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.

Advertisements

Conversation with Olga Mäoets, 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.

Pamela L. Travers and The Avant-Garde Hamlet

Hamlet 2

During her stay in Moscow in 1932, Pamela L. Travers met a Director (identity and details about that Director are omitted in her book) who gave her a card to a theatrical presentation of Hamlet. Leaving the ranks of her fellow tourists and the prescribed by the tourist guide route, Pamela L. Travers ventured out alone into the streets of Moscow in search of Hamlet. After going into the wrong theater, she managed to get into the right one by the end of act one. And the Hamlet (or Gamlet) she met that night left a strong impression on her, so much, that it could be said that her evening out in the theater became the highlight of her visit to Russia.

Hamlet 3

I learned from Olga Maëots’s comments (in the Russian edition of Moscow Excursion) that the play in question was directed by the experimental theater director Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov and was played at the Vakhtangov Theater. At that time in Russia there was an unofficial prohibition (but known by all) of Shakespeare, and the play needed to be adapted to Soviet Principles because Stalin was suspicious of Shakespeare’s plays. He considered Hamlet to be a reactionary and mystical character, unsuitable for presentation to the workers and peasants audiences. Back then, caricatures of this theatrical production appeared in satirical magazines in Moscow and according to Olga Maëots’s comments this “scandalous production” is to this day a nightmare for Shakespeareans.

Hamlet 4

So how can a grotesque and bilious Hamlet leave such a positive impression on Pamela L. Travers?  She loved Shakespeare and she was well versed in drama having been herself an actress for a brief time.

Pamela L. Travers first found Shakespeare’s writings in her father’s library and she read them as a child simply because they were books to be read, and books were few and difficult to find in the Australian countryside. Later, while writing as a drama critic for The New English Weekly, Pamela L. Travers wrote essays on seventeen Shakespearean plays, five out of which were on Hamlet. So, I assumed that she would have been a fervent admirer of the original plays. Well, my assumption was wrong. (And her essays in The New English Weekly were actually written after her trip to Russia.) Anyway, it is a fact that young Pamela L. Travers loved the Russian adaptation of Hamlet, and that even though it had been distorted beyond recognition:

Well, they’ve turned their backs on Hamlet as we know him, but he shone forth more brightly than I’ve ever seen him. Every possible rule was broken, the text was murderously cut about and great wads of Erasmus and anonymous buffoonery interpolated. The characters too were altered.”

Not Hamlet, perhaps, but Hamlet enough for me, and I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare would have preferred it to highbrow productions that can get a new kick out of Hamlet only by putting him into plus-fours and to those other horrors where Hamlet is only a peg to hang scenery on – a Mr. Cochran’s Young Gentleman, perhaps.”

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion

 I can’t help but notice a paradox here!

When talking about a largely distorted adaptation of another writer’s creation Pamela L. Travers considered it to be a refreshing avant-garde art. Then, some thirty years later, when the same fate fell upon her Mary Poppins she did not see it as avant-garde art. And yet, it could be argued that Disney’s Mary Poppins was, for its time, avant-gardist cinematography combining human actors and animated characters, and stretching the boundaries of what was known to be possible in the sphere of special effects.

Of course, changing perspectives in the course of one’ s life is not that surprising. We all have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, but when thrown into a situation where we are emotionally invested all previous thought-based opinions and judgements go up in smoke.

And I wonder, would it have been easier for Pamela L. Travers to accept the Disney’s adaptation of her Mary Poppins if someone reminded her of her opinion about the Russian Hamlet?  

Maybe, or maybe she would have dismissed this paradox at once…she was a paradoxical character herself. Unfortunately, we will never know what Pamela L. Travers’s reaction would have been.

Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part I)

Mary Poppins in Moscow

Few people know that the first book ever written by Pamela L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was not Mary Poppins but Moscow Excursion. And it was not a story about magic but a travelogue about her not so magical discoveries of Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932 (at that time Pamela was in her early thirties).  

The book is composed of letters addressed to some unknown friend whom I personally suspect to have been her literary mentor George W. Russell (AE).  Extracts from these letters were published in The New English Weekly in 1933 and the book was published in 1934 by the Soho publisher Gerard Howe 

At the very beginning of Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers confides that her entourage was quite flabbergasted by her decision to travel to Russia.

My forthcoming trip seems to be either the Chance of a Lifetime or a Piece of Utter Recklessness.” And she adds: “Nobody, it appears, can conceive that a person who is admittedly neither for nor against the Soviet regime should want to go there. And it is an acid comment upon the Communist State that both sides are at one in their conviction that it is impossible for anyone to go to Russia for purposes of enjoyment.  

So, was it for her personal enjoyment or was there some other reason for her trip to Russia? This she does not discuss in Moscow Excursion. But, if one carefully reads the facts chronicled in her biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote, it appears, somewhere in between the lines, that at that particular time in her life she was trying to establish herself as a serious writer (or what she believed a serious writer should be). Until then Pamela L. Travers was publishing the occasional poem in the Irish Statesman (whose editor was her beloved mentor George W. Russell) and she was a contributing drama critic for the Australian magazine The Triad. Her initial aspirations of becoming a great poet were withering with time. The romantic/erotic poems of her twenties were not infused with the timeless sensibility expressed by the great poets she admired  

Her biographer Valerie Lawson reports that in the late 1931 Pamela L. Travers sent two poems to George W. Russell only to receive a polite rejection. He wrote to her that the poems were “well phrased but a little artificial in comparison with others of yours. You say they are simple. Yes, simple in expression but I feel they are artificial beneath that. You seem to have a hankering for Biblical symbolism which I doubt is natural. Quality is the thing my dear, not quantity. This must have been disappointing… 

(By the way, Biblical references find their way in Moscow Excursion but that will be explored in the following posts on this blog.) 

The political atmosphere in Europe in the early thirties of the last century was disrupted by the rise of the fascist and communist regimes, as described in Pamela L. Travers’s own words: 

In a world rocking madly between Fascism and Communism the writer (herself) prefers the latter form of tyranny if the choice must be made. But it is a desolate alternative, for Communism in Russia is for one class of the community only and thus is hardly on bowing terms with Communism as defined in the dictionaries. 

Significantly interesting fact, visits to Russia appear to have been somewhat of a trend among the constellation of renowned intellectuals Pamela L. Travers orbited around. The writer/poet Hubert Buttler, a friend of George W. Russell went to Russia in 1931. Another influential intellectual of that time who was also a contributing writer to The Irish Statesman, George Bernard Shaw, traveled to Russia where he personally met with Stalin. Shaw wrote about his observations of the Soviet State in a most positive light and it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers had read his praise for the communist regime before undertaking her own trip to Russia. 

The idea of writing political articles with the intent of establishing herself as a serious journalist could very well have been the major motivation for her visit to Russia. According to her biographer a year after her visit to Russia Pamela approached Russel for “names and phone numbers of contacts for a series of articles on Irish politics which she planned to sell to Australian magazines. Pamela was unhappy with the result.”  Even Russell told her that writing political articles was a complicated matter. I believe that she would have been a great political reporter judging by what she wrote in Moscow Excursion. I can’t help but think that the real reason for her not succeeding in the endeavor was because she was a woman, although she had said in interviews to have never felt cast aside because of her gender. But then again, she published under the name P. L. Travers….  It was also in the autumn of 1933 that Pamela L. Travers asked Russell to introduce her to his friend Alfred Richard Orage the editor of The New English Weekly where the extracts from her letters were first published. Her contribution to The New English Weekly span from 1933 to 1949, but she mainly wrote about theater, books and films.   

Pamela L. Travers was apparently so eager to find her place as a writer that even her serious health issues could not stop her. In the early 1932, the same year of her Russian trip, she had to stay in a sanatorium because of a tuberculosis infection, a condition that without any doubt must have caused her deep feelings of anxiety. Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that starting in her late twenties Pamela began to experience serious bouts of anxiety which escaladed to sheer feelings of dread. Going through serious health issues must have only exacerbated her mental condition.  

In the light of these circumstances her decision to undertake a long trip to a controversial country can be viewed as a personal affirmation of her determination and zest both for life and writing A young woman travelling alone in a dangerous foreign country, the idea must have appealed to her romantic, adventurous mind.     

But was it that dangerous to travel to Russia in 1932? According to her biographer, Valerie Lawson, it was not: “The journey was in fact a carefully packaged experience with little risk. Pamela traveled with a party of English tourists herded about in boats, trains and museums by a guide following a strict schedule. This organized tour was to take Pamela L. Travers to Leningrad-Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod.  

The trip might not have been extremely perilous but it was definitely not devoid of risks. Pamela L. Travers strayed away a few times from her appointed group of tourists and the tourist guide to go and explore Russia on her own. She wrote: 

I never go out by myself without being told by a guide where I have been. How is it done? Have I a special bit of the Cheka to myself. And which is he –or she? The woman in the tram yesterday carrying one of those eiderdown bags which (judging from the faint muffled protests one hears coming from within) contain slowly suffocating babies? Or the man who was knocked down by an ambulance and left on the road to die or recover as he wished? It is no good explaining to Intourist that I have friends here and letters of introduction and that anyway even if I hadn’t I should want to be alone sometimes. That to them is the worst of evils. A good Bolshevik never wants to be alone. 

However, before I tell more about her Russian adventures I must share a most interesting and contemporary piece of information.  While I was trying to find a copy of Moscow Excursion (which was not easy but proved to be possible) I stumbled on a YouTube video posted by Pushkin House in 2017, The Russian Travels of Pamela Travers: A Talk by Olga Maeots. The video is a recording of a conference given by Olga Maeots , a Russian librarian and translator, who  in 2016 published a Russian annotated translation of Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion.  I was amazed! Olga Maeots performed an incredible investigative feat and succeeded in identifying the people whose identity Pamela L. Travers willingly disguised in her book by only identifying them by single letters: T, Z, V.   

It is perhaps necessary to stress the fact that the characters in the book are all synthesized personages and that I have studiously given fictitious initials for names throughout. So that should anyone, slipping among the paragraphs, imagine that he has come face to face with himself, I take this opportunity of courteously assuring him that he is mistaken. It is always someone else.   

Was this a safety precaution on Pamela L. Travers’s part? Maybe, some of the characters she met in her book were persecuted shortly after. And maybe her reasons for mystifying the identity of the characters were of a totally different nature. Regardless, I believe that Pamela L. Travers, wherever she might be in the beyond, is pleased with Olga Maeots‘s work. I will tell you more about Maeots’s discoveries and about Pamela L. Travers’s adventures in Russia in the following post on this blog.  

Hope you stay tuned!