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The Great Mystifier

The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers

by James Webb
G.P. Putnam’s, 608 pp., $19.95

Gurdjieff and Mansfield

by James Moore
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 261 pp., $25.00

Who Are You, Monsieur Gurdjieff?

by René Zuber
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 80 pp., $7.50 (paper)

James Webb has an exotic story to tell in The Harmonious Circle, and copes briskly with it through 600 pages. The Gurdjieff story is an extraordinary one not only because of the involvement of so many literary people in it, or because it is an odd byway in the history of ideas, but more simply as a rattling good yarn—concocted, perhaps, by a syndicate composed of Kipling, M.R. James, and Iris Murdoch. It covers Paris, Petersburg, Tibet, New York, Armenia, South America; Russian spymasters, occult rites, literary feuds, great swindles and great jokes; and a network of ideas that is linked to many of the important threads in late nineteenth-century thought.

There are fraud and fantasy in the story, of course, but also a psychological strategy of great appeal, and even some old-fashioned high seriousness (especially among the Ouspenskyite branch of the movement, for the disciple, as will appear, was a very different man from his master). For some, at any rate, of those who took it up, involvement in “the Work” was evidently profitable. James Webb (author, says the jacket, of The Occult Establishment and The Occult Underground) is by no means dismissive: he stands in various positions on the fence, not unamused by his story but often—rather too often—giving it the benefit of the doubt.

His research and his knowledge of the esoteric background are extremely comprehensive; but there were difficulties in the way of objectivity, as he indicates in the preface. He cannot name his many interviewees, he says, because of conflicting instructions about anonymity; he cannot be totally certain about their information because of a process of mystification many of them exercised. “It eventually became clear that an attempt was being made to ensnare me forcibly in the sort of activities about which I had hoped to write from a detached point of view. I must admit that this attempt was temporarily successful [yes?]. Yet the ethics of the situation continue to puzzle me…. Why all this secrecy?” The element of secrecy makes it hard to assess how large or widespread are the Gurdjieffian/Ouspenskian groups that still continue “the Work,” on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anyone wanting a definitive assessment, therefore, soon finds himself, in the words of Gurdjieff’s Mullah Nassr Edin, “plunged in galoshes up to the eyebrows.” Gurdjieff was the original great mystifier. Webb explains this as a deliberate technique, copied by his followers; he “attempted to use the friction generated by his negative qualities to strike fire from the hearts of his disciples” (psychoanalysts, whether they like to admit it or not, do something like this when they provoke patients’ aggression by remaining tantalizing). His (probable) work as a spy was no doubt an influence; and perhaps his upbringing as a member of a minority group, shadowed by dominant nations, made slyness come naturally. The point of the Gurdjieff story is that it is bedeviled—to the benefit of the yarn, if not of historical accuracy—by this technique. Gurdjieff, by his own account, took bribes, cheated creditors; but was this to test his hearers’ reaction to his “impersonation of a Levantine shark”? He made a pass at any woman disciple who took his fancy; was it perhaps to startle them out of their intellectualism? He dismissed faithful followers at a day’s notice; was it a carefully planned move for their own good? At a guess: no, no, and no. But he was, perhaps, resourceful about making use of his caprices.

Gurdjieff was born sometime between 1872 and 1877, of Greek and Armenian parents, in the amorphous Caucasian area bordering on Russia, Turkey, and Persia. His geographical origins must have been a great help, when he came to Europe, in establishing the charisma: who is not stirred by the sound of Tiflis and Astrakhan and the Caspian Sea, Tigris and Euphrates, Cossack horsemen and Tartars and Kalmuck nomads? It was an area, Webb makes clear, where a tremendous variety of religions mingled, especially esoteric and heretic variants of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism: shamanists, hermits, staretz, dervishes really did exist. Georgei Gurdjian, or Georgiades, was the clever son of a poor man; a choirboy in the Orthodox church of Kars on the Russo-Turkish frontier, singled out for education by his brains; with twin aptitudes for mechanical gadgeteering and occult pursuits. Above all, from early on he was a débrouillard, someone who fell on his feet, a fixer and a hustler.

Meetings with Remarkable Men, the story of Gurdjieff’s first twenty years or so, is a thoroughly entertaining book, perhaps because it was the ex-editor Orage who translated and, no doubt, tidied it up; left to himself Gurdjieff could not produce a readable sentence. It is the main source of knowledge about his early life; Webb says much of it may be taken allegorically, but was Gurdjieff enough of an author for that? Bits of it might be true-ish, as far as they go. Gurdjieff describes the influence of his father, a carpenter and folk-singer, who seems to have put his firstborn through an education rather like that of the English public school: early rising, cold baths, salutary shocks, and an instilled self-confidence. These disciplines played a part in the regime later on. In addition the boy was trained to turn his hand competently to every variety of manual task. The anecdotes in Meetings with Remarkable Men are of two kinds, both of which fit the Gurdjieff described later. There are the splendid hustling stories: G. in New Samarkand dyeing and clipping sparrows and selling them as “American canaries”; recording folk-tunes and “a series of piquant anecdotes in Turkoman” on an Edison phonograph and charging five kopecks for a listen-in in the marketplace at Baku; buying up old corsets, cutting them to the new shape, and selling them back to the shops, in Merv; setting up “The Universal Traveling Workshop” in Ashkhabad—sewing machines, bicycles, clocks, guitars, locks, pianos, umbrellas, rugs, antiques, samovars mended…plus orders for trusses, and ladies’ hats from the latest Paris models.

On the other hand there are the stories of Gurdjieff the seeker of occult knowledge: “I was returning from Mecca in the company of some Bukharian dervishes” is the style. A gathering of like-minded inquirers is described, who undertook journeys with him to Egypt, Palestine, Abyssinia, Persia, Afghanistan, India. He relates the series of cures and prophecies and occult coincidences that first aroused his obsessive curiosity as a child. There is no reason to discount all the travels: Gurdjieff spoke, after his fashion, a large number of languages, and he must have been somewhere between about 1890 and 1910; Webb says the siting and the orthography of the monastery names is accurate. In his visually delicious film version of Meetings Peter Brook—quoted on the cover of Gurdjieff and Mansfield as saying that “Gurdjieff is the most immediate, most valid and the most totally representative figure of our time”—tried to get across the journeying mystic rather than the joker, and nearly pulled it off.

Brook was able to make fine cinematic capital out of the idea—delusive, but dear to Ouspensky and to the younger Gurdjieff at least—that truth is to be found in age-old parchments held by secret monastic orders in remote mountain fastnesses, rather than on the Monday morning bus to work. And he tacked on an ending that attempted to get across a Gurdjieffian message in capsule form: “There is a wolf and a lamb inside you,” says the abbot to the young Gurdjieff. “Can you enable them to live together? It can only be done through an exact science, which we will teach you.” But, alas, this science, the most authentically Gurdjieffian part of the film—the dances choreographed for it by Jeanne de Salzmann, the last survivor of the early circle—was its least impressive feature. (It should be said, however, that Lincoln Kirstein, in correspondence with the Times Literary Supplement, has recently described them as “thrilling,” and as a possible influence on Diaghilev. Kirstein declares Gurdjieff’s ideas of conscious behavior and physical possibility to have deeply influenced his own work.)

After the wandering years of Meetings, Webb steers his yarn into a splendid digression: the adventures of one Ushe Narzunoff (or Norzanoff or Norzanong) who (disguised as a Chinese) took part in the Great Game, the clandestine struggle for India, by spying for Russia around the turn of the century. Narzunoff’s cover was that he was exporting, among other things, 590 metal begging bowls to Tibet via an agent called Koukanssen—alias Thomas Cook and Son. He wore an electric tiepin that lit up (presumably not when he was in Chinese disguise), had an Edison phonograph, and certainly stayed in lamaseries and retreats during his ventures in espionage. Webb thinks it sounds very Gurdjieff, and may be right. Work for Russian intelligence would have exempted him from military service and given him the travel facilities he needed for his spiritual investigations.

Gurdjieff reappears properly in 1915 in St. Petersburg, as recorded by his most important associate, Ouspensky. Pyotr Demianovitch Ouspensky’s background could hardly have been more different from Gurdjieff’s, yet there were similarities, or the two men would not have become so closely associated. Both, within the Russian Empire, grew up as precocious children in the 1870s, one in a village hut and the other in an artistic Moscow family. While Gurdjieff was listening to his father’s chanting of an immeasurably old folk epic, Ouspensky at five was reading Lermontov and Turgenev. Ouspensky, like Gurdjieff, became interested in psychic phenomena through his own experiences: he had flashes of déjà vu and precognition. Perhaps the shock of his father’s death during his childhood also contributed to his obsession with foreseeing the future and with the nature of time. Like Gurdjieff, he was a rebel, and managed to get expelled from school—a disgrace which may have accounted for his later devotion to the idea of a “school” and a “system.”

Ouspensky traveled, read much, wrote a novel, and by 1905 was regularly working as a journalist. He was, says Webb, very much a product of the Russian intelligentsia of his time: he read Nietzsche and the Symbolists; he was romantic and melancholy, puritanical and a heavy drinker. In spite of his brilliance (he was a considerable mathematician, as his father had been) there was a void to be filled: he had had no educational discipline; father, mother, and only sister had all died before he was thirty. A friend wrote of him: “Full of ideas, tender-hearted, a talented writer, he was not protected internally by the valuable armoring of the scientific method. Everything in him was unanchored, and so open to outside influences.” Gurdjieff was more succinct: “Very nice man to drink vodka with, but weak man.”

The existence in Russia at the time of many groups with names like “The Circle of Seekers of Christian Enlightenment” sets the tone of the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky phenomenon. Ouspensky had been what we would now call “heavily into” theosophy and spiritualism; had traveled east in search of knowledge; experimented with drugs and noted his discoveries meticulously. His lectures on esoteric subjects were popular; and Tertium Organum, published in 1912, earned him a reputation—enough to induce some newspapers to finance a journalistic trip to India. Here he hoped to find the answer, the miraculous one he was always in search of. His travels there were cut short by the outbreak of war in 1914.

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