Some Thoughts on the Descriptions in the Mary Poppins Books

The Complete Mary Poppins cover page

The world of Mary Poppins is a whimsical place where inanimate objects come alive and animals talk, where stars come down to Earth and children go up in the sky, or deep down in the ocean. A world where Kings climb on rainbows and cows dance to exhaustion, where people laugh so hard that they fly up to the ceiling, and where fictional characters come out of the pages of their books. Everything in this magical universe imagined by P.L. Travers is alive and endowed with consciousness. It is so vivid and vibrant with life that it begs a question. How did she conceive of it?

Of course, P.L. Travers’s spiritual inclinations play an important part in her creative process but there is something else. There is something particular in these stories that resonates with young children (and with our inner child, if we let it). What is it?

P.L. Travers did not keep it a secret. She said that she remembered herself as a child.

To be aware of having been a child – and who I am but the child I was, wounded scared and dirtied but sill essentially that child, for essence cannot change – to be aware of and in touch with this fact is to have the whole long body of one’s life at one’s disposal, complete and unfragmented.

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

P.L. Travers remembered how she perceived the world as a young child and how she explained it to herself. In some of her essays written in her old age and compiled in What The Bee Knows, she shared some childhood recollections and revealed, at least in part, young Helen Lyndon Goff (P.L. Travers’s real name); a deeply inquisitive child with great observational skills and adventurous temperament. 

What the bee knows Mary Poppins

As young children we filter the world through our feelings and sensations and then we begin to apprehend it, from what psychologist term, an animistic point of view.  For young children anything that moves is alive and thus capable of thoughts and emotions.  

The first psychologist to come up with the concept of animism as a developmental stage in children’s cognitive development was Jean Piaget. He observed how his own children perceived the world and he remarked that they often attributed human emotions to inanimate objects.  In a book I recently read, On Looking, the author Alexandra Horowitz gives examples of Piaget’s observations. She wrote that one of his daughters told him that “the sky is a man who goes up in a balloon and makes the clouds and everything and that another explained to him that the “sun goes to bed because it is sad” and that boats pulled out of the water are “asleep”.

Piaget believed young children were making an “animistic mistake”. Today psychologists believe that animism is an expression of the young child’s imagination that shows us the child’s understanding of the word. Simply, the child is making analogies with what she has learned so far about the world in order  to elucidate a new experience.

P.L. Travers kept her childlike ability to perceive the surrounding world in animistic terms and that allowed her to create a world relatable for young children. This ability is displayed in some of the descriptions in the Mary Poppins stories. Here are a few examples. 

All the afternoon the house was very quiet and still, as though it were thinking its own thoughts, or dreaming perhaps.

John and Barbara’s Story, Mary Poppins (1934), P.L. Travers

 

Tick-Tack! Tik-tock!

The pendulum of the Nursery clock swung backwards and forwards like an old lady nodding her head.

Tick -Tack! Tik-tock!

Then the clock stopped ticking and began to whir and growl, quietly at first and then more loudly, as though it were in pain. And as it whirred it shook so violently that the whole mantelpiece trembled.

Bad Wednesday, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers

The summer day was hot and still. The cherry trees that bordered the Lane could feel their cherries ripening – the green slowly turning to yellow and the yellow blushing red.

The houses dozed in the dusty gardens with their shutters over their eyes. “Do no disturb us!” they seemed to say.

Every Goose a Swan, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers

It was a Round-the-Mulberry-Bush sort of morning, cold and rather frosty. The pale grey daylight crept through the Cherry Trees and lapped like water over the houses. A little wind moaned through the gardens. It darted across the Park with a whistle and whined along the lane.

“Brrrrrr!” said Number Seventeen. “What can be that wretched wind be doing -howling and fretting around like a ghost! Hi! Stop that, can’t you? You are making me shiver!”

The Other Door, Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), P.L. Travers

The Complete Mary Poppins back cover

The Mary Poppins stories regaled me a great deal as a child. I enjoyed the fantastical aspects precisely because I knew that things did not work quite the way they did in fairy tales. Although, many times I wish they did. Still, I knew, what happened in books remained in books. There was no confusion between the fictional reality and my own reality.

Today, as an adult reader of these stories, I have a quite different understanding. It turns out that the fictional reality of Mary Poppins is connected to our nonfictional everyday reality. What fascinates me now are the hidden meanings of the Mary Poppins adventures and the workings of P.L. Travers’s imagination.

But I still enjoy the descriptions in the books for the same reason I liked them as a child. I like how P.L. Travers creates an atmosphere of aliveness. Anything in the Mary Poppins world has the potential for interaction with its inhabitants. Anything can become a portal to another dimension of time and space.

And, all this thinking about the aliveness of the Mary Poppins world made me think about our own “ordinary” world and how it may appear dull in comparison. Yet, is it really less alive and beguiling than the magical one imagined by P.L. Travers? How much of the aliveness around us do we dismiss each day?

Just because animals and vegetation do not use human language it does not mean they do not communicate. And even if we know that inanimate objects do not have feelings we can still stop and notice what feelings they invoke in us. Could it be that by being oblivious to the aliveness of our surrounding world we become oblivious to our own aliveness?  

It is unfortunate that so many of us lose the ability to wonder as life experience accumulates and familiarity sets in. The child that once was in a state of discovery ends up shut off from the mystery of the world. I recently came upon this quote from Einstein:

 The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all true science. Whoever does not know it, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

Albert Einstein

The child you once were will show you marvels hidden in plain sight.

 

Mary Poppins, Rainbows, the Psychology of Hope and the Virtues of Joy and Serenity

Robertson Ay Story Mary Poppins

Drawings of rainbows are popping up, like mushrooms overnight, on many windows in my neighbourhood. As I count them on my walks, I realize that the rainbow has become our modern-day symbol of hope. Our rational minds know that the ultimate salvation from the COVID 19 pandemic will come from a scientific breakthrough in the form of a vaccine, but in the meantime, while science is wanting, our hearts need hope.

According to findings in the field of positive psychology, the emotion of hope is a result of our hopeful thinking. The hopeful thought induces feelings of hopefulness. Then, our hopeful thoughts and emotions transform into a belief in the possibility for our wishes to become a reality. Which in turn makes us resilient in the face of adversity and prompts us to action towards the desired result. But, in the flood of bad news and scary images how are we to think hopeful thoughts? The fear can be so overwhelming that our brains are paralysed like a deer caught in the headlights of an upcoming car.  And if we cannot think hopeful thoughts then there is no hope to feel hopeful. Or is there?

Actually, there is a way of simultaneously nudging our thoughts and emotions into the desired direction. Symbols are the tools used for that purpose since the dawn of humanity.

The rainbow is the perfect illustration of the wordless, yet effective, communication of a symbol. Its message is clear. Be patient and resilient because just like a bad storm this pandemic too shall pass, and something beautiful will come out of it.

A rainbow path appears at the end of Robertson Ay’s Story in Mary Poppins Comes Back (the book, not the movie!) and although its meaning is not one of hope, I believe that the story is interesting to examine in the context of the current pandemic.

Robertson Ay Story

Mary Poppins takes the Banks children to the park where they encounter a peculiar character.

Along the path at the edge of the Lake came a tall, slim figure, curiously dressed. He wore stockings of red striped with yellow, a red and yellow tunic scalloped at the edges and on his head was a large brimmed red and yellow hat with a high peaked crown.

He was whistling loudly and as he drew nearer they saw that the peaks of his tunic, and the brim of his hat, were edged with little bells that jingled musically as he moved. He was the strangest person they had ever seen and yet-there was something about him that seemed familiar.

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

This is the Dirty Rascal from the Nursery Rhyme and Robertson Ay from the Banks’ household. The children are intrigued and want to know more about him. So, Mary Poppins tells them the story of the Dirty Rascal’s visit to the King of the Castle. Here it goes.

The King of the Castle has everything in the world except wisdom, and because of his lack of wisdom he is disrespected not only by his people but also by the Queen. Eventually, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor take over rule of the kingdom. In the meantime, professors are summoned to the Castle to teach the King some wisdom. As is the custom in fairy tales, a generous price is allotted to the professor who successfully completes the task. Of course, those who fail will see their heads cut off, and in this particular story, spiked on the Castle gates. Many professors try to teach the King some wisdom but to no avail. They all lose their heads while the King sinks deeper into his depression.  

One day the Dirty Rascal shows up at the castle. He becomes the King’s Fool and only friend. Together they set on fire all of the King’s books and spend their time singing and dancing joyfully around the castle.  Obviously, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor do not approve of the King’s behaviour, which in their minds only confirms the King’s poor judgement.

When the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor learn that the Chief Professor will be visiting the Kingdom, in one last desperate attempt to reason the King, they invite the Chief Professor to the Castle.

A witty discussion takes place between the King of the Castle and the Chief Professor.

“How deep is the sea?”

“Deep enough to sail a ship on.”

Again, the Chief Professor stared and his long beard quivered. He was smiling.

“What is the difference, Majesty, between a star and a stone, a bird and a man?”

“No difference at all, Professor. The stone is a star that shines not. A man is a bird without wings.”

The Chief Professor drew nearer and gazed wonderingly at the King.

“What is the best thing in the world?” he asked quietly.

“Doing nothing”, answered the King waving his bent sceptre.

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

At the end, the Chief Professor tells the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor that the King does not need his services and that the price goes rightfully to the Fool, who after all, has taught the King how to be wise.

At that moment, a rainbow path appears down from the sky and the King of the Castle follows the Dirty Rascal on it, throwing down his crown and sceptre. The King leaves behind his old identity and all that no longer serves his higher good. Power, prestige and riches are no longer important to him. Nor is the approval of the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor.

Midway through the climb the King decides to sit and rest for a while.

 “You won’t be lonely?” the Fool enquired.

“Oh, dear, no. Why should I be? It is very quiet and pleasant up here. And I can always think – or better still, go to sleep.”

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

Rainbow me-time.jpg

Whimsical as Robertson Ay’s Story may appear at first, and amusing as it may be to young children, it is in truth an allegory meant for the adult readers.

P.L. Travers tells us, in a nutshell, that books alone cannot bestow wisdom. Accumulation of factual knowledge is not enough to help us live the good life. For that, we must consider the virtues of playfulness and the benefits of spending some alone time. Both, attributes that are currently undervalued in our modern-day societies.  In truth, we can aspire to gain wisdom only if we practice mindful alternation between periods of activity (while adopting a playful attitude) and rest and self-reflection.

P.L. Travers wrote this story in 1935 when she was in her mid-thirties, and today positive psychology confirms that the emotion of joy (playfulness) gives us momentum and optimism, it makes us eager about the world and open to new experiences and opportunities.  Joy allows us psychological flexibility and gives us courage to explore new avenues. By having a playful attitude in life, we are more willing to let go of old preconceived ways of thinking. To be playful is to be fully alive, alert, curious and available for an authentic connection with others.

At the same time, we also need rest to process our experiences internally. We are creatures dwelling simultaneously in two different worlds. That is not, as we all know, an easy task. Often times there is a great gab between our inner world and the outer, visible, collective world. Wisdom is the bridge that can help us unite and harmonise our experiences of these two worlds.    

Maybe the disruption of our habitual ways of living caused by COVID-19, will bring some positive changes. Maybe we will come out of this experience with a better understanding of what really matters to us.  Maybe this forced quiet time at home will allow us to see that there is no need to rush life, it is already short as it is. Maybe we will admit that we need to make more space in our schedules for those we love and for the things that feed our souls even if that does not translate into dollars. Maybe we will come to see that business is a distraction, the greatest waste of our precious time on this planet. Maybe we will truly understand that the pursuit of ever-increasing profit is alienating us from each other and from our planet.

And, maybe it sounds absurd and insensitive to talk about play and rest in a time of great suffering, but for those of us who are privileged with health and sheltered away from the front lines, let us use this time to connect with ourselves and hear the music to which we want to dance. Each individual choice has an effect on the collective.  Because this too shall pass. Then what?

I am willing to be hopeful.

 

Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books by Julia Kunz

Intertextuality Mary Poppins

Julia Kunz’s book Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books is a short, scholarly work written in a very straightforward manner. It is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Mary Poppins books, and like me, in P.L. Travers’s creative process. The pages of this book are filled with accurate observations and I believe that P.L. Travers would have been pleased with Kunz’s analysis of the Mary Poppins’s stories, except maybe for Kunz’s comments about Gurdjieff  (P.L.Travers’s spiritual teacher) in chapter seven.

There are two threads in Kunz’s book as the title itself suggests. One leads towards an explanation of the conceptual interconnections between the Mary Poppins stories and the childhood readings of P.L. Travers, and the second leads the reader towards a short demonstration, in the light of Freud’s concept of the ‘uncanny’, of some psychological aspects in the Mary Poppins stories.

Apparently, the method of connecting psychology and literature in order to extract meaning originates with Freud, and thus Kunz’s psychological analysis points to repressed childhood wishes expressed in the Mary Poppins stories. However, she does not connect the psychological features of the stories with P.L. Travers’s psychological struggles.  But then, there is so much to tell about P.L. Travers and her Mary Poppins, that clearly one book can’t cover it all.

What is intertextuality? It is a concept used in the literary field. Literary scholars view any given text as a network of texts, which implies that authors don’t create independently in a vacuum, but rather link, consciously or not, previously read literary and non-literary texts.  Kunz’s thesis is that some of the Mary Poppins stories (from the first four books of the series) can clearly be linked to Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the works of E. Nesbit, and of course, to fairy tales.

Psychology Mary Poppins

For example, and without any spoilers, Kunz links the story of Halloween* with the shadow of Peter Pan, Alice’s chaotic experiences down the rabbit hole with the strange adventures of Jane and Michael, and the story of the Marble Boy ** with Nesbit’s book The Enchanted Castle.

Kunz also makes extremely interesting, in my opinion,  parallels between Nesbit and P.L. Travers’s life experiences. Apparently, both these authors experienced early childhood trauma; Nesbit just like P.L. Travers lost her father at an early age and had a difficult relationship with her mother. Both had an interest in spirituality and esoteric teachings, and both led quite unconventional lives.

In her work Edith Nesbit then attempts to revive a female mythology, drawing on the theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant (cf. Knoepflmacher 1989, 320), just as Travers instils her writings with the esoteric teachings of Gurdjieff, whose cosmogony is in part linked to that of Blavatsky.

Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books, Julia Kunz

I was pleased to read Kunz’s assertion of the value of the Mary Poppins books for the adult reader.  Kunz points to one obvious fact, yet one that is still largely disregarded by the public:

P.L. Travers transmits her knowledge to the reader on an unconscious level. The Mary Poppins stories tackle universal problems in symbolical ways but also with the help of parables and fables modeled on the traditional fairy tale structure.

The conclusion of the book is that the Mary Poppins stories offer an endless ground for exploration, and that is something that fills me with joy and encouragement.  This year I am revisiting the Mary Poppins books with the intention of compiling my own ideas and connections and hopefully writing the book I’ve been dreaming to write since I started blogging about P.L. Travers and Mary Poppins.

__________________________________________________________________

* A story in which shadows are having a party on the lawn outside of the Bank’s house.

**A story about a marble statue that comes to live.

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff cover page

In this post I want to continue the exploration of Gurdjieff’s use of meals as a function of his spiritual teachings. And, René Zuber’s book Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? is just perfect for this purpose. Zuber was a French writer and photographer, and a pupil of Gurdjieff.

In her Foreword of the English translation of Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? P.L. Travers qualified Zuber’s testimony about his experience of Gurdjieff’s teaching strategies as being “fresh, vivid, wholly unprejudiced” .

First published in France in 1977, Zuber’s account of his time with Gurdjieff during the German occupation of Paris was translated in English by one of P.L. Travers’s friends and a fellow member of the Gurdjieff tribe, Jenny Koralek, herself an author of children’s books. The English translation of the book was first published in Great Britain in 1980.

I purchased an old copy of Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? online, without knowing anything about Zuber and the fact that he wrote his book in French, which turned out to be a lucky ignorance on my part because had I purchased the French edition, I would have missed P.L. Travers’s Foreword. Of course, I interpreted this lucky coincidence as maybe P.L. Travers sending me a wink from the beyond, but that’s just me, and I don’t expect the readers of this post to share my interpretation of this coincidence. 

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff Foreword Page

The reason why I chose this book was its title. I wanted to know who Gurdjieff was and a book by one of his pupils asking this same question was intriguing to me. I admit, sometimes I choose books by their titles!

Zuber’s questions “How can we think of Gurdjieff? As a musician? Choreographer? Writer? Physician? Psychiatrist? Master Cook?” remain largely unanswered, because Gurdjieff was paradoxically all of the above (without the conventional credentials) and none of the above. His talents composed a peculiar composite that defied labels of any kind. And, I believe that it is precisely because of his shapeshifting abilities that Gurdjieff was so fascinating to his pupils.

In her Foreword P.L. Travers vouched for the veracity of Zuber’s account of Gurdjieff. She wrote that Zuber’s “testimony shows him to be a perceptive and veracious member of this tribe.” I read these words as a confirmation of the resonance between her experiences and memories of Gurdjieff and those of René Zuber.

P.L. Travers wrote in her article George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1977-1949) about how Gurdjieff shattered to pieces the egos of his pupils to make place for the arising of  a new awareness in their consciousness.

…or assisting at one of Gurdjieff’s great feasts where, under the influence of good food, vodka and the watchful eye of the Master, opportunities were provided, for those who had the courage, to come face to face with themselves.

(…)

“If take, then take!” was one of his favourite aphorisms—no sipping, no trifling—and for many the special nourishment that was offered in addition to the delicious edibles was indigestible, hard to stomach. The exotic flavours and the vodka in which the famous “Toasts to the Idiots” were drunk (Gr. idiotes, private person, that which in myself I am) did not make things easier. But easiness was not the aim. The patriarchal host, massive of presence, radiating a serene power at once formidable and reassuring, dispensed this “food” in various ways, always unexpected; sometimes in thunderclaps of rage, sometimes telling a story that only one of all the table would know was meant for himself, sometimes merely by look or gesture thrusting home the truth. Masks were stripped off mercilessly. Beneath the exacting benevolence of his gaze everyone was naked. But occasionally, for those who could face their situation Gurdjieff, always fleetingly, would let his own mask fall. It was possible then to see that behind the apparent mercilessness stood sorrow and compassion.

P.L. Travers

Zuber’s description of Gurdjieff’s meals is very similar to that of P.L. Travers:

When Mr. Gurdjieff was nearby it was impossible to sleep in piece. Nobody was safe from being tripped up and sent flying. It is a wonder that there were not more broken bones. His table, at the end of a meal, when a great silence fell to make way for the questions of his pupils, resembled the mat in a judo club.

At first glance Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? appears to be just a small booklet of 75 pages. But for me it happens to be so much more. It is a magical portal to another time and place, that of a small Parisian apartment at 6, Rue des Colonels Rénard in 1943, during the German occupation of Paris.

Here is Zuber’s description of this dark period in time:

Paris during the war, under German occupation, was in the grip of the blackout: if the slightest ray of light filtered through a window it had to be smothered quickly and the curtains more tightly drawn. The city was under curfew: no one would have dared on pain of death, to go out into the deserted streets after eleven o’clock at night. It was the reign of what we called the ‘restrictions’, that is to say, of organised poverty, with its corollary, obsession with food; not to mention the constant hammering of Nazi propaganda which tried, in vain, to rob the Parisians of their last glimmer of hope.

I don’t have a picture of the building at 6, Rue des Colonels Rénard from 1943 but I found a street view on Google, taken in April 2018. The Building is still there, and I wonder if its current occupants know of its history.

Street view Gurdjieff flat 3

 

Street view Gurdjieff flat

Amazingly, Gurdjieff, even though a foreigner with suspicious appearance, described by Zuber as “a Macedonian smuggler or an old Cretan capetan”, found his way around occupied Paris and always had exotic food on his table.

Not only is Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? beautifully written but it is also very candid. Zuber discusses his doubts about Gurdjieff, about his need to categorize him and pin down the sources of his teachings. And despite the fact that a personal relationship is almost impossible to translate in words, Zuber’s recollections provide the reader with a vivid description of Gurdjieff’s meals and a subtle hint of what it might have felt to be a pupil of Gurdjieff.

While reading this little book I felt like a small fly on the wall of the “ordinary bourgeois dining room” in Gurdjieff’s first-floor apartment overflowing with guests sitting on “ill-sorted chairs” that “could have come from any saleroom” and listening to the conversations and the famous Toasts to the Idiots.

I’ve always wondered why his pupils submitted themselves to this humiliating exercise and Zuber gave me an interesting explanation; the ritual of the toasts was a “play of mirrors where others served as reflections of our own image.

But could one trust these projected images? It was, I believe, a dangerous game to walk into Gurdjieff’s hall of mirrors. Maybe this is what Zuber intended to communicate when he wrote “I do not know how to sum up the highly varied impressions we experienced during these dinners.” 

Apparently, Gurdjieff’s meals always began in silence; the conversations were kept for the end because Gurdjieff considered eating as a “sacred act” by which we absorb and assimilate the “first food.

This act asks for our appreciation. It has the value of a call to order since it brings us into communion with the natural forces which we constantly forget we depend upon. It cannot be done in the way one gives swill to a pig, while the mind and feelings are given over to their own affairs or dreams. 

Zuber, like other pupils of Gurdjieff report of his culinary talents. Zuber writes that Gurdjieff cooked like “a gourmet with the knowledge of a scientist. (…) He cooked scientifically, like a dietician who foresees the action on the organism of each dish, each flavouring, each spice.”

I loved reading Zuber’s description of the human chain made by the pupils between the dining room and Gurdjieff’s kitchen, the “passing the plates from one person to another, empty on their way out, laden on their way back.”  For Zuber this chain was an allusion to the “great chain which exists everywhere in the universe between substances (or energies) of different levels”.

With all distinctions as to age, size and sex abolished, the chain, when formed functioned as a whole. At one end, Mr. Gurdjieff took the dishes from the oven, carved the meat or poultry, and, with supreme authority, shared out the helpings. At the other end, the food was kept warm on plates covered by soup bowls. When this ballet was over the circle would close around, and together we would eat the extraordinary fare Mr. Gurdjieff had prepared for us.

For me the description above evoked an image of little orphans lined up to receive a bowl of soup. I could easily imagine P.L. Travers holding her place in the chain and feeling as being part of a family. She, as well as the rest of the followers, found in Gurdjieff a father figure dispensing food and wisdom. But, in order to be factually accurate, P.L. Travers was not present at these dinners 6, Rue des Colonels Rénard. At that time, she and her adopted son lived in New York.

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff 2

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.

 

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.

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.

 

Reviewing Mary Poppins and Myth by Staffan Bergsten

Mary Poppins and Myth 1Mary Poppins and Myth was written some forty years ago by Staffan Bergsten, a Swedish scholar who after reading the Mary Poppins books* to his young daughter became aware of certain connections which appeared to him to be pointing in the direction of the possible inspirational sources for the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. Bergsten decided to explore these connections. With that purpose in mind, he initiated a correspondence with Pamela L. Travers which lasted for a period of three years until the publication of his thesis in 1978 by the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.  Bergsten tells the reader right from the start that his book is a comparative and analytical study and that some of his ideas “were knocked on the head by Pamela Travers, but others were confirmed”.

So, where did Pamela L. Travers find the material for her stories? Bergsten did not provide a definite answer to the question.  He concluded that it was:

highly doubtful that she had any clear conception of what sources she was drawing upon. Her comprehensive reading had sunk into the depths of her mind and the ideas, forms and happenings rose into her consciousness in the shape of spontaneous imaginative creations.  

This reminded me of a comment made by Pamela L. Travers herself in a recorded conversation with British author Brian Sibley that took place many years later. In that recording Brian Sibley commented that in the Mary Poppins stories “there is also a number of very serious adult concepts and thoughts” to which Pamela L. Travers responded:

They are underlined, I find those afterwards. I don’t put them in. Not long ago I was reading for the first time since it was published Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and I was overcome, how did this writer know my inmost thoughts, they are not said, they are not spoken, but they underlie the texts. And then with surprise I realised it was me. Well, I suppose it was me.

                                                                           P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

I enjoyed reading Mary Poppins and Myth, the writing style is fluid and without any scholarly stuffiness. Bergsten had a genuine interest in the subject of his thesis and he wished to share his understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s literary work. He examined the Mary Poppins stories from three different perspectives: psychobiographical, literary and mythological.

Psychobiographical perspective

Bergsten perceived Pamela L. Travers as someone who looked at everyday life in the light of myths and fairy tales, a habit he speculated, she acquired early in childhood through her extensive reading of fairy tales.

So, in Pamela Travers’s childhood memories we find everyday figures and objects together with literary and mythical allusions, and this is the blend we find in all her books. Everyday realism and mythical stylization infuse each other not according to some worked out scheme but simply because this is the author’s own way of experiencing reality.

The accuracy of Bergsten’s remark is confirmed by Pamela L. Travers’s childhood recollections written in some of her essays published in Parabola years after the publication of Bergsten’s Mary Poppins and Myth. The descriptions of Pamela L. Travers’s childhood experiences are original and appear to have happened in some borderline reality between the world as we know it and the world of the fairy tales. Now, of course one can question the authenticity of theses memories and argue that Pamela L. Travers romanticized the facts and retold them many years later, after she had acquired vast knowledge about myths and fairy tales.  That may be, but the sensitivity and love for the fairy tales was in her blood and that explains the longevity of her Mary Poppins.

Staffan Bergsten also sensed that Mary Poppins encapsulated a “whole series of projections of more or less unconscious, sometimes contradictory, tendencies and ideals in the author herself.” But then he admitted that to speculate in that direction it will “lead into psychological and biographical questions and in the meantime at least there is not enough material of the kind that would let us discuss them further.” Pamela L. Travers was notoriously secretive, and the personal details of her life became public only after her death with the publication of her first biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson. Consequently, the psychobiographical examination is quite brief in Bergsten’s book. However, it is clear that Bergsten regretted the lack of available biographical material.

Literary perspective

Bergsten classified the Mary Poppins books in the category of the fantastic tale because the adventures take place in the everyday reality which exists alongside a supernatural reality. And, although the natural laws do not apply in this parallel reality, logic remains present in all the adventures.  Bergsten also explored the possible links between other children’s books which were popular during Pamela L. Travers’s childhood such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan but the connections, he concluded, were quite thin.

Bergsten also noticed the poetic influences of Yeats, Blake and Wordsworth (Pamela L. Travers’s favourite poets) in the Mary Poppins stories in the themes of the “the glorification of the child” and its “innocence and imaginative power”. This probably motivated his interpretation of the main purpose of Pamela L. Travers as a writer, namely, to awaken and stimulate the inner child of the reader. Now I wonder if this was one of his ideas that was knocked on the head by Pamela L. Travers. 

Mythological perspective

Bergsten underlied the fact that Mary Poppins was articulated clearly around mythical elements. She comes down from the heavens and then at the end of each book she ascends up into the upper realms. She is eternal, her home is everywhere and nowhere. She can fly and be free from any confinements. Her magic is inexplicable, and above all, intrinsic. Mary Poppins doesn’t need a wand to perform her magic. The adventures also have mythical notes expressed in cosmic dances and celebrations of the whole of creation. Bergsten linked these to Pamela L. Travers’s Christian sympathies, to Gnostic traditions and to theosophical teachings and Hinduism. This mixture of inspirational sources explains Bergsten’s description of Pamela L. Travers as “a genuine and convinced syncretist who enthusiastically borrows from the most disparate cultures, religions and mythologies”.

In my opinion, Mary Poppins and Myth should be reprinted and made available to the public. It is of course possible for the fans of Pamela L. Travers and the Mary Poppins stories to find this book in a library or to purchase an old copy online.

* Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1944), Mary Poppins in the Park (1952)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part III)

Grimm Fairy Tales

Pamela L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins for those who are not familiar with this blog) believed that all female archetypes were contained in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales and that any woman in need of a female role model could find hers in these tales.  

Today we’ll explore the fairy tales of The Goose Girl and All Fur (Allerleirauh) along with Pamela L. Travers’s interpretations of these stories.  

Again, just like in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White, the major theme in The Goose Girl and All Fur is the process of maturation of the main characters from helpless little girls into fully blossomed maidens. However, each story describes a distinctive pattern of psychological development with its corresponding stumbling blocks depending on the particular family circumstances of each of the female characters.  

The Goose Girl 

The story tells us, right from the start, that the Queen is old and her husband dead for many years, suggesting that the young princess is fulfilling the role of the companion in the Queen’s life 

The time comes when the young princess must leave her mother and travel to a distant kingdom to marry her fiancé. Before she leaves, the Queen provides her with a chambermaid, a horse that can speak and a handkerchief with three drops of the Queen’s own blood. The princess puts the handkerchief into her bosom, a gesture symbolizing her need for protection and also, a clear indication for those who listen to the story, that the princess is not ready to face the outside world on her own.  

Unfortunately, the princess loses the handkerchief on the way to her fiancé’s kingdom, and when she arrives at destination, her identity is already stolen by the evil chambermaid who marries the prince. The true princess is given the task of tending the royal geese by the old king who notices her beauty and takes pity on her. 

Falada, the talking horse is killed because the evil chambermaid is afraid that the truth might come out. The head of the horse is nailed on the wall of the gateway through which the princess, now Goose Girl, passes every day with her geese; and every time she passes through the gate the dead horse laments itself: Dear princess, is that you really there? Oh, if your mother knew, her heart would break in two! 

One day, the boy who tends the geese with Goose Girl, complains to the old King about the strange lamentations of the dead horse. The old King takes the matter in his hands and reestablishes justice: Goose Girl‘s true identity is revealed and she marries the prince. 

According to Pamela L. Travers, Goose Girl is “a passive heroine to whom good fortune seems to happen through no connivance of their own“. (She included Cinderella in that category too.) But their passivity is only apparent. ” Goose Girlwould still be tending geese if it were not that she could understand the prescient lamentations of her dead horse Falada.”  

In my view, Pamela L. Travers‘s interpretation is only partially accurate. I wish it was possible for me to discuss this with her but then maybe she would not have been pleased to be contradicted… 

The horse’s lamentations, I agree with Pamela, are the embodiment of the lesson Goose Girl needs to learn in order to become a fully-grown woman However, Pamela L. Travers’s conclusion about Goose Girl’s ability to understand Falada’s message is wrong 

Goose Girl remains a passive victim until the very end of the story, unable to cross the threshold into womanhood, precisely because she is unable to understand Falada’s message. In order to uncover the essence of this story, I believe one must ponder on the cause of this inability. 

In my opinion, The Goose Girl is an allegory of a co-dependent relationship between a mother and her daughter. The story vividly illustrates the inability of the enmeshed daughter to grow and lead an independent life of her own.  The mother’s love in this case is disempowering and causes the daughter’s misfortunes.  

All Fur (Allerleirauh) 

This is a story about incest and its devastating effects on a young girl’s psyche.  

The Queen dies and the King decides to marry his own daughter who reminds him of his lost wife. The night before the wedding, the princess Allerleirauh puts on a fur coat made from the skins of many different animals, covers her face and hands with dirt and runs away from her father’s kingdom. She brings with her, folded in a nut, three beautiful dresses: one that shines like the sun, one silvery as the moon, and one that sparkles as bright as the stars. She also takes the three gifts she has received from her fiancé, the king of the neighboring kingdom: a golden ring, a little golden spinning wheel, and a little golden reel. 

The princess falls asleep in the forest where her fiancé happens to be out hunting. His huntsmen find her and take her to the castle where she is ordered to work in the kitchen.  At night, before the king goes to bed, she must go upstairs and pull off his boots. The king, of course does not recognize his bride and amuses himself by throwing his boots at her head. And so, she leads a miserable life for a long time.   

Eventually a ball is held in the castle and the princess dresses in her beautiful gowns and goes off to dance with the king. After the dance she must go back to the kitchen and prepare the soup for the king’s supper. Then, she intentionally drops one of his gifts into the soup. So, it goes for three nights, a dance and a bowl of soup where the king finds the gifts he has given to his destined bride. As expected, the king summons Allerleirauh and asks her “Who are you and what are you doing in my castle? Where did you get the ring (the wheel and the reel) that was in the soup?” To which she responds: “I’m nothing but a poor child whose mother and father are dead. I am nothing and no good for nothing except for having boots thrown at my head. I also know nothing about the ring (the wheel).” The third night of the ball the king slips a ring on Allerleirauhs finger without her noticing it. Once more, at the end of the dance, Allerleiraugh  runs away  and changes back into her dirty attire and prepares the kings meal in which she drops the golden reel. This time the king is convinced that the person who put the reel in his soup is his bride. He summons Allerleirauh who tries to run off but the king sees the ring on her finger and tares off the ugly fur coat and the true identity of Allerleirauh is discovered.  

Reading the story, I wondered why didn’t Allerleirauh look for shelter in the arms of her fiancé right from the start? Why didn’t she abandon her disguise once she was out of her father’s kingdom? Why didn’t she tell her fiancé what happened?  

The answer is given by Allerleirauh herself: I am nothing and no good for nothing except for having boots thrown at my head.”  

And why would she feel so unworthy of love and respect? The story suggests that she felt responsible for her father’s actions, she felt dirty and deserving of severe punishment. To heal her wounded soul, she needed her fiancé to recognize her worth underneath all that animal disguise. 

Pamela put Allerleirauh in the category of the heroic roles. ” …and Allerleirauh, who to escape the concupiscent advances of her father put of her regal habiliments and became – until her true condition was discovered – a lowly kitchen maid.  

Allerleiraugh’s fate is indeed tragic and her escape as well as her desire to be rescued heroic.  However, there is more about this story than what Pamela L. Travers wrote

Her interpretations of The Goose Girl and All Fur lack depth. Clearly, she did not realize that both Goose Girl and All Fur are two girls who undergo major identity crises caused by the poor parenting skills of their caregivers How could have she missed this aspect in the stories?  

For me, the fact that Pamela L. Travers interpreted stories which so obviously deal with the passage from childhood to womanhood without ever mentioning it and without seeing that the condition of the heroines was caused by the actions of their parents is conclusive of her own misunderstanding of her personal story.  

I believe that Pamela L. Travers was unable to consciously make the link between her inner torments and her childhood experiences. I also believe that however traumatic and sad her experience of losing her father might have been, it was the unresolved conflict with her mother that was at the root of all her sufferings. 

Sadly, Pamela L. Travers never understood the nature of her inner torments. Just like Goose Girl and Allerleiraugh,  she needed help, but receiving the right help is never guaranteed in life as it is in the fairy tales.

Also, another very important detail that deserves to be mentioned here, the heroines in these fairy tales show signs that they are ready to receive the help, something I am not sure Pamela L. Travers was ready to do. (To be explored in future posts.) 

Maybe Pamela L. Travers’s advice to her friend (see Part I) could have been more accurate if she formulated it this way: Read the Grimm’s fairy tales in search of a pattern that corresponds to your childhood experience of your parents. Maybe the fairy tales can help you uncover the causes of your inner blocks. Maybe Pamela L. Travers needed to follow this advice too…