Turner, Kristina

It's Up to Ourselves by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth--A Review

Dushka Howarth was the daughter of G.I. Gurdjieff and Jessmin Howarth and her book ‘It’s up to Ourselves’ was published in summer 2009. She died on March 28 2010.
The book has the subtitle ‘A shared memoir and family photo album,’ and this is what it is, a treasure-trove of personal letters, exchanges and photographs. At the same time, it provides a clear map of the years that Gurdjieff was teaching in the West, explaining who is who and how the various lineages came into being.
The book is written in the dual voices of Dushka and Jessmin, demonstrating Dushka’s capability, appetite for life and resourcefulness alongside her mother’s steely gentleness, dedication and impartiality towards herself and others. The focus for their life stories is the teaching disseminated and lived by Gurdjieff and his pupils. Numerous letters to and from friends and family provide a variety of perspectives on the early years of the teaching known as the Work.
Jessmin Howarth was a trained dancer and musician who became a student of G.I. Gurdjieff in 1922. She became responsible for teaching the Movements in the US and made a unique contribution to documenting and maintaining the accuracy of the Movements.
The flavour of the real difficulties faced when working with Gurdjieff comes across in both Dushka’s and Jessmin’s accounts: the necessity to simultaneously use one’s own judgment and be able to receive, to remain detached and to be unfailingly resourceful. Jessmin says of Gurdjieff that he was not a nice man, meaning in the ordinary sense of mechanical kindness. He demanded of you that you think for yourself and at the same time be capable of being a pupil.
One of the criticisms made of Gurdjieff relates to his sexual relationships and the children it produced. As a mother to one of Gurdjieff’s children, Jessmin says about his ‘affairs’: “I do not believe, as many people do, that when a man reaches a high level of development, he may act towards others in any way he likes. But also I think it is probable that such a being still has the usual body functions and natural sexual needs. As far as I have seen, Mr. G. never acted out of his own weakness but sought to show each woman her biological state. He treated them with impartial kindliness and did not ever bind them to him emotionally, but sought to set them free. His imitators are not so conscious and so the results are messy.” We are offered an insight into the walk of a man and a Teacher: when was his conduct intentional and when ‘accidental’?
This is a vivifying book, showing the difficulty of struggling to be from Conscience, of not leaning on authority, either one’s own or that of a Teacher, but of striving always and everywhere to awaken and to be present to what is. The many photographs give you a whiff of the real experiences the people that some of us have come to rely on as ‘authorities’ were having. It also clarifies how Gurdjieff’s family members helped him in his search in the early years and how and why he faithfully reciprocated later in life.
The book includes sections on Dushka’s career and life work, which is perhaps of less interest to Gurdjieff students but it also shows her movingly human effort, how she struggled to work without leaning on intellectual ideas, how she used her natural resourcefulness to multiply the talents given to her and how she came to teach the Movements.
One of the key points of the book relates to Gurdjieff’s attitude towards the Movements. Dushka makes it clear that he authorized only 46 Movements as being completed and clarifies the varying names and numbers of Movements. She also stresses the importance Gurdjieff assigned to the Obligatories, and the special results arising when completing them in sequence.
Dushka describes how Gurdjieff used musical improvisation extensively to accompany the Movements, even accompanying them on his guitar in the early years. When the music is improvised the class never hears melodies repeated and does not get accustomed to a particular piece of music, preventing such familiarity from being used as a crutch to remember postures.
Nor were Gurdjieff’s Movements classes secretive; there were Movements classes for children and observers were allowed to watch in doorways during classes. Dushka also makes it clear that Gurdjieff permitted, even encouraged, notes to be made on Movements.
Jessmin’s dedication to maintaining the Movements as they were originally created and her precision and care in documenting them shows why Gurdjieff made her “Head of Movements in America,” telling her that “Movements must be the same everywhere, in America as in Europe!”
Perhaps Gurdjieff was asking of us to become such that we can distinguish between slavishly following patterns and becoming identified with music or names on the one hand and being attentive and able to accurately preserve that which is essential on the other.
A.R. Orage said of the Movements that (they are) “a book as it were, containing a definite piece of knowledge. Yet it is a book which not everyone may read who would – which not everyone can read who will.”
In the later years, Gurdjieff worked ceaselessly to establish the Movements as a non-verbal teaching, one which did not rely on ideas, language, culture or epoch. In this sense, Dushka pinpoints the value of the Movements that anyone who has participated in a class can confirm.
It also becomes clear that Gurdjieff intended to “cast the net widely,” i.e. that he wanted the teaching to be publicized with readings of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson in auditoriums, the active distribution of books and Movements demonstrations.
‘Criticisms’ of people and lineages become inevitable as this is a collection of personal letters an memories. For example Jessmin says that “Bennett makes things too easy,” and of Mme. de Salzmann “I often think real WORK would be more alive if only Jeanne would accept to allow the “organization” to be less demanding.”
However, Jessmin herself puts this in its right context: “I am awfully sick of the comment that ‘the harm has already been done’ and that this kind of dissension and scattering has always followed the death of a ‘teacher.’” After Gurdjieff’s death Jessmin worked tirelessly to connect and reconnect with others in the work. Gurdjieff’s last words to her when leaving New York were: “Must keep people together!”
There is a chapter dedicated to Mme. Ouspensky which shows why she is held in high esteem by many that came into contact with her. There is an abundance of wonderful quotes: “Do you not see that your ‘titles’ and ‘responsibilities’ were given you as pegs on which to hand your self-study?”, “In momentum, impossible to do – only way of doing is by going against happenings, by stopping momentum”, “If one really wants, one does” and “Not question of abolishing lower, have pig in oneself – it isn’t a question of killing pig, but keeping it in backyard” are but a few.
A sensitive portrait of P.D. Ouspensky also emerges. It is clear that Gurdjieff approved of and strongly encouraged the publication of In Search of the Miraculous. Dushka describes how Ouspensky’s break with Gurdjieff was in part due to Gurdjieff’s emphasis on the Movements, and while Mme. Ouspensky appreciated their importance and continued to work with Gurdjieff, Ouspensky was unable to continue in this direction.
For those that have made the Work their own, the book is a treasure trove of glimpses into the lives of those, we, the ‘grandchildren’ and ‘great-grandchildren,’ have only heard of, such as the Ouspenskys, Mme. and Michel de Salzmann, J.G. Bennett, the de Hartmanns, A.R. Orage, Frank Lloyd-Wright, C.S. Nott and many others.
Although there are typos and the reproduction of photographs is at times poor, the absence of putting these things right somehow makes what the book contains more human, more real. The priorities are right. It is the real world that matters. In this sense, the book is the right way up, not upside down.
It is worth reading for the collection of brilliant and unique quotes it contains alone. For example: “Mr. Gurdjieff could hit you over the head and catch you before you hit the ground. These people only know how to hit you over the head!” (Olga de Hartmann), “True, I had found some of the ideas earlier. They were beads and some of them pearls. But before I met Gurdjieff I had no string to hang them on. Gurdjieff gave me the string.” (A.R. Orage), “When you do a thing, do it with the whole self. One thing at a time. Now I sit here and I eat. For me nothing exists in the world except this food, this table. I eat with the whole attention. So you must do – in everything. To be able to do one thing at a time, this is the property of MAN, not man in quotation marks.” (G.I. Gurdjieff), “You never live with conscious intention for two minutes at a time.” (G.I. Gurdjieff) and to a woman whose husband was suspicious of her interest in coming to groups: “You come work when you can, and if your husband sees that you change in any way for the better he will be glad to let you stay.” (G.I. Gurdjieff)
The book makes an important distinction between what is asked of devotees, or followers, and of disciples, or pupils. As Shivapuri Baba remarks in It’s up to Ourselves: “One in a million is a true pupil.”
Bravo, Sophie!