The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers
Gurdjieff and Mansfield
Who Are You, Monsieur Gurdjieff?
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.