Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy

Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy

By Roger Lipsey
Shambhala Publications

Surely there’s a great deal of ground covered in Roger Lipsey’s formidable new tome on the spiritual master Gurdjieff that has been well tracked over before. Yet the word reconsidered is well applied here. Armed with new information, only recently available, and many years deep involvement in the Gurdjieff Work, Lipsey has done some lapidary reconsidering, cutting more deeply, clarifying, and divulging buried gems in the mass of stories about G.I. Gurdjieff. It can’t have been easy, as there was so much to assimilate, to parse; so much to challenge objectivity. Gurdjieff’s metaphysical ontology, his powerful teachings about escaping the slavery of sleep, his redefinition of the human condition, his startling methods for liberation from our mechanical responses to the world, was counterbalanced by his colorful, enigmatic style, the historical uncertainties of his life, and his tendency to attract negative press.

Gurdjieff Reconsidered… offers us nine bulging chapters comprised of hefty paragraphs, which, despite a certain denseness of data, are entertainingly written. Perhaps the book’s considerable scope and depth will appeal mostly to fervid Gurdjieffians, but then again Lipsey frequently opens hidden doors between Gurdjieff and other traditions. Theosophists will be interested to learn, here, that Gurdjieff read most of Madame Blavatsky when young, and even tried, unsuccessfully, to confirm some of her claims in his quite arduous travels. Lipsey tells us that Australian scholar Joanna Petsche has initiated a detailed study of parallels between Gurdjieff’s ideas and Theosophy—the parallels are many, especially in Gurdjieff’s cosmology. Some of this is probably due to Blavatsky and Gurdjieff both having gathered input from the same esoteric traditions, including Christian mysticism, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, Tibetan Buddhism, esoteric Hinduism, and quite possibly the Hermetica of Hermes Trismegistus. But when prominent student of the work Louise March asked Gurdjieff about Madame Blavatsky, he said she “was almost right.” Coming from Gurdjieff, that is a big admission.

Gurdjieff’s memoir, Meetings with Remarkable Men, tells of his early travels with the Seekers of Truth, a group which sought for an underlying esoteric revelation, a primal teaching, that would decrypt the secret of life. A sort of backroom controversy in Gurdjieff studies has been the question of his claim in Meetings… of having traveled extensively in Tibet. Did he or didn’t he? No record is found of his having been there—however, as westerners weren’t encouraged to visit Tibet seekers had to travel to its sacred places in disguise, and under false names. And Lipsey offers the indirect evidence of well-informed inferences: Gurdjieff’s knowledge of Tibetan cookery, the particulars of Tibetan tea, the extreme conditions of life in the Pamir mountains. He had bullet scars, visible in the sauna, that fit the accounts of woundings by stray bullets in his memoir, including one he received in Tibet. In his gigantic parable, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, in which he tucked bits of real history, Gurdjieff’s description of massacres carried out by British soldiers under Younghusband concurs with historical fact. Lipsey quotes his casual descriptions to a group of students in Paris, elucidating his travails in Tibet, including arresting details:

He tells how he used to have to butter his whole body, then cover with rubber underdrawers (made in Germany), then over all about six inches of thickness of fur garments—and even then he was cold in Tibet—only part of body have satisfaction was face under hood, warmed by breath. Such cold you never can imagine. Also such smell after many week!

Such an account has the redolence of reality. His “Movements”, an intricately choreographed series of dances (which were also exercises in developing inner harmony and consciousness), were partly drawn from temple dances and a sort of dance/yoga he’d seen in esoteric monasteries, and they too are recognizably connected to real traditions. All this is very reassuring to Gurdjieffians troubled by accusations of falsity--accusations coming from those who, as Ouspensky said, awarded Gurdjieff “his fair share of slander”. Some of the confusion arises from Gurdjieff’s tendency to try to create “legominisms”—works of art that symbolically express sacred truths. Art has its fanciful side, and Gurdjieff’s tendency to insert parables as part of his autobiography can make researchers frown.

Lipsey quotes a student in Paris, Alice Rohrer, who asked Gurdjieff if some of the more colorful imagery in Meetings with Remarkable Men was just fable. Gurdjieff replied that the book was true; “only ten per cent fantasy”. Thus he “owned” his tendency to weave fable and factuality.

 Gurdjieff Reconsidered offers us more detail than we had before on Gurdjieff’s wife, Julia Osipovna; he gifts us new anecdotes about the famous Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Le Prieure, and he renders new spins on the already familiar stories. Lipsey’s chapter on Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson offers acute observations and fresh insight on that gargantuan work.

Toward the end of the book, with gratifying honesty, Lipsey recounts the turbulent 1930s, as Gurdjieff—having suffered a brutally injurious car accident, and the loss of his institute headquarters—struggles for steady progress toward the long-term goals he’d set for his work. The chapter is called Lux in Tenebris…light in darkness.

In the latterly chapters Lipsey explores Gurdjieff’s poignant years in Paris during World War II; he tells us of Gurdjieff’s final years, a tired, secretly ill elderly man working feverishly to finish revising his magnum opus, Beelzebub’s Tales… and his final, highly arduous work on his Movements, continuing to within days of his death. These are the efforts of a man who deeply believes in his life’s work.

In a chapter called Derision, Lipsey takes on Gurdjieff’s detractors, demonstrating that for the most part that these outside observers hadn’t a clue as to what Gurdjieff’s teaching was really about. Most of them seem inspired by a single book authored by Louis Pauwels in 1954. Pauwels’ malicious misinterpretations of Gurdjieff’s methods set in motion a concatenation of misunderstandings which duly echoed through the untutored proclamations of later detractors—for example, the much-repeated canard that Gurdjieff failed to sufficiently illuminate his students; that none of them became conscious. Anyone who has seriously investigated the life of his greatest student and the woman he set to carry on his work, Jeanne de Salzmann, knows that isn’t true. Numerous other spiritual powerhouses emerged from his school: Henry Tracol, Lord Pentland, Louise March, Paul Reynard, Michel de Salzmann, to name just a few; certainly Pyotr Ouspensky, A.R. Orage and John Bennett were profoundly altered. The Fourth Way vibrance passed on by such people brought us such luminaries as James George and Jacob Needleman.

Of course, you’ll find failings in Gurdjieff’s comportment, as you will in examining any man’s life. Great men and great women are still just men and women, and that goes for beloved spiritual teachers. Gurdjieff sometimes drank too much, and he produced children with the wives of some of his followers. Alan Watts had a drinking problem and a tendency to irresponsible relations with women, and so did Chogyam Trungpa; I could name many other potent spiritual teachers who stumbled on the steep path up Mount Analogue, and fell into the pit of their own vanity, or slid into the quicksand of self-indulgence. Gurdjieff seems to have had a somewhat erratic connection with the higher conscience that he extolled, but he at last settled down to the deadly serious business of transmitting his own dharma, and that transmission has had vast repercussions.

John Shirley

John Shirley is the author of Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas and numerous novels, including Doyle fter Death and the forthcoming Stormland.