Charlatan or Visionary? (2003)
In the first half of the twentieth century, The Russian philosopher and mystic Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff had a great many followers, among them the writer Katherine Mansfield and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The most significant of his followers was P. D. Ouspensky, a Russian journalist and intellectual, who became Gurdjieff’s chief disciple, then rival, and finally, his biographer.
For years, Ouspensky didn’t "get" his teacher’s idea that most people are in such a state of unconsciousness that they act like mechanisms.
Then one day, just before World War One, Ouspensky saw a truck heading toward the front, carrying artificial limbs. In that moment, he got it. A vehicle carrying replacements for real limbs that hadn't yet been blown off: no image could better could sum up the dumb, mechanical behaviour of a species on auto-pilot.
Gurdjieff insisted that human behaviour on the historical scale is predictable in its robotic, repetitive patterns. The more things change, the more they stay the same; during the Gulf War, 60,000 body bags were shipped before an opening shot (although these were needed far less by American forces than by the Iraqi Republican Guard).
War remains the most obvious example of the plodding unconsciousness that is humanity’s lot, for most of history.
On the individual level, most of us are not even fully conscious in the waking state, Gurdjieff reasoned, but go about our lives in a hypnotic stupour. "It may surprise you," he said, "if I say the chief feature of a modern man’s being which explains everything else that is lacking in him is sleep. A modern man lives in sleep, in sleep he is born, and in sleep he dies."
He insisted that this form of sleep is observable in the most mundane activities. You go into a room only to find you have no recollection why you are there. You realize you've set down your keys and can’t remember where. You may have taken a drive along a path you frequent often, and have completely forgotten the trip.
Gurdjieff related these acts, innocent enough in themselves, to the spectrum of unconscious acts that drive human beings toward misery and destruction. "The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates said, and Gurdjieff believed this self-examination was only possible if full wakefulness was acheived.
He meant "sleep" in the hypnotic sense, where we follow unconscious cues often dictated to us by social forces. We internalize the values and beliefs of the clergy, the press, or the state, and mechanically take these as originating from ourselves.
Although Gurdjieff’s heyday was the first part of the twentieth century, his works are still found today in New Age bookstores, next to self-help guides, money-manifesting tracts, and sex manuals.
So who was this G. I. Gurdjieff?
Much of the man’s life was cloaked in mystery, and much of this was apparently due to his own efforts to cultivate a mysterious persona. Even his biographers are uncertain of his birthdate; one gave it as 1877, another as 1866. His birthplace is known more definitively: a small town on the Russo-Turkish border called Alexandropol. His father was Greek, his mother was Armenian. Beyond his origins in a polyglot culture, there is a forest of question marks about his life.
Born on the boundary of the western and eastern worlds, hearing legends of mythical characters, seeing travelling shamans, gypsy fortune tellers, and dervishes, Gurdjieff grew to be suspicious of the conventional wisdom taught at the seminary he attended in Alexandropol. "There exists," he argued, "a something else, which must be the aim and ideal of every more or less thinking man, and it is only this something else which may make a man happy and give him real values, instead of the illusory ‘goods’ with which an ordinary life is always and in everything full."
The young man set out to find this "something else." He supposedly travelled throughout Asia, making his living as maker of artificial flowers, a carpet seller, a restaurant owner, a mender of phonographs, a dealer in oil wells, and a seller of "American canaries" (ordinary sparrows dyed rainbow colours). For two decades he travelled with a "Community of Truth Seekers" in search of the essential doctrines behind all great religions and philosophies.
With the debate about the particulars of his life, and his sometimes bizarre writings, it’s no surprise that many have dismissed Gurdjieff as an entertainer at best, and a fraud at worst. He claims to have studied as a young man under an esoteric brotherhood called the Sarmoung Brotherhood. Where exactly this brotherhood was, or even if it existed, is open to debate.
By 1914 there is record of Gurdjieff working in Moscow, where he began the teaching for which he became famous, which his followers called "The Work."
What we do know of him comes through his followers, like Ouspensky; and the mystery man’s own eccentric writings, which includes his autobiographical Meetings with Remarkable Men, and his bizarre magnum opus All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, a 1200-page work in which the characters philosophize while travelling aboard a spaceship.
But most readers familiar with Gurdjieff’s teachings first came upon them in Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, which the leader himself endorsed as an accurate portrayal of his ideas. In this work, Ouspensky sums up the Gurdjieffian concept of the human mind:
"Man as we know him....cannot have a permanent and single I. He changes as quickly as his thoughts, feelings, and moods, and he makes a profound mistake in considering himself always one and the same person; in reality he is always a different person, not the one he was a moment ago."
Each minute, each moment, man is saying or thinking "I." And each time his I is different. Just now it was a thought, now it is a desire, now a sensation, now another thought, and so on, endlessly. Man is a plurality. Man’s name is legion."
This viewpoint anticipates the postmodern conception of the human personality as a social construct. Other aspects of Gurdjieff’s thinking echo that of his contemporaries, particularly Freud and Jung. He held that we create "buffers" between our awareness and the parts of ourselves we don’t want to see. With these parts of our being locked out of full awareness, we can function unconsciously, mechanically, according to their bidding — in effect, "asleep."
Other aspects of the Gurdjieffian view of the human psyche were less subtle. In the master’s later years, pupils attending the dinners held at his Paris apartment were assigned to various categories of "idiots." Idiots could be "ordinary," "round," "zig-zag," and even "enlightened." There were a total of twenty-one types in total, the highest type being the "Unique Idiot," God himself.
The writer Arthur Koestler once pointed out that every "holy man" has in him at least some element of performance, bluff, or trickery. Gurdjieff was no exception, and his talent for breaking down the human robots around he saw around him, through bluster and bullying, owed as much to his powerful personality, and time-tested mind control techniques, as to the intrinsic worth of his message.
But the perspective of time allows us to take what we like from Gurdjieff, and discard the rest. "Do you want to die like dogs?" he would shout at pupils he thought were lazy or backsliding, returning to the comfort of sleep. It’s not a pleasant question, but it’s one that may be worth asking again in certain political quarters, as the western world marches mechanically toward what may well turn into another world war.
Last week I wrote about G. I. Gurdjieff, the turn-of-the-century Russian-Armenian philosopher, who travelled for two decades throughout Central Asia in pursuit of the “perennial philosophy” of the east and west. He took ideas from Sufism, Buddhism, Vedanta, and Christianity, and added his own peculiar notions to the mix.
By all accounts, his magnetic personality drew many into his orbit; Gurdjieff was the harsh sun around which his followers revolved.
With a head as smooth as cue ball, and waxed mustache, he was charismatic, irascible, bullying, and eccentric, and his contradictory character allowed followers to fill in the blanks, according favourable interpretations to his behaviour. J.G. Bennett, one of his main acolytes, once observed, “All his strange and often repellent behaviour was a screen to hide him from people who would otherwise have idolized his person instead of working for themselves.”
Writes Kenneth Cavandar in his essay on Gurdjieff: “Even his towering rages seemed to be deliberate act, from which he himself stood a little apart, watching to see what effect they would have on their audience.”
In one of the rare moments when he was taken to task for verbally abusing a disciple, and why he bothered with such people if he was to repudiate them so thoroughly later, he is said to have replied, “I needed rats for my experiments.”
He had a thirst for money, demanding cash payment for even minor services, and his liaisons with female followers left a number of illegitimate children; eight, according to one account.
Not an especially likable character, from the sounds of it, but in his travels from Moscow to Paris to Istanbul, the bald man with the piercing gaze was never short of worshipful follower (whom he classified into 21 categories of “idiots”).
So what makes Gurdjieff relevant for now — beside the fact that his peculiar notions and slavish following makes him the spiritual ancestor of every other ‘ascended master’ and Oprah-endorsed therapist on today’s New Age scene?
Just this: his idea that human beings are asleep, living out their days in a mechanical repetition of thoughts and actions. Gurdjieff concocted this notion just prior the First World War. And now, we watch in horror as a similar scene plays out at the beginning of the new millennium; this time, a “coalition of the willing,” with the leaders in the west mechanically falling in line with the US, dragging their nations toward a conflict that could go global.
What could be more unthinking, more “asleep,” than to conduct a war in pursuit of fossil fuels on the pretext of finding “weapons of mass destruction,” which UN inspectors have yet to identify? What could be more blindly mechanical than our unyeilding dependence on an industrial-age energy source that is implicated in global warming and extreme weather?
At least in this respect, the Russian-Armenian philosopher was on to something.
Gurdjieff held a tripartite view of the human mind, consisting of the intellect, the emotions, and the instinctive/motor functions of the body. “These three brains, or “centres,” as Gurdjieff called them, were often out of harmony with one another. “Man cannot be master of himself, for not only does he not control these centres, which ought to function in complete subordination to his consciousness, but he does not even know which of his centres governs them all.”
The result of this lack of coordination of the three centres is a kind of hypnotic trance, in which we habitually live by rote thoughts and repititious behaviour. Awakening from this trance was not easy, Gurdjeff wrote.
“Fusion, inner unity, is obtained by means of friction, by the struggle between “yes” and “no” in a man. In order to make further development possible he must be melted down again, and this can only be accomplished through terrible suffering.”
One corollary of the Gurdjieffian system is that the human soul is not a given; one grows a soul through insight and sprititual development. Gurdjieff held that immortality could only be attained through “self remembering” — otherwise human beings remain at an animal level of awareness, and “die like dogs.”
The cynical view is that Gurdjieff’s soul-by-decree operates like a superb spiritual make-work program. Who you gonna call if you suspect you haven’t cultivated a soul, or even awakened yet? Gurdjieff. And many people did just that,arriving from the four quarters of the globe to his “Institute for Harmonious Development,” opened at the close of the Great War at a chateau outside Fontainbleau, France.
Rich American socialites, English intellectuals, White Russians with their jewels; all came to study with the master, who tasked these elite guests with manual labour on the institute’s grounds. Performances of the “Gurdjieffian Movements” by his pupils (more about that below) were held in a huge hall put together from parts of an aircraft hanger. It was decorated with Oriental rugs and contained a special box for the master, where he sat and viewed the performances.
He was never an easy taskmaster, which Gurdjieff himself owed to his declared war on “sleep” in all those he encountered. A typical Gurdjieffian exercise was given to an aristocratic woman who fell in with his group; she was commanded to sell silk thread on the street to overcome her “class pride.”
Was he a teacher or a trickster? Or both? In any case, “The Work,” as Gurdjieffians call the bootcamp for the soul that the master touted, is conducted differently fifty years after his death. Writes Jay Kinney in the book Hidden Wisdom: “In its seriousness and sobriety, the typical Work group today bears more resemblance to a Quaker meeting than to the master’s vodka-laced banquets.”
This brings us to the topic of Gurdjieff’s dance moves. At the outset of his strange career, Gurdjieff was a composer of a ballet, and identified himself in his book All and Everything as a “Teacher of dancing.” Hence the one peculiar facet of his teachings that lives on today, known as The Gurdjieffian Movements: difficult poses and contortions meant to aid in the process of awakening, based on the “sacred dances” Gurdjieff saw in his travels through Central Asia.
Writes former Gnosis editor Jay Kinney: “They (The Movements) require the performer to maintain two or three different rhythms with different parts of the body, say, the head, arms, and feet, often while executing complicated dance steps. The difficulty of these “sacred dances” is obvious, but they accord with Gurdjieff’s goal of integrating the “three centers” so that a new , higher “I” can be created. As for the difficulty, Gurdjieff himself insisted that “only super-efforts count.””
While performing these complicated moves, pupils were expected to make difficult mathematical computations in their heads, and at the same time cry out phrases such as “God have mercy” to bring out their emotions. In this way, they supposedly would have all their centres — emotional, physical, and intellectual — come under full conscious control.
In 1924 Gurdjieff and some of his disciples traveled to New York to put on a demonstration of The Movements at Carnegie Hall, winning even more converts to the Gurdjieffian way among Americans.
On the face of it, this Pythonesque posturing sounds more silly than sacred, and you have to wonder if the benefit of these sort of exercises ever went beyond the transcendence-through-exhaustian that follows many cult-like exercises.
The jury is still out on Gurdjieff’s contribution to intellectual and spiritual history. Flashes of brilliance were counterpointed by questionable assertions and pompous verbiage. He was many things to many people: a charlatan; a holy fool; a wise man ahead of his time.
“There you are— in a fine mess.” With these final words to a pupil, Gurdjieff died, in October of 1949.