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Gurdjieff International Review


An Original Teacher

by J. Walter Driscoll and George Baker

Gurdjieff was an abrupt awakener. Since his death in 1949, his ideas, teachings, writings, music and contemplative dances or gymnastics called 'Movements' continue to provide opportunity for essential insight in the never-ending, moment by moment struggle for self-knowledge and self-understanding. Gurdjieff summons us to transformation by showing how to focus our attention on the reality of our inner being and the outer life it attracts.

On January 13, 1949, Gurdjieff was in New York City and announced (on what proved to be his last birthday) his decision to publish Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. This was a complete departure from the practice he had followed for almost four decades of expounding his teaching orally and circulating his writings privately. He died on October 29 of that year, hardly a week after receiving the publisher's proofs for Beelzebub's Tales.

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Little is certain about Gurdjieff's early life. We cannot even be sure of the simple fact of his birth date. According to various biographers he was born between 1866 and 1877, of a Greek father and an Armenian mother in Alexandropol which is now Gyumri, formerly Leninakan, in what was Soviet Armenia. He grew up in this war-torn frontier area of the Caucasus, which for generations has been a melting pot of cultures, religions and races from the East and West. Gurdjieff was deeply influenced by his father's wisdom and the ancient oral traditions he preserved as an 'ashokh' or storyteller and troubadour.

Privately educated for both medicine and the Eastern Orthodox priesthood, but equally interested in science and technical specialization, Gurdjieff found that neither conventional religion nor scientific knowledge by themselves answered his insatiable and unrelenting questions about the world he observed in daily life and particularly about paranormal phenomena. Even as a youth, he was driven by the intimation that authentic understanding of life's meaning and purpose was possible. He became convinced that a key to understanding the significance of organic and human life lay within ancient traditions that survived in the Middle East. Determined to find at any cost the surviving traces of this ancient wisdom, he attracted a group of like-minded men and women who shared in the search. Calling themselves "The Seekers of Truth," they launched expeditions into the Middle East, India, Tibet, and Central Asia, and made contact with little known monasteries, religious schools and wise men. Gurdjieff would later tell the story of this period of search for understanding that manifests as what he calls "a 'spiritualizing factor' enabling" him to "comprehend the incomprehensible," in his autobiography, Meetings with Remarkable Men.

After more than two decades of repeated search, disappointment and eventual discovery, Gurdjieff appeared in Moscow in 1912 with a powerful, comprehensive teaching. There he started to gather followers and attract the attention of a few influential people. Among these was the author and lecturer P. D. Ouspensky, whose brilliant and original Tertium Organum had established him as a major philosopher. They met in Moscow during the spring of 1915. Ouspensky quickly recognized that what Gurdjieff presented surpassed what he had known before. He studied intensively with Gurdjieff for three years until they were driven from Russia by the Bolshevik revolution. He eventually left Gurdjieff and established his own groups but recorded this early period in his systematic and vividly detailed notes that were eventually published as In Search of the Miraculous.

In addition to Ouspensky, the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann with his wife Olga and the Finnish psychiatrist Leonid Stjoernval were among those who rallied around Gurdjieff in Russia. Moved by what Gurdjieff's teaching helped them realize, they followed him through the maelstrom of the revolution on a three month trek across the forbidding Caucasus Mountains to Tiflis.

There they were joined by the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife Jeanne in 1919, who helped stage the first public performance of the Movements that June. They lived in Constantinople for a little over a year until August 1921. After a further series of moves through Europe, they settled in France where Gurdjieff established his "Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man," at the Chateau de Prieuré in Fontainebleau, during October of 1922. The de Hartmanns later described the inner and outer adventures of this period in their autobiographical Our Life With Mr. Gurdjieff (1964, revised 1983 and 1992).

The Prieuré was the scene of intense activity and Gurdjieff attracted many new people, chiefly from England where Ouspensky was lecturing. By January 1924 Gurdjieff had sufficiently established his Institute to travel to the United States on the first of several visits. There he gave private talks, and students from the Prieuré gave demonstrations of his Movements exercises in major cities. In response to the interest expressed by several groups of Americans, Gurdjieff appointed A. R. Orage, the renowned English editor and critic who had been studying at the Prieuré for over a year, as his representative in New York City. Shortly after his return to France, Gurdjieff suffered a near fatal automobile accident in early July 1924.

As he recuperated, Gurdjieff began writing the three volume series he titled All and Everything. Within a year he distributed to his students the first installments of Beelzebub's Tales, the first volume of the All and Everything Series. This book came to provide Gurdjieff with a vast and epic platform for the transmission of his ideas. One observer has called it "the first truly comprehensive modern myth." Beelzebub's Tales became one of the continuing focal points of Gurdjieff's groups. He issued a provisional mimeographed typescript in 1930, but amendments, based in part on his observation of listeners' responses to oral readings, continued for a few more years.

Gurdjieff evidently intended Beelzebub's Tales to play a central role in the continuation of his oral teaching. The seemingly pompous but truly "friendly advice" that he gives on the opening page of Beelzebub's Tales to "Read each of my written expositions thrice," is a harbinger of the next thousand plus pages. For the first few readings, Beelzebub's Tales is safeguarded by a deliberately excessive and rigorously frustrating obscurity. But behind the bulwark of confusing terms and tangential associations in interminable sentences, the attentive reader cannot help but be touched by Gurdjieff's concern to transmit to others a complete and contemporary rendering of ancient wisdom for the fulfillment of human life and its undeveloped possibilities.

Repeated reading and careful study reveal that Gurdjieff's compassionate thought remains consistently at the same level from the first page to the last and that in embracing the whole human situation, it cuts across all the tidy categories into which ordinary modern thought is usually divided. We usually analyze our thinking about human life into such categories as psychology, cosmology, and metaphysics. In Beelzebub's Tales, Gurdjieff sweeps away these categories and looks at humanity as we are and from a level which sees us psychologically, cosmologically, metaphysically and in terms of our spiritual possibilities, all simultaneously and as potentially integrated beings. By persistent and attentive reading or listening to Beelzebub's Tales, without trying to comment or interpret prematurely with our mechanical thinking, shallow feelings or habitual associations and reactions, progressively deeper meanings, knowledge and understanding gradually emerge in the form of direct perceptions as the author intended.

During the early 1930s Gurdjieff undertook the writing of the Second Series of All and Everything, titled Meetings with Remarkable Men. In this work he employed a medley of autobiography, allegory, parable, proverb and travelogue to transmit the story of his childhood, education, travels and thoroughly vivid portraits of his companions in the search for understanding. It is the only account we have of the first half of Gurdjieff's life and as he says, serves "to acquaint the reader with the material required for a new creation and to prove the soundness and good quality of it." Also in the early 1930s Gurdjieff began work on what he called the 'Third Series' of All and Everything titled, Life Is Real Only Then, When "I Am". Although it is fragmentary, this final work offers essential insight into Gurdjieff's teaching, methods and inner life.

Gurdjieff stopped writing in May of 1935. He continued to work intensively and unobtrusively with individuals and small groups, mainly in Paris and New York, throughout the 1930s and 1940s. During the same period, Ouspensky was leading his groups in London and New York in the strictest privacy. A few months after Ouspensky's death in October 1947, his manuscript of Fragments of an Unknown Teaching was submitted by Mme. Ouspensky to Gurdjieff, who warmly approved it and advised her to publish. In this book, Ouspensky provides a lucid and systematic account of the 'fragments of an unknown teaching' he received from Gurdjieff and the impact it had on his development. It appeared in October 1949, with the title In Search of the Miraculous. This occurred a few weeks before Gurdjieff's death and was followed in February 1950 by the publication of Beelzebub's Tales.

Copyright © 1997 J. Walter Driscoll & George Baker
This webpage © 1997 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 1997 Issue, Vol. I (1)
Revision: January 1, 2000