Gurdjieff International Review

Sophie Ouspensky

Irmis Popoff

O

ne fateful evening, when he was lecturing in the Grand Ballroom at Steinway Hall, Mr. Ouspensky dropped a bombshell by announcing to us his decision to discontinue his lectures in New York and to return to London in the very near future.

“Those of you who go to Mendham,” he said, “will have Madam Ouspensky to direct you. Those of you who do not, must find your own bearings.”

That was all. As simple and as final as that!

Grief, astonishment, disbelief, desperation—all this was reflected on the faces of the persons in the Hall who felt the value of the Work that Mr. Ouspensky had been conducting here in New York. As for those of us who were not going to Mendham at that particular time—we wriggled, panted, and gasped for air in a frantic effort to save ourselves from despair. There was among us a handful who had been working closely with Mr. Ouspensky in New York whom he referred to as “his people,” mentioning that those who went to Mendham were “Madam’s people.”

Now, these few people were more “his people” because of their attitude toward him than because he had in any way chosen them. They were always ready to serve him, to come as close to him as he permitted, to work for him; they took all he had to give according to their individual preparation, and tried to help him in ordinary practical ways such as writing reports, typing, making telephone calls, talking with people who came to the lectures for the first time, and so forth. The small services we thus eagerly rendered him added a wealth of opportunities for us to work on ourselves, to the boon that we were receiving in exchange.

We were the people he had pushed, verbally lashed, abused, annoyed, banged about; the people who, he no doubt knew, respected, loved and tried to understand him as best they could. The people who, when he was at his worst as a task maker, felt that he was at his best trying to baffle them for the purpose of helping them to sharpen their wits, to learn to think on their feet, to be impartial and to discover how to swallow in order to become strong.

It was my good fortune to be among these people. Yet his departure left me at a disadvantage. I tried to return to Mendham, but Madam did not permit it. It is quite possible that others from my group had the same experience, but I do not know. For myself, I blessed Madam for the wisdom of her decision even when I felt more at a loss in the days that followed, knowing that the miracle was over and assuming that this was the end for me since I never thought it would be possible to go on with the Work outside the general group.

I must explain here that I had gone to Mendham previously, and had come into contact with Madam Ouspensky. When she saw me for the first time she classified me on the spot as “the emotional Mrs. P. with nothing in her head.” As I heard her words I had to admit that she was right, for from the very moment my eyes rested on her I felt that I loved her. My heart had leapt as though I had recognized her! I was emoting at the time, so this perception had nothing to do with reason. Perhaps the reaction was the result of the fear I had felt before meeting her because many described her as a “monster” in disguise, always ready to pounce purringly upon those who came to the big house and torture and taunt them. It seemed she had sensed my emotion.

However, my work with Mr. Ouspensky had conditioned me. I knew he was kind and understanding, even when he appeared to be at his worst. I knew from experience that he hit hard in order to save; that he wounded in order to heal, and so I took it for granted that Madam did as much. And I was correct.

In their team it was she who worked most on the emotional side of man. Her tactics were different, but the aim and the method were the same. And because my mind had accepted and understood, I felt full of grateful admiration for her and for the Work. It was impossible to undergo such emotional transformations as I underwent, to see others undergo them, without feeling in the depths of one’s being the sacred sentiments of gratitude and love on witnessing the colossal sacrifice of personality by Mr. Ouspensky and Madam Ouspensky in order to help others to stop being machines and to become men and women worthy of their Creator.

It was an unbelievably difficult task. Madam made herself expressly disagreeable, reprimanding, aping, debunking, abusing, and unmasking everybody. Yet I realized, within the limits of my experience in any event, she always was a mirror of justice and never accused anyone wantonly or unjustly except for reasons of a much higher order than were apparent to others who were not involved in the little plays in which she would call upon this or that more advanced pupil to act impromptu for the benefit of the newcomers. She found the exact sore spot in one’s makeup; always exposing sham, false personality, pride, vanity, conceit, forever attacking weakness and stupidity; she was as tart and acid in her talk as she was wise and profound in her judgment.

Madam’s impact on the people who came to her for the first time was much deeper than that which Mr. Ouspensky made in equal circumstances. It is possible that when we came to her we knew what to expect, and came in fear of being torn apart or wishing to be torn apart and to have, perhaps, the first real look at ourselves. One approached Madam emotionally, either loving her or hating her, but there was no feeling of admiration toward her such as Mr. Ouspensky inspired; at least not among those I knew. Not to begin with, in any event. And yet, it was she who sacrificed herself daily for the sake of those within reach of her help! It was she who ran the risk of becoming a real shrew, and of losing her way in the bargain; she who could expect nothing but resentment from those she so lavishly helped. It was, however, a resentment that was short-lived in the hearts of those who stood their ground, because eventually one came to feel—just as one came to understand with one’s mind in dealing with Mr. Ouspensky—that her heart was immense and she mothered us all, having undertaken the Herculean task of weaning us away from sham. And in carrying through her task she was constantly exposed to the danger of losing everything she had won through hard work on herself by merely half forgetting that she was only acting.

My personal work with Madam was far too short to satisfy me, but long enough for me to profit immeasurably from the generosity with which she gave of herself. I shall never forget the moments I spent near her. I had nothing but love and admiration for this remarkable woman when I saw her riding through the gardens in her old car while we worked in the fields; or when she came to the dining room or the terrace while we ate lunch or had tea, to treat us all to her special brand of firework displays!

I can still feel the sensation that crept along my spine when I heard Madam approaching, her cane announcing her as she came closer and closer to the terrace or the dining room. Although small in stature, she loomed and towered above us all through the sheer strength and poise that radiated from her presence. When she reached the long narrow tables at which we sat, everyone remained motionless, eyes glued to one spot, simultaneously wishing to draw her attention and yet to become invisible to her. Each one of us was in readiness, conscious of her powerful presence, desperately trying to hold fast to our own shaking thread of presence, not knowing what to expect nor where the lash would fall, fastened to the spot as though held by a magnet, delighted to be there but almost wishing to take flight! And she would calmly take a seat at the head of one of the long narrow tables, surveying the assembly with extraordinarily calm and beautiful eyes; those limpid and penetrating eyes which laughed and sparkled while her tongue lashed.

It was not until years later, when I came into close contact with her Master, that I realized how much Madam received from him. From all the pupils in his original group that I have known she alone, through her presence, gave me the feeling, or rather the trace of the shadow of the feeling that took possession of my being in Mr. Gurdjieff’s presence. In her power over people, in the depth of her presence, in deep magnetic appeal, in merciless humor and ready wit, in her extraordinary mimicing ability, Madam, to my knowledge, was undoubtedly the one of Mr. Gurdjieff’s pupils who resembled him most or imitated him best, as the case may have been.

In the all too short period of my proximity to Madam I never heard her say anything that was banal or superficial. This woman, for whom I had the strange feeling of having been waiting throughout the years long before I even knew she existed, had a profound influence on my life—this woman, who took my heart from me, and whom I, in turn, did my best to imitate so far as postures and gestures went. I cherished forever every word she spoke, and I imagine I can still hear her voice; not imparting the ideas and the knowledge that our revered Mr. Ouspensky gave us, but full of practical wisdom for use in ordinary living. The “nu” that usually preceded her words, still rings lovingly in my ears.

“Never offer more information than has been asked of you,” I hear her telling me now, as she did once, when, upon asking me whether I had brought some person into the Work I waxed eloquent to explain how that person had come to join us. I can still see her as she sat at the table, telling us how she had hated herself when she was in the same position in which we found ourselves now whenever she caught herself lying.

I asked, in surprise, “Did you say hate, Madam?”

And she replied, “Yes, hate. Love is a result—it is not an aim, Mrs. P.”

Madam was never brutal or cruel to me until the time came to forbid my returning to Mendham. Then she was adamant. Had I not loved her and trusted her, I should have hated her. Mendham was, at the time, the only door that I wanted to see open to me. But she knew best. Circumstances were such then that it would have been psychologically detrimental for me to be there. I like to think that she knew it, and refused me accordingly. However, I never stopped loving her. Perhaps I loved her the more for her refusal to let me be weak; and her words, every word that she ever spoke to me, never ceased to influence me. I was thus well able to accept my ban from Mendham without bitterness and without argument for I always had the feeling that Madam understood. And irrespective of external appearances, irrespective of the trend of events, I felt safe in the certainty of her strength and of her wisdom.

How often I wished I had occasion to witness an encounter between Master and pupil! I am convinced that Madam would have stood as close in stature to his shadow as it was possible for anyone to come!

I shall never forget the personal struggle I underwent through the gamut of many emotions while working in turn with Madam and Mr. Ouspensky! I hated them, I loved them, I questioned their sanity, I extolled their wisdom, I sang praises to them, and I criticized them all at the same time. But all along I was conscious of the fact that my life was more worthwhile because of them and of their work with myself and the group.

Years later, when Mr. Gurdjieff’s conversations with Mr. Ouspensky were published in In Search of the Miraculous, I realized that this struggle between “yes” and “no,” had been a God-sent gift to those of us who had the good fortune to work with Madam and Mr. Ouspensky to undergo the inner clash that made it possible for us to begin to stir in our deep slumber.

~ • ~

T

here followed a period of search for something that might—even in an insignificant way—fill the enormous void left by Mr. Ouspensky at his departure. Where to turn? Which way to look? Together with others from my former group, and with those left in similar circumstances as ourselves, we made a pact to go everywhere in town to find some other group with whom we might associate. There was not a group in New York, religious, metaphysical, philosophical or theosophical that I did not try out in all good faith. There was not one among these groups that met the strict requirements which seven years of training with Mr. Ouspensky now made imperative.

There was one among the others who shared my disappointment, who phoned me several months later to let me know that she had ascertained that Mr. Gurdjieff was still living and might come to America soon. She said she had been in contact with one of his old pupils who had been with him in the same group as Madam and Mr. Ouspensky.

I was interested and astonished. I knew very little about Mr. Gurdjieff, and so far as I knew he was dead. Nobody had told me so, but I had taken it for granted and had never questioned this assumed fact. Actually I had never been particularly interested in the matter one way or another, since it was Mr. Ouspensky who had put a little sense into my mind. It was he who had given me the first glimpses of a knowledge that had enriched my life, and it was he who had brought about the expansion of my horizons—and what reason did I have even to think that any other man existed who had any concern with this?

But now the tables were overturned and things were in reverse. Now I began to listen with much interest to the reports that were abroad on the subject of these two men. Many things began to happen fast, and before long I became aware of the fact that the road was opening for me to return to the fold out of which I had been thrown.

Before that could come to pass a great battle would have to be waged within myself, as was also the case with some of the others with whom I had been associating since Mr. Ouspensky’s departure. His death was not only a shock to me, it was also a cataclysm. The stories that arose from it, the manner in which they came to my attention, the way in which our loyalty and our training were put to the test, all of these things set up a great struggle and jolted us out of our sleep.

I have mentioned the fact that the group with which I had been working—those who were not going to Mendham when Mr. Ouspensky left, as well as loose members of other groups of his whom we had met at the lectures or in the country—had banded together in an effort to find the way back into the fold, or at least not to lose contact with the ideas altogether. We met regularly, read and worked together as best we knew how.

Louise March, the vital person from Mr. Gurdjieff’s people, who had been contacted by one of us, agreed to read with as many as cared to come, from Gurdjieff’s book, All and Everything, which had not yet been published. This was necessary, in preparation for his coming, as it was by now quite certain that he would be in New York before long.

Now it became necessary to make a very serious decision. As I have said, some of us who had been left to our own devices still very strongly felt a connection with Mendham even though we were not going there. Still we did not want to lose contact with the Work, and we didn’t want to act on our own. However, there was no one to advise us. We all had to wage an inner fight as to whether or not it was loyal to Mr. Ouspensky’s memory and beneficial for us to consort with Mr. Gurdjieff. There was also an outer fight with other group members, which soon divided into those who opposed joining any activity that had to do with Mr. Gurdjieff, or even hearing about him, and those who felt they must try to find out for themselves what it was all about, and who wanted to reach their own conclusions and see the man with their own eyes and hear what he had to say.

Word had come that Madam had opened her doors to Mr. Gurdjieff, and that she had called him over to surrender to him the care of her flock. Some who were among those going to Mendham rebelled against her and left. Some people from our group did the same. Others accepted Madam’s judgment both at Mendham and outside of Mendham. I was among the latter. I trusted Madam Ouspensky. Moreover, I remembered that Mr. Ouspensky had always enjoined us not to believe anything we heard; he told us repeatedly to doubt everything, including what he said—in fact, particularly, what he said to us. Otherwise no development was possible in this Work, he had assured us.

Therefore I felt for myself that it was irrevocably right to become acquainted with Mr. Gurdjieff, and to ascertain whether he really knew as much as Mr. Ouspensky. I found it difficult to believe this possibility since I had never heard of Mr. Gurdjieff and had no reason to presume that the System came through him or that he was the Master. So the readings began for me, full of reservations, doubts, and misgivings.

At first, when I heard those incredibly long chapters from the still unpublished All and Everything, I thought this was all a comedy of errors. I did not understand what it was all about. Nothing made sense except the fact that we were again together, that many people whom we knew and had not seen lately had come from near and far, that we again were struggling to form a group, and each one was eager to reestablish a lost connection with something extremely precious to us.

“It is all a lot of nonsense,” I would say to myself. And I made a pest of myself inquiring about Mr. Gurdjieff and his activities, asking whether he really knew about the Ray of Creation and Recurrence, about the Law of the Octave, the Enneagram, the Chemical Laboratory. I was assured that he was the source of all this knowledge; that Mr. Ouspensky had been his pupil. But when I heard the readings further I began to harbor great doubts about everybody’s sanity, especially about my own sanity, faithfully appearing at reading after reading to listen to all this unexplainable nonsense. Yet the pleasure of being together with the others, the esprit de corps, the total void of life without the Work, the possibility of returning sometime to Mendham—all these lured me on and combined to keep me reading, “at least for a little while longer,” as I would say to myself.

But as the readings proceeded I decided to apply the principles I had learned from Mr. Ouspensky. I wondered: “Is there something else hidden in all this, something that would benefit me considerably if I were really to understand it, as for instance, the profit I gained from finally deciphering the Chemical Laboratory? What could it be? Is it possible that by reading this nonsense three times at least, as is suggested, I may be able to grasp whatever it is that escapes me now? How could a man like Mr. Ouspensky, and a woman of Madam’s stature follow the person who wrote all this unless he was really a person of unusual being? Would it, perhaps, be written in this manner for the express purpose of testing one’s patience, of fostering understanding in the same manner as our dear Mr. Ouspensky put us to the test in more intelligible if belligerent ways?”

I thank my stars that when these preliminary readings were over I took sides with those who chose to reserve judgment and to wait in order to find out personally what Mr. Gurdjieff was like...

~ • ~

This text (not the photos) is taken from Irmis Popoff’s book, Gurdjieff: His Work On Myself, With Others, For The Work (1969) New York: Vantage Press, pp. 111–119, Copyright © 1969 Irmis B. Popoff.

 

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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
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