In Search of P. D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff

In Search of P. D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff

By Gary Lachman
Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2004, Hardcover, 329 pages.

Gary Lachman has written a fascinating account of the life of P. D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) the Russian author of In Search of the Miraculous and coworker of G. I. Gurdjieff (1866?-1949). Gurdjieff was the more colorful personality and attracted more attention during his life and after, yet Ouspensky as a writer and teacher deserves to be known in his own right. Lachman's book will help readers to look at some of Ouspensky's writings and at writers such as Rodney Collin, Kenneth Walker, J. C. Bennett, and Maurice Nicoll, who followed Ouspensky's lectures and classes in London.

The three decades before the 1917 Russian Revolution were years of intellectual upheaval and spiritual searching. As the Russian government consolidated its hold over the people of the Caucasus and the Far East, Russians came into contact with Sufi teachings and techniques, with the Tibetan schools of Buddhism among the Buryat, and with shamanistic practices among the tribes of Siberia, as well as reading western European esoteric and symbolist teachings. These multiple currents created circles of reflection and experimentation, often in the halls of power, as the influence of Grigory Rasputin shows.

Peter Demian Ouspensky was a journalist interested in these currents both for his own personal development and to inform the wider public. He read English well and so served to introduce significant works to Russians, in particular Richard Maurice Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (l923), a classic analysis of higher forms of consciousness and Edward Carpenter's Asia from Adam's Peak to Elephanta (1892), which highlighted Indian approaches. Carpenter and especially Bucke were "evolutionists" who believed that higher consciousness was the next step in human evolution and that more and more people were attaining enlightenment often at an early age. Bucke wrote at the end of his study, “So will Cosmic Consciousness become more and more universal and appear earlier in the individual life until the race at large will possess this faculty." Ouspensky, however, had a streak of pessimism—“'Nothing comes without work and cost”--an attitude that would be reinforced later by Gurdjieff with his emphasis on working on oneself. Ouspensky believed that higher consciousness was possible but could come only through effort or with the help of an enlightened teacher.

Many of Ouspensky's investigations were brought together in his 1911 bookTertium OrganumAs Lachman notes, "A precis of the book is nearly impossible, as the ground covered includes Kantian epistemology, Hinton's cubes, animal perception, sex, Theosophy, cosmic consciousness, the superman, and Ouspensky's own experiences of mystical states. . Yet such a bare-bones summation of the book doesn't do justice to the wealth of detail, fine argument, striking analogies and metaphors that illuminate Ouspensky's vigorous prose."

As Lachman writes, Tertium Organum made Ouspensky's reputation, and from 1911, when it was published, until 1917, when the revolution clamped down on mystical literature and societies, Ouspensky was one of the most widely read popularizers of occult and esoteric thought, a self-image very different from the one he would present years later to his students in London. After Tertium Organum, he published several short books on a wide range of occult or mystical topics--yoga. the Tarot, the superman, the Inner Circle (esotericism)-most of which found their way years later into A New Model of the Universe (New York: Random House, 1971). His articles appeared in several Theosophical journals and magazines, his lectures attracted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, and his opinion on a variety of mystical matters was widely sought.

It was in this world of intellectual questioning and experimentation in the elite circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg that on the eve of World War I that G. I. Gurdjieff appeared after living in central Asia for a number of years--exactly where and when is not clear. Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men (1969) makes for interesting reading and served as a base for Peter Brook's remarkable film, but it is more an account of men searching than of teachers found, Gurdjieff gives no references or footnotes for his ideas. Thus one assumes that much is drawn from Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism with his own efforts at synthesis. Gurdjieff knew both his strengths and his weaknesses and sought out persons to compensate for his lacks. He needed someone to put his ideas into writing and attracted Ouspensky as a writer. He had seen how the Sufis used music as an avenue of spiritual advancement, and he attracted the Theosophical composer Thomas de Hartmann (1886-1956)to render the tunes he recalled into playable music. He needed someone trained in dance and movements to develop Sufi motions into exercises that could be taught. He found Jeanne de Salzmann, who taught the music and movements of the Swiss Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, who had worked out a system of dance and music with a spiritual intent.

Gurdjieff worked better with women than men, even strong-willed women. His relations with Ouspensky and de Hartmann were stormy. Once Ouspensky and de Hartmann got into "the Work," their personal creative efforts ended. Ouspensky no longer- wrote, and his detailed account of Gurdjieff's ideas was published after Ouspensky's death. Likewise de Hartmann worked creatively with Gurdjieff between 1925 and 1927, creating some three hundred pieces for piano, but he published no new music for the thirty remaining years of his life, De Hartmann's papers are at the Yale University library; there may be unpublished efforts I do not know of. Only Jeanne de Salzmann stayed with Gurdjieff and after his death continued teaching both the ideas and music in small circles in France and Geneva.

The Russian Revolution scattered, destroyed, or drove underground the Russian esoteric groups and thinkers. Gurdjieff lived out most of his life in Paris, with occasional trips to the United States, where groups were formed. Ouspensky lived most of his life in England but spent World War II in the United States near New York, where he continued lecturing and working in small groups.

Both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky refused to allow their students to take notes during their talks, attention being a key virtue. Thus it is not fully clear what and how they taught in Paris and London. What we have are notes written from memory, such as Gurdjieff's Views from the Real World (1975) or Secret Talks with Mr. G (1978), and the books by the circle of students around Ouspensky: J. C. Bennett, Rodney Collin, and Kenneth Walker. However, it is not possible to say what is Ouspensky's teaching and what are reflections of the author's own ideas, Kenneth Walker's The Physiology of Sex (1940) is no doubt the most widely read of the books from Ouspensky's circle, but Walker was also a surgeon and much of the book is probably linked to his experience rather than to esoteric teaching-"tantrism'' is not in the index!

Like many teachers, both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky taught less a doctrine than a method (though Ouspensky constantly used the word "system"). These were techniques to be awake to life, to see things more vividly, to see the one behind the many. Thus, the emphasis on learning in small groups rather than on the publication of books.

Lachman traces Ouspensky's personal life, which may not be directly related to the teaching but shows how one person with spiritual insights confronts the world and human relationships. Ouspensky tended to submit to stronger personalities than his own, though he often expected submission from his own students. He remained dependent on Gurdjieff, although the two men had little regular contact after 1924. Ouspensky was also dependent on-if not dominated by--his strong-willed wife Sophie Grigorievna, who was also part of the Gurdjieff circle.

Ouspensky's last years recall an aphorism from the Agni Yoga teachings: "The growth of consciousness is accompanied by spasms of anguish, and this is verily unavoidable. Be assured that the greater the consciousness, the greater the anguish. One must fight consciously these spasms, understanding their inevitability." He stressed more and more "work on oneself” and less emphasis on "the System." In fact, in his last lectures on his return from the United States to London in 1947, to Kenneth Walker's question "Do you mean, Mr. Ouspensky, that you have abandoned the System?" he replied "There is no System.” As Lachman writes, "Shortly before his death, Ouspensky assembled his group and reiterated the message of his last meetings: they must, he told them, reconstruct everything for themselves."

 Krishnamurti had fifty-seven years between 1929-the dissolution of the Order of the Star in the East that had been the structure and system within which he worked-and 1986, when he died. Fifty-seven years is enough time to develop another style and technique of teaching. Ouspensky dissolved "the System" within a few months of the end of his life; was the task of reconstruction for his next incarnation, for his students, or both?

Gary Lachman has written a lively book on esoteric relationships--some of which seem to have been less than good human relations. Ouspensky may not have been a genius, but Lachman has brought him out of the shadow of Gurdjieff.


May/June 2005