Gurdjieff, one of the last century’s most enigmatic and idiosyncratic spiritual leaders, died 60 years ago today, yet his Fourth Way is still followed by small and slightly secretive groups all over the world. Although he was not the greatest of communicators through the written word, several of his students - Ouspensky and Orage, for example - did much to propagate his ideas, while others - Bennett and Nott - kept diaries which provide some interesting insights into life with the great man, not least his fondness for referring to people as idiots, and to a possible encounter with Aleister Crowley.
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol (now Gyumri), Armenia, in the 1860s or 1870s (the exact date is unknown). He grew up in Kars and travelled widely before returning to Russia in 1912 were he began teaching. There he met Peter Ouspensky, who would become his most famous student, and interpreter of his teachings. That same year he married Julia Ostrowska. During the revolution, in 1917, he returned to his family home in Alexandropol, and continued to teach Russian pupils at various locations on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia.
In 1919 Gurdjieff and his closest pupils moved to Tbilisi, then to Istanbul. After travelling around western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work, he (and his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man) settled near Paris in 1922 at Chateau du Prieuré. Over the next decade, the Institute attracted many artists and intellectuals from Britain and the US. He remained there until 1933, when he moved to Paris, where he lived and taught for the next 16 years until his death - 60 years ago today on 29 October 1949.
In his teachings, Gurdjieff propounded a system of developing all sides of one’s being (body, emotions and intellect) simultaneously - the Fourth Way - through writing, music and dance movement. Followers of the system call Gurdjieff’s principles and instructions ‘The Work’. His most famous book - Meetings with Remarkable Men - is considered to be pseudo-autobiography, and is one part of a trilogy which also includes the less readable Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, and Life is Real Only Then, When I Am. But it was Ouspensky who made Gurdjieff’s ideas more accessible with books such as In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching.
There is no shortage of websites dedicated to Gurdjieff’s teachings. Wikipedia has a biography and links; or try Gurdjieff Studies for a longer biography (taken from the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism) and a detailed chronology of his life.
There are several published diaries which reveal something of Gurdjieff’s life and teachings. In 1978, Routledge & Kegan Paul published C. Stanley Nott’s Teachings of Gurdjieff: a pupil’s journal - an account of some years with G I Gurdjieff and A R Orage in New York and at Fontainebleau Avon. (Orage being another student of Gurdjieff and interpreter of his teachings.)
Nott was a young English First World War veteran and literary intellectual living in New York. Having been spiritually restless and having travelled all over the East and West looking for answers, he eventually found them with Gurdjieff. The book was republished by Arkana (Penguin) in the early 1990s, and reviewed by New Dawn Magazine. It concluded: ‘This work is a valuable one in several ways. It is an objective account by one of Gurdjieff’s earliest young followers, who kept detailed journals and diaries. It follows his personal growth through the work and the method. It is also an insight into Gurdjieff himself, his family, senior pupils and his method. Nothing is whitewashed here.’
There is one extract from Nott’s book which is widely reproduced on the internet (such as on Cadeveo’s blog Waking the Midnight Sun). It concerns a meeting between Gurdjieff and another big personality from the 20th century who turned himself into a self-styled mystic - Aleister Crowley. This is Nott’s account.
‘One day in Paris I met an acquaintance from New York who spoke about the possibilities of publishing modern literature. As I showed some interest, he offered to introduce me to a friend of his who was thinking of going into publishing, and we arranged to meet the following day at the Select in Montparnasse. His friend arrived; it was Aleister Crowley. Drinks were ordered, for which of course I paid, and we began to talk. Crowley had magnetism, and the kind of charm which many charlatans have; he also had a dead weight that was somewhat impressive. His attitude was fatherly and benign, and a few years earlier I might have fallen for it. Now I saw and sensed that I could have nothing to do with him. He talked in general terms about publishing, and then drifted into his black-magic jargon.
‘To make a success of anything,’ he said, ‘including publishing, you must have a certain combination. Here you have a Master, here a Bear, there the Dragon - a triangle which will bring results . . . ’ and so on and so on. When he fell silent I said, ‘Yes, but one must have money. Am I right in supposing that you have the necessary capital?’. ‘I?’ he asked, ‘No not a franc.’ ‘Neither have I.’ I said.
Knowing that I was at the Prieuré he asked me if I would get him an invitation there. But I did not wish to be responsible for introducing such a man. However, to my surprise, he appeared there a few days later and was given tea in the salon. The children were there, and he said to one of the boys something about his son who he was teaching to be a devil. Gurdjieff got up and spoke to the boy, who thereupon took no further notice of Crowley. There was some talk between Crowley and Gurdjieff, who kept a sharp watch on him all the time. I got the strong impression of two magicians, the white and the black - the one strong, powerful, full of light; the other also powerful but heavy, dull and ignorant. Though ‘black’ was too strong a word for Crowley; he never understood the meaning of real black magic, yet hundreds of people came under his ‘spell’. He was clever. But as Gurdjieff says: ‘He is stupid who is clever.’ ’
The veracity of this account, though, has been questioned - see the Lashtal discussion board - partly because of an entry in Crowley’s diaries, or magical diaries as he preferred to call them. (There are lots of editions, but a first edition and signed can be bought at Abebooks for £500.) The entry in question, though, is quoted in a much more readable book, a biography of Crowley by John Symonds - The Great Beast.
‘Gurdjieff, their prophet, seems a tip-top man. Heard more sense and insight than I’ve done for years. Pindar dines at 7.30. Oracle for my visit was ‘There are few men: there are enough’. Later, a really wonderful evening with Pindar. Gurdjieff clearly a very advanced adept. My chief quarrels are over sex (I doubt whether Pindar understands G’s true position) and their punishments, e.g. depriving the offender of a meal or making him stand half an hour with his arms out. Childish and morally valueless’.
Then there is Diary of Madame Egout Pour Sweet by Rina Hands which was published by Two Rivers Press in 1991. (Two Rivers Press is part of the Two Rivers Farm Gurdjieff group in Oregon, US, and should not be confused with a small literary UK publisher of the same name.) Hands was a pupil of J G Bennett, also ex British army but subsequently an intelligence officer as well, who studied under Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and became a spiritual guide in his own right (see the Bennett website). She was given the honorary title of ‘égout’ (French for ‘sewer’ or ‘drain’) by Gurdjieff during evening meals with him in Paris, during the last few months of his life in 1948-1949. Rina wrote this diary primarily for herself, the publisher says, ‘for she was certain even then of the importance of those days’.
Here is one extract from the journal (thanks to the Gurdjieff Legacy website): ‘And so we sit with the author at the lunches and dinners, hear Mr Gurdjieff recounting his English, Scottish and Irish jokes and, of course, toasting to the idiots, the toasts usually not getting beyond nine or ten idiots. (Mr Gurdjieff says he is Idiot No 17.) Recounted are Gurdjieff’s insights into the various idiots. For example, there are three kinds of Compassionate Idiot. The first sees a man in need of help and immediately helps him, even giving him his own shirt. The second does exactly the same, but only because his fianceé’s father is observing. The third kind, says Gurdjieff, ‘So-so-so, sometimes he gives and sometimes not, depending on many things, perhaps even the weather.’ ’
And here is another: ‘People are beginning to bring their children. They sit at the table with us and participate like everyone else, often being able to choose their idiots. There is a little English girl here at the moment, Lord Pentland’s daughter, Mary Sinclair. Today she sat at lunch beside her mother and just in front of Mr Gurdjieff. The meal was a long one and she was bored. She had been eating an orange and began to tear up the peel and scatter it on the table. Suddenly Mr Gurdjieff spoke to her. ‘You know something,’ he said, ‘in life it is never possible to do everything.’ The child looked puzzled, as well she might. We all wondered what was coming. ‘You see,’ he went on, ‘on my table you cannot make this mess. Perhaps at home Mother permits. Then if you want to do this thing, you must stay at home. But if you stay at home, you will not be able to come here and see me. So you see, you can never do everything. Now put all orange back on plate and remember what I tell - never can we do everything in life.’ She did as she was told with a very good grace. . . At the end of dinner, Mr Gurdjieff asked her, ‘Who do you respect the most?’ She did not understand and her mother said, ‘Who do you think is the most important person here?’ Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, ‘My Daddy’. I thought I detected a faint look of consternation on her mother’s face, but she need not have had any qualms. Mr Gurdjieff beamed at the child and said, ‘I am not offended. God is not offended either.’ He went on to explain that who loves his parents, loves God. If people love their parents all the time that their parents are alive, then, when their parents die, there is a space left in them for him to fill.’
From the same period comes Idiots in Paris: Diaries of J G Bennett and Elizabeth Bennett, published by - as it happens - Bennett Books, set up in 1987 to publicise Bennett’s writings and teachings. The book is made up mostly of diary entries by Elizabeth (Bennett’s wife). In her introduction, she explains that the book is ‘designed to help those readers who are not familiar with the activities and environment of Gurdjieff and his followers.’ Twice daily the group would go through a series of rituals, including the ‘toast of the idiots’. The exact repetition of these rituals, Elizabeth says, ‘left one free to attend to the shifting responsibilities of the inner world’; and ‘every moment in Gurdjieff’s presence was a chance to learn, if one was sufficiently awake to take the chance.’
Here are a couple of extracts (taken from Gurdjieff International Review):
‘We would go to lunch at midday. There was always a reading aloud of some part of Gurdjieff’s own writings, or occasionally from P D Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous [referred to throughout the diaries as Fragments, Ouspensky’s original choice of a title]. The reading would last for one or two hours and then we would go to the dining room for lunch.’
‘In the evening he listened with great enjoyment to the reading of Fragments, leaning forward with his elbow on his knee and his cigarette-holder in his hand, his eyes snapping, shaking with laughter at the references to himself.’
‘In the evening he was enjoying the reading from Fragments so much - Chapter XII, about the right use of sex energy - that we did not start dinner until ten to twelve.’