The living can sue their biographers for slander or false, misleading and speculative “facts.” The dead, however, cannot testify after the fact, and whatever autobiographical fragments they have left are subject to biased scrutiny and adaptation. Georgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff told and wrote stories about himself without insisting on their “fact.” He scattered references to events in his life in his 1933 pamphlet The Herald of Coming Good, the posthumously published Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life is real, only then, when I am. In the First Series—Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson—carefully qualified as a work set to destroy false representations of reality,1 he speaks in his own voice in both front and back matter, and yet recent biographers of Gurdjieff have excerpted stories from it as biographical fact. Whatever Gurdjieff has said of himself is parable. He invented himself.
The art of not being fooled in determining the genuineness of documents is known as hermeneutics. Nobody yet has been able to determine what is “genuine” in the stories Gurdjieff weaves about himself, and those who knew him personally can imagine Gurdjieff smiling knowingly at the efforts of readers to mine fact from his “fiction.” He was wont to say that truth is served best by lies, and by lies he meant stories that objectify meanings unperceived by those who think they can grasp fact. What then we can know about Gurdjieff’s life can be construed by means of a critical hermeneutics applied to his own words and a careful probing of the testimony of those who shared experiences with him. Those experiences include hearing stories Gurdjieff told about himself which also invite hermeneutic exegesis.
Information about Gurdjieff’s life from himself and other sources can be viewed in three chronological periods. The first, the principal time span of Meetings With Remarkable Men, covers the period from his birth—not dated by himself but extant official documents have both 1872 and 1877, and James Moore argues for 1866—until 1912 when he begins teaching in western Russia. The second period extends from 1912 until 1922 when he established his Institute in Fontainebleau-Avon. The third and final period ends with his death in the autumn of 1949.
I make these divisions in order to distinguish the materials available for compiling biographies of Gurdjieff. For the first period, over half his lifetime, we have little more than Gurdjieff’s own words to rely upon. For the second period we can scan both Gurdjieff’s own accounts and those written by pupils. For one, P. D. Ouspensky’s 1949 publication, In Search for the Miraculous, provides a voluminous summary of Gurdjieff’s teaching and a sketchy account of Gurdjieff’s movements between 1915 until 1924 when Gurdjieff left France for the United States. There are a scant few letters and memoirs of other pupils during this period that complement Ouspensky’s account of Gurdjieff’s character and teaching. For the last twenty-five years of his life, there is a great deal of chronicle material, and yet, inexplicably, there are numerous gaps in the history of Gurdjieff’s activities during this period.
Writings about Gurdjieff in these periods are often replete with erroneous dates and movements, speculations based on hearsay evidence, and, unfortunately, pure invention. From the early 1960s recollections by former pupils began to appear that provided information about Gurdjieff’s life. Margaret Anderson’s The Unknowable Gurdjieff (1962), Kathryn Hulme’s Undiscovered Country (1966), Fritz Peters’ Boyhood with Gurdjieff (1964) and Gurdjieff Remembered (1965), C. S. Nott’s Teachings of Gurdjieff (1961) and Journey Through this World (1969), John G. Bennett’s Gurdjieff: Making a New World (1973) and Witness (1974), Louise Welch’s Orage with Gurdjieff in America (1982), Louise March’s The Gurdjieff Years 1929–1949 (1996), William Patrick Patterson’s Ladies of the Rope (1998) and my own Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer (1998), Gurdjieff and Orage (2001), and Gurdjieff’s America (2004). Besides these there are scores of references to Gurdjieff’s life by pupils in books, pamphlets, magazines and newspaper articles. James Webb’s The Harmonious Circle (1980) provided the first systematic biographical account by a writer who hadn’t known Gurdjieff personally. In the same year James Moore’s Gurdjieff and Mansfield was published, and a decade later Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (1991), a full biographical scan of Gurdjieff’s life that has achieved the status as a definitive biography.
The interested reader can appreciate the wealth of biographical material available that contributes to a comprehensive account of the life of a man who had touched so many lives in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the number of lacunae, contradictions and speculations that mark the greater part of these accounts confuse more than inform. Though James Moore cautiously called Gurdjieff’s own account of his early life, 1866(?)–1912, “auto-mythology,” he and other writers on Gurdjieff’s life seem to have mythologized the whole of his life. “Mythologized” is, perhaps, an inadequate term. In fact, much written on Gurdjieff’s life after 1912 is pure invention, in some instances speculation paraded as fact. The unwary reader who would trust accounts is led into perpetuating error, and the catena of error from the 1960s to the present is almost impossible to detach from a putative “canonical” historical view.
Ouspensky’s sober account, whose veracity, reportedly, was acknowledged by Gurdjieff himself, poses few problems in its record of events beginning with his first meeting with Gurdjieff in 1915. Later observers, however, have questioned the “real” identity of the man Ouspensky knew as Gurdjieff. In God Is My Adventure (1935), the journalist Rom Landau claimed that Achmed Abdullah told him in the early thirties that Gurdjieff was actually Agwan Dordjieff, known to British authorities as a former Russian agent in Tibet. Almost half a century later, in The Harmonious Circle (1980), James Webb, after reading the autobiography of Paul Dukes, The Unending Quest: Autobiographical Sketches (1950), suggested that Gurdjieff was actually Ushé Narzunoff, and speculated that he might have been teaching in Saint Petersburg in 1913 with the name “Prince Ozay.” James Moore, in his Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (1991) refutes the Narzunoff identity but accepts the Ozay theory, which I refute in another essay.
There are several accounts of Gurdjieff’s peregrinations from 1917 to 1922 when he settled in France, and although they contain conflicting minor detail, there is no obvious invention of facts in them. Several accounts of Gurdjieff in France after his founding of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, however, wander from fact to fable. The two followers most responsible for sowing confusion about Gurdjieff are Fritz Peters—who knew Gurdjieff as a young boy in France and a young adult in the United States—and John Godolphin Bennett, who met Gurdjieff in Constantinople in 1922 and visited him in France in the twenties and late forties. Peters’ two recollections are taken by Webb and Moore, despite disconcerting errors of fact, as authoritative, though Peters himself, when challenged later in his life by those who questioned his “fact,” would invariably reply: “I am a novelist, not a historian.” His Boyhood With Gurdjieff is replete with both misinformation and invention, much of which has been discarded tacitly as error, but much of which is taken as “fact.” It is easy to spot his error when he places the death of Gurdjieff’s wife Julia Osipovna Ostrowski in the spring of 1927. Official records and testimony of those residing at the Prieuré have her death on 26 June 1926 at 4 A.M. It is more difficult to disprove his claim that he carried Gurdjieff’s chair for him about the property following Gurdjieff’s near-fatal accident in July 1924. No other memoir confirms this task, and Bernard Metz claimed later that he himself had carried the heavy armchair that Fritz, at age eleven, could hardly lift.
In the same book, Peters recalls that Gurdjieff went to the United States alone during the winter of 1925–1926 to raise money for the Institute, adding that Gurdjieff managed to raise over $100,000 during his American stay.2 Details of Gurdjieff’s activities that winter are scant, but it is clear that he was at the Prieuré working on his book. Stanley Nott, who is often hazy on dates, says that he left Gurdjieff there in November 1925 when he returned to New York and worked with groups there through the winter and early spring when he returned to France.3 Since his wife Julie was in failing health during that time, Gurdjieff would not have absented himself long from the Prieuré, and yet Peters goes into considerable detail about life at the Prieuré that winter without Gurdjieff. The truth is that Peters himself was not at the Prieuré that winter, but in Paris at school. Having in a sense disqualified his account as factual, it is surprising that biographers who did not know Gurdjieff personally take much Peters says in this book as having actually occurred.
Crucial to the history of Gurdjieff’s relationship with his “agent” in America, A. R. Orage, is Peters’ description of Gurdjieff’s “furious screaming” in rage at Orage in the summer of 1925.4 In his Struggle of the Magicians (1996), William Patrick Patterson remarks that “the subject of Gurdjieff’s anger . . . likely had to do with Jessie Dwight, having noted Orage’s growing infatuation with his tall blond secretary.”5 He adds later that Orage “was blind to the reason he could not have Jesse [sic] and Gurdjieff too.”6 Patterson here is expanding James Moore’s speculation that the scene might have been “prompted by money matters or editorial differences; more likely it was Jessie who lit the blue paper of Gurdjieff’s firework display—she seldom missed an opportunity to signal to him an ambivalence which fringed on dumb insolence.”7 There is, however, good reason to doubt these speculations. Knowing Peters’ tendency to exaggerate or invent, the “melodrama” may not have occurred as reported. If true, there is nothing in Peters’ account that indicates the cause of Gurdjieff’s outburst. Orage and Jessie finally married in September 1927 without any complaint from Gurdjieff.
In his second book, Gurdjieff Remembered, Peters describes Gurdjieff’s visit to Chicago in the winter of 1931–1932.8 Again, crediting Peters with fact, James Webb cites Gurdjieff’s affability and openness to Toomer during his visit,9 and James Moore in turn adds details.10 Toomer was not in Chicago at any time during this period.11 Such inconsistencies should be noted by serious biographers, but Webb accepts Peters’ “facts” without delving into their veracity.
It is not unusual to read in writings about Gurdjieff by others that they had achieved what Gurdjieff had hoped or programmed for them. Stanley Nott writes that at the Prieuré in 1928 Gurdjieff confirmed that Nott had achieved the self-initiation planned for him and had moved “to another octave of being and understanding.”12 Nott told others that Gurdjieff told him later that he had nothing more to teach him. It seems likely, considering his use of dates,13 that Nott exaggerates the extent of his personal involvement with Gurdjieff. For example, he writes that in April 1924 he sailed from New York to England and, two weeks after arrival, went to the Prieuré, where Madame de Hartmann said “we” have been waiting for three weeks for ”you.” Nott adds that throughout much of the spring and summer he held lengthy conversations with Gurdjieff.14 The timing is improbable, since Gurdjieff did not arrive back in France until the second half of June, a couple of weeks before his automobile accident. There is no exaggeration in Margaret Anderson’s account of that summer, but her memory slips as well when she recalls that she, Jane Heap and the Peters’ boys arrived at the Prieuré early in July (Peters had said “June”), and “Orage was at the Prieuré when we arrived.”15
Later, as if exaggerating his time spent with Orage as well as with Gurdjieff, Nott writes that he had lengthy conversations with Orage during the summer of 1927 at the Prieuré. Orage, however, was not in France that summer.16 Then, Nott places Orage at the Prieuré the entire summer of 1928, but Orage was there only for a few weeks in the autumn.17 Nott records that Orage went to New York from London in the autumn of 1930 a few days after Gurdjieff arrived there,18 but Orage and his family did not arrive in New York until January 1931! These errors in dating are not necessarily prejudicial to an appreciation of the chronology of Gurdjieff’s life. Others err as well in errant memory or haste. Patterson says, for example, that Margaret Anderson first heard of Gurdjieff and his ideas when she read Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum, though that book was written long before Ouspensky came into direct contact with Gurdjieff.19 On the same page, Patterson writes that Orage was sent to New York in January 1923, eleven months too soon. Misdating is endemic, it would seem, and instances of it can bewilder the reader. What is one to make of Patterson’s recollection that Lord Pentland lent him his own copy of All and Everything, saying: “Mr. Gurdjieff gave it to me himself?”20 Which of the two is guilty of this anachronism? The book, of course, was not published until after Gurdjieff’s death.
What errors of date, place and event are significant is not easy to argue. Misspelled names appear in almost all accounts of Gurdjieff, including my own, but are without substantial consequence. Misdated events often have no import on narrative sense. Webb has Nikolai de Stjernvall born in Tiflis in 1920, though my friend Nikolai, still alive, assures me he was born in 1919. Webb misplaces Gurdjieff by two months when he writes in August 1922 Orage decided to go to Fontainebleau, though he intended to go to Paris, since Gurdjieff did not yet know he would be in Fontainebleau in October. In Webb’s account of Gurdjieff’s offer of a handgun to a pupil he mentions in a single breath both “revolver” and “automatic,” though only one weapon was at hand.21 Later, Webb reports that Gurdjieff made several visits to Taliesin, though extant records record only a visit in August 1934 and perhaps another in January 1935. None of these “slips” distort appreciably the facts of Gurdjieff’s life. Equally insignificant, perhaps, is Nott’s exposition of Orage’s interpretation for his New York groups of Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, but lists of group members in 1927 and 1928, when Orage explicated the text, do not have Nott’s name. The careful notes of Orage pupils Muriel Draper, Larry Morris, Sherman Manchester, Carol Robinson, and Jean Toomer on Orage’s talks about the book fail to mention Nott’s name. When and where Nott compiled his notes on Orage’s talks remains a mystery.
No single acquaintance of Gurdjieff’s, rightly or wrongly, has generated more rancor among others than John Godolphin Bennett, a proliferate writer who, though he spent little time with Gurdjieff, claimed that he had received from him privileged information. Probably nothing else he had said or written distraught Gurdjieff pupils more than his statement before group members in the United States after Gurdjieff’s death that he was Gurdjieff’s senior pupil. Bennett seems to represent in his writings a grain of received fact as a pound of “inside” dope. In the early 1950s Bennett became close friends with Paul Anderson, a former pupil of Orage’s and later Gurdjieff’s secretary, whom he credits with a great deal of doubtful fact. For one, he says of the mimeographed edition of Beelzebub’s Tales that Orage produced with Gurdjieff’s authorization in 1931: “Paul Anderson, who was then the treasurer, worked out a proposal for producing a mimeographed edition of Beelzebub from the chapters Gurdjieff had left with them. . . Two were reserved for Paul and Naomi Anderson who had done all the work. . . No authorized text was left either by Orage or by Gurdjieff himself. In some cases passages were missing and had to be reconstructed from memory. This was possible because the New York group had heard the chapters read many times from the time when Gurdjieff first brought them to New York in 1929. . . Copies were sent to Gurdjieff who smiled happily and seemed to be pleased. Copies were also sent to Orage for himself and Ouspensky.”22 Evidence disproving this statement is too abundant to be rehearsed here.23 One is incredulous before the assertion that the text was re-constructed from memory. As one might expect, Orage had had a full version of the Tales since 1928, and had prepared the edition before he left New York in the late spring of 1931. It is possible that Anderson had a hand in the actual mimeographing, but it is hard to believe that he would take credit for what his New York colleagues knew was Orage’s work. It is no wonder that those in the know accuse Bennett of invention.
Since Bennett had not been in the United States in the years immediately following the death of Orage, one wonders where he learned that Gurdjieff was “exasperated by the thoughtless reaction of hundreds of Americans to Orage’s death.”24 The assertion is flatly contrary to all recollections of members of the New York group (Munson, Manchester, Margaret Anderson, Draper), as well as the Santa Fe, Taos and San Francisco people. More crucial to the history of Gurdjieff is the information he says he received from Paul Anderson to the effect that in the spring of 1935 Senator Cutting of New Mexico was going to Washington D.C. to offer Gurdjieff money to finance the Institute. There is not a shred of evidence that this was so. That Cutting was in correspondence with Orage is confirmed, and he might well have heard of Gurdjieff in Santa Fe from Meredith Hare and Mabel Dodge Luhan, but the name of Gurdjieff is nowhere to be found in his papers and letters housed at the Library of Congress. The minor inaccuracy that the plane Cutting was in exploded in mid-air, killing everyone aboard, is contrary to all accounts.
Gurdjieff’s reaction to Cutting’s death is deemed a significant event in his life. Bennett says that after learning of the death: “From what Gurdjieff said once or twice in 1949, it seems that in 1935 he made a trip to Asia—he said “Persia,”25 which might include Turkestan.
Bennett is also guilty of simple carelessness. He notes, for example, that after Gurdjieff’s re-establishment in Paris in 1935, his sister Sophie was nursing her dying husband (Kapanadze), and her son Valentin went to live with his uncle (Gurdjieff).26 Valentin’s mother, killed in the Turkish incursion into Armenia, was Anna, not Sophie Kapanadze. His father, also killed at that time, was Feodor Anastasieff. This error is all the more puzzling since Bennett worked with Valia Anastasieff on the text of Views from the Real World. One might forgive Bennett for such lapses, but his story of the relationship between Gurdjieff and Senator Cutting, and Gurdjieff’s consequent visit to Central Asia misrepresent the chronicle of Gurdjieff’s life seriously.
Though Webb is a serious and disinterested researcher into Gurdjieff life and relationships with his major pupils, he brings his own research into question by disdaining footnotes and by refusing to reveal unpublished sources. Instead, he asks his reader to take it as a matter of faith that the material he cites from those persons he has interviewed is accurate, and that he does not mention their names out of a respect for privacy. He also fails to note biographical details of archival materials he has used, leaving the interested reader and the serious scholar in the awkward position of not being able to confirm accuracy. Webb misquoted and misinterpreted the testimony of Edith Taylor and Jessie Orage in interviews, the first in the story of her flight to London in 1933 to see Orage on Gurdjieff’s behalf, and the second from confusing Jessie’s oral testimony with the diary entries she allowed him to scan.
Another “fact” both biographers report is the demonstration Gurdjieff and his troupe gave in Philadelphia in 1924.27 In his Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff, Thomas de Hartmann says that Gurdjieff “arranged” a demonstration there, but does not describe anything of it or the trip to Philadelphia, though much is said of the New York and Boston demonstrations. Webb adds that Stanley Nott was sent to Chicago and Philadelphia.28 Orage’s letters note that Nott was sent to Boston to help with arrangements, but Nott’s name does appear in any documents concerning the Chicago trip. For Gurdjieff, Philadelphia meant the locus of the achieved human soul, something to be strived for, as he explained in a talk to the New York group on 29 February 1924.
Webb is guilty of relatively minor inaccuracies in his account of this first trip that, nonetheless, distort the record. For one, he places the Sunwise Turn bookshop, where Orage gave his first talks about the Institute, at 32 East 31st Street. The Sunwise Bookshop, however, founded by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray-Clarke on 38th Street and 5th Avenue during World War I, was moved in 1919 by Harold Loeb, nephew of Simon and Solomon Guggenheim, to the Yale Club Building on 44th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, across from Grand Central Station. It was here that Orage gave his first talk. Webb also says that the only time Gurdjieff charged his audience for tickets was for the Carnegie Hall demonstration on 3 March,29 but Orage had tickets sold for the two Boston performances and for the Chicago performance.
Webb repeats a story that circulated in New York about Gurdjieff sending orgasmic vibrations to a woman near him,30 dates the event in the spring of 1933, and identifies the woman as Zona Gale. Gurdjieff was not in the United States that spring, but in France doing his best to raise money to save his Institute at the Prieuré. A page later in his book, Webb says that Gurdjieff met Toomer in New York that same spring, but neither was in New York at the time.
Webb’s most damaging errors concern the chronology of Gurdjieff’s visits to the United States, perhaps in his crediting the accuracy of Fritz Peters’ memory. Trying to make sense of Fritz Peters’ confusing dates, he locates Gurdjieff in New York and Chicago at the end of 1932, where he shocked Toomer with his behavior, and the beginning of 1933. Toomer was not there for him to see at the end of 1932, and Gurdjieff was writing letters in early January from 92, Rue de Tocqueville in Paris. If he was in New York earlier, there is not a mention of his presence then in any recollection of New York group members.
Webb locates Gurdjieff in the Unites States from autumn 1933 until May 1935, though Gurdjieff wrote both Israel Solon and Fred Leighton from France in March 1934 to ask for tickets for passage to the States. He told them that he would arrive in April on the Bremen. So while Webb assumes a visit to America in 1932–1933 that was not made, as far as available evidence reveals, he was unaware of a later trip back and forth across the Atlantic actually taken.
Perhaps the most crucial distortion of fact perpetrated by Webb is his common account of the “break” between Gurdjieff and Orage in early 1931. Rather than rely upon accurate information available describing the sequence of events early that year, he gives credence to Gurdjieff’s own account in Life is Real, and introduces his description of the events with an opinion that: “Despite the ever-present possibility that this story is one of Gurdjieff’s mystifying parables, there is evidence that for once he is speaking of real events.”31 “Real events” did indeed take place, but Gurdjieff’s own account, which Webb fails to cite as evidence, is a transformation of them. To begin with, the principal events, which Gurdjieff and Webb place in December 1930, took place in January 1931. Orage did not arrive until 6 January 1931. Louise Welch, Daly King, Louise Goepfert March and others have the correct dates. Why Gurdjieff in his 1935 account of events of January 1931 shifted the time sequence is not altogether clear, but Webb, who had interviewed Louise Welch accepts it, along with its incongruously comic episodes, as sober truth.
What my brief and incomplete survey of reporting on the life of Gurdjieff suggests is that biography is often practiced to characterize the biographer rather than his subject. The factual accuracy of recollections by Gurdjieff’s pupils are always suspect, since each pupil sees his relationship to the man subjectively. With rare exceptions, those who write from a pupil’s point of view either invent a privileged relationship with Gurdjieff or exaggerate the actual one. On the other hand, those who did not know Gurdjieff tend to write biographies that reflect their interest in the extraordinary and sensational rather than the often uninspiring and unexciting facts.
My purpose here is not to chastise others, but to promote the pursuit of facts that can serve biographical “truth.” Gurdjieff as a subject for study merits careful research and scholarly attention. Judicious criticism can sift the useful from useless information and align what Gurdjieff says himself of his life in relation with verifiable accounts by others. Gurdjieff, as his father before him, was a teller of tales, a spinner of parables and a weaver of mysteries. What is needed to unveil them is a hermeneutic approach that can sift reliable from unreliable reporting about his life and that promises to probe the depth and unveil the breadth of the man in his writings.
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1 Gurdjieff, All and Everything, First Series, p. 1184.
2 Peters, Boyhood with Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollanz, 1964), pp. 48–65.
3 Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff: The Journal of a Pupil (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 106
4 Boyhood With Gurdjieff, p. 31.
5 Patterson, Struggle of the Magicians, p. 115. Jessie was neither tall nor blond, but about 5’-5” with chestnut hair.
6 Ibid, p. 205. Besides the instance in 1930 when Gurdjieff forced Olga de Hartmann to choose between himself and her husband for distinct reasons, I can think of no instance in which Gurdjieff forced a choice of this sort.
7 Moore, Gurdjieff, p. 215.
8 Peters, Gurdjieff Remembered (London: Victor Gollanz, 1969), pp. 22–26. C. S. Nott’s, Journey Through this World (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 152, contradicts Fritz’s account of the Chicago trip.
9 Webb, The Harmonious Circle, p. 419.
10 Gurdjieff, p. 244.
11 See Kerman and Eldridge, Lives, pp. 200–207.
12 Teachings of Gurdjieff, p. 223.
13 Nott’s note in Journey Through this World, p. 238 that Ouspensky died in 1949 is simple carelessness.
14 Teachings of Gurdjieff, pp. 41–43.
15 Anderson, The Fiery Fountains, p. 120.
16 Ibid, p. 118.
17 Ibid, pp. 123–124.
18 Journey Through this World, p. 14.
19 Patterson, Ladies of the Rope, p. 42.
20 Patterson, Eating the “I” (San Anselmo, CA: Arete Communications, 1992), p. 12.
21 The Harmonious Circle, p. 328. Philip Lasell told me that he was the pupil.
22 Bennett, Making a New World, pp. 175–176.
23 See, for one, Orage’s letter to Gurdjieff, 9 January 1931, in my Gurdjieff and Orage, p. 173.
24 Making a New World, p. 182.
25 Ibid, p. 216.
26 Op. cit., p. 162 and p. 217.
27 The Harmonious Circle, p. 267, and Moore, Gurdjieff, p. 203.
28 Op. cit., p. 284.
29 Op. cit., p. 202.
30 The Harmonious Circle, p. 420.
31 Ibid., p. 368.
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A professor of Medieval English Languages and Literature at the University of Geneva, Paul Beekman Taylor has written three books on Gurdjieff, Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff & Toomer (Weiser, 1998), Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium (Weiser, 2001), and most recently Gurdjieff’s America: Mediating the Miraculous (Lighthouse Editions, 2004).
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Featured: Fall 2004 Issue, Vol. VIII (1)
Revision: March 1, 2007