April 3, 2011
Rt Hon John Sinclair, 1 st Lord Pentland
Lord Pentland: President of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York
Andrew Rawlinson reviews
James Moore’s ‘Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland’
It is, I think, impossible to write a good biography of someone you consider a nonentity.
James Moore does his best. We know from his previous books that this is an author with an ear for the English language. His description of Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, as a strange Old Testament figure with prematurely white hair, who gave the appearance of subsisting on a diet of locusts and Eucharistic wine is superb. Likewise:
The assassination of President John Kennedy on 22 November 1963 cast something of a pall over the twenty-first birthday celebrations of Pentland’s daughter the Hon. Mary Ishbel Sinclair. You expect a present but not Lyndon Baines Johnson.
And this gem:
From early youth Ouspensky had been in search of the miraculous but the sudden disappearance of his rancorous wife seemed a special marvel
- which is quite the equal of Les Dawson at his finest.
But Moore’s material here proves well nigh unworkable. He begins by covering the career of John Pentland’s father, the first Baron Pentland, with discursive ease. But he doesn’t think much of him either. Witness this description of a painting commissioned after Baron Pentland became Secretary of State for Scotland in 1905:
Tall, broad-shouldered, slim, clean-shaven, elegant and patrician, [he] poses unembarrassed like a well-achieved centrepiece in a Burlington Arcade window display. The Gilbertian flummery – the golden epaulettes, the impeccably cut uniform, the red belt, the virginal white sash, the blaze of obscure orders – are carried with aplomb yet with a hint of detachment.
The style is measured and taut. But the subject of the book does not live up to it – and neither does the rest of his family. Very few of Pentland’s class could. The First World War is delivered and dissected in short, deadly strokes.
For four tormented years The Manchester Guardian relayed deplorable events as the great Houses of Romanoff, Hapsburg-Lorraine, Hohenzollern, and Saxe-Gotha clashed and blundered through an ocean of blood to a doomed peace. Decorative old men, studious of maps, fought to the last drop of young men’s blood. Daily headlines testified to an unstaunchable wound: the despoliation of Europe; ruination of an entire generation; and the bankruptcy of the idea of progress.
Any good that might come out of that awful mess could never be ascribed to those who had managed it.
John Pentland’s life (6 June 1907 to 14 February 1984) is rolled out in a series of vignettes: minor incidents here and there, which, though linked, have yet no discernible arc.
At boarding school, Pentland’s ears are protuberant and flickable.
The title ‘Lord’ – here as elsewhere, lending to mediocrity the gloss of excellence… (This on Pentland’s succeeding to his father’s title at the age of 17.)
He got a Third in Maths Part I at Cambridge, switched to Mechanical Sciences and ended up with a Second. Moore records these achievements tautly: Unfortunately one can stumble over quite a modest barrier if it over-tops one’s competence. Away from the examination halls, Pentland did have some success: he was elected President of the Union.
Undoubtedly it was not just his peerage and boiled shirt manner which marked him out as presidential timber. He benefited from other qualities. He was incorruptible. He was overwhelmingly reasonable. His mind’s perfect vacuity was admirably suited to the role of an arbiter. His stewardship would not be skewed by any prejudice or fixed opinion. He had no opinions. As to whether the capital of France were Paris or Lyon he would maintain an impeccable neutrality until after the votes were counted. Yet toss him a point of order and he could deliver a ruling in the tones of Lady Catherine de Burgh snubbing an apothecary.
This is not damning with faint praise. It is illuminating a tepid and colourless form with the borrowed hues of more exciting lives.
Pentland’s entry into the Work is unrecorded. He went to one of Ouspensky’s meetings in London but we do not know when exactly – 1934 perhaps? – and have no inkling as to why. “I went to one meeting and didn’t go back,” he said. But Ouspensky wanted him. He was after all young, moneyed and brilliantly connected. So he was given a place at the top table and there he earnestly expounded ideas which had never occurred to him.
It appears that very few ideas did. In 1939, he crossed the floor of the House of Lords not for any ideological reason but because the Liberals were in opposition and the Conservatives in power. He became, in Moore’s phrase, a make-weight Conservative peer.
He continued in the Work, going to America in 1944 with his wife and daughter. Up until this point his participation in the war effort in Britain had been, once again, vague, tepid. Moore refers to his studied deafness to the solicitations of 1940′s patriotism.
Pentland was out of his depth with the top men in the Work (Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) and in thrall to the women (Madame Ouspensky, Madame de Salzmann). Moore doesn’t have much to go on but is clearly unimpressed by what he has found. Pentland’s account of being in Madame Ouspensky’s presence is described as patented incoherence. When, in 1948, Gurdjieff urged his followers to steal the energies of New Yorkers at Christmas prayers, Pentland’s response was a dazed goodwill but a singular incompetence.
All of this is in tune with Pentland’s deep superficiality. He prevaricated over Ouspensky’s repudiation of ‘the System’, and paid a visit to India immediately after Ouspensky’s death, thereby avoiding all the knots and difficulties which such a loss brings. When Madame Ouspensky advised everyone to seek out Gurdjieff, Pentland was one of the tardiest to respond. Holed up in Mendham, his idea was to sit on the fence as long as possible while keeping his ear close to the ground.
Yet Gurdjieff appointed him his representative in America. To begin with, this meant only that Pentland was in charge of promoting Beelzebub’s Tales – a modest appointment yet one which Moore finds baffling: Pentland was a parvenu, a class misfit, a disaffected follower of the late Piotr Ouspensky. And it didn’t end there. After Gurdjieff’s death, under Jeanne de Salzmann’s overall guidance, Pentland was promoted to President of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York. He was all diffidence; all diplomacy, all teeth and trousers.
Moore presents Pentland as the Work’s supreme company man and fixer. But this is as far as he goes. He has already noted that Pentland had occupied his chair as President of the Cambridge Union with decorum but no particular distinction. He has noted that Pentland is a pragmatic climber of institutional scaffolding. This irreducible undistinguishedness continued in America.
His exalted Work status …relied on his agreeing with Madame de Salzmann whatever she said. Had she asserted that the moon is made of green cheese, he would readily have conceded that it displays cheese-like qualities.
Throughout, he remains distinctly undiamond-like.
[The Work was] a shimmering reality, while Pentland, notwithstanding his good points, had about as much shimmer as a municipal dustbin-lid.
…His Lordship miraculously transformed Gurdjieff’s wine into water. He brought to his task a patent sincerity and [his] old flair for mouth-filling incoherence… propositions which would have baffled Jacques Lacan and…whose implausibility would have been manifest to an infant of three.
Lumped together, Pentland’s logic-chopping…responses in a thousand group meetings (whether characterised as crowned masterpieces of banality or crowned masterpieces of obfuscation) seem curiously infertile.
Vis-à-vis Gurdjieff’s awesome ideas Pentland will go down au fond as a well-intentioned if flat-footed expositor…[Yet] around him there had thriven up a wealthy and powerful authoritarian network with sharp prescriptive and proscriptive powers.
In short, Lord Pentland has no real shape, no real substance. But there he is, occupying space, seemingly close to the centre of the Work’s mission.
And James Moore has stepped up and flicked his ears.
Andrew Rawlinson, author of The Book of Enlightened Masters: WesternTeachers in Eastern Traditions with significant entries on Gurdjieff and the Gurdjieff Legacy (Ouspensky, Madame O, Maurice Nicoll, Rodney Collin, Robert de Ropp, Orage, Jane Heap, Madame de Salzmann) plus other entries on Bennett, Leon Maclaren, E.J.Gold, Jan Cox, Idries Shah and Gary Chicoine. was a lecturer in Buddhism at the University of Lancaster and a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Bargbara. He lives in France and is writing a book on the Hit in all its forms; the Hit as a derangement: derangement of the senses, derangement of the personality, derangement of society, derangement of reality.
James Moore’s book is available from Amazon UK where you can also read the review by Andrew Rawlinson. The image of the cover is not shown on the Amazon site and the one I found on google images would not load here - ‘due to security reasons’ – so here is an image of the author.