Gurdjieff International Review
All and Everything
Meetings with Remarkable Men
Commentary by Terry Winter Owens
Gurdjieff's MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE MEN contains the outlines of a very unusual autobiography, covering Gurdjieff's youth and the most mysterious period of his life spent in search of esoteric knowledge in the Near and Far East. But if Gurdjieff concedes this much to curiosity about himself, it is only a small concession. The author had an altogether different purpose than autobiography in mind. His aim is to tell us not about himself but about the men he has known who have proved themselves remarkableby their courage and endurance, their intelligence and ingenuity, their steadfastness of purpose and perseverance in face of insuperable difficulties. In the end, it becomes clear his primary purpose is not to tell us about remarkable men as mere biography, but to use this biographical form to elucidate the answers to many profound and difficult questions and to validate the principles of his philosophy and teachings in concrete examples of unusual excellence. In this way Gurdjieff repays the curious one-hundred fold and, should the reader's curiosity be transformed into a real desire for knowledge, he will find himself rewarded far beyond his dearest expectation.
This, then, is the history of a rare adventure with treasures to be unearthed at every turn of the road. It is an adventure based on the extraordinary early life of G. I. Gurdjieff and on his search through remote and uncharted regions for those ancient truths which might serve to develop the consciousness of contemporary man. It receives its substance from the exciting and often deeply moving accounts of those who reared and trained him, and of those who shared his unusual journey. It is an adventure of the mindgrowing, being formed, setting out after inner knowledge, discovering it and putting it to the test of practice. Thus it is an adventure in two worlds, and it will be the reader's delight and enrichment to discern where one world ends and the other begins.
Those who have read Gurdjieff's first work, ALL AND EVERYTHING: Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson, will recall that the author in that book aimed at the "merciless destruction of beliefs rooted for centuries in man." Here, in this second book, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Gurdjieff turns from destruction to construction. He proves that it is possible for man to attain a certain stability and a higher level of consciousness in life based on objective values. Gurdjieff's remarkable men did not cast off their everyday lives but used them as the very material for creating within themselves a new level of Being. Their resourcefulness, ingenuity and perseverance in this unusual task uncover the means for man to actualize this full potential. Throughout the book he illuminates a world of possibilities for man which will be utterly new to most readerspossibilities tailored for the man determined to live, grow and develop in a complex and demanding worldnot in a remote monastery or ivory tower.
Those who are acquainted with ALL AND EVERYTHING will immediately be aware of the stylistic contrast between that book and the new one. The first was very difficult to read, the second is eminently readable. The two books can be linked to a favorite saying of Gurdjieff's father: "Without salt, no sugar."
It is appropriate that Gurdjieff's father is the first of the remarkable men, from whom he received his earliest and most profound impressions. What good fortune to be the son of such a man! He was one of the last ashohks or bards who transmitted ancient stories and legends orally from generation to generation and he lived by principles not founded on conventional ethics or morals but on a wisdom issuing from his own highly developed state of being. His insistence on obeying his own commandments, even in a world which was in many ways counter to such a mode of life, inevitably produced hardships which he met with singular courage. Of him, Gurdjieff remembers:
all the grandeur of my father's calm and the detachment of his inner state in all his external manifestations, throughout the misfortunes which befell him.
I can now say for certain that in spite of his desperate struggle with the misfortunes which poured upon him as through from the horn of plenty, he continued, then as before, in all the difficult circumstances of his life, to retain the soul of a true poet.
And he instilled in Gurdjieff a deep love of high ideals such as:
To be outwardly courteous to all without distinction, whether they be rich or poor, friends or enemies, power-possessors or slaves, and to whatever religion they may belong, but inwardly to remain free and never put much trust in anyone or anything.
To love work for work's sake and not for its gain.
The next masterful man, Dean Borsh, was Gurdjieff's tutor; a man "distinguished by the breadth and depth of his knowledge." His philosophy of education was a most unusual oneand Gurdjieff credits him with being
the founder and creator of my present individuality, and so to say, the 'third aspect of my inner God'.
The other remarkable men were related to Gurdjieff by a profound thirst for truth. Despite the diversity of their backgrounds and nationalities, a bond was formed among these men as though they were magnetically attracted by the one paramount aim. They accompanied Gurdjieff on one or more of the rewarding odysseys made to the Near and Far East.
There was Bogachevsky who (Gurdjieff says) is still alive and in a monastery of the Essene Brotherhood near the Dead Sea. Gurdjieff deems him to be
one of the first persons on earth who has been able to live as our Divine Teacher Jesus Christ wished for us all.
There was Captain Pogossian who, upon completion of theological studies, embarked on a career in the engine room of a ship and went on to amass a huge fortune as a shipping magnate. Pogossian had a unique characteristic; one which makes his seemingly fantastic accomplishments quite believable.
Pogossian was always occupied; he was always working at something.
He never sat, as is said, with folded arms, and one never saw him lying down, like his comrades reading diverting books which give nothing real. If he had no definite work to do, he would either swing his arms in rhythm, mark time with his feet or make all kinds of manipulations with his fingers.
I once asked him why he was such a fool as not to rest, since no one would pay him anything for these useless exercises.
'Yes, indeed', he replied, 'for the present no one will pay me for these foolish antics of mineas you and all those pickled in the same barrel of brine think they arebut in the future either you yourself or your children will pay me for them. Joking apart, I do this because I like work, but I like it not with my nature, which is just as lazy as that of other people and never wishes to do anything useful. I like work with my common sense.
'Please bear in mind', he added, 'that when I use the word "I", you must understand it not as the whole of me, but only as my mind. I love work and have set myself the task of being able, through persistence, to accustom my whole nature to love it and not my reason alone.
'Further, I am really convinced that in the world no conscious work is ever wasted. Sooner or later someone must pay for it. Consequently, if I now work in this way, I achieve two of my aims. First, I shall perhaps teach my nature not to be lazy, and secondly, I will provide for my old age. As you know, I cannot expect that when my parents die they will leave me an ample inheritance to suffice for the time when I will no longer have the strength to earn a living. I also work because the only real satisfaction in life is to work not from compulsion but consciously; that is what distinguishes man from a Karabakh ass, which also works day and night.'
Then there is Yelov, an Aisor bookseller who felt the same way about mental activity as Pogossian felt about physical activity. He became a phenomenon in the knowledge of languages. Gurdjieff, who then spoke eighteen languages, felt a greenhorn next to him. Another was Prince Yuri Lubovedsky, a man of incredible tenacity. After forty-five long years in a fruitless search for the meaning and aim of his life, he remained undiscouraged. In his persistence, he was finally taken to a monastery in which ancient truths were preserved in an unusual system of sacred dances.
Professor Skridlov comes next, animated by his love of archeology. He engaged in excavations in the ruins of ancient Egypt hoping to find the road to self-realization.
There are others whom Gurdjieff tells about in this series of unforgettable stories including Ekim Bey who had an avid interest in hypnotism and everything related to it. Tormented by inner conflict, he ultimately found guidance in the counsel of a venerated Persian Dervish to whom, almost at the eleventh hour, he was able to lay bare his deepest questions.
Gurdjieff's masterful ability as a storyteller produces a whole spectrum of colors; from profound seriousness to brilliant humor. One of the most outstanding shades on his palette is that of sheer excitement. In one episode Gurdjieff and Soloviev are taken to a hidden monastery, having given their solemn oath never to reveal its location.
Throughout the whole of our journey, we strictly and conscientiously kept our oath not to look and not to try to find out where we were going and through what places we were passing. When we halted for the night, and occasionally by day when we ate in some secluded place, our bashliks were removed. But while on the way we were only twice permitted to uncover our eyes. The first time was on the eighth day, when we were about to cross a swinging bridge which one could neither cross on horseback nor walk over two abreast, but only in single file, and this it was impossible to do with eyes covered.
From the character of the surroundings then revealed to us we deduced that we were either in the valley of the Pyandzh River or of the Zeravshan, as there was a broad stream flowing beneath us, and the bridge itself with the mountains surrounding it was very similar to the bridges in the gorges of these two rivers.
It must be said that, had it been possible to cross this bridge blindfold, it would have been much better for us. Whether it was because we had gone for a long time before that with our eyes covered or for some other reason, I shall never forget the nervousness and terror we experienced in crossing this bridge. For a long time we could not bring ourselves even to set foot on it.
Such bridges are very often met with in Turkestan, wherever there is no other possible route, or in places where to advance one mile would otherwise require a twenty-day detour.
The sensation one has when one stands on one of these bridges and looks down to the bottom of the gorge, where there is usually a river flowing, can be compared to that of looking down from the top of the Eiffel Tower, only many times more intense; and when one looks up, the tops of the mountains are out of sightthey can only be seen from a distance of several miles.
Moreover, these bridges hardly ever have a handrail, and they are so narrow that only one mountain packhorse can cross at a time; further-more, they rock up and down as if one were walking on a good spring mattressand I will not even speak about the feeling of uncertainty as to their strength.
For the most part they are held in place by ropes, made from the fiber of the bark of a certain tree, one end attached to the bridge and the other fastened to some near-by tree on the mountainside or to a projection of rock. In any case, these brides are not to be recommended even to those who in Europe are called thrill-chasers. The heart of any European crossing these bridges would sink, not into his boots, but somewhere still lower.
As these stories unfold, Gurdjieff undertakes the task of answering the nine questions which were most often put to him in the course of his teaching:
Gurdjieff also imparts to the reader seven sayings handed down from antiquity, each of which formulates one aspect of objective truth.
Every chapter is a rich mixture of adventure, philosophy and biography.
Much of it will remain probably the only information we shall ever have about Gurdjieff's life and the sources of his knowledge.
But whatever else this book may be, at its foundation is the expression of an extraordinary system of esoteric ideas dealing with the spiritual growth of man. The principle goal of this system is the development of man's latent possibilities. Gurdjieff's men either exemplify one or another aspect of this development or uncover the means for actualizing such possibilities.
In Gurdjieff's father, for instance, ones sees the realization in man of an "I"a permanent, reliable and enduring entityan attribute which is one of the ultimate aims of the system. Through Bogachevsky, who formulated a code for Objective Morality, is revealed principles to guide the man seeking to acquire higher states of consciousness. Vitvitskaia, who at one point stood on the brink of moral ruin but nevertheless developed into a woman "such as might serve as an ideal for every woman," is a beautiful illustration of the fact that this system does not call for "moral" or "circumstantial" improvement but rather for the creation of a spiritual existence independent of one's station in life. And Karpenko, who sought the ability to live "as designed from Above and as is worthy of man," exemplifies worthiness of a supra-normal nature.
Still without question, the most remarkable man is Gurdjieff himself. Not that Gurdjieff uses his writing for self-aggrandizement. On the contrary, he goes to great lengths to give credit where credit is due and invariably credits others with the responsibility for his own achievements. Nevertheless he appears as a paragon of resourcefulness, intelligence and imagination. In the epilogue, "The Material Question" where Gurdjieff tells how he financed the operation of his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, we see Gurdjieff almost single-handedly running a most unique enterprise.
One of the most outstanding of Gurdjieff's remarkable characteristics was his unflagging willingness to hazard any and all conditions to bring his search of objective knowledge to fruition. Through his toils and sacrifices, Gurdjieff became a channel through which sacred knowledge from antiquity reached the twentieth century. In his role as a teacher, Gurdjieff used the knowledge which he codified from many sources to synthesize a system which provides the means for man's development of Being, a permanent "I", higher states of consciousness and all that these imply.
This book provides indubitable testimony that there is a summit of achievement towards which man can strive.
[Revised by J. Walter Driscoll and Greg Loy with permission of the author.]
Copyright © 1965 Terry Winter Owens|
This webpage © 1998 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Winter 1997/1998 Issue, Vol. I (2)
Revision: April 1, 2000