Georgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff
Georgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff (circa 1866-1949) is a controversial figure variously described as an occultist, mystic, and charlatan. His early life is obscure. He was born at Alexandropol (Gumri), a Russian garrison town in Armenia. Gurdjieff has been described as an Armenian Greek; his mother was Armenian, and in this respect he was reared to beliefs of Armenian Christianity. His father Giorgios Giorgiades was a Greek, a cattle herdsman who also functioned as an ashokh or bardic poet. The paternal legacy was complex, in that the bardic repertory of Giorgiades extended to the Turkic oral tradition of Caucasia, in which strong Islamic elements figured. The bardic recitals have been viewed as a strong influence upon the young Gurdjieff.
This entity does not gain secure factual profile until his move to the big cities of Western Russia in 1912. Gurdjieff’s legendary early career was described by himself in terms which have been considered by some as a mixture of fact and storytelling, and by others as sheer parable (see Inventors of Gurdjieff). He is associated with Sufi dervish and Tibetan Buddhist environments. Gurdjieff claimed to have visited Tibet, and made much of his encounter with the Sarmoung monastery, an obscure venue in Central Asia to which he attributed his deepest inspiration. He became mistakenly identified with “secret agents” working in the Tibetan political sector; for instance, Lama Aghwan Dordjieff (d. 1938) was a completely separate entity, despite the confusing account relayed by Rom Landau.
Gurdjieff moved from Central Asia to Moscow and St. Petersburg (Petrograd). That same year of 1912, he married (or partnered) Julia Ostrowska (d. 1926), a Polish woman. He conducted group meetings in both cities, expressing a teaching that has become well known via the reporting of his Russian disciple Piotr D. Ouspensky (d. 1947), who was a writer and lecturer associated with the Theosophical Society. Ouspensky at first assumed that Gurdjieff was just another occultist, of whom there were many at that time. He afterwards altered his assessment, and viewed Gurdjieff’s tuition in terms of an “unknown teaching.” Ouspensky’s book on this subject (In Search of the Miraculous) has been very influential.
A basic teaching of Gurdjieff was that man is mechanical and effectively asleep in relation to real life. He asserted that most men cannot develop or progress; the process involved is so difficult that progress is ordinarily impossible. He claimed to provide a means of achieving this development via the Fourth Way, an approach that departs from established religious routes of expression. Ouspensky was much impressed by this concept (and later used the phrase “fourth way” more intensively than his teacher); he left the Theosophical Society and aligned himself with Gurdjieff. After a few years however, a rift commenced to show, and Ouspensky eventually opted to become a teacher of what he had learned from Gurdjieff.
Meanwhile, the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution caused chaos in Russia. Gurdjieff then retreated south, staying at Essentuki, a town adjoining the Caucasus. In August 1918, he made a carefully planned departure, in the face of the civil war that had arisen. On the pretext of an archaeological field study, he led a party of his followers (but not including Ouspensky) across the Caucasus in very dangerous conditions. They reached the port of Sochi, where a number of them defected, but Gurdjieff and five companions moved on to reach the safety of Tbilisi (Tiflis) in Georgia.
Gurdjieff now created his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. He had commenced to choreograph the “sacred dances,” an activity said to be "based on movements and gestures which had been handed down by tradition and paintings in Thibetan (sic) monasteries where he had been” (quote from Carl Bechofer-Roberts, Journey Through Georgia).
Further political unrest caused Gurdjieff to move to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1920. That city was flooded with Russian refugees at this period. A temporary reconcilement occurred between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, who had gained his own group of Russian students. Together, they made several visits to the Mevlevi dervishes. Yet they departed in different directions. Gurdjieff went to Germany, where his plans met with obstruction. Ouspensky moved to England, where he commenced a successful role as a lecturer on the “Work,” as the Gurdjieff themes became known.
Ouspensky found that many of his new English students developed a strong interest in Gurdjieff, a trend which gained impetus when the latter gave a talk in London in February 1922. Gurdjieff spoke in Russian, via an interpreter, to sixty British intellectuals, including Alfred R. Orage, who proved very enthusiastic. Orage accepted Gurdjieff as his teacher from then on; he was the editor of the London weekly review New Age, an influential organ of literary and political interest. Both Orage and his teacher have been described as black sheep philosophers.
Later that same year, Gurdjieff moved to France, where he acquired (via a benefactor) the Chateau du Prieure, a mansion at Fontainebleau, some forty miles from Paris. This property became the new site for his Institute, and the setting for two contingents of pupils, meaning the Russian and British. The new British recruits notably included Orage and Dr. Maurice Nicoll, a psychiatrist of Harley Street and an acquaintance of Jung. Dr. Nicoll subsequently gravitated back to Ouspensky, but Orage became a strong supporter of Gurdjieff’s activity, and later acted as his emissary in America.
Gurdjieff's dancers, 1920s
The Prieure (Priory) became a scene of manual work, including construction of the Study House, a building whose interior resembled a dervish tekke or meeting place, being decorated with Eastern rugs. The Study House was the focus for the “sacred dances” supervised by Gurdjieff. The gymnastic programme far outweighed any formal teaching; Gurdjieff's approach contrasted with the lecturing role associated with Ouspensky. The latter made visits to the Priory until 1924, but thereafter strongly diverged, even advising Nicoll and others to dissociate from Gurdjieff. The Russian ex-pupil is believed to have reacted to the dance programme and the unpredictability inherent in Gurdjieff’s temperament.
The Caucasian gained many French critics, but much of the disparagement was based on rumour. Gurdjieff was said to be a Freemason and a hypnotist. His reputation as a hypnotist has some basis in his own admissions. The gossip and slander moved to an extreme, and was markedly erroneous in relation to Katherine Mansfield, an authoress from New Zealand who died at the Priory in January 1923. She was a terminally ill victim of tuberculosis. Gurdjieff was not the cause of her death, and was actually benevolent.
One of the most revealing sources is Professor Denis Saurat, who gained a lengthy private interview (involving an interpreter) with Gurdjieff in February 1923. His account discloses that Gurdjieff was capable of marked courtesy, “and gave not the smallest impression of being a charlatan.” However, the same report attests that the English pupils were disconcerted by the routine at the Priory, which entailed protracted manual labour and no adequate explanation. Saurat never saw Gurdjieff again, although he became influenced by the views of his friend Orage, and in later years credited Gurdjieff with the spiritual status of lohan, a term deriving from Chinese Buddhism. This theory is not everywhere accepted.
In 1924, Gurdjieff was active in America, as an impresario of “sacred dance.” Some of the audience were impressed by the unusual performances of his pupils, which required considerable control and coordination. As a consequence, he gained many American followers. Yet after his return to France that same year, he met with a motor accident, suffering severe head injuries. Although he recovered quickly, this event clearly affected him strongly. He thereafter relegated the dance movements, and instead adopted the vocation of a writer. He also took more recourse to alcohol than previously, favouring vodka and armagnac.
For the next decade or so, he did much writing, and authored his “Three Series,” including the “autobiographical” Meetings with Remarkable Men, and the more lengthy Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. The lastmentioned creation has been viewed as a bizarre mythology reflecting to some extent the bardic milieu of his father, and delivered in a rather distinctive style. A strong critique of Western society is incorporated. These works were not published during his lifetime. The only writing of Gurdjieff which did get into print was a disconcerting pamphlet entitled The Herald of Coming Good (1933), and this he himself afterwards withdrew.
Gurdjieff’s debts became a primary factor in losing the Priory, which he was obliged to vacate in 1932, thereafter living solo in Paris. He made several visits to New York during the 1930s, and became notorious amongst some of his admirers for requesting money. His general reputation as an occultist achieved reference in a bestselling work by journalist Rom Landau, who believed that Gurdjieff was a hypnotist.
Critics have since targeted the subject’s sexual activity, of uncertain extent, but known to have involved a number of illegitimate children. This matter has been considered reprehensible in that the known women involved were his pupils. It is apparent that Gurdjieff’s contested encounters derived some inspiration from his eccentric belief that women needed sexual contact with men to acquire a soul.
Gurdjieff in old age
During the Second World War, Gurdjieff lived in Paris, and at this period gained French followers for the first time. He also revived his interest in the sacred dance “movements,” and taught in group meetings at his apartment. Gurdjieff now charitably assisted poor people outside his following. After the war, he gained further interest from American and English admirers, and acquired the support of John G. Bennett, an English neo-Ouspenskyan who had numerous followers.
In 1948, Gurdjieff suffered another motor accident, although not as severe as the first one. He recovered with surprising speed, but the following year, his health deteriorated, leading to his death. After his decease, his pupil Jeanne de Salzmann organised his following into a movement, a number of Gurdjieff centres resulting in different countries.
See further Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950); G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings With Remarkable Men (1963); Rom Landau, God is My Adventure (1935); James Moore, Gurdjieff: A Biography (1991); C. S. Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff: A Pupil’s Journal (1961); Nott, Journey Through This World (1969); P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous (London, 1950); Paul Beekman Taylor, Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer (1998); Taylor, Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium (2001); Taylor, Gurdjieff’s America (2004); Taylor, G. I. Gurdjieff: A New Life (2008); James Webb, The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (1980). For a more extensive bibliography, go to my web article Gurdjieff: Life and Controversy.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 49
Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.