Meetings With a Remarkable Paradox
|by Richard Smoley|
He was by any account one of the most remarkable men the human race has produced.
His name was George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (pronounced "gur-jeef" or "gur-jeff"), and he proved to be one of the most challenging, paradoxical, and enigmatic spiritual teachers of our time. His principal biographer called him "a fraud, a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel" - and then went on to note his "sympathy, compassion, charity," and his "eccentric code of honor."1 He is chiefly remembered for imparting, through the most extraordinary and difficult methods, the fundamentals of an esoteric system known as the Fourth Way - also called, austerely, "the Work."
What is this Fourth Way? Gurdjieff said there were three comparatively common ways to spiritual attainment: the way of the fakir, that is, the man who masters his physical organism to the point where he can, say, stand "motionless in the same position for hours, days, months, or years."2 The second is the way of the monk, the man who masters his emotions through prayer and devotional practices. The third way is the way of the yogi, the man who gains control of his mind.
Yet, Gurdjieff believed, none of these ways is complete in itself. A man, for example, may master his mind - he may genuinely know something - but may be incapable of putting it into action. Or his emotions may be developed, but his intellect may remain at a primitive state. To compound these difficulties, each of these first three ways requires withdrawal from the world, from day-to-day life.
Then there is the Fourth Way - "the way of the sly man." It does not require withdrawal from the world, but can be pursued in the midst of ordinary life. And instead of working with just the mind, the emotions, or the body, it works with all three. It is, Gurdjieff claimed, faster and more efficient than the other ways. "The 'sly man' knows the secret," said Gurdjieff, "and with its help outstrips the fakir, the monk, and the yogi."3
So who was this Gurdjieff man? What secret did he possess, and was he able to pass it on?
About his early life little is known. Even his surname is questionable; perhaps it was originally "Gurdjian" or even "Georgiades," the racial salad of the Caucasus - where Gurdjieff was born - occasionally imposing the convenience or necessity of name-changes upon its inhabitants. His birth date? His passport said 1877, but some believe he was born as early as 1873 or as late as 1886. His birthplace can be fairly well established as Alexandropol (now Leninakan), a small town on the Russo-Turkish border. His father was Greek, his mother Armenian.4
So much can be said. But of the rest of the first thirty-seven years (more or less) of Gurdjieff's life, we have no other authority than his own written works, particularly the autobiography Meetings with Remarkable Men. Entertaining and profound as it is, much of this book is clearly not literal truth. Curious seekers and even serious scholars have invoked speculation, rumor, and sheer fiction to fill the gap.
The most intriguing part of Gurdjieff's legend is one he fostered himself: that he began, at an early age, on a search for some deeper truth about man and the universe. Along with a small band of fellow seekers, he eventually made his way to a school in Central Asia called the Sarmoun Brotherhood and there learned the secrets he would later impart to his students.
Where this brotherhood was, or even if it really existed, has never been conclusively proven. Nor do we have any clear picture (other than Gurdjieff's own) of his companions in this search. Gurdjieff did his best to cover his tracks; to a large extent he succeeded. The first conclusive evidence we have of his whereabouts is in Moscow around 1914, where he began to teach the System (like the Work, it is usually capitalized) for which he would become renowned.5
In 1915 Gurdjieff met his most famous student, the man who, much more than Gurdjieff himself, would become the most widely-read exponent of the Fourth Way: Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky (1878-1947). Ouspensky, a bespectacled mathematician preoccupied with the nature of the universe, had just come back from a journey from India to find hidden wisdom (which he had failed to do). He suspected Gurdjieff had the secrets he had been searching for. Ouspensky gives a vivid account of their first meeting:
We arrived at a small cafe in a noisy though not central street. I saw a man of an oriental type, no longer young, with a black mustache and piercing eyes, who astonished me first of all because he seemed to be disguised and completely out of keeping with the place and its atmosphere. . . . this man with the face of an Indian raja or an Arab sheik whom I at once seemed to see in a white burnoose or a gilded turban, seated here in this little cafe . . . in a black overcoat with a velvet collar and a black bowler hat, produced the strange, unexpected, and almost alarming impression of a man poorly disguised, the sight of whom embarrasses you because you see he is not what he pretends to be and yet you have to speak and behave as though you did not see it.6
Ouspensky's account of his experiences is contained in what is perhaps the best and most famous book about the Gurdjieff Work: In Search of the Miraculous. In it Ouspensky presents an elaborate and fantastic esoteric system, emphasizing the mechanicalness of human behavior and how man, in his ordinary situation, cannot do anything; things happen to him. Man, in fact, is not even one consistent being: he is a stage on which a constant succession of different identities perform, each of them wanting and doing one thing one minute and another the next. By this view we are scarcely different from those cases of multiple identities recorded in psychiatric journals. Yet Gurdjieff also taught that man, by dint of intense work upon himself, can become a unified being, possessing will and consciousness and able to do in the real sense of the word.
In Moscow and later in Petrograd, Gurdjieff managed to collect a small band of students dedicated to working on these premises. From one point of view, their circumstances were far from auspicious, those being the grim days of the First World War, when the fabric of imperial Russia was beginning to rend. From another point of view, however, the circumstances were ideal, since, as Gurdjieff himself said, "Sometimes, revolutions and all consequent difficulties can help real Work."7 The turmoil of the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war would supply ample conditions for the "superefforts" that Gurdjieff required of his students.
When the revolution finally came in 1917, Gurdjieff led his followers down to the Caucasus, which was still free from the Bolsheviks and provided some refuge for Gurdjieff and his White Russian followers. There he put his pupils through a remarkable odyssey that led them to make the most extraordinary demands upon themselves.
At one point, for example, Gurdjieff formed something called the "International Idealistic Society" and required his students not only to join it, but to give up all their possessions to it. The move at first glance smacks of opportunism and chicanery, but it turned out to have a useful purpose; according to Thomas de Hartmann, the aristocratic composer who accompanied Gurdjieff on this journey, "the papers we had written stating we were giving up all our personal belongings were used later to convince the Bolshevik authorities that we were not unsympathetic toward the idea of common ownership of property," thus winning them a certain measure of freedom.8 On another occasion, Gurdjieff persuaded the Bolsheviks that he knew where gold could be found in the Caucasus and organized a "scientific expedition" to find it. He and his followers used the pretext to organize their escape from Soviet Russia in a harrowing mountain trek.
Neither Gurdjieff nor his followers would ever return to their native country. Instead, after sojourns in Constantinople and Berlin, they arrived in France in 1922. Here Gurdjieff was finally able to establish his school, the "Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man," in an old chateau known as the Prieure, near Fontainebleau, forty miles from Paris. For the rest of his life Gurdjieff would live here and in the capital, drawing a collection of students, famous and obscure, from around the world.
One of Gurdjieff's most renowned pupils was A.R. Orage (pronounced "or-azh"), editor of the respected British journal The New Age and hailed by T.S. Eliot as "the best literary critic of that time in London."9 Orage, who had first come to the Work in London through Ouspensky (who had gone there after leaving Russia), eventually went to the Prieure. There Gurdjieff turned him to manual labor; one visitor recalled Orage being set to digging ditches in the Prieure garden - only to be told to fill them in again as soon as he was done.10
Orage joined Gurdjieff and his group for their first trip to America in 1924. In New York and Chicago Gurdjieff and his troupe gave demonstrations of the movements and sacred dances on which he particularly prided himself. Though the dances created a certain eclat in the novelty-hungry America of the '20s, they did not furnish Gurdjieff with the recognition (or the money) he sought. It was Orage - urbane, intelligent, "the most persuasive man I have ever known," according to one observer - who laid the foundations for the Gurdjieff Work in New York.11 When Gurdjieff and his troupe returned to France, Orage stayed behind to develop Work groups. It was his interpretation of Gurdjieff's teachings that would dominate the Work in America for the rest of the decade.
Gurdjieff taught that man in his undeveloped state was subject to the law of accident. Unless we are able to take our lives in hand with consciousness and will, we cannot effectively do anything; we are bounced around by circumstance like coins in a pocket. And it was precisely to exempt oneself from this law of accident that one undertook the Work.
Given this context, one can imagine the shock created when the master had an accident himself - and a severe one. Driving to Fontainebleau from Paris on July 5, 1924, he crashed into a tree. Gurdjieff went into a coma that lasted for several months.
The incident was a severe test for everyone associated with him. In part this was a sheer matter of practicality, since the master had directed the day-to-day activities of the Institute. But for some - including Ouspensky - the crisis went deeper.
Ouspensky had had misgivings about Gurdjieff for some time, centered on Gurdjieff's eccentric behavior and his disregard for conventional morality. He told his pupils his association with Gurdjieff had ended around the time of the latter's first trip to America. Nonetheless Ouspensky went to France soon after Gurdjieff's accident. During his stay he met with his friend Boris Mouravieff. Mouravieff knew (and liked) Ouspensky and knew (but did not like) Gurdjieff; moreover, since he was himself an esotericist of no mean caliber, his testimony is of interest:
Although Ouspensky continued to teach his own version of the System, and although he and Gurdjieff remained in occasional contact for the rest of their lives, they never mended the breach between them. Possibly its cause was dispositional: Ouspensky was a man of extraordinary decency and refinement; Gurdjieff's antics, often coarse and not infrequently brutal, must have gone strongly against his grain.
The effects of the accident were felt in other ways too. As soon as Gurdjieff regained consciousness several months later, he sent away most of the students from the Prieure, allowing only Americans to stay (in recompense for the generosity of American students who, mostly thanks to Orage, gave Gurdjieff a lot of money).13 Withdrawing into himself, Gurdjieff began the enormous project of setting down his teachings in written form.
He originally intended to write books in three series: the first would provide "an objectively impartial criticism of the life of man," and would "destroy mercilessly . . . the beliefs and views . . . of everything existing in the world." The second would "acquaint the reader with the material required for a new creation," while the third would "assist in the arising of a veritable, non-fantastic representation . . . of the world existing in reality."14 Of this series, only the first, later published as Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, would ever be finished more or less as Gurdjieff had first envisioned it. The second, Meetings with Remarkable Men, was eventually finished in a shorter form, and is the most readable of Gurdjieff's writings; the third series, published under the title Life Is Real Only Then, When "I Am," is fragmentary.
Working at an intense pace, mostly at the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, Gurdjieff "wrote and rewrote 10,000 kilos of paper" by his own estimation.15 Like Gurdjieff's other works in this series, Beelzebub was not published until after his death. It is an enormous book, over 1200 pages long, and contains, under the guise of narrations by the aforementioned Beelzebub, its author's views of man and the cosmos.
Gurdjieff sent pages of this work to Orage in New York, who returned at least one section as completely unintelligible; later versions, though no doubt improved, were to prove difficult enough. Partly this was deliberate: Gurdjieff believed nothing comes without effort and wanted to make Beelzebub's wisdom difficult to extract. On the other hand, he himself lamented that the book was only comprehensible to those who "in one way or another, were already acquainted with the peculiar form of my mentation."16
He had good reason to think so. Written in an extraordinarily convoluted style and laced with words of Gurdjieff's own coinage like "Rastropoonilo" and "Ikriltazkakra," Beelzebub is the Finnegans Wake of esotericism: worth reading, no doubt, but almost unreadable, and studied exclusively by the few who have decided to surmount its obscurities - usually with the help of a group.
Despite the support Orage and his American groups gave for Beelzebub, Gurdjieff, upon his visit to New York in 1930, decided Orage had not done a good job teaching the System, and asserted that Orage had only wanted to stay in New York because he had "started a romance . . . with [a] saleswoman in [a] bookshop."17 He made his students sign a piece of paper saying they would have nothing more to do with Orage. (To Gurdjieff's discomfiture, Orage signed the paper himself.)
The pattern is a familiar one, for Gurdjieff was to experience breaks with many of his students at some point or another. Ouspensky's reaction we have already seen. Even Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, who accompanied Gurdjieff out of Russia and whose account of their years with him provides one of the warmest and most sympathetic treatments of Gurdjieff and his Work, were forced to break with him in 1929 - according to Olga de Hartmann, because Gurdjieff demanded that they accompany him to New York when her husband was extremely ill.18
Though these breaks are difficult to explain - except perhaps by saying Gurdjieff did not wish to foster dependency in his students - in some cases they proved damaging to him. Olga de Hartmann had been his secretary for many years and had taken down much of the dictation for Beelzebub. The break with Orage was even more costly, losing Gurdjieff not only a great deal of his financial support but also many of his students. By the early 1930s, Gurdjieff was a bit down-at-heel, having alienated many of even his most loyal followers; in 1933 he sold the Prieure.
The last fifteen years of Gurdjieff's life seem to a certain extent anticlimactic. He remained in Paris throughout World War II (and indeed seemed surprisingly - and to some suspiciously - exempt from the want imposed by the Nazi occupation); two or three years after it was over his reputation rose again, and his flat was filled with disciples, his own as well as old students of Orage's and Ouspensky's. Plans were even made to publish Beelzebub; those who had found it useful were invited to support its publication by paying a subscription fee of £100.19
Nonetheless, even at this late stage of his life, Gurdjieff did not seem to elude the law of accident. Rammed by a drunken driver in 1948, he suffered severe internal injuries. Though he recovered, he was never quite the same, and he died on October 29, 1949, at the age of (perhaps) seventy-two. His last words are rumored to have been addressed to his disciples: "Vous voilà dans des beaux draps!" ("Here you are in a fine mess!")
James Webb, the most dispassionate of Gurdjieff's biographers, asked someone who had been present if Gurdjieff really had said that. "He did not," the man replied, "but it was true!"20
As for Ouspensky, he had died two years earlier, in 1947, shortly after repudiating Gurdjieff's System as he had known and taught it.21 Gurdjieff had told some American pupils that Ouspensky had "perished like a dog."
What is one to make of the strange case of G.I. Gurdjieff? Was he a "good man"? What was his aim? And can the seeker do anything with his System?
To the question of whether Gurdjieff was a "good man" or not, one can only shrug. As Ouspensky pointed out, Gurdjieff made light of conventional morality and honesty; in Meetings with Remarkable Men he tells of a time when, hard up for cash, he gets hold of some sparrows, paints them with aniline dyes, and sells them as "American canaries." Nor was he known for sexual restraint; several of his female disciples ended up carrying his children.
On the other hand, Gurdjieff does not seem to have been concerned with the empire-building so beloved of contemporary gurus in the United States; he drove away as many students as he attracted; and many of the people who stayed at the Prieure were Russian refugees whom he had to support. True to his Caucasian heritage, he dispensed hospitality in abundant qualities. To Aleister Crowley, for example, who came to the Prieure for help with his drug addiction, Gurdjieff showed all due consideration - until Crowley was about to leave.
"Mister, you go?" Gurdjieff inquired. Crowley assented. "You have been guest?" - a fact which the visitor could hardly deny. "Now you go, you are no longer guest?" Crowley - no doubt wondering whether his host had lost his grip on reality and was wandering in a semantic wilderness - humored his mood by indicating that he was on his way back to Paris. But Gurdjieff, having made the point that he was not violating the canons of hospitality, changed on the instant into the embodiment of righteous anger. "You filthy," he stormed, "you dirty inside! Never again you set foot in my house!" . . . Whitefaced and shaking, the Great Beast crept back to Paris with his tail between his legs.22
Amusing as it is, this incident also displays some of the problems one faces when trying to make sense of Gurdjieff. More so, perhaps, than any other mage of our time, he seems to have been operating under premises that were obscure or difficult for the ordinary person to sort out - in this comparatively simple case, the obligations of hospitality versus his dislike and distrust for Crowley. As for his larger aims, which could tell us something about the direction of his Work and what he hoped to accomplish with it, we have little if any idea. (He himself told Ouspensky, "My aim cannot have any meaning for you.")23
But if we cannot know Gurdjieff's aim, let us permit ourselves to guess. And that brings us to the question of the source of Gurdjieff's teaching - a difficult, and to some insoluble, problem. Most would agree at least up to a point with Boris Mouravieff's evaluation: some of Gurdjieff's teachings came from the esoteric tradition of Orthodox Christianity; some came from Muslim traditions; and some were Gurdjieff's own ideas and creations.24 (To this one could add the teachings he might have taken from Buddhist or shamanistic traditions in Central Asia and elsewhere.) What people don't agree on is the degree of the admixture. Claudio Naranjo, the Chilean physician and esotericist, believes Gurdjieff's teaching reflects a northern strain of Sufism indigenous to Central Asia and less connected to orthodox Islam than more southerly versions. And Robin Amis, in his article on page 46 of this issue, makes an intriguing case for finding the sources of Gurdjieff's teaching in Eastern Orthodoxy; after all, Gurdjieff himself said his System was "esoteric Christianity."25 Each year to this day Gurdjieff's death is commemorated in Paris by Russian Orthodox services.26
But perhaps another answer lies in the notion of the Fourth Way, the way beyond that of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi - meaning the Muslim, Christian, and Hindu. Robert Amadou, in an article on Gurdjieff's relation to Sufism, points out:
These three mystic ways [are] always open to the Muslim, the Christian, or Hindu who wishes to perfect his religion. . . . Then - a Fourth Way, which Gurdjieff traced . . . and on which he leads those unfortunates, the monsters without religion. . . . The primordial trick of Gurdjieff is to have, in his teaching and practice, hidden the latent religious side and manifested the psychological.27
So possibly Gurdjieff took on the project of bringing certain ancient esoteric doctrines to overintellectualized Western man, for whom God is a nullity or an abstraction, and who can only appreciate such teachings if presented in a psychological or "scientific" cloak. If this was in fact his task, he was to devote his entire life to it.
Did he succeed? The difficulty of the Work, its inaccessibility to all but a tiny fraction of humankind, is admitted and even celebrated by its adherents. Yet, as Joel Friedlander's article in this issue shows, we find the teachings of Gurdjieff cropping up in the most unlikely places - in books on pop psychology, in corporate management classes, even on sneakers and key chains.
Gurdjieff himself, most likely, would have laughed at such attempts and branded them as counterfeits - as they may well be. And they point to a goal which Gurdjieff would have found ridiculous: the collective awakening of mankind. Gurdjieff, who believed human beings were on a low rung of an enormous cosmic food chain, did not think awakening was possible for any more than a few isolated individuals working together, who, like prisoners digging a tunnel, may be able to find a way out.
I can't quite bring myself to disagree with Gurdjieff about this point, but I can't bring myself to agree with it either. True, awakening is extraordinarily difficult, even when pursued along definite lines and with the help of a group dedicated to this purpose. On the other hand, we have reached the point in human history when we have no choice: individual awakenings are not enough. Boris Mouravieff believed that we are on the threshold of the Era of the Holy Spirit, which will open up enormous possibilities for human evolution, but if we do not successfully pass over into this epoch, we will be subject to the deluge of fire mentioned by the Apostle Peter.28
An extravagant statement; but to view it another way, Mouravieff is simply stating what we all know: if we don't come to our senses, we will blow ourselves up.
What role do the Gurdjieff teachings have to play in this drama? This is not clear to me. Perhaps it lies in the notion that man is asleep and needs to wake up. But Gurdjieff taught that awakening requires a school, and few have bothered to involve themselves with the Gurdjieff Work as he envisaged it. (Nor, I suspect, is it an ideal path for many.) Moreover, many students - apparently including Ouspensky - did not reach the goals Gurdjieff set out. If the "sly man" had a secret, it is far from an infallible one.
And yet Gurdjieff retains an incontestable allure despite his paradoxes and inconsistencies. Or perhaps because of them. For it seems quite clear that Gurdjieff as a man makes little sense in any kind of rational or logical way - nor did he intend to. Was this hypocrisy or schizophrenia on his part, Gurdjieff exemplifying his own teaching that we have no one consistent "I"? Possibly. But beyond a certain point it may be more useful to set aside our judgments of Gurdjieff and ask instead what we can learn from him.
Gurdjieff's abundant sense of humor, his relentless will, the depth of his teachings, the richness and drama of his life, all retain the capacity to fascinate and inspire even now, forty years after his death. As for his darkness - for there was darkness, despite his followers' best efforts to excuse it or cover it up - that too has its place: if we are to be sly men and women, we must make use of darkness as well as light. For myself, as I try to distill some wisdom from my reflections on Gurdjieff's strange and mysterious career, I keep coming back to a piece of advice given to him by his father: "to be outwardly courteous to all without distinction . . . but inwardly to remain free and never to put much trust in anyone or anything."29
And of course that would include Gurdjieff himself.
1. James Webb, The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1980) p. 13.
2. P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949), p. 45.
3. Ibid., p. 50.
4. Webb, pp. 25-26.
5. For the earliest reliable description of Gurdjieff, see "Glimpses of Truth," written by an anonymous student in 1914, reprinted in G.I. Gurdjieff, Views of the Real World (London: Arkana, 1984), pp. 3-37.
6. Ouspensky, p. 7.
7. Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 39.
8. Ibid., pp. 37-39.
9. Webb., p. 196.
10. Webb, pp. 236-37.
11. Webb, pp. 280-82.
12. Boris Mouravieff, "Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, et les Fragments d'un Enseignement inconnu," (N.p.: Centre d'etudes chretiennes esoteriques, n.d., reprinted from [Brussels] Synthèses, No. 138, Nov. 1957), p. 15. Emphasis Mouravieff's.
13. G.I. Gurdjieff, Life Is Real Only Then, When "I Am," (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981), p. 94.
14. G.I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973), p. i.
15. Gurdjieff, Life Is Real, p. 41.
16. Ibid., p. 5.
17. Ibid., p. 93. In fact Orage did have a romance with a woman named Jessie Dwight of the Sunwise Turn bookshop, and later married her.
18. For Olga de Hartmann's account of the rupture, see de Hartmann, pp. 155-56.
19. Webb. p. 473.
20. Ibid., p. 475.
21. Ibid., p. 449.
22. Ibid., p. 315.
23. Ouspensky, p. 99.
24. Mouravieff, p. 18.
25. Ouspensky, p. 102.
26. Robert Amadou, "Gurdjieff et le soufisme," in (Paris) Question de, #50 (1989), p. 54.
27. Ibid., p. 55.
28. 2 Peter 3:10.
29. G.I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969), p. 39.
(c) copyright 1991 by Richard Smoley