The Gurdjieff Mystique

A New Biography Tells a Seldom-Told Tale

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol (modern Gyumri) in Russian-controlled Armenia, almost certainly in 1877, the son of Greek parents from the communities of “Pontus Greeks” who lived in Turkey in the area around Gümüshane, 40 miles south of Trebizond on the Black Sea coast.

It was, as Gurdjieff recalled, while holidaying with his uncle in Alexandropol that he first encountered the Yezidis, and Gurdjieff’s later spiritual attitudes probably owe something to the remarkable spiritual traditions of these Kurds who yet suffer persecution and (now, again) mass murder for their independent religious life. It is arguable that the Yezidi holy place of Lalish, north of Mosul in Iraq, was intended as the core fount of that tradition Gurdjieff claimed in Meetings to be known as the “Sarmoung Brotherhood.” Yezidi traditions revere Sufi Sheykh ‘Adi (1073–1162), whose tomb is venerated to this day at Lalish, and Gurdjieff’s spiritual development seems to have been invigorated also with Sufi traditions (Islamic gnosis).

The Russian Revolution

Tragically for Gurdjieff, the Russian Revolution ruined the fruits and fruits-to-come of his growing notoriety in Moscow and St. Petersburg and led directly to the loss of his fortunes (invested largely in carpets and porcelain) and the world that had sustained him in Russia after he moved to the Russian heartland more or less permanently in 1912–13. The 1917 revolution, in Gurdjieff’s view, destroyed every good thing that the establishment had been trying with some success to do, especially after government reforms began in 1905. Really, Gurdjieff belonged in pre-WWI Russia. He made sense there. The atmosphere was conducive, for there was intense interest in synthesizing science with spiritual knowledge and with the arts—Gurdjieff planned a ballet there called, typically, The Battle of the Magicians—and openness to novel spiritual ideas that could bring intellectual confidence back into religious life. Here, Gurdjieff appeared to have the “goods.” He developed a small following, eager to hear his intimate lectures and accept his guidance and strictures. One of the followers was proud journalist and philosopher, P. D. Ouspensky, who took to Gurdjieff’s teachings and would in due course attempt to present them as a Science of Being, taking Gurdjieff at his word that these teachings represented “fragments of an unknown teaching” (In Search of the Miraculous, 1949). What Gurdjieff means to “Gurdjieffians” today largely depends on which channel of his following provided access to Gurdjieff.

What Gurdjieff thought of the disaster of the Revolution is made clear in his epic, unwieldy narrative, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. Bolshevism destroyed any chance of a spiritually enlightened civilization by wrecking, in theory and practice, the status and nature of the individual, subjecting everything to a dogma of stifling vulgarity and conformism, instituted with intolerant barbarity and doctrinaire arrogance. Any chance for Gurdjieff’s ideal of “the harmonious development of Man” was put in mortal jeopardy. Again, he had to “liquidate his assets,” though by this time he had acquired followers, and these followers were literally willing to follow.

They went south to Tbilisi in Georgia, where Gurdjieff had lived in his mid-to-late teens, and organized their activities according to the pre-acquired skills of those concerned. As followers included dancers and musicians, dancing and music assumed primary significance as the “face” of Gurdjieff’s program of human harmony. His own ideas on these subjects were influenced by Sufi traditions, and folk traditions he had first been introduced to by his father, coupled with what he had garnered since that time. Practices were informed by a basic conviction that at the dawn of civilized man, science, art, and religion were all one and that harmony had been lost, but could be reacquired through disciplines of “self-remembering” and “directed art,” applied to the person, in harmony with others. Such was the revolutionary patina of his activities that, in Tbilisi for example, could be passed off as being part of the “worker’s struggle” by naming his group “The International Alliance of Ideological Workers.” This enabled him temporarily to avoid persecution by communists, while his spiritual ideas and genuine concern for the pre-communist world stood him in reasonable stead with the White Russians who warred with the Bolsheviks for control of the country.

In the end, the war (and the communist victory) made it impossible to progress further in the new, near-atheist state, and Gurdjieff’s group made efforts to get out of the country altogether.

In short, the war and the revolution created the kernel of Gurdjieff’s group and created organically the body and presentation of his ideas by which he would later be judged and seen. Things would have gone very differently but for these cataclysms and that is important. People tend to judge Gurdjieff by what was, in fact, the accident of history imposing itself on his activities. For example, it is presumed Gurdjieff intended to produce the kind of thing visitors found in Paris, after he and his followers settled in a large country house at Fontainebleau in the early 1920s. All the indications are that Gurdjieff did not like being permanently and personally attached to any body. He had the idea of establishing search-groups who would run themselves, as he moved on. Paris practically paralyzed his accustomed modus vivendi, and the Fontainebleau-based “Institute” effectively bound him as it defined him. Commentators wonder why he “fell out” with so many of his followers, not realizing that he had no great interest in “falling in” with them permanently, except to perform certain things of interest to him at any given time. His aim was to encourage autonomous action and free will in those he taught and he was exasperated by their becoming dependent on him, or keen to copy him. But he was also, I think, vain enough to be somewhat proud of the control that gave him and he could exercise that control in ways that were hurtful. If he wished others to be “free” of conditioned action and conditioned will and responses, he also wanted that freedom as much for himself, but after the war he became increasingly dragged down by financial circumstances as he took on more debts and not enough pupils to satisfy those debts.

Did he have influence over the minds of some of his followers? Yes, he did. Women found him personally attractive, there’s no question about that, and he had children with a number of them. He claimed that by circa 1904, he had the psychic ability to kill a yak by mind-power at a distance of ten miles. I wonder what that would do for his relations with people if they knew that and believed it. However, he also wrote that he deliberately sacrificed use of this power as a means of remembering that he was really “God” in his essence.

He claims to have been a top-drawer officiator at spiritualist séances in Russia and elsewhere in the first decade of the twentieth century, meaning he could bring to visible appearance phenomena apparently related to the dead. Whether this was a magician’s “trick,” or a case of hypnotism, a subject he claimed to have revived from an ancient doctrine, is unknown. He claims to have experimented deeply with hypnotism, a subject that fascinated him, because it had to do with the nature of the will. In Beelzebub, we find the problem of man is constantly and tiresomely repeated to be a kind of longstanding disease of the will. Gurdjieff knew the essence of magic lay in the conviction that to achieve what one wants, all one has to do is will it effectively—that is, so long as the means could be commanded. Gurdjieff regarded his human subjects as both “guinea pigs,” for increasing his knowledge, and as the “means” for succeeding in his aims. When he went to America, in 1924 and subsequently, he regarded the exercise as one of “shearing the sheep” of the “dollar-fat” Americans. He was quite mercenary about using the means to fulfill his ends; that is, to keep himself and his institute’s idea and other activities alive. He could hustle, and he could apply pressure; some could “take it,” and others could not.

Those who knew him, or thought they knew him, ascribed psychic power to him in one way or another. He had power of will, and he knew how to get to people’s sore and weak spots, to expose, and if necessary (in his mind), humiliate them, to reduce them to their real selves, from which basis they must work to acquire the spiritual body necessary, in his doctrine, to transcend death. This body had to be worked on, for otherwise spiritual potential dissipated into the unrealized soul that became, in his language, mere “food of the moon.” He warned that, as Nature eats herself for breakfast, so might the limpid matter of jealous Nature swallow the soil of Man’s spiritual potential. I think he regarded psychic powers as arts that could be learned and not as access to “supernatural” abilities. It was in the realm of mind-control that he found his power in the world, and it was through that that he hoped to bring the mind to knowledge of its true self, beyond what he considered the false “I.” The true “I” was in most cases a sleeping being. The false “I,” which people were apt to identify with, was subject to the powers of the world and therefore, he concluded, most people were already thoroughly hypnotized. This is not a million miles away from Jesus’s teaching about how the snares and concerns of the world swallow up the seed that the sower sowed, and when one gets down to it, one sees that Gurdjieff’s system was Jesus’s teaching understood in terms of development of mind and perception. Here, I think, lies its strength, and arguably, its durability, though the picture has been much confused, I believe.

 

Gurdjieff’s Legacy

As to the perennial question of Gurdjieff’s influence on popular culture, in which category I would place advertising, I can’t see much Gurdjieffian thought there—unless we think back to the exploitation of hippydom by a famous soft-drink company in 1970 who made “I’d like to teach the world to sing” into a slogan of transnational unity and high-sugar-content soft-drink consumption. I dare say Gurdjieff would like to have taught the world to sing—or at least, dance. His name was “about,” of course, in the late 1960s, as were the Sufis in London, New York, and elsewhere. And there can be little doubt that followers like J.G. Bennett had a lot to do in that period and in the 1970s in promoting a Sufism couched in Gurdjieffian priorities. But before the hippies started getting down to spirituality, there was already Mary Poppins.

Anyone who has seen Saving Mr. Banks, the very moving Disney portrayal of Mary Travers’ relations with founder Walt over the latter’s desire to turn her children’s books into a great, magical movie, may have noticed at the beginning of the film the photograph of Gurdjieff on the author’s wall in London. Mary Travers, author of Mary Poppins, was a great devotee of Gurdjieff, and she was very particular about his memory and made great efforts to support knowledge of him and respect for his work. The famous dances which enliven the Poppins books—and which became “Step in Time” in the movie—were doubtless inspired by Gurdjieff’s vision of dance as a psycho-magical discipline that could embody and express self-remembering, and release magical, or latent, powers in participants.

This interest in magical dancing may have come to Kate Bush’s attention when she studied dance with Lindsay Kemp before she became famous in the late 1970s. Either through that or another source or sources, Kate found Gurdjieff inspiring, mentioning him in her song, “Them Heavy People,” which appeared on her 1978, trend-setting album, The Kick Inside. Kate Bush saw Gurdjieff as a liberator of the mind, and an inspiration for freeing the magical potential of creativity in a spiritual atmosphere very much at odds with the general tenor of the rock n roll world. Despite the commercialization of music and poetry in rock and pop and all the spin-offs, there has always existed among the more interesting moths attracted to the flame an interest in “new ideas” and Gurdjieff is one of those lights.

This is nothing new. Mary Travers’ interest began while Gurdjieff was yet alive, as did director Peter Brook’s. Brook put on a play in Oxford during the War (Faust) and invited Aleister Crowley to the production party at Magdalen. It would be interesting to know if Gurdjieff was discussed. When I wrote to Brook about Crowley, he was reluctant to discuss things he saw as belonging to the past. Brook would become deeply involved in Gurdjieff’s ideas and they have become for him a way of life (including a powerful sense of having to live fully “in the Now”), influencing his theatrical ideas, tours, and movies. Brook turned Meetings with Remarkable Men into celluloid, starring Terence Stamp, who was keen to put his own “stamp” (forgive the pun) on the idea of life being essentially a spiritual journey, a quest for one’s portion of inner, transforming truth. Stamp’s enthusiasm for Krishnamurti is well known through his impressive autobiographies, which I recommend to aficionados of that “other Sixties” that mainstream media can’t bear to think about!

To name another luminary of “thinking man’s rock” one thinks of the remarkable musician Robert Fripp, formerly of “progressive rock” band, King Crimson. Fripp stayed a long while in retreat at a Bennett-Gurdjieffian community, mostly in silence, I believe, though when he gets a chance to talk about the spiritual things that concern him, he is extremely voluble and enthusiastic. Gurdjieff’s ideas have turned him on, no doubt, and through him, others too.

It is interesting how Gurdjieff has inspired creative people, more than, say, psychologists. Perhaps that is because Gurdjieff, like Jesus, told stories, and stimulated the imagination to do its own work.

The influence of Gurdjieff in “popular culture” has been subtle, but nonetheless real for those who dig a little deeper into things. I hope my new book helps people see something of the real Gurdjieff so that they might too have the pleasure of digging a little deeper, for, I think Gurdjieff might agree, a well-spent life is one spent digging our way out of our graves.

 

Tobias Churchton is the author of Deconstructing Gurdjieff—Biography of a Spiritual Magician (Inner Traditions International, 2017).

By Tobias Churchton