Gurdjieff, G. I.
G. I. Gurdjieff 1877-1949
(Full name Georgei Ivanovich Gurdjieff) Russian philosopher and occultist.
Eclectically educated, widely traveled, and uninterested in perpetuating established forms of religious and mystic experience, Gurdjieff emerged as one of the most colorful and prominent figures in the occult explosion at the turn of the twentieth century. Although he published only one book during his lifetime, his hermetic communes attracted international attention. His many disciples, most notably fellow Russian Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky, circulated his writings during his lifetime and saw to their publication and propagation after his death.
Gurdjieff's birth-date, as with many other details of his early life, is a matter of debate. Most sources conclude that, as Gurdjieff once said, he was born in 1877,although his students and biographers variously date his birth as much as eleven years earlier. The site of his birth, however, is known: Alexandropol, now Leninakan, located in southwest Russia, near the Turkish-Armenian border. His family was of Greek origin. Initially, his father had been a prosperous cattle rancher, until plague wiped out his herds. Financially ruined, he changed trades and became a carpenter, moving his family to the nearby citadel city of Kars. Gurdjieff's father was also an "ashokh," or bard, who kept the oral tradition of the region alive in his memory, performing songs and traditional narratives, including the entire epic of Gilgamesh, on Sundays and holidays. Gurdjieff was educated first at a Greek school in Kars, and then at the local Russian municipal school, supplementing his education with tutorials arranged for him by the Dean of the Cathedral, who prepared him for a career in either medicine or the clergy. Then, in 1896, Gurdjieff left Kars and began a journey that would last roughly nine years. Specific information about this period of Gurdjieff's life is sketchy, and his travel-stories, most of which appear in his posthumously published Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963), are difficult or impossible to corroborate. He claims to have joined a group known as the "Seekers of Truth," and to have traveled extensively with them, visiting the Mongol cities of Tashkent, Bokhara, and Samarkand, and a number of highly obscure and exclusive Tibetan lamaseries. He also claimed to have spent long periods of time in Turkish and Central Asian Sufi monasteries. Gurdjieff returned to the Caucasus in 1905, where he set himself up as a mystic, healer, and hypnotist, and gathered a number of followers. Then, in 1912, he bought an estate just outside Moscow, endeavoring to establish there an "Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man." He married one of the Tsarina's ladies-in-waiting, the Countess Ostrowska, that same year, and they remained together until her death in 1927. In 1915, Gurdjieff met Pyotr Ouspensky, occultist and author of the Tertium Organum, in a Moscow cafe. Ouspensky was fascinated by Gurdjieff and became his chief pupil and chronicler. In 1917, during the Russian Revolution, Gurdjieff fled Moscow, going first to Essentuki, in the Caucasus, where he continued working to establish his Institute. From there, he and some of his students escaped to Tiflis, and then to Constantinople, where he carried on the work of the Institute until 1921. At that point, Gurdjieff saw fit to move his operation to Berlin for a time, and then to England. When London authorities refused him permission to set up his Institute in the England, Gurdjieff moved again, this time to a French manor, Le Prieure, in Fontainebleau. He would reside there from 1922 to 1933. Wherever the Institute went, Gurdjieff's method of spiritual instruction remained the same: students lived in spartan conditions at the compound and engaged in a regimen of demanding physical labor, Gurdjieff's occasional lectures, and the regular practice of a series of physical movements designed by Gurdjieff, with Gurdjieff providing musical accompaniment. His students gave a performance of these movements in Paris in 1923, and toured the United States the following year, attracting the attention of poet Hart Crane, among others. In addition to these methods, Gurdjieff would also try to shock students out of accustomed patterns of thought by intentionally placing them under great stress, or otherwise demanding that they behave in ways contrary to their previous character. His intention throughout was to "awaken" the sleeping spiritual self. Shortly after his return to France from the United States, Gurdjieff was seriously injured in a car crash. During his convalescence, activity at the Institute was suspended, and he dedicated his energies to writing. These writings were not generally submitted for publication, with the exception of one volume, The Herald of Coming Good (1933), which was the only book Gurdjieff published during his lifetime. His other writings were circulated privately among his students. However, as the Institute remained in abeyance, his following at Fountainebleau fell off, and in 1933, Gurdjieff was compelled to close it and move to Paris, where he lived the rest of his life. He continued to teach, to write, and to compose music. He weathered the Nazi occupation, making frequent visits to the United States until 1939, and, after the war, resumed his teaching as well. He died in 1949.
The only account of Gurdjieff's life from his departure from Kars in 1896 to his reappearance in the Caucasus in 1905 is contained in his Meetings with Remarkable Men, which most of his students and readers concur is not entirely true, while at the same time maintaining that this in no way detracts from the value of the work. As with all of Gurdjieff's writings, it has an entirely enigmatic complexion, and therefore takes a variety of interpretations. Ouspensky and other disciples throughout the world have found that this narrative corresponds to a higher type of truth and is a more accurate picture of Gurdjieff in his essence than would be a strictly factual autobiography. Gurdjieff summed up his teachings in two other works, All and Everything: Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson (1950), and Life Is Real Only Then, When 'I Am'(1975), both of which are characterized by Gurdjieff's challengingly opaque prose. In diese volumes he stresses a distinction between being and knowledge, and the importance of balancing the two; die way that the inflexibility of personality blocks mankind from awakening spiritually, and the necessity of shocking and destabilizing that personality as a means of effecting an awakened state; and the need for self-discipline as the key to acquiring and maintaining lucidity in one's daily routine and spiritual life.
As a figure of public scrutiny, Gurdjieff has elicited extreme reactions. He has been both revered as a true mystic and reviled as a fraud. Gurdjieff met and fascinated a great many prominent persons of his time, from the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann to American avantgarde magazine publisher Margaret Anderson. Biographies and interpretive works, often written by Gurdjieff's disciples or followers of his methods, continue to appear with regularity.
SOURCE: "The Greatness of Gurdjieff," in The Saturday Book, Vol. 10, 1951, pp. 86-91.
[In the following essay, Walker provides an appreciation of Gurdjieff.]
What constitutes a great man? In the past I have often asked my friends this question and none of them have ever been able to give me a satisfactory answer. It is a searching question because actually we know far less about the nature of man than about anything else. It is easy to describe the good points of a horse, but we can only define the qualities of a great man if we know the direction in which it is possible for man to evolve, and there is no agreement on this subject.
Because they have no clear ideas about it, novelists come badly to grief whenever they attempt to describe the superman or the more highly evolved human being. After James Hilton, in Lost Horizon, had deposited his party of Europeans at the doors of the monastery in a remote valley of the Himalayas, he was quite unable to describe the more highly evolved monks who inhabited it. All that he could say about them was that they were learned and very polite and that they contrived to live far longer man other men. Even Bernard Shaw is unable to paint a satisfactory picture of the superman. Nietzsche was more successful, but his Thus Spake Zarathustra has been so grossly misinterpreted and his ideals so badly misused that it would perhaps have been...
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SOURCE: "Gurdjieff and Ouspensky," in A Study of Gurdjieff's Teaching, Jonathan Cape, 1957, pp. 11-18.
[In the following essay, Walker recounts the development of Gurdjieff's major theories.]
GURDJIEFF AND OUSPENSKY
It is fascinating, and at the same time rather alarming, to look back along the line of the past and to note how thin was the thread which the Fates spun and how easily it could have been broken—and if it had been broken, then one's life would, of course, have been quite different. How little I guessed that when a young Russian journalist on the night staff of a St. Petersburg newspaper made a journey to Moscow in the spring of 1915 he was initiating a sequence of events which was eventually to be of the utmost importance to me also. 'What,' I should have protested, had a clairvoyant gipsy drawn my attention to this—'what on earth have a St. Petersburg journalist's movements got to do with me, the resident surgeon to the British Hospital in Buenos Aires?' There seemed to be no connection at all between myself and any events occurring in Russia, and many things had to happen and many years had to flow past before the path of the stocky young Russian journalist with the cropped hair and the strong glasses crossed that of the Buenos Aires surgeon.
Ouspensky tells us in his book, In Search of the Miraculous, that during this said visit of his...
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SOURCE: "Is There an 'Inner Circle' of Humanity?," in Gurdjieff: Making a New World, Bennett Books, 1973, pp. 38-60.
[In the following essay, Bennett discusses Gurdjieff's theory of the "inner circle of humanity."]
Reports of brotherhoods whose members possess wisdom and powers that are different from and more significant than those of ordinary people suggest that they may be founded in fact and should be taken seriously. The supposition that such people have existed in the past, and that they decisively influenced human life in ways that ordinary people cannot understand, is the hypothesis that an Inner Circle of Humanity existed in the past. If we extend the idea to include the present and the foreseeable future, we have the hypothesis in the form of a perpetual hierarchy. This tradition is common to most Sufi teachings, and it was affirmed by Gurdjieff himself. He associates it with the idea of esoteric schools. He defined "schools" as organizations that exist for the purpose of transmitting to the Outer Circle—that is, ordinary people—the knowledge and powers that originate in the Inner Circle.
The conclusion that schools do exist is by no means the same as a belief in the existence of an Inner Circle of Humanity. The latter can be regarded either as a dogma to be believed or as hypothesis to be tested. We shall follow the second line. The hypothesis can be understood in a...
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SOURCE: "Reflections on the 'Inhumanity' of Gurdjieff," in Gurdjieff: An Approach to His Ideas, translated by Steve Cox, Arkana, 1973, pp. 1-31.
[In the following essay, Waldberg examines Gurdjieff's major works.]
REFLECTIONS ON THE 'INHUMANITY' OF GURDJIEFF
The name of Gurdjieff almost always arouses suspicion or hostility. The man is usually described as a kind of werewolf or cynical tyrant, demanding much from others and little from himself, making use of his disciples for mysterious ends, seeking powers rather than virtue, and with an absolute contempt for the whole of humanity.
As for his teaching, it is supposed to be impenetrable, arid and deadening, because it contains a ruthless, 'objectively impartial' critique of human life. Because that critique is ferociously funny; because it is radical, and nothing which constitutes the human treasure escapes it; because in an allegedly Christian civilization Gurdjieff condemns the sophism whereby inconsistency is forgiven in the name of mercy; because he reminds us, as do all the great masters, of primary truths, and tells us that a Christian 'is not a man who calls himself a Christian or whom others call a Christian—Christian is one who lives in accordance with Christ's precepts'; because the way he proposes, which is the way of consciousness, appears arrogant to the ordinary eye, and because he is...
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SOURCE: "Gurdjieff and the Literary Cult," in The University of Windsor Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1988, pp. 46-51.
[In the following essay, St. Andrews examines the group of literary figures, including Katherine Mansfield and Jean Toomer, that followed Gurdjieff's teachings.]
Many and strange are the tales from the literary crypt. As any quick look at James Sutherland's fascinating Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes or Donald Hall's American corollary proves, writers seek the ever-elusive Muse in some strange places. Almost with abandon, they delve into cults and the occult; they pursue spiritualists and mystics, sometimes finding inspiration, often times not. But the quest seems a worthy one, no matter how questionable the result.
Not one of the movers and shakers (or the preachers and fakirs) who have created popular cults in our century is more controversial than one George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic. Nor has any cult figure, with the possible exception of one Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky of the still flourishing Theosophical Movement, maintained a greater influence over literary seekers.
Yet while Madame Blavatsky's influence may seem to have influenced, in positive ways, the mature consciousness and, in turn, poetry of such notables as W. B. Yeats, the influence of Gurdjieff on major writers is roundly proclaimed a negative one. And, students...
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Driscoll, J. Walter. Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985, 363 p.
Comprehensive bibliography of secondary sources.
Bennett, John G., Gurdjieff—A Very Great Enigma: Three Lectures. Reprint. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1973, 96 p.
Discusses "the incredible environment of Gurdjieff's boyhood," the eclectic influences on his occult beliefs, and the major concepts on which his teachings are based.
De Hartmann, Thomas, and De Hartmann, Olga. Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992, 304 p.
Divided into three sections: the first, a brief introduction to the book, written by Thomas de Hartmann and later expanded by Olga de Hartmann; the second, a biographical sketch of Gurdjieff; the third, a biographical sketch of the de Hartmanns.
Moore, James. Gurdjieff—The Anatomy of a Myth: A Biography. Rockport, MA: Element Books, 1993, 415 p.
A defense of Gurdjieff against allegations of fraudulence.
Nott, C. S. Teachings of Gurdjieff: A Pupil's Journal. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991, 256 p.
A day-to-day account of studies with Gurdjieff and A. R. Orage. "The first part of the present book consists chiefly of accounts of work with Gurdjieff; the second of...
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