P. D. Ouspensky, circa 1926

Gurdjieff International Review

Strange Life of Ivan Osokin

Commentary by John Pentland

Although so deeply committed to writing that he often said, not altogether jokingly, that it was actually a part of his nature, P. D. Ouspensky was not a prolific author.

Only five major works exist and of these Tertium Organum (for many years a best-seller in America) and A New Model of the Universe were written and published in Russia before Ouspensky met Gurdjieff in Moscow in 1915. All the others represented his statements of Gurdjieff’s teaching, and were published posthumously. With the exception of In Search of the Miraculous, which he worked over carefully and which was published under the authority of Gurdjieff himself, these later books were never intended by Ouspensky for public circulation. In spite of the invaluable contribution they make to Gurdjieff’s teaching, they do less than justice to Ouspensky as a writer.

Strange Life of Ivan Osokin is an early work. Originally a novel but later rechristened “Cinemadrama” in the early days of films, Ouspensky himself set considerable store by it, perhaps because it was the only purely imaginative work by a mind that was rigorously honest in facing up to the usual abuses of human imagination.

In the other books, Ouspensky left his personal life and opinions completely in the background. Only at the end of In Search of the Miraculous, when he was moving away from Gurdjieff, does the author himself appear. But in Osokin, and for the same purpose of serving an idea, he tells a good deal about his own life, at least as a boy. In describing Osokin’s meaningless punishments at school, his unresolved feelings as a young man, his aloneness and the half-real dreams about what his life will become and the women he will meet, Ouspensky is obviously writing about himself.

At the same time, the stupid school with its obstinate, stupid masters has a wider meaning. It is the dull reality of life itself, that life which Osokin has not the patience to understand and only realizes he has been fond of when he is being expelled for a silly prank and is being taken home by his mother.

Again and again, out of boredom more often than anything else, Osokin watches himself behave in a way that limits and eventually ruins his future, contradicting his own perceptions of intelligent action. He notices that he is interested in everything except what actually concerns him. He doesn’t want anything good for himself. Events happen around him but not to him, as if life was a dream in which he did not really exist. Again and again, this sensation of indifference to himself clears up and he sees how his life can take a sensible direction, but as each new turning-point appears the opportunity is missed. He even becomes afraid to think. He begins to read too much, because reading is the only way to escape from his thoughts. From a distance, he can remember the whole pattern but as events come close he can see only the separate details so that not all at once, but little by little, the trap called life closes in on him.

As literature, Osokin makes no claim to be a major work. Its achievement lies less in what it contains than in what is all the time being left out in order to bring readers within reach of its central psychological idea.

The plot is not specially original. In fact, it has a curiously dated and borrowed flavor. Probably it reflects the enormous impression made on Ouspensky as a child of six by Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, before he turned to poetry and natural science. In this respect, he was quite content to let his thought stand as “it had been formed in the early years of his existence.”

Except for Osokin, the characters are stiff and very simply sketched in. There is no “beauty” to distract us, no titillating details about how the romance looked from Zinaida’s side. Even in the case of Osokin, no attempt whatever is made to explain or give psychological color to the processes of fear, suggestion and so on which act on him throughout the story and which Ouspensky understood and described with such subtlety in his other books. It is only in the opening and closing scenes that he permits himself some liberty. Here, against a background pictured with a wealth of detail, Osokin’s hopes of finding someone with whom he can have a real exchange are at last fulfilled in the magician, who is able to speak the truth by hinting at it like a riddle and whose penetrating glance has the longed-for dimension of irony—“not an unsympathetic irony, but one full of understanding, of compassion and pity, as though he would like to help but cannot.”

What, then, is the book’s central idea? What is the special hope it conveys? This is something each individual reader will have to make up his own mind about, because Ouspensky is reaching for a puzzle that in most of us is deeply buried.

That all literary embellishments were sacrificed to it does not ensure that it is easily grasped. The theme of eternal recurrence, by which a man is born again and again into the same circumstances, making exactly the same mistakes and remembering his past existence less frequently and with less and less remorse as he gets older, was a favorite theory of Ouspensky’s. It was more than a theory for him. It stood the test of Gurdjieff’s practical teaching and, as Rodney Collin has recounted [in his The Theory of Eternal Life, (Vincent Stuart, London, 1956, pp. 101–102)], he lived it with superhuman conviction in the last months of his life. But it would be superficial to say that this is what Osokin is about.

Nor, of course, is it primarily intended as a book—for adults and children—about growing up, in the sense of a willingness to turn away from irresponsible childhood dreams to the reality of a humdrum life. All the same, the plain sensitivity with which Osokin’s adolescence is described will awaken long-forgotten feelings in many readers and a new interest in watching young people. Evidently, Ouspensky was observing himself long before he heard of self-observation from Gurdjieff, just as in Tertium Organum he had already “unconsciously” anticipated so many other of the ideas he later received from him. But to take Osokin only as a guide to self education would be to reduce the magician scene to fairy-tale. It is exactly these scenes, which Ouspensky—by describing them minutely—intends should be taken as fact and even as the most important fact in the book.

Osokin is an artist. He does not wish to give up his dreams altogether because they are by far the most creative and therefore satisfying expressions of his psyche. Not only that. His dreams revolve around a deep truth—his previous existence—which he knows but has forgotten so often that it has ceased to act on him. Osokin’s trouble is not the wide scope of his imagination but a sort of wishful thinking which hardly ever stops and is practically a denial of what is true in his dream. It is as if Californians were to dream of the forthcoming earthquake with 100 to 200 thousand casualties that science so confidently predicts, and even to guess the date and locality, to discuss it and write countless books about it, but still be totally unable to act on their knowledge.

People who feel this to be their actual condition may have “guessed a certain secret.” But the magician appears only when Osokin is broken—at a moment when the useless round of his wishful thinking has come completely to an end, and he is able to ask quite simply for the magician’s help.

In one of his early conversations with Gurdjieff in In Search of the Miraculous, Ouspensky remarks that he always found it humiliating not to know how much time he had and that to know the future was his aim. Here, the idea is still deeper. Osokin, in a certain sense, already knows the future. It will be the same as the past. But he is unable to act intelligently in the light of his knowledge, because at crucial moments he forgets, he cannot remember, he cannot follow. It is neither his perceptions nor his intelligence which need special attention, it is their lack of relation with his everyday behavior and actions. In a word, he needs to learn to “live.”

Ouspensky said that as a young man he felt that both conventional religion and modern science were a dead wall. Professors were killing science just as priests were killing religion, in the East as well as in the West. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that his magician is a bent, old man from the Dark Ages.

As might be expected, this magician is gravely mysterious about the work of his school—the real school that every normal boy vaguely imagines and soon forgets to look for—except that to enter it sacrifice is needed. In fact, to become a pupil Osokin has to understand there is only one way—to give his life entirely to the magician, at least for ten or fifteen years. And this sacrifice has to be a voluntary decision.

What Osokin decides to do is an inner event on another scale, which no outside observer such as the reader can know. But in spite of the economy practiced in other parts of the book, Ouspensky, who doubtless watched many Osokins reach this moment of choice, does not fail to end the story with a detailed account of how Osokin’s thoughts again began to circle while he pondered his final dilemma—and how this time something of the magician’s influence entered and acted in him.

More than half a century ago, Ouspensky saw that a true, more objective relationship with their own life is only realized by most human beings at certain quite accidental moments, and that cinema is uniquely fitted to reproduce the real history of a man through showing a series of these deep impressions (not peak experiences) and the strange sense of “not existing” which connects them together. That no film version of “Cinemadrama” yet exists—touch wood—may perhaps be the greatest tribute to Osokin. There are few untidy ends and flaws in the book, by which a movie promoter with his flair for compromise and associative reasoning can enter the story.

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