PART IV: THE MYSTIC EAST (OR THEREABOUTS)
THE CONCEPTUAL DIVISION of the world into two great slabs of humanity - East and West - has dominated the average individual's sociological outlook for centuries, and it shows little sign at present of being replaced by any more sophisticated notion. The idea seems to be particularly powerful within the context of religious belief, and there does seem to be a curious attraction to the notion that a spiritual frontier, drawn by God, passes somewhere down the middle of the Arabian desert. To the west of this line can be found those worshiping according to Christian or Christian-dominated ideas, while to the east, gazing inscrutably at various idols, are the followers of Buddha and Confucius. This frontier has frequently been battled over in mankind's history, as with the Christian Crusades against Islam, and even after literally centuries of intercommunication, some peaceful, some warlike, the Eastern and Western systems have shown little tendency to blur into one another. Ogs, suitably packaged, to the rest of humanity, and returned to Russia. Here in the city of Petrograd, seething at that time in the agonies of the First World War, he met Ouspensky, a teacher and mathematician of sorts, who had written books with such far-flung titles as Superman, The Fourth Dimension and The Symbolism of the Tarot. Gurdjieff's accounts of his trips to Tibet, etc., and of his companion adventurers, who called themselves The Seekers of Truth, struck a deep, solemn note in the mathematician's mystical soul, and before long the two men were holding forth on occult matters in general to the large population of floating intellectuals living in Petrograd at the time. As it happens, they picked rather an unfortunate time to spread the good news, for the average Russian in that dramatic decade was more concerned with such worldly matters as the disposal of a tyrannical monarchy than with Gurdjieff's mystical truths. Sensing this wind of change, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky moved away from the strife-ridden city in 1917 and took up residence in the Black Sea resort of Tuapse, where a small band of followers gathered around them. The Soviet revolution proceeding regardless, the two men finally gave Russia up as a bad job and departed independently for Istanbul. From here Ouspensky, thanks to an invitation from the right-wing proprietor of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, moved on to London where he set up in the mystical lecture business on his own. Gurdjieff, after numerous adventures of doubtful authenticity, settled in France, forming an exclusive colony of disciples and general hangers-on at Fontainebleau near Paris. This was to be the parting of their ways in more than one respect, for despite the relative proximity of London and Paris, the two men were destined never to meet again and were soon to make it clear that a spiritual as well as a geographical gap had opened up between them.
Ouspensky, whom photographs reveal to be a chubby schoolmasterish figure, set up his court at 38 Warwick Gardens, where he gave a regular series of lectures to elderly audiences of mixed intellectual and creative calibre. These seem to have been largely made up of those floating, poorly-oriented intellectual souls that swell the occult underground in the capital cities of the west. Others, at least a substantial minority, were men and women of real creativity and talent - Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, for example, were frequent, if silent, visitors - curious and inquisitive about every branch of philosophy's proliferous tree.
The lectures, which Ouspensky delivered in a heavy, almost incomprehensible Russian accent, were by all accounts tough going and, if the versions that have subsequently appeared in print are anything to go on, reveal a notable lack of understanding of the simplest principles of human physiology and psychology. We will not attempt to summarize these here but the super-curious are invited to pit their wits against his two key books, A New Model of the Universe and The Fourth Way. These ponderous tomes, which have been treated with solemn reverence in occult and mystical circles, must be counted as amongst the most obscure and humourless works ever penned by man, and we will leave them with the comment that if they contain - as some of his followers believe - great insights into the mysteries of life, then the universe is a far, far duller place than most people believe it to be.
Life at Gurdjieff's bizarre establishment in Fontainebleau, by contrast, was anything but dull. Somehow the penniless Russian emigre had acquired the lease of a vast and elegant former priory set in rambling grounds. The dilapidated state of the property itself and the overgrown, brambly gardens posed no problem for, immediately the Community was established in 1922, members were set to work putting it into shape. Gurdjieff called it the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, and as one of his principal ideas was that humanity had become unbearably complacent and could only advance spiritually by having this smugness shattered, the numerous menial and back-breaking tasks around and about the estate were used as the essential first step in the 'de-smugging' programme. With the innate pleasure which Russians show in organizing large flocks of people to participate in manual labour, Gurdjieff soon had every visitor to the Priory, from the most wealthy, scatterbrained and bejewelled American widow to the most ardent and poverty-stricken poet with holes in his socks, working away like beavers washing dishes, scrubbing floors, painting walls and chopping wood. Gurdjieff himself, wearing a fez to denote his Turkish associations and chain-smoking black cigarettes, would circulate amongst the throng, encouraging, cursing or praising apparently at random. To those particularly in favour, he would distribute sweets from a paper bag.
A number of accounts have been handed down to us of the goings-on at this odd establishment, some very evocative since many of its members were people of considerable literary talent. Some stayed but briefly, brushing the presence of Gurdjieff from their minds with relative ease; the majority lingered and, apparently, even to this day find the man's extraordinary personality and opaque philosophy impossible to discard.
One of the best first-hand accounts of life at the priory comes from the pen of the remarkable writer, philosopher and mathematician, J. G. Bennett, whose autobiography Witness is commended as the story of a brilliant scientist's quest for a non-materialistic meaning for life. It also gives one a fascinating insight into the strange world of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, and the numerous satellites of varying luminance that he gathered around him.
Bennett first met 'G' (as he was later to become known to his many adherents) in Istanbul in early 1920 and, while by no means an impressionable man, was immediately riveted by the other's extraordinary presence and persona. Like many others similarly smitten, Bennett made many attempts later to decide just what it was about the Russian that created such an overwhelming impression. Was it the long black moustaches, curled fiercely upward or the vast, dome-like shaven head? Perhaps it was the short, squat, gorilla-like figure? Or the one eye strikingly, but indescribably different from the other? Bennett cannot say. Most likely it was a combination of Gurdjieff's weird physical presence plus the special talent he displayed of uttering just about every remark he made, however commonplace, as though it was pregnant with great meaning and significance. Not an easy trick, and many politicians would give their back teeth to be in possession of its secret, but there are those who never have to learn it, and Gurdjieff was one of those fortunates.
It led of course to some peculiar experiences. People spending an evening in conversation with the mystic - particularly when caught up in the fairly hefty drinking bouts that he insisted in inflicting on his guests - would often leave feeling that they had been imparted with information of incomparable significance and magnitude. On attempting to relate the great news to friends the next day, or even trying to write it down, its significance and meaning would seem to have skittered away somewhere. Rather than believe that they had simply been caught up in a master psychological confidence trick, most fans of Gurdjieff's take the line that he subtly conveyed information of tremendous value in allegorical rather than factual form. Nobody could say exactly what had been said, but all agreed nevertheless that it was absolutely stunning.
Much the same impression is conveyed by his books - only two of any length have been published. The first of these, a long and undisciplined work with the characteristic title All and Everything and subtitled 'Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson', makes infuriating reading. It is pure allegory, but the principal message seems to be that Man may believe himself to have free will, selfconsciousness and an immortal soul, but that these are not his as an innate right. The telling of this simple piece of philosophy takes up over a thousand pages of closely printed text, and if there is any deeper message hidden in the book than that, then no Gurdjieff disciple has ever been able to point it out to other mortals. It is possible, however, to get some idea of what he was apparently trying to say.
Gurdjieff, like so many other philosophers interested in the cosmological nature of the psyche, held that Man was capable of very marked evolution from his present state. Showing the occultist's traditional preoccupation with the magical number seven, he held that Man existed on one of seven evolutionary levels, and that his total psychological make-up could be divided into seven distinct centres. On the evolutionary ladder, the very lowest rung was labelled The Instinctive Motor Man. This did not mean simply someone who could drive a car particularly well, but rather a blind, instinctive creature tossed about through life at the whim of his animal desires and needs. Most people on earth, Gurdjieff let it be known, were Instinctive Motor Men and, what was worse, most of them seemed to like it that way. By suitable effort and selfawareness, or possibly a fortunate hereditary pattern, one might find oneself on Rung Two as The Emotional Man. This entity, while still a prey to animal desires, etc., was at least aware of these as motivating forces, and could manipulate them to some extent. At Rung Three was to be found Intellectual Man, a level at which reason, intellect, logic and pretty well all philosophical and scientific thought were the dominating force. Such individuals, though they might be enormously pleased with themselves and fancied they knew just about everything worth knowing, were in reality living in a fool's paradise and were scarcely more evolved than specimens of the doltish Motor Man. Gurdjieff himself thought least well of Intellectual Man and when faced with any kind of scientifically based argument would counter with 'Newton, he wrong', 'Mathematik, she is useless' or some equally plonking statement. Whether it was the bold conviction of his statements, the heavy Russian accent, or the menacing black moustaches and wrestler's shoulders that so effectively quashed further argument is hard to say, but many a world-renowned scientist and philosopher seems to have met his match most unexpectedly at the Chateau.
At Rung Four on the ladder (the first three rungs, in Gurdjieff's simple diagram, are effectively on the same level) we find Transitional Man. In simple terms this is man who, although not significantly changed from the rest of the herd, is as at least conscious that he wants to change. This is the critical point in the whole Gurdjieffian philosophy. Man in his present form is asleep, unaware of his unproductive, meaningless state and untroubled by it. His self-consciousness and belief in his own personal identity is the biggest illusion of all. Descartes's dictum 'I think, therefore I am', could not be more wrong, for the notion of personal identity is the biggest mistake, the most seductive fantasy of all. Only by becoming aware of the illusory nature of self could one hope to move on up the ladder - whose first significant step was number four, Transitional Man. The remaining three rungs, which were theoretically open to all, were Integrated Man, when he acquires for the first time some real identity, Conscious Man, when he begins to acquire super-powers of a mental and physical kind, and finally Complete Man, where the individual has acquired 'everything that it is possible to' and is 'immortal within the limits of the solar system'.
And how could ordinary Intellectual, Emotional or even Instinctive Motor Man hope to ascend the golden ladder - so reminiscent, incidentally, of the ladder of progress in Scientology rising via Clear to Operating Thetan? Well, spending as much time as possible at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man and helping to finance it by handing Gurdjieff large numbers of francs was clearly one way. Another was the reading of Gurdjieff's works, of which All and Everything was the key one. Unlike the turgid and massively self-important works of Ouspensky, All and Everything does have the one, prime saving grace of humour. From page after page, the author's gross and rather bovine wit twinkles forth and, occasionally, there is more than the suggestion that he is enjoying an enormous joke - mainly at the reader's expense. This same touch of the charade, the hint of vast, if heavy-handed practical jokery, floats up from the accounts we have of life at the Chateau in Fontainebleau.
J. G. Bennett recalls that on his first visit a very large number of disciples were engaged in the conversion of a disused aircraft hangar within the grounds of the Chateau into a special hall for the practice of the peculiar dances or 'Exercises' which Gurdjieff liked his followers to indulge in. These took the form of a large group of people, up to fifty or even a hundred in total, performing in unison a series of body movements, lying somewhere between ballet and physical jerks. They had been dreamt up by Gurdjieff according to some oriental tradition, allegedly uncovered on his rambles to the East. Mostly they were fairly simple and straightforward, merely consisting of routine ballet practice movements - Gurdjieff liked to make it known that he had once managed a ballet troupe in Moscow. On occasions, however, they could get very complicated, and sometimes downright impossible, the members of the group desperately tying themselves into knots which would have dismayed professional contortionists. Now and again their eccentric ballet master would require that they held such extreme positions for many minutes on end, and it was not uncommon for individual members to collapse from exhaustion. Another favourite trick of Gurdjieff's was to command the whole troupe to rush full pelt from one side of the hangar to the other. In the middle of the rush he would cry out 'Stop', whereupon all would strive to hold precisely the position they were in at the command. Most, of course, merely toppled head over heels on the floor, gallantly coming to rest nevertheless still in running or leaping posture so the huge hall looked as though it was littered with the works of a lunatic sculptor. Gurdjieff, who supervised all this in a comfortable black leotard and furry hat, maintained that it was good not only for the physique, but also for the soul, and presumably the participants in the farce thought so too.
The exercises were supplemented by an assortment of weird tasks which Gurdjieff would occasionally demand unexpectedly of individuals. This might consist of learning by heart long lists of Tibetan words, or perhaps grubbing the roots of a giant tree with a tiny hand trowel. Occasionally his demands on the particularly credulous members of his group seem to suggest a streak of cruelty or contempt somewhat at odds with his interest in the harmonious development of Man. On one occasion J. G. Bennett recalls, Gurdjieff actually induced one particularly gullible woman to eat mustard with her ice cream, afterwards holding her up to ridicule before the group. It was not for nothing that over the door of his study the Russian had had emblazoned the aphorism, 'It is useless to pass through these doors unless you have well-developed critical faculties'. Admirers of Gurdjieff today like to maintain that his outrageous behaviour, his bullying, teasing and his extraordinary commands were all a test of the critical faculties of his disciples. This may be, but if so he was capable of taking things a bit far. There was, for example, more than one suicide at the Chateau, and other deaths too. The talented New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, a friend of D. H. Lawrence, became fascinated with Gurdjieff and joined him at Fontainebleau in 1923. Although ill with tuberculosis she was urged by Gurdjieff, who fancied himself as a medical and psychological expert, to ignore the disease and sleep in the loft above the cowshed. She did so and J. G. Bennett recalls that at the time of his arrival at the Chateau, the whole colony was agog with the wonderful cure that this treatment had effected in her. A week later she was dead, at the age of thirty-five. This setback failed to shatter Gurdjieff's image of himself as a wizard Mr Cureall, and until the end of his life he would solemnly prescribe herbal mixes and strange diets, hand round potent pain-killing drugs to all and sundry, and deliver lectures on the evils of penicillin, etc. A food faddist when the mood took him, the Institute's head provided a drab and generally inadequate diet for its toiling hordes. Survivors recall with particular vividness a horrible coffee - Gurdjieff's own invention - made from crushed acorns. Once a week, however, the menu would be enlivened with a vengeance and a feast would be held in the evening to which all were obliged to attend. At these sessions Gurdjieff, who was a great tippler, would call a long series of toasts to various kinds of 'Idiot', in which all, whether teetotallers or not, were obliged to participate. It was a great evening for those who liked alcohol, and a nightmare for those who didn't. The Russian's many biographers, great and small, have made numerous attempts at explaining the significance of the 'idiots' toast', and most have come to the conclusion that the not particularly ambiguous word had some symbolic significance. No one, it seems, has ever seriously contemplated the possibility that the idiots in question were those seated at the table, though one suspects that Gurdjieff, with fez awry and flushed, beaming face, had a pretty good idea of whom he was thinking as he raised his glass on high.
Another favourite diversion for the menagerie were long motor drives into the country. Gurdjieff loved the paraphernalia of the picnic and hours were spent loading up motor cars with hampers bulging with champagne, vodka, and caviar and dozens of enormous melons. At the appointed hour, or something approximating to it, a convoy of vehicles would set off for Vichy or wherever, Gurdjieff occupying the back seat of a huge open landau and smoking cigarettes through a long black holder. It must have been a weird sight. Occasionally as the motorcade thundered through some decrepit village, Gurdjieff would order a halt, whereupon the group would decamp at a cafe for refreshment. Here numerous toasts would be proclaimed and Gurdjieff, whose pockets were always stuffed with thousand-franc notes (other people's of course), would amaze the local peasantry by buying drinks all round and playing a small, single-handed accordion. For most of these occasions a Russian chauffeur drove the Master's car, but Gurdjieff would occasionally be moved to take the wheel. This would strike terror into the heart of the company for he was an appalling driver, drunk or sober, and had had numerous spectacular car crashes from which he made miraculous escapes, though rendered black and blue for months afterwards. His death in 1949 seems to have been hastened by one such picnic crash.
The spell that this extraordinary individual seems to have held over people is really hard to fathom. His strongest adherents, there is no doubt, are those who met him personally, for there seems to have been an aura or presence about him which it is impossible to comprehend in the language of science and psychology. Most of the cult figures referred to in this book had this magnetism, and they seem to have shared it with less savoury figures, such as Hitler and Mussolini, who in their lives wielded immense personal power. Whatever this factor is, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff had it a-plenty, and when the day comes when some psychologist manages to identify it and tie it down, we shall all know a lot more about human nature than we do today.
Interest in Gurdjieff's ideas, and to a lesser extent in Ouspensky's, survives today in England and the USA. A Gurdjieff Foundation exists at 123 East 63rd Street, New York and there are also centres in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Much of the postwar revival of interest is due to books by some of his highly literate admirers, including Bennett, the surgeon Kenneth Walker (whom we met as supporter of de la Warr's Black Box) and the prolific Colin Wilson, whose books The Outsider and Religion and the Rebel heralded the resurgence of interest in mysticism on the part of the young. Nevertheless it is impossible not to feel that both the man and his philosophy, which he described as Esoteric Christianity, are rooted deeply in the politically unsettled years between World Wars I and II, when men whose faith in life and any purpose in it had been shattered by the 1914-18 holocaust. For them Gurdjieff had a message, perhaps a real one, that Man's current state was indeed nonsensical and meaningless, but that he had within him the power for change.
Gurdjieff survived the war and the occupation of Paris somehow or other. The establishment at Fontainebleau had vanished and as he had never acquired a profession of any kind he might well have found it hard to keep body and soul together. Fortunately his verbal power stood him in good stead and he was able to borrow very considerable sums of money on the pretext that he was the heir to the Woolworth fortune. No one was more surprised than his creditors when, at the end of the war, former wealthy admirers flocked to Paris and settled his outstanding debts. Before long he was planning a trip to the States but an unfortunate incident with the French police, which had led him to a short spell in jail for currency offences, stood temporarily in his way. Suddenly he began to get old. The black moustaches turned snowy white and droopy and the powerful figure became hunched and tired. A serious car smash in 1948 nearly finished him off and he became dropsical and suffering considerable pain died in the American Hospital on 29th October 1949. For a mystic he had always had a very high opinion of the technical achievement of the USA, and amongst his last words, as he gazed at the sophisticated equipment around him, were 'Bravo America'.
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