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.
In 1915, lecturing and shuttling between Moscow and Petersburg, he was told by his friends about a Caucasian Greek he ought to meet. Gurdjieff had been keeping an eye on Ouspensky’s career and decided he needed him; he had a circle of disciples now, but they were not a very distinguished lot. Ouspensky’s meeting with Gurdjieff and his more and more fascinated reactions to him are recorded in his In Search of the Miraculous, which for the outsider seems to be the least baffling introduction to the system. Here we leave the American canary trade and Universal Traveling Workshops and see the other side of the magus, through the lenses of Ouspensky’s intense seriousness. The book is his deatiled record of Gurdjieff’s talks with his circle in the years 1915 to 1918, in Petersburg, Finland, and the Caucasus, while war and revolution raged around them.
This is not the later Gurdjieff, the clown with the fractured English; in Ouspensky’s record he appears as a formidable personage, and one can get a glimpse of what it was that attracted followers. Leaving aside the numerological diagrams and fragments of cabbalistic cosmology, the appeal of the system as Ouspensky reports it is that, like Calvinism or Manichaeanism, it contrasts the elect few with the hopelessly damned many. Man is asleep, Gurdjieff preached, but for some there is a chance to wake. He is a bundle of contradictory selves, but there is a chance of establishing a permanent self. He is utterly mechanical, but there is a chance of attaining freedom. (Ouspensky added his own rather macabre idea to the scheme: man is doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, unless he learns how to avoid this fate.) To join the tiny band of the elect demands absolute commitment, secrecy, and obedience. No loyalties outside the group have any validity.
Gurdjieff was drawing on the ancient idea—the Theosophists also revived it—of a group of initiates who pass occult knowledge down from generation to generation, and who embody in themselves man’s evolutionary future. “This small phenomenon contains in itself all that man has for the development of his hidden possibilities. The ways are opposed to everyday life, based upon other principles and subject to other laws. In this consists their power and their significance.” No wonder the early Gurdjieffians, fleeing first from Red, then White armies, saw new meaning in the story of the ark. “We often spoke at this time of how we should feel in the midst of all this chaos if we had not got the system which was becoming more and more our own. Now we could not imagine how we could live without it and find our way in the labyrinth of all existing contradictions.”
The European followers were stranded in their own labyrinth of postwar disillusionment, but for them it was not the esoteric background that was stressed. Leaving the herd for the elite meant “working on oneself” (a phrase that the encounter-group movement has taken over); a mental assault course with unique and transcendent rewards. Its chief principles were “self-remembering”—a vigilant self-awareness; non-identification with emotions and preferences; an all-out attack on the personality’s weak spots. Hence the importance of incongruous tasks (intellectuals digging ditches, shy people coping with business commissions), and the arbitrary changes of routine: as well as offering absolute obedience to the leader, it was taught, the disciple must suffer constant shocks to jolt him out of his apathy. For the European disciples it seems to have been just the mental discipline itself that appealed. “In the present epoch,” wrote Orage, who headed the British contingent, “the image of life as a gymnasium is a greatly needed tonic…. It is difficult to see in what other direction we moderns can look for a new image. We have no longer the possibility of religion in the traditional sense. Ordinary goodness—in the sense of doing what others call good—has no intelligent appeal. And after the still recent Great War, the belief in progress is superstition.”
In Search of the Miraculous contains some good pithy sayings that are certainly Gurdjieff’s rather than Ouspensky’s. “Christ says: ‘Love your enemies,’ but how can we love our enemies when we cannot even love our friends?” “It is a very big thing when the sex center works with its own energy, but it happens very seldom” (Lawrence, who understandably damned the Gurdjieffian set-up, might have been interested). “If a man knows how to make coffee well or how to make boots well, then it is already possible to talk to him” (the voice of his village upbringing; but he was always to be surrounded by incompetents). Clearly one must try not to oversimplify a phenomenon like Gurdjieff: neither to assume that a fixer cannot have a burning conviction that he is a guru, nor that a guru has unlimited magic. Gurdjieff seems to have had psychic gifts, but to have known (as Ouspensky did not) that money in the bank or an Edison phonograph are more reliable than telepathy; in his lean years there was no magic he could call on.
The 1915 meeting, for Ouspensky, was momentous. He himself was a clever and even a successful man: his perceptual experiments under drugs, recorded in A New Model of the Universe, compare well with Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and would have earned him a research grant today and publication in the appropriate journals. Yet he quickly accepted the role of disciple to Gurdjieff. When the Revolution came in 1917 it necessitated a new series of wanderings and adventures, hardly pleasant ones for the participants this time. Ouspensky had become a full convert to the system; but over the two years must have come up against the rogue element in Gurdjieff, for he had by now reached the decision to accept the ideas and reject the leader. So when Gurdjieff led a party of followers on a crucifying journey over the mountains away from the encroaching armies, Ouspensky stayed behind and suffered typhoid epidemics and semi-starvation under Bolshevik occupation. Gurdjieff eventually reached Constantinople with a few of his party; Ouspensky and his family were already there, in a refugee camp. Gurdjieff had by now planned his “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man”: the draft prospectus states that the system was already in operation in Bombay, Alexandria, Kabul, New York, Chicago, Christiana, Stockholm, and Moscow. It was the Universal Traveling Workshop all over again.
In 1921 the caravan finally reached Europe, among the great exodus of Russian refugees. Afer a period at Hellerau, home of Dalcroze’s Eurythmics and other varieties of the Higher Thought, where Gurdjieff’s role was “Teacher of Dancing” (of the dervish movements), Gurdjieff and Co.—a very small Co. now—reached Paris and acquired the Institute at Fontainebleau which is, for most people, where the story starts and ends; where Katherine Mansfield died, where a large and increasingly bemused group of pupils were made to dig ditches, perform complicated gymnastics, and accept every kind of incongruity as an opportunity for “the Work” on themselves. Its heyday actually only lasted a few years, a very small fraction of the Gurdjieff story. How did Mansfield, and so many others on the fringe of English and American literary circles, become involved?
The Ouspensky connection was crucial; it is interesting to speculate where Gurdjieff would have been without Ouspensky’s narrow but international reputation. As an author he had already been noticed before the war by A.R. Orage of the New Age. During his years of extreme privation Orage helped him by commissioning articles from him in remote Ekaterinodar. Then in 1920 Ouspensky reached the West through a grotesque stroke of luck: Lady Rothermere, wife of the press lord, had been impressed by Tertium Organum (now translated and selling well in New York), and sent money and a cable: TERTIUM ORGANUM INTERESTS ME PASSIONATELY. DESIRE VERY MUCH TO MEET YOU IF POSSIBLE.
Ouspensky brought his family to London and made a striking impression on Orage and his friends. Ouspensky was “the first teacher I have met who has impressed me with the ever-increasing certainty that he knows and can do,” Orage reported. Both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, in their different ways, were men who by now knew a great deal, and could do. They had lived in a score of cultures, survived severe ordeals, experimented and studied and acquired authority. The intellectuals they attracted had in comparison led limited lives; those without the stiffening of art or religion or any other inner certainty naturally enough flocked to the promise of a discipline that would save them.
Katherine Mansfield did have the inner stiffening of her commitment to writing; but she was mortally ill, and understandably dissatisfied by the muddled escapades by which she had tried to establish self-respect and identity. Orage was an old friend whom she admired; and she had already tried, and been cheated by, a physical “miracle cure” for her illness. Orage’s spiritual cure was an obvious next step (he had by now deserted Ouspensky for Gurdjieff’s even greater charisma). So she asked for admission to the Prieuré and was accepted. “If the Grand Lama of Tibet promised to help you—how can you hesitate? Risk! Risk anything!… I want to be all that I am capable of becoming….”
This is the intersection point which James Moore leads up to in Gurdjieff and Mansfield, a racy and sensationalized account of the interconnected lives of Mansfield, husband Middleton Murry, friend Ida Baker, and the two magicians from the East. It squares, in many ways, with Webb’s more painstaking work and with Anthony Alpers’s recent life of Mansfield; though with a strong tendency to sacrifice accuracy to the interests of the story, and a wholehearted identification with the Gurdjieffian cause. Katherine Mansfield, who was treated with kindness at the Prieure and was happy there, died her inevitable death within months. It is most unlikely that she would have devoted herself, had she lived, to “the Work,” and she is only a speek in the Gurdjieff Ouspensky saga. But—apart from her own gain in finding a good refuge to die in—she is of course important because of the legends rapidly accumulating around her death. Moore quotes some of them; the murder of “the saintliest of women” by the guru whose “shaved Tartar’s skull, sprung from one of Gogol’s novels, contains…a chaos of forces which cannot even be guessed”; the tortures and privations—even, it was put about, the more voluptuous degradations carried out under deep hypnosis. “I understand that Mr. Gurdjieff lives at Fontainebleau with Katherine Mansfield and that they call themselves ‘The Forest Lovers,”‘ was the word in New York. Alpers’s extremely meticulous biography has set the record straight. Clearly Gurdjieff lost much by his essentially kindly behavior toward her.
He was around fifty when she died in 1923, and there were another twenty-six years of the saga to run until his death in 1949. From the point of view of the yarn, at any rate, it was a quarter-century of decline. In 1924 Gurdjieff had a serious motor accident—he drove as ferociously as he lived—and was ill for some time. That the master should be subject to material cause and effect like anyone else dumbfounded the disciples; some believed he had foreseen it or arranged it, and Ouspensky considered it a kind of retribution earned by an occultist without integrity. While Gurdjieff was still ill, his wife or mistress, the mysterious Madame Ostrowska, contracted cancer of which she was to die two years later. On an apparent whim, Gurdjieff disbanded and dispersed most of the hangers-on. Among the core group that remained were his sister and her husband, his brother with his wife and four children, and his nephew. Gurdjieff was loyal to his extended family, and seems to have supported varying numbers of them for long periods.
The story of Gurdjieff’s branch of “the Work” from the late Twenties until the Second World War is largely an American one, which deserves more space than remains here. In Europe, Americans were welcomed at the depleted Prieuré for their fees; G. was writing the impenetrable Beelzebub’s tales to his Grandson and no longer had time to earn his living by buying and selling restaurants, curing alcoholics by hypnosis, and so on. In the United States, Orage was a persuasive lecturer and ambassador, and transmitted enthusiasm to Jean Toomer, the Negro writer, and Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson of the Little Review. Other literary figures hovered, marveled, drew back. Edmund Wilson lambasted imported esotericism and ascribed it to the social and spiritual bankruptcy of the time.
In the Thirties, in any case, the Gurdjieff phenomenon came to seem dated and Twentyish. Orage made a second marriage—frowned upon by Gurdjieff—that provided a counterpoise to over-involvement. The Gurdjieff of these years is a failed magician, growing, by all accounts, fat and shabby. His visits to the US to raise money were not very successful. Was he not, perhaps, capable of being lonely? Prick him, and did he not bleed? The early life described in Meetings was one supported by affectionate friendships and family ties. He had been, evidently, fond of Ostrowska, even though he did start fathering bastards soon after her death. His old mother, whom he had brought with him, died. A diet of adulation from intellectual inferiors cannot have been nourishing.
Meanwhile, in England, Ouspensky was following a much more respectable but very determined course, still basing his teaching partly on Gurdjieff’s, and acknowledging it. Webb quotes Rayner Heppenstall: “In many a Garden Suburb sitting-room, beside the nature cure pamphlets and the outlines of Adlerian psychology, lay a copy of Tertium Organum or A New Model of the Universe. People were bent on awakening their higher centers, emerging from the prison of mechanicalness, being at one with the One, achieving synthesis and breathing correctly.” Ouspensky lectured regularly in London, arousing the same superstitious dependence that Gurdjieff had; around 1930, having, it seems, spent long enough watching the Prieure activities to be finally disillusioned, he set up communities of his own in the country, run by his formidable wife. Things were very different there from chez Beelzebub: sex, laughter, and spontaneity were frowned upon, and a barrier of secrecy was set up around the movement.
Opinion was fiercely divided over which of the two men had betrayed which: Ouspensky had either picked a genius’s brains and opted out, or he had dissociated himself from a disreputable rogue. Gurdjieff had always accused Ouspensky of over-intellectualism, while Ouspensky is reported to have answered a question about the Gurdjieff connection with, “Well, he went mad, you see.” Perhaps these were sad years for the uprooted Ouspensky too: he is said to have drunk a good deal, and reminisced about the old days. It was in their natures that over the years each changed in opposing directions: Gurdjieff slackened, Ouspensky hardened, even withered.
At the end of the Second World War, which Ouspensky spent in the United States and Gurdjieff in Paris, each emerged for a few brief years. Ouspensky returned to England in 1947, to his disciples’ dismay a very tired and sick man. To a question about “the System” he replied. “There is no System”: which was either ultimate disillusionment, or wise recognition of the limits of his schematizing. His death in the same year was believed by close adherents to have taken place in an atmosphere of psychic wonders; the closest of them took “the Work” to South America, became a Catholic, and died in a mysterious sacrificial fall from a church tower. Gurdjieff emerged, after the liberation of Paris, In a small flat hung, as before, with draperies and Orientalia, his pantry stocked with exotic foods; he had—naturally—been a Black Marketeer, probably a “collabo.” That he had continued to hold court throughout the war we know from René Zuber’s Who Are You, Monsieur Gurdjieff?, a brief account from a French disciple that envelops the old magician in a typically hyperbolic haze. Pupils from abroad flocked back; his funeral in 1949 was attended by crowds. The coffin, at the last minute, was found to be too small and another had to be found: “He would laugh,” a disciple is said to have remarked.
Webb closes his book with an account of the sources of Gurdjieff’s theoretical ideas, which seemed to followers to have sprung fully formed from the master’s brow. He had in fact a whole pattern of numerology and mystical harmonies to draw on, that descended, via neo-Platonism and Cabalism, directly to the burgeoning sects of the late nineteenth century occult revival. Gurdjieff need not have been a formidable scholar to have been acquainted with it, though no doubt he did comb original as well as secondary sources: It was widely familiar among the sects, in particular through Theosophical literature. Webb also probes a tradition of esoteric Christianity preserved in the Church of Edessa, which seems to fit details in Meetings with Remarkable Men. Gurdjieff, also, was obviously influenced by Buddhism, not only by the meditation technique that stresses detached observation of thoughts, but in particular by Zen—unknown to the West in Gurdjieff’s time, though we have all since become familiar with it.
The Zen technique of baffling the mind with disciplines and paradoxes, until it breaks through to direct vision of things as they are, is the basis of Webb’s defense—or explanation—of the Gurdjieffian method. Its aim, he says, was not to teach a theory of rays and harmonies and centers, or even to reach some kind of “higher” consciousness; but to unsettle the pupil’s idees reçues by shock after shock until he lost all his old bearings—and saw that there was no “answer,” no “system,” only things-in-themselves seen clearly and urgently. The pupil had been tricked, and through the trick learned a valuable lesson. The game is familiar in our own times not only in the techniques of groups like est and Scientology, but especially in the Don Juan stories of Castaneda. Whether it is overgenerous to make this assumption that Gurdjieff really was benignly playing it all the time remains as shrouded in galoshes as everything else; it certainly complicates the story by making every apparently dotty action a possible ploy in the game. Perhaps there are other reasons for the shock tactics; the disciplines of Gurdjieff’s peasant father, or the experience of extreme danger described in Meetings which, he wrote, taught him the value of fear.
The interesting thing about the Gurdjieff phenomenon as part of the history of ideas is that the same fermenting late. nineteenth-century influences that produced Freud should have produced this exotie Eastern version of the depth psychologist. Webb does not raise the point that, if there is one concept that increasingly dominated ideas about the mind at that time, it was that man is multiple: the simple, single “I” was irrevocably lost, and anxiety about the existence of a soul was as much influenced by this as it was by Darwinism. Publications with titles like Das Doppel-lch and “Le Dédoublement de la personnalite” proliferated; the sense of “me-ness” was discussed: literature—“Je est un autre“—reflected the preoccupation. And in the remote Caucasus the idea was obviously circulating just as elsewhere, for Gurdjieff’s teaching starts from the idea that “we are legion”; and what the discipline promises is the formation of an enduring center in multiplicity.
And then a key factor behind the preoccupation with multiplicity was the phenomenon of hypnosis, whose importance for the nineteenth century can hardly be overstated. If the hysteric and the hypnotized could act out whole dramas of the alter—and alter and alter and alter—ego, there must be any number of unconscious and disparate selves. So the Greek-Armenian occultist was again quite in accord with his European contemporaries in his familiarity with hypnosis. In Meetings he mentions his early experiments “according to the classification of the School of Nancy”—the currently dominant French school displacing that of Charcot; and it seems that in what he calls the “remote and very boring town” of his youth, terms like “auto-suggestion” and “magnetism” were as current as in Paris and Berlin.
Gurdjieff was of course familiar with post-hypnotic suggestion: when Ouspensky asked him about a most unspiritual fakir whom he had seen in India, he gave that as the down-to-earth explanation. Freud, as a man of his time, was currently hypnotizing his patients, before he abandoned the method. Gurdjieff, according to a follower, also foreswore it where “the Work” was concerned because it was too manipulative. There is even a parallel in the fact that Gurdjieff sturnbled in passing on the pivotal concept that distinguished Freud from his contemporaries studying the unconscious; that of defense of one part of the multiple self against another part; but Gurdjieff called defenses by the not unreasonable name of “buffers.”
There were two streams of thought, therefore, converging on Gurdjieff; the esoteric tradition that was currently enjoying a revival, and the ideas about man’s multiple unconscious selves that had been forming for a century. In the end, whatever one makes of the story, there is something chilling about philosophies of the will rather than of the heart, like Gurdjieff’s or Castaneda’s; a sound of brass and tinkling cymbals. Neither spontaneity, humility, nor compassion has much place in them. For me, the photograph of Gurdjieff’s full larder in Paris in 1946 turned the scale; I have never been to the Caucasus, or attended a Gurdjieffian circle, or finished a Gurdjieffian book—but I remember the kind of people who had full larders in France at that time. But then…in Gurdjieff and Mansfield James Moore claims that the fixer was feeding not only his relatives, but “literally keeping alive scores of his poor neighbors, quite unconnected with his work.” It might be true.
October 23, 1980