GURDJIEFF by Anthony Storr
from Feet of Clay - A Study of Gurus
by Anthony Storr
GURDJIEFF CLAIMS OUR INTEREST because he, or his doctrines as propounded by his disciple Ouspensky, bewitched so many interesting and intelligent people, including the writer Katherine Mansfield, A. R. Orage, the distinguished socialist editor of The New Age, Margaret Anderson, the editor of the Little Review, and her friend and co-editor Jane Heap; the surgeon and sexologist Kenneth Walker; Olgivanna, the third wife of Frank Lloyd Wright; John Godolphin Bennett, later to become something of a guru himself. The psychiatrists James Young and Maurice Nicoll, and the psycho-analyst David Eder were also followers. T. S. Eliot, David Garnett and Herbert Read intermittently attended Ouspensky's meetings. Ouspensky, who first encountered Gurdjieff in 1915, became chiefly based in London and was therefore more accessible to interested English people than the guru himself.
The date of Gurdjieff's birth is uncertain. Some say 1866; others quote one of his several passports, which showed December 28, 1877. James Moore, Gurdjieff's latest biographer and the author of Gurdjieff and Katherine Mansfield, argues that the earlier date is the more probable. Gurdjieff was secretive about this as he was about so many features of his background. He died on October 29, 1949. His birthplace was Alexandropol (formerly Gumru) in Russian Armenia, in the land lying between the Black Sea on the West and the Caspian Sea on the East, south of the Caucasus mountains. His father was Greek, his mother Armenian. Armenian was spoken at home, but he also learned some Greek, some Turkish, and the local dialects. In his autobiographical memoir, Meetings with Remarkable Men, he claimed to know eighteen languages, but there is no evidence to support this. Throughout his life, he continued to speak both Russian and English incorrectly.
Gurdjieff was the eldest of six children; he had a brother and four sisters. One of the sisters died young. In Gurdjieff's early childhood, the family moved to the near-by city of Kars, shortly after the defeat of the Turkish forces there in 1878 by the Grand Duke Michael Niklayevich, brother of the Russian Tsar. The boy Gurdjieff was accepted as a chorister at Kars military cathedral, and being obviously intelligent, attracted the notice of Father Dean Borsh, who helped to educate him. He developed a passion for learning, read widely in Greek, Armenian, and Russian, and began to harbour a wish to find some answer to the problem of 'the meaning of life'. He resembles other gurus in going through a period of doubt which was succeeded by the revelation which manifested itself in his new cosmogony and his teaching. Why his perplexity was so extreme as to propel him into a search for truth which lasted twenty years is not apparent.
Gurdjieff's esoteric knowledge and status as a guru were attributed to his discoveries during his travels in Central Asia, but we are entirely dependent upon his own inaccurate account. The period 1887-1911 remains unsubstantiated and mysterious. Gurdjieff claimed to have learned much from a three months' stay in 'the chief Sarmoung monastery', belonging to a brotherhood which he said taught him secret wisdom derived from traditions dating back to 2500 B. C., including physical techniques for self-transformation, and sacred dances. Gurdjieff was careful never to be specific about the exact location of these teachers of secret knowledge, although he later stated that he had a teacher from whom he was never separated, and with whom he constantly communicated, presumably telepathically. The Sarmoung monastery cannot be identified, and even disciples of Gurdjieff regard his account of it as an allegory rather than literal truth. His own autobiographical account, in Meetings with Remarkable Men, is contradictory and chronologically unreliable. What does emerge from that book is his resourcefulness and his capacity to survive, both physically and financially. He sold carpets and antiques; repaired sewing-machines; bought quantities of old fashioned corsets and remodelled them to suit current taste; traded in oil and fish, and claimed that he cured drug addicts by hypnosis. His prowess as a healer was, he wrote, unprecedented (Gurdjieff never exhibited false modesty). When asked by Ouspensky about his studies and discoveries, he said that he travelled with a group of specialists in various subjects who eventually pooled their knowledge; but he did not vouchsafe their names or say where they were, nor did he answer direct questions about where he had been. 'About schools and where he had found the knowledge he undoubtedly possessed he spoke very little and always superficially." It is hardly surprising that there were rumours that he was a secret agent employed by the Russians.
Gurdjieff established himself as a guru in Moscow in 1912. His principal contention was that man does not know himself, and is therefore not what he should be. He considered that modern civilization had made it difficult to co~ordinate the physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of personality, which he believed were controlled by three separate centres. He thought that the majority of people were 'asleep', and behaved like machines reacting blindly to external forces. His training was designed to awaken selected followers to a higher level of consciousness and a new perception of reality.
'A modern man lives in sleep, in sleep he is born and in sleep he dies. About sleep, its significance and its role in life, we will speak later. But at present just think of one thing, what knowledge can a sleeping man have? And if you think about it an at t e same time remember that sleep is the chief feature of our being, it will at once become clear to you that if a man really wants knowledge, he must first of all think about how to wake, that is, about how to change his being.'
By participating in what became known as 'The Work', the fortunate few might become more able to co-ordinate the three centres through self-observation. Instead of living in a dream in which a series of fleeting 'I's' succeeded one another, the awakened individual would cease living 'in quotation marks', achieve a new unity, and, by means of this, direct his own destiny, or become able to do, as Gurdjieff phrased it. 'To do means to act consciously and according to one's will." This change in consciousness, like everything else, has a material basis, which in this case manifests itself as a trace chemical compound in the brain.
The keystone of his teaching, of course, was that no progress no human progress, that is - can be accomplished except on an individual basis. Group work is valuable only in the sense that it helps the individual to achieve individual self-perfection.'
J.G. Bennett, who died in 1974, first met Gurdjieff in 1920. In his book Gurdjieff… Making a New World, Bennett devoted three chapters to Gurdjieff's travels and search for esoteric wisdom. Both J. G. Bennett and James Moore have to admit that it is impossible to trace Gurdjieff's travels with any degree of accuracy. Although careful never to commit himself wholeheartedly, Bennett clearly believed in the literal truth of the tradition that, somewhere in Central Asia, there is a group of wise men or 'Masters of Wisdom' who watch over the destiny of mankind and intervene from time to time to alter the course of events by introducing new ideas and new modes of thinking. Bennett suggests that Gurdjieff made contact with such a group; an 'Inner Circle of Humanity', perhaps the Sarmoun brotherhood, whose members were highly developed spiritually and able to generate higher energies. Bennett wrote:
'The true significance of such a group must lie in its mission. The more that one becomes aware of the spiritual realities, the more convinced does one become that a very great action is now proceeding in the world. The task before us is to help mankind to make the difficult and dangerous transition to a new epoch. If we find evidence that Gurdjieff was concerned in this task and moreover that he opened the way for us to participate in it, we shall have gone a long way to connecting him with the 'Inner Circle'.'
We shall again encounter the idea that mankind is on the threshold of a new epoch when discussing the ideas of Jung.
Bennett was a long-term disciple of Ouspensky, and was therefore at one remove from the master himself But he remained intermittently in touch with Gurdjieff, and saw him frequently during the last two years of his life. Bennett believed that Gurdjieff's ideas and teaching had transformed his own life, and himself ran groups along Gurdjieffian lines in London, sometimes with dire effects upon participants, as I remember from seeing one or two of them as psychiatric patients. Nevertheless, Bennett followed a path characteristic of those who constantly search for esoteric wisdom without ever quite finding what they want.
Bennett … broke from the Gurdjieffian mainstream in 1955 to pursue eclectic affiliations (being inter alia 'opened' into Subud by Hoscin Rofe, initiated by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, received into the Roman Catholic Church, and introduced to the 'Invisible Hierarchy' by Idries Shah).'
The Russian revolution of 1917 caused Gurdjieff to move to Tiflis in Georgia and then to Constantinople and on to Berlin. His exhausting and sometimes dangerous journeys are chronicled by his biographer, James Moore. His close associates Thomas and Olga de Hartmann joined him in one of his stopping places; Essentuki in the Caucasus. This was in August 1917, not long after Kerensky had been announced as Prime Minister of the coalition government which followed the abdication of the Tsar. Gurdjieff then suddenly announced that he was going to Tuapse, on the Black Sea. The dutiful de Hartmanns followed. Their account of an exhausting nocturnal walk forced on them by Gurdjieff in spite of the fact that they were unsuitably clad and also dead tired is a striking example of the autocratic and unreasonable demands which Gurdjieff made on his followers which they nevertheless slavishly obeyed. Olga de Hartmann's feet were so swollen and bleeding that she could not put on her shoes and had to walk barefoot. Thomas de Hartmann had missed a night's sleep because he had been ordered to stay on guard. Their limbs ached and they were both exhausted; but they went on nevertheless.
'Mr. Gurdjieff demanded from us a very great effort, especially difficult because we did not know when it would end. We suffered and would have been only too happy to rest; but there was no protest in us, because the one thing we really wished to do was to follow Mr. Gurdjieff. Beside that, everything else seemed unimportant.'
It was a recurrent pattern of behaviour. The de Hartmanns claim that these demands were made upon them as a way of teaching them to overcome emotional and physical difficulties. Gurdjieff certainly pushed people to the limit of their physical capacities; and some discovered that they had more powers of endurance than they had ever suspected.
When short of money, he survived by dealing in caviar and carpets. He had hoped to settle in England, but the Home Office were suspicious of him and would not permit him to stay unless he did so as a private individual, which would have meant abandoning his nucleus of followers. Eventually, the generosity of Lady Rothermere, the estranged wife of the newspaper magnate, together with funds from other wealthy supporters, made it possible for him to set up his Institute for the Harmonious Development ofman at the Chateau du Prieure, a large estate near Fontainebleau, in France.
'The Work' was carried out in groups and included special exercises and dances, exhausting physical work, training in memory and self-observation, together with lectures given by Gurdjieff at irregular intervals. Some of those who participated in the so-called 'Sacred Dances' found them more valuable than Yoga or any other training affecting physical awareness. Complete concentration on whatever was being carried out at the rime was an essential part of Gurdjieff's message and of his own behaviour. Insistence on living intensely in the present moment and discarding the concern with past or future which interferes with fully experiencing the here-and-now, is not confined to Gurdjeff's teaching. Zen also treats the past and future as fleeting illusions. It is only the present which is eternally real.'
Gurdjieff was a dictator. He had the capacity so completely to humiliate his disciples that grown men would burst into tears. He might then show the victim special favour. He demanded unquestioning obedience to his arbitrary commands. For example, he once suddenly announced that none of his followers might speak to each other within the Institute. AB communication must be by means of the special physical movements he had taught them. Gurdjieff sometimes imposed fasting for periods up to a week without any lessening of the work load. His authority was such that his followers convinced themselves that these orders were for their own good. Those less infatuated are likely to think that, like other gurus, Gurdjieff enjoyed the exercise of power for its own sake. There were also dinners at which large quantities of alcohol were drunk, and large sums of money extracted from the diners.
Gurdjieff also developed an elaborate cosmology. His picture of the universe and man's place in it is complex, and unsupported by any objective evidence. It is deliberately obscure and often incoherent. Yet, because Gurdjieff was a powerful guru whose followers included some sophisticated, intelligent people, attempts have been made by his followers to make sense out of what appears to the sceptical reader to be a psychotic delusional system. The task is rendered more difficult by the numerous ludicrous neologisms which Gurdjieff introduced. It is appropriate to remind the reader that chronic schizophrenics often invent words which carry a special meaning for them but which others find hard to understand. Eugen Bleuler, the famous director of the Burgholzhli mental hospital in Zurich and the originator of the term 'schizophrenia', quotes a patient who wrote:
'At Apell plain church-state, the people have customs and habits partly taken from glos-faith because the father wanted to enter new f. situation, since they believed the father had a Babeli comediation only with music. Therefore they went to the high Osetion and on the cabbage earth and all sorts of malice, and against everything good. On their inverted Osetion valley will come and within thus is the father righteousness.'
Another patient referred to being tormented by 'elbow-people'. As Bleuler notes, wording is preferably bombastic. 'The patients utter trivialities using highly affected expressions as if they were of the greatest interest to humanity. I am not suggesting that Gurdjieff was schizophrenic, but his use of language resembled that employed by some psychotics.
For example, Gurdjieff is said to have believed in God, to whom he referred as 'Our Almighty Omni-Loving Common FatherUni-Being Creator Endlessness'. This description may fairly be described as bombastic. In the beginning was the 'Most Most Holy Sun Absolute' in space which was also endless, but which was charged
'with a primordial cosmic substance Etherokilno. 'Because this nebulous Etherokilno was in static equilibrium, the super-sun existed and was maintained by our Common Father, quite independently of outside stimulus, through the internal action of his laws and under the dispensation tenned Autoegocrat (I keep everything under my control).
However, Time, that villain who attacks us all, appeared in the shape of the merciless Heropass, which so threatened to diminish the volume of Sun Absolute that steps had to be taken to forestall this action. Thereupon Common Father issued from himself a creative Word-God named Theomertmalogos which interacted with Etherokilno to produce our universe Megalocosmos. This creation is maintained by a principle or law named Trogoautoegocrat - by eating myself, I am maintained: 'In the cosmic sense, God feeds on the Creation and the creation feeds on God."' So God and his creation become separate entities, which are only distantly related to each other, and creation is maintained by new laws; Triamazikamno, the law of three, and Heptaparparashinokh or Eftalogodiksis, the law of Seven.'
The law of Three is relatively straightforward. 'The higher blends with the lower in order to actualise the middle.' For example, sperm and ovum merge to create the embryo. This formula can be applied to many situations in which opposites require a third - Moore
gives as an example a judge resolving a case between plaintiff and defendant.
The law of Seven is more complex, and, in my view, incoherent. Gurdjieff tried to relate cosmology with the musical scale, believing that every completing process has seven discrete phases corresponding to an ascending or descending series of notes, including the two semitonal intervals, which constitute necessary irregularities. Gurdjieff represented the universe in a diagram called the Ray of Creation which begins with the Absolute and ends with the moon.
Gurdjieff taught that a collision between a comet named Kondoor and the earth gave rise to two orbiting bodies, Loondeiperzo (later known as the moon) and Anulios. After the shock 'a whole commission consisting of Angels and Archangels, specialists in the work of World-creation and World-maintenance, under the direction of the Most Great Archangel Sakaki, was immediately sent from the Most Holy Sun Absolute to that solar system "Ors". Gurdjieff's beliefs about the moon were even more eccentric. He claimed that the moon was still an unborn planet which was gradually becoming warmer and more like earth, just as the earth was becoming warmer and more like the sun. Anulios became forgotten, but the moon required energy to assist its evolution. Sakaki therefore arranged that the planet earth should send to the moon the 'sacred vibration askokin'. Askokin was liberated when organic life on earth dies. According to Ouspensky's report in In Search of the Miraculous, Gurdjieff said:
The process of the growth and the warming of the moon is connected with life and death on the earth. Everything living sets free at its death a certain amount of the energy that has 'animated' it; this energy, or the 'souls' of everything living - plants, animals, people - is attracted to the moon as though by a huge electromagnet, and brings to it the warmth and the life upon which its growth depends, that is, the growth of the ray of creation. In the economy of the universe nothing is lost, and a certain energy having finished its work on one plane goes to another.
He then went on to say that the moon influences everything that happens on earth.
Man, like every other living being, cannot, in the ordinary conditions of life, tear himself free from the moon. All his movements and consequently all his actions are controlled by the moon. If he kills another man, the moon does it; if he sacrifices himself for others, the moon does that also. All evil deeds, all crimes, all self-sacrificing actions, all heroic exploits, as well as all the actions of ordinary life, are controlled by the moon."
And J. G. Bennett wrote:
'At a certain point in the history of the earth it was perceived by the Higher Powers that a very undesirable and dangerous situation was developing on the planet earth which could endanger the equilibrium of the entire solar system and, in particular, the evolution of the Moon.'
If men realized that, because they were controlled by the moon, their personal efforts were unavailing, might they not be tempted to mass suicide, and so deprive the moon of the askokin needed for its development? To guard against this possibility, the Higher Powers implanted an organ at the base of man's spine delightfully named by Gurdjieff the organ Kundabuffer'.* This had the effect of ensuring that man would base his values solely on satisfying his own desires and the pursuit of happiness by making him perceive reality as topsy turvy. So man would serve the moon blindly, unaware that, by embarking on the path of self-development, he could free himself from the moon altogether. Once the moon crisis had passed, the organ Kundabuffer was removed; but the majority of mankind still behave blindly, selfishly, and without insight as if the organ was still there. This is actually necessary if the purposes of nature are to be fulfilled. According to Ouspensky, Gurdjieff said that the evolution of humanity as a whole might be injurious.
For instance, the evolution of humanity beyond a certain point, or, to speak more correctly, above a certain percentage, would be fatal for the moon. The moon at present feeds on organic life, on humanity.
Humanity is part of organic life; this means that humanity is food for the moon. If all men were to become too intelligent they would not want to be eaten by the moon.
The majority of human beings provide askokin for the moon after death, and are then condemned to obliteration. However, some few who follow the path of self-development and self-realization prescribed by Gurdjieff create askokin during life. Such people may finally develop a soul which can survive and may even reach Objective Reason and attain a form of immortality by being reunited with the Most Most Holy Sun Absolute.
How can anyone ever have taken this kind of thing seriously? Some have referred to Gurdjieff's teachings as myths, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh claimed that Gurdjieff was joking about the moon, but J. G. Bennett wrote that Gurdjieff certainly intended his account of the historical appearance and disappearance of the organ Kundabuffer to be taken literally. He also quotes the author Denis Saurat, then Director of the French Institute in London, as believing that Gurdjieff's teaching 'could not be of terrestrial origin. Either Gurdjieff had revelations vouchsafed only to prophets or he had access to a school on a supernatural level.' Although writers about Gurdjieff tend to distance themselves from his most extravagant propositions, Philip Mairet, an intelligent literary figure who was editor of the New English Weekly, and who was also well acquainted with the works of Freud, Jung, and Adler, is reported as saying: 'No system of gnostic soteriological philosophy that has been published to the modern world is comparable to it in power and intellectual articulation.' Having read Ouspensky's exposition of Gurdjieff's teaching in his book In Search of the Miraculous, and having attempted to read Gurdjieff's own book All and Everything, I can only wonder at Mairet's opinion. Perhaps I have extracted enough to give the reader some idea of Gurdjieff's picture of the cosmos, and to demonstrate that Gurdjieff's own writings are both voluminous and obscure. Even his devotees say that All and Everything has to be read several times if its meaning is to be grasped; and some claim that Gurdjieff's obscurity was deliberate; a device adopted to ensure that the disciple would have to make a considerable effort at understanding on his own account rather than be spoon-fed with clear statements an doctrines.
At first sight, it is difficult to believe that Gurdjieff's elaborate cosmology was anything other than a planned, comical confidence trick designed to demonstrate how far the gullibility of his followers could be tested. His own account of how he survived his early wanderings reveals how expert he was at deception. Gurdjieff wrote that he coloured sparrows with aniline dyes and sold them as 'American canaries' in Samarkand. He tells us that he had to leave quickly in case rain washed the sparrows clean. When people brought him sewing machines and other mechanical objects for repair, he was often able to see that the mere shift of a lever would cure the problem. However, he was careful to pretend that such repairs were time-consuming and difficult, and charged accordingly. He also wrote that he found out in advance which villages and towns the new railway would pass through, and then informed the local authorities that he had the power to arrange the course of the railway. He boasted that he obtained large sums for his pretended services, and said that he had no pangs of conscience about doing so.
We know from J. G. Bennett that, when he and his followers were in danger from the conflict between the Cossacks and the Bolsheviks, Gurdjieff managed to get transport from the Provincial Government by spreading a rumour that he knew of enormously rich deposits of gold and platinum in the Caucasus mountains which would fdl the Government's coffers. Bennett wrote:
In all this, he was also demonstrating to his pupils the power of suggestion and the ease with which people could be made to 'believe any old tale'."
Fritz Peters recounts an elaborate hoax in which Gurdjieff diluted a bottle of vin ordinaire with water, and then covered it with sand and cobwebs. Two distinguished women visitors were tricked into believing that Gurdjieff was serving them with wine of a rare vintage, and dutifully pronounced it the most delicious which they had ever tasted .
Fritz Peters recalled an occasion on which a rich English lady approached Gurdjieff as he was sitting at a cafe table and offered him a cheque for £1,000 if he would tell her 'the secret of life'. Gurdjieff promptly summoned a well-known prostitute from her beat in front of the cafe, gave her a drink, and proceeded to tell her that he was a being from another planet called Karatas. He complained that it was very expensive to have the food he needed flown in from this planet, but urged the prostitute to taste some which he gave her. When asked what she made of it, she replied that he had given her cherries, and went on her way with the money Gurdjieff pressed upon her, obviously believing that he was mad. Gurdjieff turned to the English lady and said: 'That is the secret of life.' She appeared to be disgusted, called him a charlatan, and went off. However, she reappeared later on the same day, gave Gurdjieff the cheque for £1,000, and became a devoted follower.
He became skilled at extracting money from Americans to support his enterprises at the Chateau du Prieure, and referred to this activity as 'shearing sheep'. For example, an American woman travelled from the United States to the Prieure to seek Gurdjieff's advice about her chain smoking, which she said was a phallic activity connected with her marital sexual difficulties. After a pause for thought Gurdjieff suggested that she should change her brand of cigarette to Gauloises Bleus, and charged her a large fee for this advice, which she gladly and gratefully paid. There is no doubt that Gurdjieff could be a convincing confidence trickster when he so wished and that he did not hesitate to mislead the gullible when it suited him. He was always a wonderful story teller who held his audiences entranced.
He told Peters, 'I not make money like others make money, and when I have too much money I spend. But I never need money for self, and I not make or earn money, I ask for money and people always give and for this I give opportunity study my teaching."' However, he contradicted himself a moment later by saying that he owned a business making false eyelashes and another business selling rugs. When he went to New York in 1933, he demanded coaching in the use of four-letter words in English from Fritz Peters before giving a dinner for some fifteen New Yorkers. When the diners had drunk a certain amount, Gurdjleff began to tell them that it was a pity that most people - especially Americans - were motivated only by genital urges. He picked out a particularly elegant woman and told her in crude terms that she took so much trouble with her appearance because she wanted to fuck. The guests were soon behaving in an uninhibited fashion and becoming physically entangled with each other. Gurdjieff then announced that he had proved his point that Americans were decadent and demanded that he be paid for his lesson. According to Peters, he collected several thousand dollars.
Yet confidence trickery cannot be the whole explanation of Gurdjieff's teaching. If Gurdjieff could support himself so easily by deception, why should he bother to invent a cosmogony? Gurdjieff found writing a burden. He was much more impressive as a lecturer than he was as a writer. All and Everything is enormously long, and, although it was dictated to Olga de Hartmann rather than written, it must have demanded considerable dedication to complete. Gurdjieff began his dictation on 16 December 1924. He completed the dictation of Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson (the first part of All and Everything) in November I927. Could anyone devote so much time and energy to creating something in which he did not believe himself, with the deliberate intention to deceive? We hover on the borderline between confidence trickery and psychosis. Gurdjieff's propositions about the universe were totally at variance with the discoveries of astronomers and other scientists, and can only be compared with science fiction, but I think he believed in them, just as paranoid psychotics believe in their delusional systems.
Gurdjieff's arrogance and disregard of established experts were extraordinary. When he visited the caves of Lascaux, he told J. G. Bennett that he did not agree with the Abbe Breuil's dating of the rock paintings at thirty thousand years ago because he had concluded that the paintings were the work of a brotherhood that existed after the loss of Atlantis some seven or eight thousand years ago. He also told Bennett that he intended that his Institute would become 'a centre of training and research not only into the powers of man himself, but into the secrets of the solar system. He said he had invented a special means for increasing the visibility of the planets and the sun and also for releasing energies that would influence the whole world situation.'
Gurdjieff's complete disregard for science and for the views of generally accepted experts is narcissistic in the extreme. But he did, at times, show considerable interest in other people, and compassion for those who were suffering. He sometimes exhibited a capacity for intense concentration upon individuals, which was certainly one component of his undoubted charisma. Fritz Peters, whose parents were divorced, was legally adopted by his mother's sister, Margaret Anderson and her friend Jane Heap, who were mentioned earlier as adherents of Gurdjieff. Peters, who was brought to Le Prieure when he was a boy of eleven and stayed there until he was fifteen, described Gurdjieff's behaviour to himself
Whenever I saw him, whenever he gave me an order, he was fully aware of me, completely concentrated on whatever words he said to me; his attention never wandered when I spoke to him. He always knew exactly what I was doing, what I had done. I think we must all have felt, certainly I did, when he was with any one of us, that we received his total attention. I can think of nothing more complimentary in human relations." This intense concentration, as we have seen, was an important part of Gurdjieff's teaching. It entered in to everything he did. His ability to mobilize and direct attention may have accounted for his extraordinary effect on other people.
When you do a thing, do it with the whole self One thing at a time. Now I sit here and 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."
In movement, he gave the impression of complete co-ordination and integrated power. 'His gait and his gestures were never hurried, but flowed in unison with the rhythm of his breathing like those of a peasant or a mountaineer. Peters writes that Gurdjieff's presence and physical magnetism were 'undeniable and generally overwhelming'. When, in the late summer of 1945, long after he had left the Prieure, Peters suffered from severe depression with insomnia, anorexia, and loss of weight, he sought Gurdjieff in Paris. Gurdjieff realized that he was ill, forbade him to talk and at once offered him a bedroom for as long as he needed it. He made Peters drink strong, hot coffee, and concentrated upon him intensely. It seemed to Peters that a violent electric blue light emanated from Gurdjieff and entered himself Whatever the reason, Peters promptly recovered from his depression.
However, not everything about Gurdjieff was so impressive. His personal habits could be disgusting. One of the jobs that Peters was given when he was still resident at the Prieure, was to clean Gurdjieff's rooms.
What he could do to his dressing room and bathroom is something that cannot be described without invading his privacy; I will only say that, physically, Mr. Gurdjieff, at least so I gathered, lived like an animal … There were times when I would have to use a ladder to clean the walls.
Gurdjieff generalized from his own experience in that he set himself up as a teacher who could train others to attain the wisdom and autonomy which he believed himself to possess. But such teaching could only be assimilated by the chosen few. As we saw earlier, Gurdjieff did not believe that mankind as a whole was capable of development, or that it was desirable that any attempt should be made in this direction, lest the development of the moon might suffer. Gurdjieff, like many other gurus, was unashamedly elitist and authoritarian.
Gurdjieff"s sexual behaviour was unscrupulous, in that he coupled with any female disciple whom he found attractive, and not infrequently made her pregnant. When Fritz Peters went to the Chateau du Prieure at the age of eleven, there were about ten other children there, some of whom were undoubtedly fathered by Gurdjieff.
Like other gurus whom we have encountered, Gurdjieff enjoyed the exercise of power. We saw earlier what physical demands he made on the de Hartmanns. He was not directly cruel, but the regime he imposed upon his disciples was rigorous to the point of physical exhaustion.
The daily routine was exacting in the extreme. We woke up at five or six in the morning and worked for two hours before breakfast Afterwards there was more work: building, fetching trees, sawing timber, caring for the animals of almost every domestic species, cooking, cleaning, and every kind of domestic duty. After a quick light lunch and a period of rest, one or two hours were devoted to 'exercises' and 'rhythms' accompanied by music usually played by Thomas de Hartmann on the piano. Sometimes there would be fasts lasting one, two, three or even up to seven days during which all the work continued as usual. In the evening, there would be classes in rhythms and ritual dances which might go on for three, four or five hours until everyone was totally exhausted.
It is not surprising that one disciple who was fixing trusses twenty-five feet above the ground fell asleep whilst precariously balanced on a narrow beam and had to be rescued by Gurdjieff.
Bennett does not point out that, whether or not this regime assisted spiritual development, it was certainly a convenient way of obtaining free labour to run the Prieure. Moreover, Gurdjieff, as an experienced hypnotist, would have realized that physical exhaustion makes people more suggestible, although one of his avowed aims was to discover some means of 'destroying in people the predilection for suggestibility'. He once ordered Orage to dig a ditch to drain water from the kitchen garden. Orage worked extremely hard for several days. He was then told to make the edges of the ditch quite equal, and did so after more labour. Immediately after he had finished, Gurdjieff ordered him to fill in the ditch because it was no longer needed.
One of Gurdjieff's disciples was Olgivanna Ivanovna Lazovich, who became the third wife of the American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. She first encountered Gurdjieff in Russia in 1917 at a time of crisis in her life. She was nineteen years old and was just about to have a child. Her first marriage was failing, her father was ill, her mother far distant. When Gurdjieff moved to the Prieure, she joined him, became one of his best dancers, and an assistant instructor in The Work. In I 924, Gurdjieff suggested that she join her brother in America for no obvious reason. Shortly after her arrival, she encountered Frank Lloyd Wright at a ballet performance in Chicago and fell in love with him. Gurdjieff visited the Wrights on more than one occasion. Finding that Wright was seriously worried about his digestion, Gurdjieff invited them both out to dinner and served a series of extremely hot and indigestible dishes followed by the inevitable draughts of Armagnac. Wright felt terrible, but woke the next morning to find that his fears about his digestion had disappeared. On another occasion,
Wright grandly remarked that perhaps he should send some of his pupils to Gurdjieff in Paris. 'Then they can come back to me and I'll finish them off.' 'You finish' You are idiot,' said Gurdjieff an gray 'You finish! No. You begin. I finish.' It was clear that Wright had met his match.
Wright had many guru-like characteristics himself, so that it is not surprising to learn that these two autocrats found themselves in competition. Even so, Gurdjieff won Wright over. Shortly after Gurdjieff's death, when Wright was receiving a medal in New York, he interrupted proceedings to announce: 'The greatest man in the world has recently died. His name was Gurdjieff.'
Olgivanna appears to have acquired or developed a number of Gurdjieff's less engaging traits. Draftsmen, apprentices and their wives were supposed to sit at Olgivanna's feet whilst she gave them instructions and mercilessly criticized their failings. They even had to undergo the ordeal of listening to Wright reading from Gurdjieff's writings." As she became older, she became more and more dictatorial, and, after Wright's death, became a 'despotic and jealous' widow with whom scholars and institutions preferred not to negotiate.
Adherents of Gurdjieff's teaching recount with satisfaction that he did not bring pressure upon followers to stay with him, and in fact often dismissed them. This is interpreted as indicating his desire that they should become independent of him. In some cases, it may rather have been his perception of impending apostasy: gurus generally prefer to rid themselves of potential dissidents rather than be deserted. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff's most devoted disciple and interpreter, began to lose confidence in him as a person as early as 1917. This seems to have been precipitated by Gurdjieff's arbitrary dispersal of the group he had assembled around him in Essentuki. Ouspensky continued to believe in the authenticity of Gurdjieff's vision and teaching which he accepted as having been handed down from some ancient, esoteric source, but found the man himself more and more intolerable. Ouspensky formally broke off relations in January 1924, and forbade his own pupils to communicate with Gurdjieff or refer to him.
A.R. Orage, the talented editor of the New Age, had abandoned literary life in London for life at the Prieure, and later moved to New York, where he set up his own Gurdjieffian groups, and whence he sent large sums of money to Gurdjieff. During the seven years of his close involvement with Gurdjieff, he produced practically no work of his own. As John Carswell puts it: 'The most notable English editor of his time had become a mysterious exile owing obedience to an Armenian magus. Orage's devotion was tested to the limit by Gurdjieff's incessant demands for money, and by the abuse heaped upon him when he did not instantly obey. His allegiance was further undermined by his wife, Jessie Dwight, whom he married in 1927, and who had hated her visit to the Prieure. Eventually, Gurdjieff, realizing Orage's disillusion, turned up in New York when Orage was temporarily absent, assembled Orage's group, denounced Orage and required each member to sign a written declaration that they would have nothing further to do with their instructor. Some did so; others refused. Orage, summoned back from England, demanded to see Gurdjieff, and, after remarking that he too repudiated the Orage created by Gurdjieff, signed the document denouncing his own teaching.
J.G. Bennett gives a list of close adherents whom Gurdjieff deliberately dismissed. Bennett himself left the Prieure in 1923 and did not see Gurdjieff again until 1948, the year before he died. Even Fritz Peters, who had been greatly influenced by Gurdjieff in childhood, and who, as we have seen, turned to Gurdjieff when he was seriously depressed as an adult, wrote: 'He began to seem to me in a very excellent phrase "a real, genuine phony."
By the beginning Of 1932, it became clear that the Chateau du Prieure was no longer financially viable. Gurdjieff habitually overreached himself financially and American support fell away after the crash of 1929. The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man finally closed in May. But Gurdjieff himself continued to flourish. He lived in Paris throughout the German occupation of the city during the Second World War. Characteristically, he obtained credit from various food shops by persuading them that an American pupil had given him an oil well in Texas which would ensure that their bills would be settled as soon as the war was over.
Gurdjieff's cosmogony can only be described as fantastic. Reviewing his picture of the universe, it is hard to understand that any intelligent, educated person could believe in it. Yet disciples struggled to read All and Everything as if its incoherence must contain esoteric wisdom; as if it was their fault if they did not understand it rather than the author's inability to construct a credible picture of man and the universe or to write intelligibly. When Gurdjieff had a car accident in July 1924 which nearly killed him, he said that the accident was 'the manifestation of a power hostile to his aim, a power with which he could not contend'. This suggests an underlying paranoid belief system. In reality, he was so dangerous a driver that his followers avoided being driven by him whenever possible. Perhaps he was referring to the adverse planetary influences which, he claimed, had caused the First . World War. Gurdjieff had the bizarre notion that, from time to time, planets might approach each other too closely. The resulting tension would cause human beings to slaughter each other without their realizing that they were merely pawns in a cosmic game.
Although Gurdjieff's picture of the universe can confidently be dismissed as rubbish, it is possible to salvage a few valuable ideas from what he taught. Gurdjieff believed that man had obligations as well as rights. He did not think that the world was made for man, or that progress consisted in further technological domination of the environment. He considered that man had lost touch with the meaning of his existence, which was to fulfil a cosmic purpose rather than merely to satisfy his desires. Now that we realize that we are destroying the earth we live on, Gurdjieff's view that man should serve the world rather than exploit it seems apposite. His notion that most people are 'asleep' and are driven by their instincts to behave automatically rather than with conscious intention is probably true of the majority. Some of the charisma which Gurdjieff undoubtedly manifested sprang from his own capacity to live intensely in the moment. One pupil recalled his saying:
You live in the past. The past is dead. Act in the present. If you live as if you have always lived, the future will be like the past. Work on yourself, change something in yourself, then the future perhaps will be different."
Some of those who practised Gurdjieff's techniques for awakening people and transforming them into beings who could direct their own destinies certainly claimed benefit, but Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Katherine Mansfield, is almost certainly right in her summing up.
Whether Gurdjieff's methods for righting the internal balance of his disciples had much, or any, merit is another matter. Since the whole thing depended on his personality, and made no scientific claims (as psychoanalysis did) or cosmological and moral claims (as most brands of Christianity did), it remained an amateur, ramshackle affair, and although Gurdjieff aroused passionate hate as well as love, his system seems to have done little lasting damage, and obviously allowed some people to change direction in a way that seemed helpful to them."
As we have seen, Gurdjieff was, by his own admission, an accomplished confidence trickster who had no hesitation in deceiving other people and extracting money from them when he needed to do so. Confidence tricksters are successful at deception because they are more than halfway to believing in their own fictions. Was Gurdjieff anything more than this? I suggested earlier that he could not have constructed his elaborate cosmogony merely in order to deceive. Gurdjieff's picture of the universe, whether learned from esoteric sources or constructed by himself, provided him with his own myth, his own answer to the problem of the meaning of life for which he had sought a solution during his twenty years of travel. This myth was akin to a religious revelation. It gave him the certainty of faith. It was his own conviction that he had discovered the answer which made him charismatic and persuasive. Even if some of his followers could not accept or understand all his cosmic doctrines, they still believed that he knew; a phenomenon which we shall encounter when discussing other gurus.
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