Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas

Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas

By John Shirley
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004, Paperback, 301 pages.

Time magazine once called G. I. Gurdjieff a "remarkable blend of P. T. Barnum, Rasputin, Freud, Groucho Marx, and everybody's grandfather," and, if I might add to the list, a take-no-prisoners twelve-step sponsor. Whether a huckster, a hierophant, or a redoubtable hybrid of both, Gurdjieff was certainly a genius whose demanding teachings continue to resonate.

Indeed, in Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas, John Shirley notes the recent spate of films- The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club, Vanilla Sky, and others--that seem to reflect Gurdjieffian themes (intentionally or not), especially his central contention that human beings are essentially sleepwalking through life, out of touch with reality and themselves.

Shirley acknowledges that a book generally can convey only a faint impression of spiritual teachings. However he writes that it was his intention, "in this harried, media-saturated age," to create an accurate and accessible account of Gurdjieff's life and work "that might open a door, for some readers, to a deeper study, and even real hope."

Readers with little or no knowledge of the man and his ideas will finish this book with a solid introduction to both. Drawing on the accounts of biographers and students as well as Gurdjieff's own largely parabolic version of his early life, Shirley outlines Gurdjieff's childhood influences, (including his grandmother's profound and prophetic deathbed advice (“In life never do as others do. Either do nothing- -just go to school- -or do something nobody else does"), his spiritual expeditions with the "Seekers of Truth," his itinerant teaching career, and his often intense and troubled relationships with his students.

Gurdjieff the man is certainly a fascinating character, primarily due to his charisma and the mystery surrounding him, but it is of course his teachings and some of his methods (ego-strafing "verbal guerilla warfare" that may have alienated more people that it awakened) that make him such a towering-and outrageous-figure.

Noting that many people may be repelled by Gurdjieff's brutal view of humanity, Shirley asks how else we might explain our chronic inability to deal effectively with the problems of war, global hunger, environmental destruction, and rampant addiction, if we aren't a little more than directionless machines, trapped by our conditioning.

Moreover, regarding Gurdjieff's often searing techniques. Shirley declares that when we consider that life is a rigorous and unrelenting endeavor, "it makes sense that the real truth of spiritual evolution would be equally stark, equally demanding". Gurdjieff's austerity, his indifference to the comforting trappings of New Age spirituality or lace-edged religion, is reassuring: it means his teaching has the ring of truth."


May/June 2005