Maurice Nicoll: Working Against Time

Printed in the  Spring 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Lachman, Gary, "Maurice Nicoll: Working Against Time" Quest 106:2, pg 24-28

By Gary Lachman

Theosophical Society - Gary Lachman is the author of several books on the history of the Western esoteric tradition, including Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, and the forthcoming Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump.In August 1921, Maurice Nicoll, a successful London physician specializing in mental disorders, opened the diary he had been keeping for some time and recorded in it a kind of plea. “Prayer to Hermes,” the thirty-seven-year- old psychiatrist wrote. “Teach me—instruct me—show me the Path, so that I may know certainty—help my great ignorance, illumine my darkness? I have asked a question.”

By October that year, it seemed that Nicoll had received an answer. Urged by his friend A.R. Orage, editor of the iconoclastic magazine The New Age and scintillating “desperado of genius”—as the playwright Bernard Shaw called him—Nicoll attended a lecture given at the luxurious salon of Lady Rothermere, wife of a powerful newspaper magnate, in St. John’s Wood, London. Nicoll had by this time been conducting a kind of spiritual search, a quest for a knowledge that seemed unavailable through the usual channels, an inner journey that had led him through some strange territory. He had read deeply in the Hermetica, the works of mysticism and magic believed to have been written by the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, and had studied the great Swedish savant Emanuel Swedenborg. Plato was favorite reading, as was Plato’s follower Plotinus. At the time he attended the lecture, Nicoll was involved with Orage in what they called their “Psychosynthesis Group,” a handful of professional individuals who shared a dissatisfaction with the psychoanalysis which, courtesy of Sigmund Freud, had made its way from Vienna onto London’s intellectual scene. While they appreciated Freud’s genius, they believed that he sold human nature short, and that while the psyche could certainly be analyzed, it could also achieve a new synthesis, and through this enter a different, more complete, and harmonious state of consciousness, quite unlike our everyday one—something that Freud and his followers seemed to deny.

Dr Nicoll was at the time the leading English exponent of the ideas of Freud’s erstwhile crown prince but now sworn opponent, Carl Jung. Jung too spoke of a kind of psychosynthesis, as did his Italian colleague Roberto Assagioli. Nicoll was taken with Jung’s ideas and had even written a book, Dream Psychology, spelling out Jung’s theories about the psyche, the unconscious, and its strange nocturnal communications. But what Nicoll heard at the lecture that night was like nothing he had come across before.

The speaker was the Russian writer and philosopher Peter Demianovich Ouspensky, whom Orage had met some years earlier and whose sobering “Letters from Russia,” depicting the chaos attendant upon the Bolshevik Revolution Orage had recently published in The New Age. Ouspensky himself had only been saved from a White Russian refugee camp in Constantinople (soon to be renamed Istanbul) because of Lady Rothermere’s fascination with his book Tertium Organum, a work of exhilarating if sometimes abstruse metaphysics.

Ouspensky, a well-known journalist and author, had spent the past several years studying with the enigmatic Greco-Armenian esoteric teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. Around the time that Nicoll wrote his prayer to Hermes, Ouspensky, his fellow students, and their teacher had been swept from Moscow and St. Petersburg, first by the revolution and then by the civil war that had erupted across Russia, and been deposited on Europe’s doorstep.

Ouspensky might have remained there with his fellow refugees had it not been for the fact that an English edition of Tertium Organum had surfaced first in America and then Britain and had become a surprise best seller. Lady Rothermere, quick to embrace the latest intellectual fad, became a passionate devotee. Through Orage, Claude Bragdon, Ouspensky’s American publisher (and a Theosophist), managed to get a much-welcomed royalty check to the impecunious author, who was struggling to feed his family by teaching English—rather badly, as it happened. But even more welcome was a telegraph from Lady Rothermere, saying that she wanted to meet Ouspensky and would be happy to do so wherever he preferred. New York? London? Money was no object. Ouspensky could not believe his luck. He decided on London because of his contact with Orage and because he believed that there he could still earn a crust with his pen.

Nicoll found himself in some esteemed company that evening at Lady Rothermere’s soiree. The guests included the poet T S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley and his friend the philosopher Gerald Heard, the writer of weird tales Algernon Blackwood, and the occult scholar A.E. Waite, among other notables. Ouspensky could not have asked for a better audience or a more romantic, mysterious buildup: lectures on higher consciousness by the author of a celebrated book on esoteric philosophy, who had arrived in London after making a perilous trek across a war-torn, exploding country—what more could one want?

Yet, if not disappointed, many were certainly surprised at what Ouspensky had to say. Hs lecture was not on the ideas about time, space, higher dimensions, and mystical states of consciousness that fill the pages of Tertium Organum and still make for thrilling reading today. Rather, he spoke of the strange system of self-development that he had spent the past several years learning from Gurdjieff and then expounding on his own. The metaphysics of Tertium Organum were behind him now, at least for the time being. He was there to talk about something different, and those who were there to listen found it nothing if not startling.

Ouspensky’s basic message, spelled out many years later in his account of his years with Gurdjieff in In Search of the Miraculous, and records of his talks like The Fourth Way, was simple, strange, and stark: Man is asleep. He believes he is conscious and has free will, but he is really a machine, a mechanism driven by forces outside him. Man can do nothing. He is trapped by his own unconsciousness, unable to escape the compulsive repetition of his life. The world war that had recently ended, the civil war raging across Russia, the revolution that had destroyed his country: this and everything else, Ouspensky told his stunned audience, was the result, not of human decision, choices, and beliefs, but of planetary forces acting on mankind, and driving it to perform meaningless mechanical actions, over and over, with no change possible. Unless one studied the system that he had brought with him from out of the madness. The way was difficult, the challenges many, and time was not on their side. But if one performed the Work, as the practical side of the system came to be called, there was a way out.

Not everyone was taken with this austere message. A.E. Waite was said to have stood up at one lecture, announced that there was “no love” in Ouspensky’s system, and walked out. But not Nicoll. He was so gripped by what he heard that he rushed home after the meeting to tell his wife. She was still recovering from having their first child, but Nicoll burst into the bedroom, ignored the baby, shook his wife’s bed, and told her that she had to hear Ouspensky. “He is the only man who has ever answered my questions,” he informed the startled young mother. Ouspensky, he said, was like a prophet. Nicoll’s conversion must have been infectious. His wife followed his advice and soon became as convinced as her husband that Ouspensky was the genuine article.

The couple attended more lectures. Slowly they began to grasp what Ouspensky would later call “the psychology of man’s possible evolution.” This psychology was based on ideas that even Nicoll the Jungian found strange, yet oddly convincing. One was the notion that, for most of the time, we do not remember our own existence, and only experience flashes of this at certain rare moments. Another was the fact that we do not possess a single “I,” as we usually assume, but are host to many different ones, each claiming pride of place. Still another was that, as mentioned, although we believe we are awake, we are really in a kind of sleep. True awakening was possible. It entailed refusing to “identify” with everything around us and freeing ourselves from this sleep through “self-observation.” Another step was to stop expressing negative emotions.

Nicoll, Orage, and many others sat at the stern Russian’s feet and absorbed his daunting teaching, convinced of its value through their own observations and by the logic and consistency of the system he unfolded. And soon into their journey they received what for many of them was the shock of their lives. A few months after Ouspensky’s arrival—in February 1922, in fact—Gurdjieff himself came to town.

Where Ouspensky impressed with his intellect and seriousness, Gurdjieff was like a mage of old. He was a man of power, and he intimidated those who attended his London meeting with the sheer solidity of his being—so much so that they could barely ask a question. As had been said of Jung, Gurdjieff had mana, a kind of spiritual force. And when it was announced that Gurdjieff had established his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France, just outside of Paris, Nicoll, his wife, and their infant child were among the first to sign up for a stay. This was no light decision. It meant that Nicoll had to give up his practice in Harley Street, London’s most prestigious medical address, something he had worked hard to secure. It also meant in effect breaking off his professional relations with Jung, who had hoped Nicoll would be his representative in England. They remained friends and kept in touch; Jung was godfather to his first child. But Nicoll had a new teacher now.

By the time he and his family arrived at Fontainebleau, Nicoll had not led a particularly sheltered life. After graduating from Cambridge and getting his medical degree, he had signed on as ship’s surgeon on a steamer heading to Buenos Aries. He then studied psychology in Vienna, tutored by some of Freud’s followers, and in Zurich by Jung himself, with other lessons in Paris and Berlin. During World War I he was stationed in Mesopotamia. Here, in temperatures routinely above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Nicoll tended the wounded and sick, and gave what comfort he could to the dying, in conditions that at best could be called appalling. He came out of this hell an authority on shell shock. Even before meeting Ouspensky, Nicoll was a keen observer of himself and his surroundings. He kept a record of his experiences and at the end of the war produced a book, In Mesopotamia, which he illustrated with his own watercolors.

Nicoll had a talent for writing. Years earlier a story he had started with his sister as a joke, Lord Richard in the Pantry, grew into a successful book, play, and even film. As “Martin Swayne,” Nicoll penned several stories and novels, many published in the famous Strand magazine. Art and creativity came to him in several ways. He was also a fine musician with a good singing voice, and he had a talent for mechanics.

But without doubt, Gurdjieff was something else. Ouspensky’s lectures were demanding, the ideas startling, their urgency palpable. But the master was like a high-voltage electric current that no one could avoid. Those who crossed the English Channel to be with him found they had truly dived headfirst into the deep end. At the Prieuré (Gurdjieff’s institute was located in an old priory that he had bought), physical effort and more effort—what Gurdjieff called “superefforts”—designed to shake them out of their sleep, was the order of the day. Orage, a portly man and a heavy smoker, was given a shovel and told to dig. He did until he ached with pain and broke out sobbing. Nicoll was given the job of kitchen boy. This meant that for several months he had to wake at 5:00 a.m. each day, light the boilers to get the place ready, and be head cook and chief bottle washer to about sixty people. By 11:00 p.m. he had washed hundreds of filthy, greasy dishes, cups, pots, and pans with no soap, little hot water, and hardly a break. Gurdjieff taught by example, and his cries of “More!” and “Quicker!” aimed at Nicoll showed him that what we usually take to be our limits are really habits, part of the mechanical behavior Gurdjieff was out to destroy.

The sacred dances Gurdjieff taught them—the “movements,” as they were called—helped in this destruction too, as did his talks on the different “centers” of the human being—mental, emotional, moving, instinctive—and their harmonious development (hence the name of his institute). These centers were a complete mess and needed a total overhaul. Each and every one of them were broken machines, Gurdjieff told his students, but he could get them into shape. Readers familiar with accounts of life at Gurdjieff’s Prieuré—I give one in my book In Search of P.D. Ouspensky—have an idea of what it was like to have a tune-up from the master.

Nicoll et la famille had been at the Institute for a year when Gurdjieff suddenly announced that he was clearing house. Of the many students he had gathered, only a select few would remain; the rest must go. Nicoll was not part of this group, and what was an even greater surprise was that Gurdjieff also announced that he was breaking off all relations with Ouspensky, who had remained in London, declining all of Gurdjieff’s invitations to join the Institute. Gurdjieff was planning a trip to the United States in order to raise funds, and Orage was going ahead to get things ready. Gurdjieff suggested to Nicoll that he might accompany Orage and help—he always had his eye out for good lieutenants. It was a tempting offer, but after giving it some thought, Nicoll declined; after all, he had a wife and young child to look after. But there was another reason. He had decided to return to London to carry on working with Ouspensky, whom Gurdjieff had just declared persona non grata.

Exactly why Gurdjieff and his main expositor fell out is a central theme in the history of the Work; in my book I look at it in some detail. But while Orage quickly moved his allegiance to Gurdjieff—and kept it there pretty much until his death in 1934—Nicoll felt a strong connection with Ouspensky. And although later in his own teaching Nicoll incorporated many of the techniques he had learned from Gurdjieff, including the movements, his own natural approach was much more like that of the man who had first taught the Work to him, that is, through the power of ideas. This resonance led to a friendship between them.

At this time Ouspensky wasn’t the easiest man to be friends with. His years with Gurdjieff had turned the earlier, poetic, convivial habitué of the bohemian Stray Dog Café in pre-Bolshevik St. Petersburg into a stern taskmaster, a man of iron control. But for some reason, Ouspensky softened around Nicoll. Ouspensky kept a low profile throughout the 1920s, working on what would become A New Model of the Universe and In Search of the Miraculous, lecturing to a small group, and living alone in a small flat donated by Lady Rothermere, who had by then moved on to other fads. But he warmed to Nicoll and would often spend weekends in a cottage by the sea that Nicoll had purchased. Ouspensky said he slept better there than in London and could, at times, “feel the world turning.” He liked to walk along the shore, carrying a battery of binoculars and cameras, and talk to Nicoll about his cat, who, he claimed, had an astral body.

Nicoll took Ouspensky to the local pub, where Ouspensky liked to drink and tell stories of the Russia he had lost forever. Even then, the nostalgia for a bygone world that would overcome Ouspensky in his last years—he died in 1947—was gently settling in, but then he was Russian. Yet this focus on the past was something more than sentimentality. It was a central theme in Ouspensky’s ideas about time and his favorite theme, eternal recurrence, the idea that our lives repeat over and over in endless succession, something he spelled out in his novel Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. Only by awakening now can we hope to escape this endless repetition. Ouspensky was obsessed with recurrence well before he met Gurdjieff, and in the version of the Work that he taught Nicoll, it played an important part.

It would play the same part in Nicoll’s own teaching. In 1931, the year that A New Model of the Universe, which contains a long chapter on recurrence, was published, after ten years of being his student, Ouspensky told Nicoll to “go away.” Nicoll remained startled until Ouspensky finished his sentence: “. . . and teach the system.” Nicoll did.

Aside from reports by some of his students—such as Beryl Pogson, his biographer—what we know of how Nicoll taught the Work comes from the series of weekly talks he wrote and delivered to his groups from 1941 until his death in 1953. The first volume of these talks—they eventually ran to five—was published in a limited edition for Work use just before Nicoll’s death. Today the Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky make some of the most insightful and intriguing material available about the system and can be read with profit by anyone with a basic knowledge of its ideas, whether “in the Work” or not. As his friend, fellow doctor and Ouspenskian Kenneth Walker—himself the author of good introductions to the system—said, “they will remain the standard work on the subject for as long as these ideas are of interest to mankind.”

Recently I had occasion to reacquaint myself with Nicoll’s Commentaries and see the truth of Walker’s assessment. I had read the Commentaries many years before—along with Nicoll’s other books—during my own tenure with the Work in the 1980s, but what struck me this time around was Nicoll’s knack of blending non-Work insights and ideas into his weekly sermons. (His father had been a minister.) This is not to say, as some purists might, that Nicoll watered down the teaching. Not at all. I agree with others that on basic Work subjects such as negative emotions and, perhaps most significantly, his insights into the difference between “personality” and “essence”—a kind of speciality—Nicoll is a clear, forceful, and inspiring expositor. He also has a warmth and bedside manner that humanizes what can often be presented rather solemnly and sanctimoniously. By all reports he was good-natured and upbeat and brought a lightness to what is frequently a heavy business; Pogson’s Maurice Nicoll: A Portrait suggest that a lot of singing and dancing went on in the groups. And he could write. All of which says that, as is always the case with the best students, they take what they learn and do something with it, not merely parrot their teacher.

Readers familiar with Swedenborg, Neoplatonism, and Jung who find their way to the Commentaries can enjoy, as I did, discovering Nicoll’s veiled references to these influences—which, as the years went on, became less and less veiled. For instance Nicoll’s advice that whatever we dislike in another we must look for in ourselves seems a close cousin to Jung’s admonitions about embracing our shadow. As Nicoll said, “an increase in consciousness . . . would result from bringing the dark into the light.” When he points out that our “inner psychological invisible country” possesses its own “heaven, hell and an intermediate place,” his description of our interior world strikes a Swedenborgian note, as readers of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell will know. I was surprised to see that his insight into the esoteric significance of left and right was up-to-date with the most recent findings on the differences between our cerebral hemispheres, something I have written about in The Secret Teachers of the Western World. “The right hand is ordinarily the more conscious,” he tells us. “The more conscious side of man is the external man . . . The less conscious side is the inner, deeper man,” Nicoll writes, and “the left eye and left hand . . . belong to the inner man.”

The right hand, we know, is controlled by the dominant left brain, which is associated with the ego, the personality, that is, the conditioned self, something the Work aims to make relatively passive. The left hand is controlled by the right brain, which, according to Nicoll’s view, is associated with what Gurdjieff called essence, the real self, the “inner man,” not the one we show the outer world. The aim of the Work is to have essence grow at the expense of personality.

Part of the Work Nicoll inherited from Ouspensky involved a deep study of the Gospels. He believed that much esoteric wisdom was conveyed in the parables, but only to those who knew how to grasp it. In this sense he saw the Work as a kind of esoteric Christianity—as Gurdjieff said it was—and the Commentaries are filled with references to what Christ really meant and taught with these strange stories that often make no obvious sense. One central theme is metánoia, the Greek word usually translated as “repentance” but which Nicoll says really means “change of mind.” Failing to make such a change results not in “sin” but in “missing the mark,” falling short of the target which, for Nicoll and Ouspensky is the same in the Gospels as in the Work, that is, waking up.

Nicoll’s late works The New Man and The Mark, published posthumously, continue these insights, but in Living Time he focuses on another mystery he shared with his teacher. He started the book in the 1920s, but it wasn’t published until 1952, a year before his death. Like Ouspensky, Nicoll was what the writer J.B. Priestley called a “time-haunted man.” Priestley should know; he was one himself. Nicoll and Ouspensky feature in Priestley’s brilliant study Man and Time, and Ouspensky was the inspiration for Priestley’s play about recurrence, I Have Been Here Before. Priestley was impressed with A New Model of the Universe, and his novel The Magicians has a character based on Gurdjieff—an Eastern European eccentric who has the strange ability to switch from “tick-tock” time to “time alive” at will—that is, from everyday time to something rather different. Priestley tried to meet Ouspensky but was snubbed. But he read Nicoll, and in one of his last books, Over the Long High Wall, he returns to the mystery that haunted him, Nicoll, and Ouspensky.

Nicoll’s introduction to the mystery of time may have come through Jung, before he met Ouspensky. He was fascinated by what Jung called synchronicities, those meaningful coincidences that seem to suggest some strange correlation between our inner and outer worlds and which often involve odd bends and twists in time. They often include, as they have with me, some precognitive experience, usually involving dreams. Nicoll had a habit of collecting synchronicities and what we might call “serial events,” occurrences of similar but unrelated things—for example, Nicoll records losing three different things in the same fashion one after the other.

The central message to get from these odd happenings, and the larger, more mystical exceptions to our usual experience of time, is that the everyday brand, with its endless one-thing-after-another, is not the only kind. Time is more flexible than we believe. We can have glimpses of the future, but, according to Ouspensky, we can also return to the past and actually change it—admittedly, one of his stranger ideas. But we can do this only if we work to wake up now. This entails snapping out of the dream that sees some wonderful new life awaiting us in the “future” in ticktock time. As Gurdjieff told Ouspensky, who repeated it to Nicoll, any such future will be exactly like the past, unless we can escape our mechanicalness and get hold of “time alive” today.

Nicoll tried to do exactly that, and he helped others to do it too. His Commentaries are a record of his hard work at avoiding the traps of ticktock time and resourcefulness at finding ways to enter time alive. As Gurdjieff and Ouspensky did, Nicoll used physical work as part of this effort. Beryl Pogson records how his talent for mechanics and engineering came in handy when the groups were transforming farmhouses into Work sites, while working on themselves as well. Yet Nicoll knew that, as Gurdjieff told him years ago, the Work did not build to last. Things change quickly and the Work must be mobile, something Nicoll learned while keeping the teaching going through the dark days of World War II.

A sense of urgency came to Nicoll during the war. With Kenneth Walker, he shared the idea that the Work must become a kind of ark, saving the teaching from the threatening flood of events. Like many others, Nicoll sensed that a dark age was coming. “The age of good men is over,” he wrote in his diary, “mankind is degenerating and passing into regimentation.” He felt that “all right understanding was dying,” and that “everything to do with truth and good was being lost sight of.” Barbarism had returned.

This feeling lingered into the postwar years, and in 1948 Nicoll told his groups that he did not have long to live. He had been diagnosed with cancer. This meant they had to hurry up, as there was still a lot to be done. One thing that did get done because of this announcement was that the weekly talks he had been giving for the last seven years were gathered together with thought of publication. This was the genesis of the Commentaries.

But Nicoll himself realized that he would have to leave some things undone. Gurdjieff had given him the task of linking the Work to developments in science. Nicoll’s interest in the brain reflects this aim, as did his reading of the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s book What Is Life?, which rejects the dominant materialistic answers to that question. Schrödinger’s idea of life as “anti-entropy,” as a force pushing against the dead weight of matter, excited Nicoll, and he devoted some of his late Commentaries to it.

One thing Nicoll left unfinished was his last commentary. He gave his last talk on August 16, 1953. Two weeks later he was dead. He had started writing a talk but had fallen into a coma before finishing it. It was published in the Commentaries as a fragment. One more reason, perhaps, to return?

Gary Lachman is the author of several books on the history of the Western esoteric tradition, including Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, and the forthcoming Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. He writes for several journals in the U.S. and U.K., and his work has been translated into several languages. View his website at