P. D. Ouspensky
Piotr D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) was a Russian philosopher in the citizen category. Born in Moscow, Ouspensky “refused to follow conventional academic training.” In 1907 he became a Theosophist, and afterwards travelled to India, seeking a deeper knowledge. He subsequently gave public lectures in St. Petersburg (Petrograd). An amateur mathematician, he wrote The Fourth Dimension (1909). This was followed by a more philosophical work entitled Tertium Organum (1912), which became well known in an English translation.
Ouspensky severed his link with the Theosophical Society when he became a pupil of the Caucasian “occultist” Giorgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff (c.1866-1949). This new affiliation occurred at Moscow in 1915, and has proved influential in alternative thought. Ouspensky is the most famous of Gurdjieff’s pupils, but soon assumed a rival role as an expositor of “the Work,” to employ a well known abbreviation for the Gurdjieff teaching. The complexities in this situation are of some interest.
The rift between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky commenced in 1918 at Essentuki; they both became part of the refugee exodus from Bolshevik Russia. Ouspensky was committed to Gurdjieff’s teaching, but resisted additional factors like the “sacred dance” movements that were now favoured by his mentor. Gurdjieff’s unpredictable personality appears to have been a major problem for the Russian thinker.
Ouspensky left a record of his encounters with Gurdjieff via the book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (1950). This coverage was not published until after the death of both men. Ouspensky details the teaching at some length, and his editorial hand has been emphasised by commentators. The origins of this teaching have been much discussed, and with several different explanations. Some analysts say that Gurdjieff applied his own accents and flourishes to some older teachings, including Sufism and Greek Christianity. Gurdjieff was not a Theosophist and nor a professed member of any religion. The “pseudo-scientific” casting (admixed with astrological and other beliefs) clearly appealed to Ouspensky, who was in revolt from orthodox religion, desiring a rational form of explanation for a mystical approach.
The strong divergence between Ouspensky and Gurdjieff has been a subject of disagreement. Partisans of Ouspensky have depicted Gurdjieff as aberrant, while partisans of Gurdjieff say that the Russian pupil made a serious error in asserting his own role as a teacher of “the Work.” Critics of Gurdjieff have made the accusation that his ideas were distortions of concepts found in other traditions, and that he even plagiarised some concepts found in Ouspensky’s early writings.
In 1920, Ouspensky fled to Constantinople some months ahead of Gurdjieff. A reconcilement followed, although the divergence remained. Gurdjieff moved on to Germany, meeting obstructions, while Ouspensky became a successful lecturer in London, creating a “system” from the concepts acquired via Gurdjieff. However, Gurdjieff gained the ascendant when he secured the allegiance of prominent students of Ouspensky, notably Alfred R. Orage, who was editor of the influential New Age journal.
In 1922, Gurdjieff acquired a new base in France, namely the Chateau du Prieure (or the Priory) at Fontainebleau. Oupensky made visits to this place, but became estranged from events in process. “In spite of all my interest in Gurdjieff’s work I could find no place for myself in this work nor did I understand its direction” (In Search of the Miraculous, p. 389). Early in 1924 at London, the Russian lecturer announced that he would proceed independently of his former teacher. Ouspensky gave the strong warning that “it is very dangerous to be near him [Gurdjieff]” (J. G. Bennett, Witness, 1962, p. 126). From that time onwards, Ouspensky was averse to mention of Gurdjieff, although he did make a rather frustrated visit to the latter in 1931, which did not go smoothly and lacks detail.
Ouspensky’s wife Sophie Grigorievna (“Madame Ouspensky”) is more enigmatic. She remained loyal to Gurdjieff during the 1920s, and only moved to England when the latter urged her to leave France. From 1931 she assumed a role as an assistant to her husband, teaching the System (or “Work”) at Lyne Place in Surrey. The Ouspenskys are reported to have gained more than a thousand followers during that decade. The publication of Piotr’s early book A New Model of the Universe (1931) is said to have contributed to this development.
Despite his success in promoting the System, Piotr Ouspensky was subject to depression, and developed a drinking habit which amounted to alcoholism. In 1940 he moved to America with his wife, escaping wartime problems in England, and living a comfortable life in New York. His secretary Marie Seton left a report revealing deficiencies. His expenses were paid by followers, and Ouspensky would instruct Seton to buy expensive food for him. On some evenings, he would spend long hours drinking at a restaurant, into the early morning hours. Seton was his companion on these occasions, and records that he confessed a loss of control. “It is a long time since I could control my state of mind.” Yet the “Work” presupposes control.
Ouspensky even told Seton that his pupils were fools, and that they had gained nothing from the “System.” She suggested that he stop lecturing and reorient himself. He expressed an inability to do this, saying that “the System has become a profession with me.... I have become dependent on the comfort, the luxury.” In January 1947, Piotr Ouspensky returned to England, and thereafter presided at six meetings which have led to different interpretations. These question and answer sessions are extant. While detractors of Gurdjieff have urged that Ouspensky totally abandoned the Gurdjieff teaching as an aberration, it is possible to deduce that he had taken heed of Seton’s advice and was retreating from an authority role, admitting ignorance on various matters instead of presumptive knowledge. Nevertheless, Ouspensky became identified with the viewpoint that “there is no System.”
Whatever the precise angle of his thinking, he was suffering kidney failure; his drinking precipitated his death in October 1947. Madame Ouspensky (1878-1961) survived this setback, and continued to direct the “System” community at Mendham in New Jersey. She also liaised with Gurdjieff in his last days, and as a consequence, Piotr’s book In Search of the Miraculous was subsequently published, providing a stimulus to the nascent Gurdjieff movement and becoming Ouspensky’s most well known work. That book can be misleading on some accounts, and requires due contextual analysis, which is frequently not forthcoming.
See further Gary V. Lachman, In Search of P. D. Ouspensky (Theosophical Publishing House, 2004); P. D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe (New York: Knopf, 1931); Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (London: Routledge, 1950); Ouspensky, The Fourth Way (New York, 1957); Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (1950; second edn, 1954); Ouspensky, A Record of Meetings (London, 1993); Ouspensky, A Further Record: Extracts from Meetings 1928-1945 (London, 1988); William Patrick Patterson, Struggle of the Magicians: Why Uspenski left Gurdjieff (San Anselmo, CA: Arete, 1997).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 50
Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.