to Gurdjieff’s classification, life on Earth is ruled by 48 laws and all act of free will is doomed to failure, only few can awaken from their sleep but only through tremendous effort and work on themselves.

World 1: The Absolute -do

World 3: All Worlds (the Universe) – si

World 6: All Suns (Galaxies) – la

World 12: The Sun – sol

World 24: All Planets (Planetary) – fa

World 48 Earth (Organic) – me

World 96 Moon ( Inorganic) – re

All life on Earth is influenced by planetary forces arising from All Planets, the level immediately prior to Earth.

Gurdjieff, with the help of Thomas de Hartmann, composed music based on The Law of Seven and choreographed dance exercises for his students.

The Seven Energy Centers

Gurdjieff taught his followers that all human beings possess seven energy centers.

  1. Higher Intellectual Center: the ‘wisdom eye’, the seat of the objective reason which is the ability to apprehend and understand reality directly, to see the truth of things. This center is non-operative in the average person.
  2. Higher Emotional Center: the higher aspect of the heart, ‘true love’. Dormant in most people.
  3. Intellectual Center: the average person’s typical cognitive processes.
  4. Emotional Center: the typical person’s emotional life
  5. Moving Center: the domain of the body-movement.
  6. Instinctive Center: the realm of unconscious body functions.
  7. Sex center: the domain of our sexual drives and behaviours. 

The technique of awakening practiced by Gurdjieff’s followers is called “self-remembering” a sort of simultaneous inner and outer awareness. Central to this idea is the practice of divided attention, which means to be simultaneously aware of both ourselves and what we are considering. Gurdjieff taught his students to delay their reactions intentionally while consciously observing themselves. He believed that the right crystallization begins to occur only when we make honest efforts to observe ourselves and struggle with our unconscious habits by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by them in an autopilot way.

The major barriers to awakening according to Gurdjieff:

Internal Considering: being caught in the fear of being judged and living in constant need of approval.

External Considering: shadow side of empathy, when we give sympathy that weakens the other person instead of applying appropriate backbone.

Buffers: Defense mechanisms such as lying, repression, projection, rationalization, and sublimation.

Gurdjieff organised meetings in which he discussed his ideas and answered the questions of his students. And since the subject of his teachings and his persona are fascinating to me, I will write more about them in future posts on this blog. Now, back to Meetings with Remarkable Men and my personal observation.

Although Meetings with Remarkable Men is not a faithful account of Gurdjieff’s life but a parable of his spiritual awakening, the first chapter contains authentic autobiographical elements. In that chapter Gurdjieff talks about his childhood and his relationship with his father. This made me think about Pamela L. Travers’s childhood and her relationship with her father. And I noticed certain similarities.

As young children both Gurdjieff and Pamela L. Travers were raised in a religious way, although in very different cultural settings, and both seem to have been sensitive, extremely perceptive, and spiritually inclined children. The fairy tales and myths they heard from their respective fathers left permanent imprints on the blank slates of their imaginations.

Both their fathers were poets at heart. Gurdjieff’s father was an ashokh “the name given everywhere in Asia and the Balkan peninsula to the local bards, who composed, recited or sang poems, songs, legends, folk-tales, and all sorts of stories.” Gurdjieff accompanied his father to contests where ashokhs competed in front of a large public. This is Gurdjieff’s description of such contests:

One of the participants in the contest, chosen by lot, would begin, in singing an improvised melody, to put to his partner some question on a religious or philosophical theme, or on the meaning and origin of some well-known legend, tradition or belief, and the other would reply, also in song, and in his own improvised subjective melody.

Gurdjieff recounts that in Alexandropol and Kars, the towns where he lived with his family during his childhood, people often invited his father to evening gatherings in order to hear his stories. And on Saturday evenings his father would tell stories to Gurdjieff and his siblings, stories “either about ancient great peoples and wonderful men, or about God, nature and mysterious miracles, and he would invariably conclude with some tale from the Thousand and One Nights, of which he knew so ma y that he could indeed have told us one whole tale for each of the thousand and one nights”. These stories served for Gurdjieff as “spiritualizing factor” and made him understand the immense significance of legends and myths in one’s life as a gateway to primal spiritual truths.

Very much like Gurdjieff’s father, Travers Goff, Pamela L. Travers’s father, loved to tell his family and friends tales of ancient Ireland, stories inhabited by elves, fairies, and pixies. Pamela recalls being “nurtured on the Celtic Twilight, Yeats and all”. Her memories of her father are somewhat romanticized and embellished but, nevertheless, these memories led her to Ireland and George W. Russell and form then on, on the path of myths and fairy tales and to Gurdjieff.

It seems possible that the minds of Pamela L. Travers and Gurdjieff shared certain consonant traits which  were coincidently paired by similar traits in the characters of their fathers.

It is interesting to note that both fathers struggled to make ends meet and both Pamela L. Travers and Gurdjieff seem to have had an inner drive (conscious or not) to redeem their fathers. This too could be an interesting subject for a separate blog post.

However, there is one major difference between Gurdjieff’s father and Pamela L. Travers’s father. Gurdjieff’s father used his knowledge of fairy tales and myth to draw strength and resilience in the face of harsh realities, where Pamela L. Travers’s father used it as an escape route. Gurdjieff remembers “all the grandeur of my father’s calm and the detachment of his inner state in all his external manifestations, throughout the misfortunes that befell him…..which poured upon him as though from the horn of plenty, he continued to retain the sole of a true poet.”

While Pamela L. Travers recalls : “But I’ve come to know he was melancholy and sad and that he needed someone to understand him. His melancholy was the other side if his Irish gaiety.” Lawson reports in Mary Poppins She Wrote that Pamela L. Travers talked to her dead father and even tried to comfort him and tell him that everything is all right and that he doesn’t have to be so unhappy.

So, this is how the use of myths and fairy tales by two fathers made of one child a spiritual teacher and from the other a spiritual seeker.

Well, this is it for this blogpost. Only my musings, my mind making connections, just as Pamela L. Travers said, thinking is linking.

*All quotes in this post are from Meetings with Remarkable Men and Mary Poppins She Wrote.