Gurdjieff, George Ivanovitch,
born 13.1.1866 (?) Alexandropol (Russia), died 29.10.1949 Neuilly, Paris.
Greco-Armenian holistic philosopher, thaumaturge, and teacher of Sacred Dances (whose ancillary personae as musicologist, therapist, hypnotist, raconteur, explorer, polyglot, and entrepreneur exercise the taxonomic mind). G.’s work comprises one ballet, some 250 Sacred Dances, 200 piano pieces composed in collaboration with his pupil Thomas Alexandrovitch de Hartmann (1886-1956), and four books, the magnum opus being Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. For more than 35 years he privately taught, by example and oral precept, a previously unknown doctrine styled “The Work”, attracting – and often quixotically repulsing – groups of gifted disciples: Russian, English, American, and French. His system integrated a semantic critique, a social critique, an epistemology, a mythopoeic cosmogony and cosmology, a phenomenology of consciousness, and a practical Existenzphilosophie.
G.’s sketch of his infancy and early childhood (1866-1877) finds a modicum of corroboration in vestigial family memories, traditions, and photographs. The eldest son of a Cappadocian Greek father and an illiterate Armenian mother, he was born in the Greek quarter of Alexandropol, a Russian garrison town bordering Ottoman Turkey. In practically Old Testament conditions, Ioannas Giorgiades, a well-to-do grazier on the Shiraki Steppe, imposed on his son a character-forming, even Spartan, regime; and, as an amateur ashokh or bardic poet, imbued him with an inextinguishable interest in an oral tradition at once living and archaic (not least the Epic of Gilgamesh). Cattle plague (1873) impoverished the family, and the Russo-Turkish war (1877) drew them hopefully to the captured Turkish citadel town of Kars.
At this early juncture balanced encyclopaedism is baulked by G.’s cavalier burning of his personal papers in spring 1930 and by a curious absence of collateral evidence. For the ensuing thirty-three years we are, pro tem, chasteningly reliant on G.’s four autobiographico-didactic texts which – although innocent of consistency, Aristotelian logic, and chronological discipline – have the ring of a poetic truth. From these alone derives our notion of G.’s private tutoring by “Dean Borsh”; his unprogressed vocations as a doctor and a priest; his wonder at a succession of paranormal phenomena; and his burgeoning existential question as to the cosmic function of the biosphere and of humanity. G.’s auto-mythopoesis equally furnishes us the twenty-six adult years (1885-1911) of his long quest for, and synthesis of, valid esoteric sources. None of G.’s fifteen companions, the “Seekers of Truth”, have resolved into recognisable historical entities. His apologists’ attempts to differentiate and substantiate five successive expeditions – to Egypt, Crete, and the Holy Land; to Abyssinia and the Sudan; to Persia and Transoxiana; to Siberia; and finally to Afghanistan, the Pamirs, and India – display ingenuity but are necessarily compromised by self-indexicality i.e. reliance on the correlation of purely internal evidence. Soberingly, G.’s putative decade in Central Asia (1897-1907), including his pivotal initiatic experience in the “Sarmoung Monastery”, finds no support in the meticulous journals of contemporary explorers (Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, Albert Le Coq, Paul Pelliot, and Count Kozui Otani). Yet, given the vastness of the territory, and G.’s verve, and his predilection for aliases and disguise, these important caveats fall well short of conclusively invalidating his spiritual Odyssey: absence of proof is not proof of absence. Wholesale scepticism as to G.’s Central Asian venture confronts its own difficulties in accommodating his relevant linguistic command, his well-attested knowledge of the region’s musical modalities and tribal carpets, and his arguably unique grasp of its dance – folk and liturgical.
With G.’s arrival in Metropolitan Russia (ca. New Year 1912), biography finally rests on defensible ground. Significant among G.’s earliest associates in Moscow is his cousin the monumental sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Mercourov (1881-1952). In St Petersburg in 1913, while affecting the title “Prince Ozay”, G. briefly engages with his first British pupil: the young musical student Paul [later Sir Paul] Dukes (1889-1967); and in 1914 attracts the Finnish alienist Leonid Robertovich de Stjernvall (1872-1938). In November 1914, G. enticingly advertises his prospective ballet The Struggle of the Magicians as ‘the property of a certain Hindu’. Consequently, in April 1915 G. attracts the Russian journalist and polymath Piotr Demianovich Ouspensky, successful author of the speculative metaphysical study Tertium Organum; and, in December 1916, the well-established Russian classical composer de Hartmann. These two crucial accessions in war-time Petrograd bracket a concentrated teaching phase, arguably the most significant and brilliant of G.’s entire ministry: certainly he will never again so explicitly exhibit his teaching’s arithmosophical constituent and systemic integration, nor recruit pupils as contributive to its dissemination.
Mere days before Tsar Nicolas II is deposed (February 1917) G. presciently goes south, soon followed by his cadre whom he shepherds through the ensuing Russian Civil War. In Essentuki he contrives two seminal “workshops” of intense psycho-somatic experimentation, which witness inter alia his inception of life-long work on Sacred Gymnastics (later termed “Movements” or Sacred Dance). Finally, in August-September 1918, he audaciously extricates his nucleus (excepting an increasingly disaffected Ouspensky) on foot over the Caucasus mountains, crossing Red and White lines five times.
The year 1919 in Menshevik Georgia is quadruply notable: for the accession (Easter) of Jeanne de Salzmann (1899-1990) a gifted young French-Swiss eurhythmics pupil of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, and of her husband Alexandre Gustav de Salzmann (1874-1934) an associate of Rilke and Kandinsky; for the inaugural public demonstration of G.’s Sacred Dance in Tbilisi Opera House (22 June); for the notional founding of G.’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man (September); and thereafter for G.’s work (co-opting de Hartmann) on the scenario and music of The Struggle of the Magicians. Relatively unproductive are G.’s transitional spells in Constantinople (July 1920-July 1921) and Germany (August 1921-July 1922). The latter, however, is enlivened by G.’s extravagant prospectus for his Institute and by two brief spring visits to London, where he quarrels irretrievably with Ouspensky, but from whom he captures the allegiance of “Alfred Richard” (James Alfred) Orage (1873-1934) the mystically predisposed editor of the critical weekly New Age.
In July 1922, on a restricted Nansen Passport for Russian refugees, G. relocates in France (where he will remain domiciled for twenty-seven years until his death.) On 1 October he settles in his most famous seat the Prieuré des Basses Loges at Fontainebleau-Avon and opens his Institute: thus, at 56, G. is finally circumstanced to bring West his gleanings in the East. His Russian nucleus is soon substantially augmented by new pupils, whose preponderant British element includes Orage and Dr Henry Maurice Dunlop Nicoll (1884-1953) a former protégé of C.G. Jung. More illustrious is the terminally consumptive New Zealand short story writer “Katherine Mansfield” (Kathleen Mansfield Murry, b.1888), whose death on 9 January 1923 undeservedly stigmatises G., most enduringly in France. Although, in summer 1923, “open evenings” of music and Sacred Dance in the Prieure Study House attract some international notables e.g. Diaghilev and Sinclair Lewis, the mixed reception given G.’s flamboyant and fully orchestrated demonstration at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (December 1923) predicates a decade of French indifference.
Exceptionally significant is 1924. A pivotal demonstration (2 February) at the Neighbourhood Playhouse, Greenwich Village (on the first of G.’s nine American excursions) excites the New York intelligentsia, drawing inter alia Jane Heap (1883-1964) co-editor of The Little Review, Gorham B. Munson (1896-1969) the critic, and “Jean” (Nathan Pinchback) Toomer (1894-1967) author of Cane. After founding his Institute’s New York branch (April), G. returns to France, where his work is bluntly recanalised by a near-fatal car accident (8 July). Still convalescent, G. formally disbands his Institute (26 August); empowers Orage to supervise America; ceases teaching Movements; and – resolved henceforward to propagate his ideas more enduringly – embarks (16 December) on his vast trilogy All and Everything.
Milestones on the problematic decade 1926 to 1935 are: the death (26 June 1926) of G.’s wife Julia Osipovna Ostrowska (b.1889); his self-sacrificial dismissal of intimate Prieuré retainers (May 1928); his effectual expulsion (June 1929) of Thomas de Hartmann; and (February 1930) of the composer’s wife Olga Arkadievna (1885-1979), G.’s devoted secretary and amanuensis; his contrived break with Orage, and enturbulation of the American groups (December 1930); the closure of the Prieuré and disbandment of the Institute (May 1932); the private publication (March 1933) of G.’s imprudent tract Herald of Coming Good (hastily repudiated and suppressed); the outright loss of the Prieuré (May 1933); the deaths of Alexandre de Salzmann (March 1934) and Orage (November 1934); and, finally, G.’s irrevocable abandonment of writing (May 1935). Against these must be handsomely weighed: G.’s unprecedented musical collaboration (July 1925 - May 1927) with Thomas de Hartmann, yielding 170 new piano compositions; and, above all, his prodigious accomplishment of Beelzebub and Meetings (see bibliog.).
In October 1935 G. far-sightedly prompts Jane Heap to propagate his work in London; and from among her former expatriate associates in Paris constitutes (January 1936) “The Rope”, a minuscule group of lesbian literati, with whom he constructively experiments until autumn 1937. In summer 1936 – now aged 70, and deprived, not least by his own will, of virtually all his closest companions – G. acquires a modest Paris apartment at 6 rue des Colonels-Renard. Here in 1938 transpires his first personal contact with Rene Daumal (1908-1944), poet and former member of Le Grand Jeu - a prior student of Work ideas first under Alexandre de Salzmann then Jeanne de Salzmann. With World War II looming, G. makes a brief penultimate trip to New York (spring 1939) but resists promptings to settle securely in New Jersey, and returns (May) to France; similarly he declines to vacate Colonels Renard when the Germans invest Paris (June 1940). In October 1940 Jeanne de Salzmann (already G.’s de facto deputy) presents to him her gifted preparatory group including the journalist and photographer Henri Tracol (1909-1997) and his wife Henriette (née Lannes) (1899-1980). Despite the Occupation’s hazards and rigour, G.’s Paris group progressively enlarges. At the Salle Pleyel (in morning classes supported only by piano extemporisation) G. works indefatigably on new Movements – the “39 Series”. In afternoons and evenings he supervises readings of his texts and hosts ritualistic meals featuring an inviolable succession of ceremonious “Toasts to the Idiots”. VE-day (6 May 1945) heralds G.’s consummatory phase (richly documented in memoirs), as tributary streams of British and American pupils merge with the French. Momentum is lent by the death of Ouspensky (2 October 1947) and by the near death of G. himself in a second car crash (8 August 1948). On a final visit to New York (December 1948-February 1949) G. confides his American endeavour to Henry John Sinclair, 2nd Baron Pentland (1907-1984); and approves publication of Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous. In Paris in October 1949 G.’s health finally collapses: his receipt (21st) of a proof copy of Beelzebub crowns his life’s work; he gives instructions to Jeanne de Salzmann (27th) for his texts’ posthumous publication, and sends a message to de Hartmann requesting compositions for the 39 Series. Aged 83, G. dies at the American Hospital at Neuilly (29th), and is buried (November 3) at Fontainebleau-Avon according to the rite of the Russian Orthodox Church.
G.’s followers view his teaching as implicated in the man himself (‘the function of a master is not limited to the teaching of doctrines, but implies an actual incarnation of knowledge’). He nevertheless bequeaths posterity a free-standing critique, nourishingly, if contentiously, explanatory on three levels: individual, social and cosmic. This panoramic and triple-tiered ideology coheres, constituting a concordia universa which by any standards is impressive. Underpinning its integration are G.’s two axiomatic, universally interacting laws: a dialectical “Law of Three” and a more technically complex “Law of Seven” (assigning to each completing process seven irregularly developing phases). Tempering the high intellectuality of this model is G.’s manifest practicality: he is not offering a set of self-supportive notional abstractions – rather he is harnessing his deepest ontological findings about “world creation and world maintenance” to an eminently approachable Existenzphilosophie. As to axiology, G.’s summum bonum, his supreme intrinsic value, is the universal evolution of consciousness: all his subordinate values, ethical, psychological, aesthetic etc. are pragmatically ranked according to this exacting criterion.
G.’s mythopoeic cosmogony (see Beelzebub) presents the Megalocosmos as issuing by Fiat from God the Father, expressly to circumvent the encroachments of His holy adversary and coeval –Time. Thereafter, the laws, constants, and parameters in-built in the Megalocosmos preclude God’s intervention there; G.’s is thus a classic Deism of the “absentee landlord” type, in which God, notwithstanding his intuited compassion, lacks effectuality at creation’s periphery and forfeits direct transactions with earth. To this scenario G. poignantly adds the idea of God’s unassuagable sorrow at His inability to alleviate the suffering of far-removed sentient beings. Substituting the term “Absolute” for God, G.’s formal cosmology (Petrograd group 1916) elaborates in arithmosophical detail a “Ray of Creation” – a cosmicization of being, hierarchically disposed through an involutionary solfeggio (DOminus the Lord. SIdera the stars, LActea the Milky Way, the SOLar system etc.). This model of the universe aspires to bridge incrementally the discontinuity between creation and an ultra-transcendent Creator (the “Wholly Other” of Kierkegaard and Barth); to resolve the “ghost in the machine” dilemma of Cartesian dualism; to give the broadest conceivable canvas to principles of relativism and scale; and to submit the entire natural order to a discrete principle of discontinuity with a musical analogue (redolent of certain late 20th century paradigms in quantum physics).
Overall, however, G.’s philosophy of nature issues an uncompromising challenge to the hegemony of reductionist techno-science. G.’s universe is sacred, qualitative, and dramatic: science’s universe is secular, quantitative and mechanical. G.’s universe has a centrum (the “Holy Sun Absolute”): science’s universe is isotropic. G.’s universe is growing in “being”: science’s growing in “space-time”. G.’s universe is living (hylozoistic in Spinoza’s sense): science’s inherently inanimate. G.’s universe has an ontological dependence on the Creator, and a hierarchy of subordinate levels; science’s universe is value-free. Arguably G.’s prime scientific heresy is his attribution to the moon of unsubstantiable macro-effects on the earth and its fauna and flora. G.’s “moon” transpires as a nascent body (cf. Kepler), symbiotically coupled with the biosphere, activating all organic life on earth (just as a clock’s pendulum impels its mechanism), and “fed” by certain “wavicles” liberated at the death of all terrestrial life forms (cf. Posidonius).
G.’s “Ray of Creation” is not static: its key dynamic of “reciprocal feeding” anticipates, indeed extrapolates, various Green and holistic paradigms (Schweitzer’s “reverence for life”, Vernadsky’s biosphere, and Arne Naess’s “deep ecology”). At play on the cosmological level, G.’s symbiotic principle mimics a Benthamite utilitarianism, its idée fixe being the greatest good of the greatest entities: in the big Thrasymachean pecking order – cosmos, galaxy, sun, planets – the earth ranks poorly and its intricate and beautiful biosphere is merely epiphenomenal. Unsurprisingly, human beings en masse are dismally situated: reified on a scale not dreamt of by Adorno, they are eternally subservient to an alien solar economy and demiurgic politics – in effect (to invoke metaphor) factory-farmed for the sweet savour of their abjection and the phosphorescence of their mortality.
G.’s space-Odyssey Beelzebub elaborates an historical and social critique of feignedly extra-terrestrial objectivity (the literary device termed “celestial optics”). Following the three Abrahamic world religions, G. initiates human history with a variant of The Fall which complements his favoured theodicy and axiology. Thereafter, in Manichean temper, he models two discrete streams of human history: conscious v. unconscious; initiatic v. profane; the first current everlastingly transports true spiritual authority and morally vindicated elites (cf. Ortega y Gasset), and the second current temporal power and culturally inflected oligarchies (cf. Robert Michels).
Notwithstanding the cordiality of G.’s fraternal ideal and his abundantly attested “good Samaritanism”, he never surrenders ideologically to modernity’s politically correct egalitarianism; in his historiography the masses essentially constitute the genetic humus whence arise, with tragic rarity, authentically “learned beings” e.g. Leonardo da Vinci. Beelzebub’s Everyman, by contrast, is exhibited as deeply asleep, blindly and aimlessly struggling and suffering; torn by war and passion, fouling everything he touches; sporadically aroused from torpid preoccupation with ‘digestion, mother-in-1aw, John Thomas, and cash’, only to be duped by the Caesarism of powerful demagogues (themselves the unsuspecting dupes of planetary imperatives). In sum, man is a pitiable creature who, by virtue of malign residues of The Fall, clings ingeniously to the very instruments which wound, the patterns which betray.
In stressing ‘The Terror of the Situation’ G. is neither neutral nor fatalistic: his is no perverse celebration of the socially Dadaesque but an epic lamentation at the ascendancy of paranoid forms over normative. Freighting Beelzebub with value-judgements (pietistic, patriarchal, traditionalist, pacifist, internationalist, holistic etc.), G. tenders ethology as critique, with abundant Sollen implicit in his Sein (cf. Dickens & Marx). His wry bitter-sweet iconoclasm thus allies itself not to the nihilistic paradigm (as does Adorno’s) but to a revolutionist paradigm of meaning; he sweeps the ground clear professedly to build a new and better world. Yet whether G. seriously presents as a social reformer, or even entertains the possibility of esotericism’s accomplishing benign and stable effects on a Weberian scale, remains highly debatable. His life evidences no political adhesion; his teaching no breath of millenarianism; and his Ray of Creation dooms all generalised humanistic utopias to wither in the chill of the cosmic Realpolitik.
Although G. salutes the magnanimity and efficacy of traditional esoteric schools down the ages, he reserves to a minuscule segment of humanity the prevenient grace and spiritual hunger which plants one’s feet on an authentic Way. For this small candidate-meritocracy G. himself propounds an evolutionary, dynamic, or redemptive psychology – not cultivated in religious seclusion (still less on a psychiatrist’s couch) but in the vortex of day-to-day life. G.’s call is urgent and uncompromising: awake from your unsuspected hypnotic sleep to consciousness and conscience; struggle to attain imperishable “being”; elevate the taste of “I am” from cheap egotism to an essential presence replete with noetic content; come to know yourself – then create, by dint of ‘conscious labour and intentional suffering’, the soul you imagine you already possess.
In assessing this exhortatory prospectus, encyclopaedism must concede the danger of false cognates (G.’s Petrograd phase, incidentally, reveals him sharply differentiating signifiant from signifié). The key words of Gurdjieffian psychology – “self-observation”, “self-remembering”, “awakening”, “being”, “essence”, “presence”, “sensation”, “inner work”, “centres” – contest ground already colonised by multiple preconceptions and misconceptions. If the specifity of Gurdjieffian terminology is to be respected, it must be grasped that his seasoned pupils dedicated years of arduous experiential pupillage to discovering, and ceaselessly refurbishing, empirically valid referents for these expressions. Hic labor, hic opus est.
Abjuring lop-sided genius, G. promotes the harmonious development of head, heart, and hand – respectively supporting the intellectual, emotional, and physical temperaments through his writings, music, and Movements. He nevertheless issues a ubiquitous demand for mobilised attention. Contemplatively deployed, this ever-refined attention builds a progressively deeper awareness of nuances of one’s physical existence – approaching the Cartesian mind/body mystery in profound interior silence, while putatively opening the psyche to benign supernal influences.
Albeit G. emerges as an agent and advocate of tradition, braiding recognisable and hallowed strands of Western and oriental esotericism, he is certainly no mere syncretist. Even jettisoning his surreal ideological provocations (e.g. that the sun neither heats nor lights), his system abounds in markedly original extrapolations and paradigms. Consider his stress on semi-tonal intervals and shocks in the diatonic scale, which differentiates his system from Robert Fludd; or his intricate synthesis of the Laws of Three and Seven (in his key symbol the “enneagram” and in the “Food Diagram”, correlating food, air, and impressions).
G. necessarily bears his share of the irony which the 20th century’s overweening currents of positivism, scientism, and structuralism reserve for esotericism in toto. But, beyond this generalised alienation, G.’s case is exacerbated by his emphatic individuality - a “hero” of sorts in the age of the anti-hero; an unrepentant patriarch in a phase of post-feminist sensibility; a proponent of spiritual hierarchy in a world where equality is a social shibboleth. Throughout his life G. curiously courted opprobrium by charlatanesque role-playing (while his teaching, incidentally, has posthumously contended with ill-considered revisionism, slipshod and counter-productive advocacy, and many distorting appropriations). All in all – with the important caveat that the “missing years” may yet fall prey to investigative scholarship – G.’s emerging cultural status is impressive. His writing, music, and dance are respectively acclaimed by André Breton, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Lincoln Kirstein, while the dismissive epithets of René Guénon, D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, and François Mauriac seem curiously ill-considered today – eclipsed by positive and markedly better informed valuations e.g. from Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, and Basarab Nicolescu.
G.’s is a life and a teaching suffused with the starkest of ontologies: ‘I travail: therefore I am’. To populate this concept mythopoeicly, to structure it dialectically, to loft it, level by level, towards the conceived fountainhead of consciousness – such is G.’s intellectual achievement. But heart, as well as head, begs recognition here. The noteworthy photographs of G. in grandfatherly old age, and the poignancy of his late improvisations on the harmonium, hint at this affective dimension. G. is palpably anguished by humanity’s reeling disorientation. He abominates war. He suffers from our suffering. Full of years, full of sorrows, the “Teacher of Dancing” emanates an implacable compassion. Yet to “domesticate” him, to divest him of the sharp sting of the real, would betray fact: incontestably among the most influential 20th century esotericists, he stands formidably at the root of a potent contemporary tradition, whose vector resists scrutiny. Strange, nevertheless, that one intuits in him, finally, a benign source candidly and generously approachable.
The Struggle of the Magicians, The Stourton Press: Capetown 1957. Views from the Real World: Early Talks in Moscow, Essentuki, Tiflis, Berlin, London, Paris, New York and Chicago, As Recollected by His Pupils, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London 1973. All and Everything (a trilogy comprising Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London 1950; Meetings with Remarkable Men, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London 1963; Life is Real Only Then, When “I AM”, Triangle Editions: New York 1975. The Herald of Coming Good: First Appeal to Contemporary Humanity, La Société Anonyme des Editions de l’Ouest: Angers (France) 1933. In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London 1950.
Lit.: John G. Bennett & Elizabeth Bennett, Idiots in Paris: Diaries of J.G. Bennett and Elizabeth Bennett (1949) (1980), Coombe Springs Press: Daglingworth Manor, Gloucestershire, (UK). J. Walter Driscoll and the Gurdjieff Foundation of California, Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography (1985), Garland Publishing: New York. Thomas & Olga de Hartmann, (Thomas C. Daly and T.A.G. Daly, eds.) Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff (1992), Penguin Books: New York. James Moore, Gurdjieff: the Anatomy of a Myth (1991), Element Books: Shaftesbury, (UK). Jacob Needleman & George Baker (eds.), Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teaching (1996) Continuum Publishing: New York. Maurice Nicoll, Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (1952 vols. 1,2 & 3, 1955 vol.4, 1956 vol.5), Vincent Stuart: London. Henri Tracol, The Taste For Things That Are True: Essays and Talks by a pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff, (1994) Element Books: Shaftesbury. James Webb, The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Works of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (1980), Thames & Hudson: London.
Reproduced by kind permission of Brill Academic Publishers [Leiden, Boston, Koeln] from Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, 2005, edited by Prof. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, in collaboration with Prof. Antoine Faivre, Roelof van den Broek and Jean-Pierre Brach.
© James Moore 2006