G. I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff


by P. L. Travers

GEORGE IVANOVITCH GURDJIEFF (1877–1949). These brackets enclose seventy-two years of a life that, in spite of all that has been written about it, is incapable of exact documentation. It is a fact that Gurdjieff died in 1949, but since he gave his age differently at different times, the date of birth given here can only be approximate. This was all part of his enigma, of the sense he gave of deliberately playing a role, or, as P. D. Ouspensky wrote, after their first meeting, of being a man “poorly disguised.” His whole life, for the biographers, has the air of an authentic myth, in the sense of something heroic and significant but not to be apprehended except in so far as he could, by these very disguises, mediate it to the general understanding.

Born in Alexandropol, near the Persian frontier of Russia, of a Greek father and an Armenian mother and later tutored by the Dean of the Military Cathedral at Kars, he was brought up in an antique patriarchal world where children were put to sleep at night with the story of Gilgamesh. While he was still a very young man, however, Gurdjieff, true to his role, “disappeared”—as Odysseus must have seemed to disappear from his local world of Ithaca—into that cauldron of history, tradition and ideas that we know as the Middle East. Indeed, in his second book Meetings With Remarkable Men he describes an even wider orbit, taking in the Gobi Desert, Mecca and Tibet, though here the reader must decide for himself whether such names stand for places or symbols—they could equally well be either—in his unremitting search for a “real and universal knowledge.” “I was not alone,” Ouspensky quotes him as saying. “There were all sorts of specialists among us. We called ourselves ‘The Seekers of Truth!’”

It has to be inferred that by 1914 the Seekers of Truth had succeeded in their quest, for in the autumn of that year Ouspensky records his first meeting with Gurdjieff. “I realised,” he writes, “that I had met with a completely new system of thought surpassing all I had known before. This system threw quite a new light on psychology and explained what I could not understand before in esoteric ideas.”

From this time onwards, since among his pupils there was now one taking notes, Gurdjieff—though only in so far as he himself wished to be—was in the eye of history. For the first two years of the First World War he elaborated his teachings to groups in Petersburg and Moscow, but with the onset of revolution, flight was inevitable. His journey with his followers through Russia to the Caucasus, then to Constantinople and at last to the West has all the elements of a modern thriller. But it is given an epic quality and extra dimension by the fact that Gurdjieff used the hardships and dangers—always for him the true stuff of existence—to exemplify his teaching and required of his pupils that they should escape not merely with their lives but with their Life. It was not until 1922 that he succeeded in his aim of bringing to the West what he had found in the East by establishing his pilgrim band at the Château du Prieuré, near Fontainebleau, where he founded his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

What was the source of his teaching? True to his role, Gurdjieff never openly disclosed it. By examining his writings and the numerous commentaries upon them it might be possible to discover parallels in various traditions—Tantric Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Greek Orthodoxy—possible, but hardly profitable. For the fundamental features of his method cannot be traced to any one source. Ouspensky quotes him as admitting, “I will say that, if you like, this is esoteric Christianity.” There seems no reason to reject this when one remembers that Christianity, as Gurdjieff knew it, was the heir of the ages and must have drawn to itself elements from very early pre-Christian traditions, Hittite, Assyrian, Phrygian, Persian; and there is nothing so explosive as old ideas restated in contemporary terms as the Western world was to discover when Gurdjieff burst upon it. His impact was tremendous. It was clear that he had come not to bring peace but a special kind of inner warfare and that his mission in life was to destroy men’s complacency and make them aware of their limitations. Only by such means, by what he called “conscious labours and intentional sufferings,” was it possible to bring about their inner development. The Work, as his method came to be called, had, as it very soon appeared, been only too accurately named. Writers, artists, men from all kinds of professions—among them Thomas de Hartmann, Russian composer, A. R. Orage, editor of The New Age and later one of the subtlest commentators of Gurdjieff’s writings, Rowland Kenney of The Herald, Dr. Maurice Nicoll, Jane Heap of The Little Review—found themselves digging wells, chopping down trees and breaking stones by day, while at night they were required to take part in the sacred dances, or “Movements,” which were an integral part of the teaching, or assisting at one of Gurdjieff’s great feasts where, under the influence of good food, vodka and the watchful eye of the Master, opportunities were provided, for those who had the courage, to come face to face with themselves. The hardiest among them, those who could rise to the level of “being serious,” were allowed to transmit something of the teaching to newer pupils.

By 1924 the Work was sufficiently well established for Gurdjieff to set out on the first of his trips to the United States where in January, in New York, a group of forty pupils gave a series of demonstrations of his Movements. Two thirds of these evenings were devoted to the sacred dances and the last third to what was described as “Trick, Semi-Trick and Real Supernatural Phenomena.” The audience was invited to distinguish between them and reminded that “the study of the first two was held to be indispensable to the study of the third, since to understand the last a perfectly impartial attitude and a judgment not burdened by pre-established beliefs were necessary.” It is clear from Gurdjieff’s writings that hypnotism, mesmerism and various arcane methods of expanding consciousness must have played a large part in the studies of the Seekers of Truth. None of these processes, however, is to be thought of as having any bearing on what is called Black Magic, which, according to Gurdjieff, “has always one definite characteristic. It is the tendency to use people for some, even the best of aims, without their knowledge and understanding, either by producing in them faith and infatuation or by acting upon them through fear. There is, in fact, neither red, green nor yellow magic. There is ‘doing.’ Only ‘doing’ is magic.” Properly to realise the scale of what Gurdjieff meant by magic, one has to remember his continually repeated aphorism, “Only he who can be can do,” and its corollary that, lacking this fundamental verb, nothing is ‘done,’ things simply ‘happen.’

The American tour brought a new influx of pupils to the Prieuré and, as usual, Gurdjieff, by deliberate indirection, set them to find directions out. “The teaching,” writes one, “was given in fragments—often in unexpected ways—and we had to learn to put the pieces together and connect them up through our observations and experiences.” However, the year 1924 was to prove a landmark for the teaching. It was in the late summer that Gurdjieff, slowly reassembling his forces after a near-fatal motor car accident, himself began during convalescence to put together in the form of a book those separated fragments. Work activities were reduced. Gurdjieff, while sustaining those pupils who remained, wrote incessantly, whether at Fontainebleau, or on his frequent motoring trips or seated at a table in the Café de la Paix in Paris where he had long been a familiar figure. All and Everything the book is called, not inaccurately, since it sets out to cover every aspect of the life of man. Into this vast allegory of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, top-heavy from its sheer weight of argument and at the same time soaring off into space, like a great, lumbering flying cathedral, Gurdjieff gathered the fundamentals of his teaching. Man, we are told, has an unique place and function in the cosmological scheme and enters into obligation by the fact of being born. The awareness of all this is not, however, a gift of Nature, neither are Individuality, Consciousness, Free Will and an Immortal Soul—these attributes, which man mistakenly believes he already possesses, have to be acquired by his own special efforts. Above all, the book repeatedly insists that man is asleep. It is only at the moment when he awakens, not merely to consciousness but to conscience—to Gurdjieff the words were, in fact, synonymous—that his true evolution can begin.

The manuscript, constantly revised, now became the focal point of the teaching, not only in France but in New York during his two next American trips, in 1929 and 1933. But in the latter year, with the sale of the Prieuré, Gurdjieff’s life enters another phase. After enjoying for nine years a local habitation and a celebrated name, he appears, clearly for reasons of his own—for Gurdjieff never stood still, he was always growing, always experimenting, always searching—to retire into the shadows. “He is no longer teaching,” said his older pupils when new people wanted to make direct contact with him. But one of his pet tenets was that the Work was not designed to discover something new but to recover that which is lost. An intrepid few, a handful of Homers attempting to chart the course of Odysseus, set out to do just that. If he accepted them, they were put into small intimate groups, each member depending upon the others, like mountain climbers upon a rope, and no group had any connection with the others. This was in keeping with Gurdjieff’s earlier work in Moscow when Ouspensky quotes him as saying that he never mixed groups but occupied each with a different work “according to the state of their preparation and their powers.” When one remembers that Gurdjieff’s teaching was essentially intimate and personal, his insistence that by the very nature of the Work he could not have many pupils appears valid and inevitable. The published reminiscences of various members of these small groups bear witness to the fact that he was, indeed, teaching in the thirties, but quietly, as though it were a question of reculer pour mieux sauter,1 And as usual he was careful not to let his right hand know what his left was doing. Those who knew the Teacher could gather only by rumour and hearsay that there were other Gurdjieff’s—the healer of psychic illnesses, the one who could cure alcoholism, Gurdjieff the business man, and the Gurdjieff known as “Monsieur Bonbon,” an old eccentric gentleman whose sole mission in life, it appeared, was to dispense candy to local cronies and children. None of the latter could have guessed when, in May 1939, “Monsieur Bonbon” could not be found, that it was because somebody called “Mister Gurdjieff” had once again gone to America, a country he held in affectionate regard because of its “brotherliness.” On his return to Paris war was at hand and with the outbreak of hostilities Gurdjieff disappeared from the sight of all but his French pupils until the Liberation. It is said that he sustained himself through those lean years by putting about the rumour that he was heir to a Texas oil well. Nobody was more surprised than the French shopkeepers to find, when his British and American pupils streamed back and paid the bills, that the story was essentially true.

The year 1946 marked the beginning of the last phase of his teaching, a period that for those who had known him earlier was richer than any that had gone before. For a little over three years new adherents and old pupils bringing their own pupils and children, flocked to his small crowded room to listen to a reading of one of his manuscripts—All and Everything, Meetings With Remarkable Men, Life Is Real Only When I Am—to hear him play on his small hand accordion the music he had composed for the different chapters, or to sit at his table and receive the bounty of his teaching in whatever form it might be given. “If take, then take!” was one of his favourite aphorisms—no sipping, no trifling—and for many the special nourishment that was offered in addition to the delicious edibles was indigestible, hard to stomach. The exotic flavours and the vodka in which the famous “Toasts to the Idiots” were drunk (Gr. idiotes, private person, that which in myself I am) did not make things easier. But easiness was not the aim. The patriarchal host, massive of presence, radiating a serene power at once formidable and reassuring, dispensed this “food” in various ways, always unexpected; sometimes in thunderclaps of rage, sometimes telling a story that only one of all the table would know was meant for himself, sometimes merely by look or gesture thrusting home the truth. Masks were stripped off mercilessly. Beneath the exacting benevolence of his gaze everyone was naked. But occasionally, for those who could face their situation Gurdjieff, always fleetingly, would let his own mask fall. It was possible then to see that behind the apparent mercilessness stood sorrow and compassion. At such moments his “humanity-ness”—a key word in his odd English vocabulary—would radiantly declare itself. If his aim was to teach men how to rise to the possibility of saying “I am,” he never forgot that “Thou art” and “He is” complete the conjugation.

In addition to all this energy of work in his own apartment, Gurdjieff now instituted at the Salle Pleyel daily practices of the Movements, the sacred dances that were so essential a part of his teaching. It was not only in Paris, however, that the Work year by year so vigourously progressed. There were groups already in England and the United States and others were now established in Holland, Sweden, Germany and South America. And in New York, in 1949, on January 13th, his name day, Gurdjieff, on what was to be his last trip to America, announced that he was now ready to publish All and Everything. At the same time, those English disciples who, after Ouspensky’s death in 1947, had joined the Paris groups, arranged for the publication of In Search of the Miraculous, Ouspensky’s long-withheld account of his early years with Gurdjieff. These two books, the first giving to the second an added dimension and the second clarifying the first, opened up the teaching. Gurdjieff now belonged to the world for the brief time that was left him. His health was faltering, but such was his powerhouse of inner strength that few could be brought to believe it. Throughout the summer, after his return from New York, the Work went on with added intensity. Gurdjieff, while serenely putting his own house in order, used every moment as a moment of teaching and each aspect of his fading strength as a reminding factor for his pupils that “man must live till he dies.” To “live” in Gurdjieff’s sense, was consciously to labour and voluntarily to suffer. This he himself did, with constancy and deliberation, until the 29th of October, 1949.

Since his death his work has been continued by his chosen pupils and groups are to be found everywhere in the Western world. The Movements have been accurately documented in a series of films; his second book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, has been published and the third is in preparation.2 The siftings of time are likely to prove that these records are his proper monument. In them the man and his myth are one. Those who seek him there may repeatedly discern a single, authentic anonymous footprint. It seems a fitting recognition of his role that Gurdjieff’s grave in Avon, near Fontainebleau, is bare of any name.


  1. Retreat in order to advance. [Ed.]
  2. The ‘Third Series’ Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am.’ was issued privately in 1975 and publicly in 1981. [Ed.]
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This essay was published by Traditional Studies Press, Toronto: 1973, as a ten page pamphlet. It was previously issued as “Gurdjieff” in Man, Myth and Magic: Encyclopedia of the Supernatural , London: Purnell, 1970–1971, serialized in 111 issues, then bound as 12 volumes. Also issued by Time / Life in New York. And published here with the kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of P. L. Travers.
Copyright © 1970 P. L. Travers
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 1999 Issue, Vol. III (1)
Revision: October 1, 1999