G. I. Gurdjieff Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.