A. R. Orage, Big Sur 1928

Gurdjieff International Review

Brother in Elysium: Orage in Gurdjieff’s Service

by Paul Beekman Taylor

Reviewed by Michael Benham

Building on his previous book, Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer (Samuel Weiser, 1998), Taylor has utilised primary documents to reconstruct Orage’s account of the crucial 1923–1931 period he spent “in Gurdjieff’s service.” He provides both a significant contribution to the historical record as well as a more balanced assessment of Orage and his contributions to Gurdjieff’s work than the literary biographers who considered Orage’s involvement with Gurdjieff an aberration. The book has been written with the cooperation of Orage’s descendants who allowed the author full access to the family’s private papers. These comprise the almost daily letters Orage and his future wife Jessie exchanged beginning in January 1924 during their periods apart and Jessie’s diary begun in 1924, supplemented by Orage’s personal correspondence with Gurdjieff, Jean Toomer and members of Orage’s American groups. Taylor acknowledges that the book is really their book “told in the words of Orage and Jessie” and modestly adds that he has simply “translated their words into book form and added complementary notes.” This is an understatement.

In addition to meticulously reconstructing their account he has included vital extracts from published and unpublished material relating to Gurdjieff and Orage during the period and set it in a background of current events. He carefully notes and discusses where Orage’s record differs from the prevalent opinion. To all this Taylor has added an original examination of the varied career that prepared Orage for his meeting with Gurdjieff, an account of the final years of his life, a discussion of Orage’s contributions to literature, self study, and economics and Taylor’s own speculations about possible sources for the ideas of Gurdjieff and Orage. He examines in great detail Orage’s efforts in America between 1923 and 1931 on Gurdjieff’s behalf, Orage and Jessie’s visits to Gurdjieff’s Institute (the Prieuré) in France, the long saga of the English translation and editing of Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales and the events surrounding Gurdjieff’s denunciation of Orage and their final separation.

Though Gurdjieff claimed that he originally sent Orage to New York simply as Dr. Leonid Stjoernval’s interpreter and assistant, it is obvious that without Orage’s practical initiatives and sustained efforts, Gurdjieff’s first American visit in 1924 would have been even more unsuccessful than it was. Orage’s letters from Boston and Chicago record his struggles to arouse interest in Gurdjieff’s ideas and arrange venues, ticketing and publicity for the Movements demonstrations. In Boston a relayed request from Gurdjieff to “a few professors from Harvard for certain materials he wished to use in order to produce phenomena never produced before” met with their incredulity and disinterest, so a unique opportunity was lost.

Orage’s unceasing work in establishing and teaching the American groups, screening pupils and, at the same time, raising money for the running of the Prieuré, particularly after Gurdjieff’s automobile accident in July 1924, was crucial to establishing Gurdjieff’s influence in America. Gurdjieff acknowledged this during his second American visit in 1929 when he made a brief speech before the Movements demonstration “thanking Orage for his help in a crisis, and for having been a trusty steward during his absence.” This makes Gurdjieff’s repudiation of Orage two years later, on his fourth visit to America, all the more puzzling. Taylor deals with this piece of theatre at length, showing that their relationship continued virtually unchanged through this period and that Gurdjieff has “deconstructed” historical fact in a story that would render his “truth,” by altering crucial dates in the account he gives in Life is Real Only Then, When “I AM.”

Of his work on Beelzebub’s Tales, Orage writes to Jessie “we shall have earned our existence from having contributed in our way to the production and publication of just this.” It was not to be published in Orage’s lifetime but, from the moment Gurdjieff presented Orage with the first working drafts in September 1925 until the end of Gurdjieff’s rewrite in 1931, Orage threw himself tirelessly into editing the rough English translations of de Hartmann, Metz and others. At one stage while at the Prieuré, he incurred Gurdjieff’s apparent displeasure by refusing to go to Paris with him so that he could keep working. Attempting to explain his reasons to Gurdjieff the following day he was cut short with “Bolda! You think I not know? I very pleased with you remember business!” Despite Gurdjieff’s extreme provocation of Orage and Jessie, Orage kept his essence promise to see Beelzebub’s Tales through to completion. Taylor suggests that Orage was ultimately responsible for the 102 mimeographed copies of the typescript produced by the book committee of the New York group, 100 of which were offered for sale in September 1931. These copies made the sustained private reading of Beelzebub’s Tales in all Gurdjieff’s groups possible until Gurdjieff arranged for the finished manuscript to be published in 1950, just after his death.

Orage’s ultimate split with Gurdjieff revolved around the latter’s assertion that “Orage had had the New York group talk about and concentrate on self-observation instead of ‘doing.’” Were this situation to continue, Gurdjieff explained, “the members of the group would eventually become psychopathic.” Gurdjieff explained that his incapacitating automobile accident and the years of intense work on Beelzebub’s Tales prevented him from giving Orage the necessary instruction to carry on, but this does not bear scrutiny. Though Gurdjieff offered to give Orage this instruction in 1931, he does not appear to have done so. In private he also told Orage “his greatest fault was naiveté—that he had observed him [Orage] for seven years and he [Orage] had not gotten over it.” Orage’s reply, recorded in Jessie’s diary, indicates that he felt he had received something of a raw deal. “Therefore,” Orage said, “why should he continue his association for another unprofitable period. It sounds to me like a man who goes to a doctor to be cured of an unknown illness. The doctor gives him exercises and at the end of seven years says ‘you have a weak heart—I’ve known it all along, but did not try to cure it—however, if you stay on with me perhaps I will tell you what to do.’” So Orage, after fulfilling his obligations to the New York groups and Beelzebub’s Tales, left Gurdjieff’s ‘service’ and returned to England in July 1931 with his young family to start again. All further requests from Gurdjieff, including a demand to edit Gurdjieff’s first book, The Herald of Coming Good, were persistently declined. Orage never repudiated his time with Gurdjieff and always insisted that it was of great benefit. He died unexpectedly three years later after giving a BBC radio broadcast on Social Credit economic theory on the evening of November 5, 1934.

Taylor’s book is a valuable contribution to the history of Gurdjieff and his followers. It provides a timely reminder of the debt that anyone interested in Gurdjieff owes Alfred Richard Orage. Without his contributions, Gurdjieff’s influence in North America would never have been so firmly established and there may ultimately have been no Gurdjieff Foundation in America nor the superlative 1950 English edition of Gurdjieff’s epic Beelzebub’s Tales.

Copyright © 2000 Michael Benham
Photo of Orage courtesy of Anne B. Orage, used by kind permission
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2000 Issue, Vol. III (2)
Revision: October 1, 2000