The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky

The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky

 by Colin Wilson
Aquarian Press, Harper Collins, 1993; paperback.

Colin Wilson's latest in his series of short biographies of the “greats” of alternative thought in the twentieth century is a critical but sensitive exploration of the life and work of one of that group's most important figures, the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky. This is an extremely readable attempt to make up for Ouspensky's status as an unsung genius.

Ouspensky is best known as the diligent but dry expositor of “The Work,” the system of self-development taught by the legendary George Gurdjieff. Wilson's thoughtful account is a much needed counterweight to this assessment, and goes far in establishing Ouspensky as a powerful thinker in his own right. As in other books in this series - Wilson's biographies of Gurdjieff, Aleister Crowley, C. G. Jung, and Rudolf Steiner - the author's aim is twofold: to draw out the essential genius of his subject, but also to point out where Wilson feels he went wrong. If you are a reader of Ouspensky who cannot imagine him making a mistake, then Wilson's book is perhaps not for you. But if you are intrigued by the lives of complex characters who areas fascinating for their mistakes as for their deep insights, then this book should prove captivating.

Wilson's thesis that “even if he had never met Gurdjieff, Ouspensky would have been one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century,” is based on two works, the exhilarating pre-Gurdjieff Tertium Organum (1912) and the chapter on “Experimental Mysticism” in New Model of the Universe, which Wilson believes to be “the fullest description” of mystical consciousness “on record.”

Those earlier works have an infectious enthusiasm and love of ideas that the later ones lack. Wilson asks the quest ion: What happened to the poetic philosopher who believed that “a new humanity” was near at hand, to change him into a puritanical, sometimes pedantic teacher of “the System”?

Two things, Wilson argues: Ouspensky's own romantic pessimism, and its tragic exacerbation by his meeting with Gurdjieff. Wilson concludes from an analysis of works such as The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin and the collection of stories Talks with a Devil, that Ouspensky suffered from a common complaint among late nineteenth and early twentieth century romantics: “world rejection.”

Wilson believes Ouspensky had already glimpsed the “secret” in Tertium Organum, that the book is full of insights, of the essence of “higher consciousness,” the Holy Grail for which he searched all his life. Indeed, according to Wilson, Ouspensky would have followed these insights to their logical conclusion if it hadn't been for one thing: meeting Gurdjieff. Wilson contends that Gurdjieff's pessimistic philosophy resonated too well with Ouspensky's world rejection. The last thing Ouspensky needed, Wilson argues, was a doctrine emphasizing what was wrong with human beings and that hammered away at their weakness.

Wilson’s account is commendable for its unbiased view of the temperamental differences between the two men; it is salutary to find a writer unafraid to say that they were simply very different kinds of men, and that the romantic intellectual Ouspensky would sooner or later have to cut himself off from the Zorba-like man’s man, Gurdjieff. Saddening, however, is Wilson's account of Ouspensky's last years as a heavy- drinking, lonely teacher of “the Work.”

Wilson himself has tackled the problem of “sleep” Ouspensky's nemesis –in various ways for nearly forty years. One difference between his approach and that of “the Work” is that he begins with the cheery belief that things are not as bad as Ouspensky and Gurdjieff believed, and that an optimistic outlook coupled with a capacity for intentional perception - i.e., attention- can work wonders. We may not agree with his analysis of Ouspensky's, and indeed Gurdjieff’s, failure, but we should certainly not ignore it, nor his tribute to one of the most exciting thinkers of our time.