G.I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

Gurdjieff as Survivalist

by James Moore

GEORGE IVANOVITCH GURDJIEFF died on 29 October 1949. And he is gone? Altogether gone? No, he is here! There prevails over his physical dissolution a subtly alive influence for which ‘Gurdjieff’ is an apt signifier. Better still, there are moments when the silent, cultivated, self-communing of his many disciples persuades him back into a Now quite as valid as the Now he inhabited. This is not a matter of faith or holograms or abnormal psychology but simply of opening to what is. In the primordial affirmation of Lord Krishna: “The unreal has no being, the real never ceases to be.”

Such buoyancy was not always easy. As Gurdjieff’s funeral service at the Alexandre Nevski Cathedral ended and the priest closed the ikonostasis a local electricity failure plunged the arrondisement into the darkness of a winter’s night — an untoward blackness in which his adversaries jubilantly construed the snuffing out of Gurdjieff’s influence and power of action. Kaputt! Happily there were, even then, candles of a countervailing hope cherished by his closest pupils, but these were afforded no cultural oxygen whatsoever. In that far off epoch (when black berets so conspicuously out-sold Astrakhan hats, and Jean-Paul Sartre had a celebrity telephone installed at his Cafe de Flore table) no savant in Paris was arguably more de trop than Gurdjieff: his ritualised ‘Toasts to the Idiots,’ his classes in Sacred Dance, and his Homeric epic Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, had aroused no flutter of serious critical interest. To most ideological tipsters his historical oblivion seemed a racing certainty.

How different today! As the fiftieth anniversary of Gurdjieff’s death chimes in with the Millennium, we find him progressively emerging (through a thicket of untoward revisionism, calumny, slipshod and counter-productive advocacy, patchy encyclopaedism, and piratical appropriations) as a universal figure. Theodore Roszak claims him as the initiator of contemporary evolutionary therapies; E. F. Schumacher as one of the philosophical fathers of the ecology movement; Lincoln Kirstein as an unsuspected influence on modern American dance; and James Webb as a significant though occulted literary force. Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski bring appreciative correlations from the realm of drama; Robin Skynner from psychology; and Basarab Nicolescu (in a recent paper of breathtaking audacity) from quantum physics. Add to this that interest in the oeuvre of richly evocative piano music which Gurdjieff created in collaboration with his pupil Thomas de Hartmann has never been so strong.

And yet, and yet … his followers should not throw their hats in the air too quickly. The dramatic cliches of posthumous acclaim — Mendel in science, Van Gogh in art, Kafka in literature — characteristically entail the resurrection of decisively significant papers or artifacts; in the realm of already exposed ideas, only the long, hard pounding of dialectical struggle ultimately delivers a bruised recognition. And if modern European thought, from the epistemological rupture of the 17th century to the very latest post-structural word-game, is indeed (as our man provocatively suggests) “music … built up on an infinitesimal, almost null idea,” it is nevertheless esotericism’s bane. Then let us acknowledge, perhaps even with a secret frisson of satisfaction, that the once-and-for-all Gurdjieff will prove a chimera; that no star-toppling Day of Judgement is round the corner; and that the clash of his assailants and champions guarantees us centuries of “sharp energetic events.”

A bewildering number of agencies are today more or less conveying Gurdjieff’s influence into the unknown future. Sovereign, of course, are the works issuing directly from the man himself: his music, his extraordinary Sacred Dances and his writings. And of the latter, Beelzebub — that “Flying Cathedral” of a book, as Pamela Travers terms it — earns pride of place. Be warned, incidentally, that something of a ‘wrestling Jacob spirit’ is needed in approaching this huge text, whose key chapters yield nothing to Hegel, Heidegger, or Lacan in opacity or profundity. Nor, indeed, will narrowly conventional readers encounter a vision easy to cuddle up to: here, on the contrary, is a literary Tyrannosaurus Rex genetically engineered to swallow the entire doxa or prevailing consensus; “To destroy mercilessly, in the mentation and feeling of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world.” But, though the buzz induced by a ruthless ideological demolition job (cf. Adorno’s Negative Dialektik) is guaranteed, the subtext here is unashamedly constructive. The majestic mythopoetic figure of Beelzebub — so patently modelled on Gurdjieff himself — calls insistently to those independent spirits whose abreaction from societal absurdities has not degenerated into cheapjack cynicism but, rather, evolved into a quest for a transcendent meaning and purpose. And if they are young so much the better.

The special thirst of such individuals prompts their search for correspondingly special water-holes — an exploration in which discrimination, commonsense, and good intuition are crucial. The fiftieth anniversary of Gurdjieff’s death is currently affording a field-day to the proliferating organisations which co-opt his name and have him in view. Some act in good faith and with very decent lineal credentials. Others don’t. There is abroad in the land, and not least on the World Wide Web, a pseudo-Gurdjieffian influence mischievously promulgated in imitation, opposition, and even parody, by self-invented outfits excelling in “dollar business.” Caveat emptor.

It is just here that biography comes into its own, for the man himself provides a touchstone of authenticity. The time-frame 1866–1949 bestows on him a gritty contextual historicity: his life extended from the incorporation of Schleswig-Holstein into Prussia to the cessation of the Berlin Air Lift; from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; from Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite to the USSR’s first atomic test. It was an era when the wretched body of humanity sustained the insult of self-inflicted wounds, almost unprecedentedly gross: the massacres of the Armenians; the carnage of the First World War; the holocaust of European Jewry; and the obliteration of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. (Ample support indeed for his devastating dictum: “There is no progress whatever. The outward form changes. The essence does not change.… Modern civilisation is based on violence and slavery and fine words.”)

Yet the more we shake the kaleidoscope of Gurdjieff’s personal life the more we must acknowledge that historically domesticated constituents are simply not on offer: neither in the bravura personae he adopted — The Tiger of Turkestan, Prince Ozay, Citizen Gurdjieff, Monsieur Bon-bon, and A Teacher of Dancing; nor in the roles he played — tourist guide at the Pyramids, shoeshine boy in Rome, maker of artificial flowers in Bokhara, seeker after wisdom in Central Asia, physician hypnotist in Tashkent, teacher of esoteric knowledge in Petrograd, gold-prospector in Essentuki, carpet dealer in Istanbul, and one-shot impresario at Carnegie Hall … nor, by association, in the remarkable pupils he magnetised — the philosopher Piotr Ouspensky, the composer Thomas de Hartmann, the dancer Jeanne de Salzmann; nor even in the restaurants where he drank his Armagnac and coffee — Philipoffs, The Chimerion, The Black Rose, Child’s Restaurant, L‘Ecrivisse, and the Café de la Paix.

The quest for a model in the lives of the Saints and in the rise and fall of princes stands at the root of post-classical European biography. Antiquity too is replete with heroic archetypes. No longer young myself, I never gaze at that familiar photo of Gurdjieff in old age without hearing the first resounding chord from the epic of Gilgamesh —

O Gilgamesh, lord of Kullab, great is thy praise. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the flood before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story.

What pilgrim spirit would not yearn to follow in such footsteps? Yet the hope of ascent, the sharp wish to move ‘upwards not Northwards,’ does not of itself guarantee anything. All too easily it can transpose into an imaginary levitation or a comfortable despair. There is needed someone who will guide and urge our footsteps, from the vantage point of his relative elevation: there is needed that rarest of creatures, a man who knows what he is talking about. This was Gurdjieff’s living role and it remains, even in biography, his benefaction.

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This is an adaptation of Moore’s introduction to Gurdjieff: a Biography (the commemorative 2nd edition of Gurdjieff: the Anatomy of a Myth), published October 1999 by Element Books.

Copyright © 1999 James Moore
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 1999 Issue, Vol. III (1)
Revision: June 1, 2019