Gurdjieff International Review


By Carl Zigrosser

My encounter with the teachings of Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff came about through the mediation of A. R. Orage since I doubt that I ever would have met Gurdjieff in my own milieu. The early life of Gurdjieff is wrapped in mystery, and the exact facts probably will never be ascertained. In a sense such mundane facts are quite irrelevant: they throw little light on the miracle of his being or mission. He was an extra-ordinary man. One could perhaps say that he was Oriental—an amalgam of Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Sufic-Persian, and Georgian-Caucasian strains and influences. There were hints and rumors of wanderings in Central Asia, Turkestan, Tibet, the Gobi Desert, and of initiation into religious communities and esoteric schools such as the Essenes or the “World Brotherhood.” When he appeared in Moscow in 1913 and when Ouspensky met him two years later, he was already a man of mystery. To be sure, he has written of his early life in his book Meetings with Remarkable Men (published posthumously in 1963) but one suspects that it is, like all his writings, a collection of edifying tales or parables. His purpose was not to communicate knowledge but to work on the psyche of the reader. In certain planes of being the demarcation between the potential and the actual may be undefined. At any rate Gurdjieff had no great respect for literal truth. This may be illustrated by a story which Ouspensky related to Orage. Ouspensky arranged a lecture on the Gobi Desert for Gurdjieff before the Geographical Society of Moscow. Gurdjieff discoursed long and authoritatively on the subject, and then toward the end he told of having discovered a small valley with precipitous sides which made the bottom impossible of access. The floor glittered with diamonds which the natives gathered by a novel method. They threw down lumps of meat, and trained vultures to retrieve the diamond-studded morsels. Many suspicious glances were exchanged by the savants; many of them rose and left. The whole lecture ended in a fiasco. Ouspensky afterwards asked Gurdjieff why he had introduced that story from the Arabian Nights with such disconcerting results. Gurdjieff replied that he had told the scholars many things and given them priceless information. When he saw that they did not appreciate what he had given, he deliberately took the priceless things away from them by introducing in them a doubt about all he had said. With Gurdjieff it was important not only to note what he said but also to bear in mind why he said it. Carl Zigrosser, circa 1955

Ouspensky after a close association with Gurdjieff for about eight years came to the conclusion that there was a persistent impulse in Gurdjieff which led him to obscure the pure gold of his teaching by mingling it with extraneous matters. This is especially true, according to Ouspensky, of his magnum opus, All and Everything or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson published in 1950 shortly after his death. The great oracles—Laotze, Pythagoras, Gautama, Socrates, Jesus Christ—never did set down their doctrine in writing. Perhaps it is not advisable to do so. Gurdjieff himself once said, “I bury the bone so deep that the dogs have to scratch for it.” Such an obscurantist bent, however, is in accord both with the precepts of the esoteric schools never fully to reveal arcane secrets and with his own preference for mystification and his demand for desperate striving. He had achieved his goal by his own great effort, and had the self-made man’s reluctance to make things easy of access. He believed that people did not value what they had not paid for. The sense of urgent intensity appears to be basic in Gurdjieff. Various incentives for the attainment of higher states of being in mankind had been tried out, such as hope, faith (Amitabha’s Western Paradise) or love (bhakti-marga). Jesus Christ also tried to save the world through love but met with indifferent success. Gurdjieff employed a more agonizing motivation: the fear of death and annihilation, the “terror of the situation.” Could this be the counsel of Beelzebub? Gurdjieff had nothing of a saint’s benevolence. He had a tougher, more realistic approach: he came not to send peace, but the sword of terror and tension. He would crack the whip! If people wanted to be sheep, he would acquiesce in their fate and use them without pity. But if one of them had any “human” instincts, Gurdjieff was always prepared to allow him to profit from his intuition by showing him the way out of bondage. Gurdjieff once gave Orage his candid opinion of the American groups. “The Americans,” he said, “are good people, not nasty rotten, but good. But that not enough. They sheep, good sheep, responding obediently to anything suggested, but not take course by themselves. Question—which is better: good sheep or bad dog? They must show more initiative not necessarily toward me or Institute, but in daily life—all for exercise of Will.”

There have been three accepted paths which ascend gradually up the mountain to the summit of consciousness: the way of the fakir, the choice of predominantly instinctive-sensory types; the monastic or religious way, the choice of emotional people; and the way of the yogi, the choice of predominantly mental types. In the Caucasus, Gurdjieff with a small band undertook a fourth way: a crash program straight up the mountain. Such a course requires a resolute leader, very sure of himself, and a limited group of followers with special aptitudes. Thomas de Hartmann in his memoir recalls that Gurdjieff half-jokingly referred to this method as the Haida Yoga, the hurry-up yoga. When Gurdjieff came to Europe (and later to America) he did not set up quite such a drastic operation; it is quite possible that he did not find the requisite types of people in the Western World. After his serious automobile accident in the summer of 1924, he became more and more absorbed in writing at the expense of his activities as a teacher. Not only did he compose a colossal but almost unintelligible allegory of his teaching and other books for present and future publication, but he also gave Ouspensky permission to put in print a record of his talks and lectures during their long association. It is probable that Gurdjieff was influenced in his decision to give up legominism and reveal secret doctrine by his realization of the growing deterioration in world affairs, the result of war and social upheaval, the “terror of the situation” in more ways than one. With the suppression of spiritual values by materialistic forces—witness what has happened in Tibet—it could happen that the age-old tradition of esoteric knowledge might be obliterated when the tiny but hidden centers of teaching were dispersed once and for all.

Ouspensky’s reservations regarding Gurdjieff’s conduct and personality in no way affected his estimate of the value and importance of his doctrine. His books In Search of the Miraculous and The Fourth Way remain the clearest and most detailed exposition of his teaching, even though slightly misinterpreted because filtered through Ouspensky’s precise and didactic personality. Gurdjieff was, as I have said, extra-ordinary and he affected many people in different ways. One might perhaps arrive at an approximation of his character and mission by reading such published testimony as that by P. D. Ouspensky, Thomas de Hartmann, A. R. Orage, Dr. Maurice Nicoll, Dr. Kenneth Walker, Fritz Peters, J. G. Bennett, and C. Stanley Nott, and by searching out oral evidence from many pupils old and young. The numerous factions and conflicts which arose after his death (and even before) bear witness to the diverse effects and turmoils in individual psyches induced by his active presence. The impression Gurdjieff created on many strangers and those not convinced of the benefits of his teachings, was baffling and negative even to the extent of being accounted as charlatanism. From my own experience, I believe that he was purposive in his provocation of shock and ambivalent feelings.

My own experience with the Method began, I would say, when I attended the demonstration in Carnegie Hall in April of 1924. I was fascinated by the sacred dances performed by the troupe, the Dervish Dance, the Initiation of a Priestess, the Big Seven, and by the music (played by de Hartmann on a piano) to which the dancers moved. The stop exercise was performed, in which at a sudden command the troupe was frozen to immobility in whatever gesture the members were engaged. I was astonished at the demonstration of psychological exercises which were called indiscriminately tricks, half-tricks, and actual supernatural phenomena, and which ranged from elaborate memory tests to seemingly genuine examples of thought transference. Orage expounded the objectives of the “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.” I was much impressed, and enrolled in Orage’s class in November of the same year. I found him a stimulating and sympathetic teacher. Many of the ideas he advocated seemed to me to be wise and sound; with regard to a few my response gradually changed from skepticism to provisional acceptance. The idea of the harmonious development of man’s three faculties or centers—the moving (or instinctive), the emotional and the intellectual—appealed to me. I first accepted it as within the frame of Nature, but later I learned that Gurdjieff envisaged the potentiality of three correspondingly higher centers and their purposive actualization, with a consequent elevation under special conditions to a supernatural realm. The precept “Know Thyself” had been my favorite maxim. Gurdjieff revealed a scientific method for knowing oneself: a detached self-observation which avoids the morbidity of introspection. Such observation, if pursued with sufficient detachment and extraordinary zeal—for its contrariety to Nature makes continuous remembering exceedingly difficult—favors the slow accretion of an observing entity, a fourth center that is merely potential but capable of actualization in mankind, the “I.” Only a man with a fully developed “I” can be called truly integrated and fully responsible. Ordinary man is a bundle of three conflicting centers, each striving for mastery, yet none of them having enough authority to dominate the other two. Different aspects of personality are revealed according as one or the other center is in temporary control.

Man is born with certain faculties and potentials which are usually called his heredity but which in the special vocabulary are called his essence. As he grows up, the impressions from his environment and education begin to overlay the essence: these accretions may be called his personality. The layers may become so thick that the impressions from outside can no longer penetrate into the essence, and the process of living settles into routine. Furthermore there is in each essence an inherent bias called the “chief feature” which operates automatically at all times and which tends to turn—like the lead weight in a bowling ball—the responses of personality invariably in one direction. The proclivity—the emotional or mental block—is the sensitive spot always protected unconsciously by the organism, and it explains why one person finds a certain course of action psychologically difficult or distasteful, whereas to others that action seems simple and easy of accomplishment. Among the most common chief features are fear and pride. Such insights as these—interpreted by Orage from the doctrine of Gurdjieff—eventually brought me to a realization of the utter mechanicality of man. I became aware of the extent of man’s capacity for illusion about himself and his inner workings; I began to see people as automatons or puppets swayed this way and that by external circumstance.

I shall not attempt to present the method and cosmology of Gurdjieff in comprehensive detail, to explain, for instance, the profundities of the Enneagram and the workings of the Law of Three and the Law of Seven, so important for any comprehension of the process of growth and development, or weigh the values of conscious effort and voluntary suffering in the quest of higher states of being. The scope and implications of his doctrine are too complex to be adequately condensed into one short essay. Furthermore, actual contact with a teacher or guru—as in many esoteric schools—is so basic a tenet of his method that it rules out an approach through the written word as definitely misleading. I prefer to record more or less my personal experiences.

In the summer of 1927 I spent several long weekends and a few days in between at the Chateau du Prieuré near Fontainebleau where Gurdjieff had set up his Institute. The Institute was not humming with as much activity as in the days before Gurdjieff’s accident in 1924. He was now devoting all his energy to his writing. I described some of my experiences at the Institute in an article which appeared in the New Republic (June 5th, 1929). There was one person among the original initiates at the Prieuré with whom I quickly established some kind of understanding. He was Alexandre de Salzmann. Because he was an artist we had a common interest. Likewise because we both spoke German I was able to communicate more freely with him. I spent much time with him at Fontainebleau and also saw him in Paris on weekdays. I bought drawings and decorative screens from him for my gallery in New York. He had great talent as an artist, though he modestly called himself a craftsman. He reserved the name of artist for those who had achieved what he called major works of art such as the Sphinx or the Pyramids. These objects, he felt, had a deep significance which modern works lacked. He had perfected a method of mural painting, a kind of sgraffito technique, in which he worked with incredible speed. An assistant would cover a wall, a square yard at a time, with a quick-drying medium such as tempera or gouache, and the artist would model the forms by scraping them out with several rubber tools of his own invention. I remember visiting him when he was at work decorating a room with a wall surface of about three hundred square feet. He had started work that morning, and when I arrived at four o’clock it was about three quarters finished. He stopped and went out with me for a coffee and a cognac. I asked him about his preliminary studies. He replied there were none, everything was in his head. It was an amazing feat of concentration since the whole composition was very complicated. He had an extraordinary visual memory: natural forms, animals, human beings, historic ornament, all took shape under his hands with effortless ease.

Since little is known about Salzmann I shall give a few more biographical details. He was born in Tiflis in 1870 and studied art at the Academies of Moscow and Munich. He settled down in Munich. As a painter he was one of the Jugendstil group, and he was also associated with Walter von Heymel and the Insel magazine and publishing house, which did so much for literature and fine printing in Germany. He became a specialist in stage sets and stage lighting—Gordon Craig said that he knew more abut the subject than anyone in Europe—and he collaborated with Adolphe Appia, Max Reinhardt, and especially Emile Jaques Dalcroze at his Eurhythmics Institute at Hellerau. Annette Herter, who was a pupil there gave me a first hand impression of Salzmann’s contribution to lighting and staging: improvisations that started in darkness and pianissimo and swelled to thundering crashes in full light, a thrilling crescendo of feeling. Salzmann’s wife Jeanne was a star performer: according to Annette she was like a flame, a beautiful dancer with a lithe and supple body. Mary Wigman and Jessmin Howarth were fellow pupils with Annette at Hellerau. When Gurdjieff came to Germany in 1921, Annette and Jessmin were so impressed by his teaching that they joined his group. Salzmann and his wife had lived in Munich until the war broke out in 1914. They escaped from Germany and settled in Tiflis. She established a school for Eurhythmics and had about two hundred pupils by the time that Gurdjieff arrived in 1919 to set up his Institute in the Georgian capital. Thomas de Hartmann, who had known the Salzmanns in Germany introduced them to Gurdjieff. Both Alexandre and Jeanne gave up their careers to join Gurdjieff for the rest of their lives. There must indeed have been something magnetic in the man and his ideas to induce such gifted people as the Salzmanns, Thomas de Hartmann, Orage, and to a lesser extent Ouspensky, to sacrifice their professional careers and follow him. It is significant that in Germany today, scholars (including reference books) know nothing about what happened to Salzmann after his departure in 1914. I recently saw in Munich an important exhibition of Jugendstil painting. There was a painting by him in it, important enough to be reproduced in the catalogue, but the biographical data after 1914 was blank.

His face with its weather-beaten skin, sunken cheeks, and gaps and stumps of teeth, was not easily forgotten. He told me that he had lost his teeth through a fall from a cliff in the Caucasus Mountains when he was chief forest ranger to some Russian grand duke. Fortunately he fell into a tree and saved his life. In spite of his artistic sophistication, there was something wild and savage in him, a breath of his native Caucasus perhaps, in his taste in food, in the primitiveness of his personal wants. His method of shaving was simplicity itself: he took a dry razor and scraped his face. Even this was a concession, for as he said the tribesmen of Asia Minor use their regular knives. Oriental, too, was his gift for storytelling. His sallies, delivered sometimes with the expressionless monotone of understatement, sometimes with a Rabelaisian sense of the ridiculous, would always arouse gales of laugher. In his stories he revealed his imagination and psychological insight. And if his narratives were not always true—who knows, and what is truth anyway—perhaps they should have been, and sometimes may be.

In New York I continued my sessions with Orage or Gurdjieff whenever either was available, and also listened to readings from Beelzebub’s Tales (then unpublished). When the leaders were away the groups tried to carry on by themselves. In this communal effort I became acquainted with many people in a special way. For example, four of us, Margaret Naumburg, Ilonka Karasz, Jean Toomer and I, banded together for a period, and met after meetings to discuss problems of self-observation and the like. I attended a few of the dance classes under the direction of Jessmin Howarth and participated in the sacred movements, including the so-called obligatories. I tried to practice self-observation and ponder on the revelations of the secret doctrine. I found some of the more abstruse concepts—higher vibrations, astral bodies, planetary influences—difficult to understand. All my efforts seemed to meet with moderate success. I was never convinced that I had bridged the gap between a lower and a higher plane of consciousness. If I had, I was not aware of it: I did not know how it felt to have attained it, and this probably meant that I had not achieved it. At any rate I felt the lack of any guidance from the original source—which may be an excuse for lack of effort. In the spring of 1931 Gurdjieff was particularly difficult and enigmatic regarding the groups, and temporarily departed for France. In July Orage also left New York to live in England permanently. The American groups were thus left without any leadership for the time being. When I attended several meetings in October there was so much uncertainty and confusion in the group that I decided to withdraw from active connection with the movement in its corporate aspects. I am reminded of an aphorism of the walls of the Study House at Fontainebleau which may be translated thus:

Happy is the man who has a soul.
Happy is the man who has no soul.
Terrible is the lot of the man whose soul is in process of becoming.

I thought a great deal about my decision at the time. I wondered if I had come to the end of my tether and had obtained all I was capable of receiving from the Gurdjieff teachings. My present analysis of the situation may no doubt contain some elements of later reflection. I came to the conclusion, as I told Louise Goepfert, that Gurdjieff demanded total dedication for the work: his message was directed toward those who would give up everything and follow him. I was not prepared to do this. I had undertaken responsibilities which I could not cast aside. Her answer was significant: if he accepted only all-or-nothing people, who would support him? At any rate, I reflected, his message in all its implications did not fit my needs and purposes. His ambition, it seemed to me, was by superhuman effort to become god-like, I had no such lofty aim, and certainly did not have within me the ruthless determination to maintain such an effort. Nor did I believe that the goal could be achieved in an American environment. It could only be done in Central Asia or some place where life is lived on a more essential level, and preferably under monastic conditions, where a conscious master could intervene at the appropriate moment to provide the necessary shock for augmentation. Gurdjieff attempted to establish such a setting in France at the Chateau du Prieuré. Its temporary duration leads one to wonder how esoteric religious communities have managed to endure for so many centuries. How were they maintained, from a practical and financial standpoint? The Catholic monastic foundations were at least supported through the Church. Of course the decisive factor which affected and eventually altered the functioning of the Institute was Gurdjieff’s terrible automobile accident in 1924. It was a catastrophe not only to himself but also to all his disciples and novice-initiates who were left dangling. The quandary was especially acute for Orage who had been sent out on his first mission—to teach the American groups—just before the accident and who began work shortly after it. He was left entirely to his own devices and did the job in his own way. Instead of lessening his efforts on account of the accident, he expanded them owing to the desperate need to send funds to the Institute during Gurdjieff’s illness and slow recovery from concussion. Gurdjieff later censured Orage—while admitting partial responsibility—for the mistakes he made in expounding the Method, such as not stressing sufficiently the urgency, the “terror of the situation,” and neglecting the special educative value of the dance movements. From my point of view, however, Orage’s approach was appropriate. For me the most I could hope was a measure of salvation in spite of the market place. I did not fear death and annihilation—Orage assured me privately that he did not either—I accepted it as inevitable. I had no proselytizing zeal and had no wish to wield power like a god. I did not wish—indeed I found I was not able—to maintain deliberate and gratuitous suffering throughout my whole life-span. I rather enjoyed life on this planet: all I wanted was some amelioration of its mechanicality as far as my own organism was concerned. Understanding was a key word for me. I craved understanding both of the mechanism to which I was attached and of the processes of life and nature. Such I believe to be my essential wish, and toward that end Orage gave me nourishment. He was my real master in this endeavor and I shall always be grateful to him for the part he played in my spiritual and mental development. Orage and, filtered through him, Gurdjieff have affected my life and thought. It is my misfortune that I probably have not made the most of my opportunities as a member of a community of seekers. Perhaps I am not a “most” man, that is to say one who acts with superlative intensity. Perhaps it is my fate—like that of Moses—to see the Promised Land but not to attain it. So be it; yet sometimes when I think about it, or read a book such as Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East, I feel a certain regret.

For Orage, I shall always retain my feeling of admiration and affection. He was a true mentor, a kindly and generous man with a great knowledge of human nature. Many people brought their personal troubles to him and imposed on his good nature. Perhaps his need to give more than matched the demands made upon him. But knowing how busy he was, I felt more punctilious about taking up his time. I regret now that I did not see more of him. Nonetheless in various ways I did have many stimulating extra-curricular contacts with him. During 1930 and 1931 he was in the habit of having lunch every Thursday at Stewart and Robinson’s and later at Christ Cella’s on East 45th Street, then a “speakeasy”—I still recall the back room beyond the kitchen and its easy family atmosphere. A few of his friends such as Boardman Robinson, J. O’Hara Cosgrave, Amos Pinchot, Sherman Manchester, Hugh Ferriss, and Paxton Hibben used to gather there. I came when I could.

After a formal lecture Orage would often go to Child’s for a cup of coffee. Fortunate were those who were invited to join him, since there would be meaty talk far into the night. There might be a discussion of a play such as Green Pastures as a modern morality-play, of a book or an author such as D. H. Lawrence or Paul Valery. Once Louise Michel and I induced Orage to reminisce about the old days of the New Age (which its enemies called Sewage), about Beatrice Hastings and Katherine Mansfield and her two husbands, Bowden and Middleton Murry. It was a revelation rich in human interest. Orage could be Machiavellian. He once related how he used a certain person at the Institute to convey information to Gurdjieff. This person had an antipathy to Orage. He knew that anything he told to this person in strictest confidence would be certain to reach Gurdjieff within half an hour. Gurdjieff knowing of the bias, discounted it but got the message nevertheless. On another occasion Orage told what Gurdjieff had said about him: “You very much of this planet, but truly a Prince of English Language. You understand anything in words but not understand language of actions.”

In addition to his regular commentaries on Gurdjieff, Orage gave a series of six lectures on literature in 1928 and another four on economics in 1931. They revealed two more aspects of his richly diverse erudition. In his talks on “Readers and Writers” he attempted to establish objective criteria for literature and art. It was a stimulating and challenging concept, and it has enriched and influenced my thinking even though I did not entirely subscribe to his theory. His lectures on economics, largely an exposition of the proposals of Major Douglas, were instructive in a field in which I had little knowledge or experience. In these series, as in his other commentaries, he displayed his brilliant talents as an expounder of ideas. He had the rare gift of clear thinking and exact formulation and those qualities which make any discourse a never ending delight—the vivid phrase, the apt quotation, the illuminating image. He expressed that heightened common sense which spoke to the heart as well as illuminated the mind. He affected many people by personal contact and stimulated them to creative activity. Thus his influence has extended beyond his published writings.

In the spring of 1931 Orage decided to return to England and take up again his editorial duties on the New Age and later the New English Weekly. It was a momentous decision. I remember well his final talk to the Gurdjieff group at the end of May. He gave a resume of the Doctrine. He rang all the hortatory changes, he played on all the emotions. He was witty, subtle, ironic, sarcastic, noble. He was prodigal with memorable phrases and precise formulations. He beseeched and scolded like an older brother. It was a brilliant performance. On the first of July we all went to a farewell party for him at Muriel Draper’s. The place was jammed not only with group members but also with many of Orage’s other friends, the wits and literati of the town, Samuel Hoffenstein, Marc Connolly, E. E. Cummings, Lincoln Kirstein, J. Weldon Johnson among those I saw. The party was gay and lasted long. At dawn the number had dwindled to Orage and his wife Jessie, Muriel Draper, Will Dyson, Rita Romily, and myself. We were talking about the theatre and music halls. Dyson and Orage were singing old popular songs. Muriel got out a bottle of champagne and we toasted to Orage’s speedy and safe return. Soon after, we all departed and I took Rita home. Two days later I saw Orage and Jessie off on the Minnewaska. I never saw him again. I was shocked to hear of his sudden death at the height of his powers in November 1934. Let me conclude with an extract from the tribute I wrote for the symposium in New Democracy:

In urbanity and understanding, in ripened wisdom and wholeness of vision, Orage was a distinguished citizen of the world, yet in a way I surmise that he really was not of this world. I use the word surmise intentionally, for very few persons, if any at all, ever knew the real Orage behind the many roles he undertook to play. He was a subtle master of the philosophy of “as if.” He was as indifferent to renown in the future as he was careless of success in the present. At several critical phases in his life, he gave up everything and started anew. Endowed as he was with brilliant gifts, he seldom met his match in mentality; if he was sometimes summary in his arguments it was for want of a foeman worthy of his steel. Nonetheless on the few occasions that he met a mind which he felt was superior to his own, he was the first to admit it and to proceed to drink from the fount of wisdom like the humblest disciple. He was impersonal toward himself: the end was more important than personal scruples of pride. He wanted to know everything, even the unknowable. I remember a proverb which Orage used to quote. Whether it was his own I do not know, but in a sense it sums up his attitude toward life. Do more and more, better and better, and think less and less of it.

~ • ~

This excerpt, including the photographs, is taken from a chapter of Carl Zigrosser’s autobiography, My Own Shall Come to Me: A Personal Memoir and Picture Chronicle, Philadelphia: Casa Laura; 1971, Limited edition of 300 copies, pp. 158–170.

Copyright © 2004 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2004 Issue, Vol. VIII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2004