CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

Notes on G. I Gurdjieff

by PierLuigi Zoccatelli

gurdjieff A paper presented (March 7, 2007) at the International Gurdjieff Seminar in Tbilisi (Georgia) on “G. I. Gurdjieff from South Caucasus to Western World: his influence on Spirituality, Thought and Culture in Italy, Europe and the USA”, organized by the Embassy of Italy and the Tbilisi State University “Javakhishvili”.

1. On Gurdjieff

What is there “new” to say in 2007 about one of the most unsettling and yet fascinating figures of the twentieth century – George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, whose influence has spread far beyond the field, however vast, of spirituality? The answer to my opening question is extremely complex, considering the truly extraordinary mass of literature which has been written and published about him, including scholarly works produced by the academe, over the last fifty years.

Yet, a curious paradox – typically Gurdjieffian – has existed since his first appearance on the scene as a protagonist of modern-day esotericism, for concerning this man, so widely researched and written about, we still do not know for certain his exact name, year of birth, and even the name of his birthplace remains problematical. Caucasian, of Greek origin, Gurdjieff was born in a town in Russia which had absorbed Georgian influences (Alexandropol) which today is a town in Armenia called Gyumri.

Thus Gurdjieff. But who was Gurdjieff? Even if we should pause to examine the attempts to define Gurdjieff’s many-sided personality , including those definitions made by the most authoritative sources, our efforts would not yield immediate results. Take for example the description proposed by Gurdjieff’s most noteworthy biographer,[1] the British historian James Moore, «Holistic philosopher, thaumaturge, and teacher of Sacred Dances (whose ancillary personae as musicologist, therapist, hypnotist, raconteur, explorer, polyglot, and entrepreneur exercise the taxonomic mind). Gurdjieff’s work comprises one ballet, some 250 Sacred Dances, 200 piano pieces composed in collaboration with his pupil Thomas Alexandrovitch de Hartmann (1886-1956), and four books, the magnum opus being Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. For more than 35 years he privately taught, by example and oral precept, a previously unknown doctrine styled ‘The Work’, attracting – and often repulsing – groups of gifted disciples: Russian, English, American, and French. His system integrated a semantic critique, a social critique, an epistemology, a mythopoeic cosmogony and cosmology, a phenomenology of consciousness, and a practical Existenzphilosophie»[2].

In the light of such complex and almost overwhelming coordinates proposed by a scholar internationally celebrated for his authoritative research and writings concerning Gurdjieff, it would seem to the author of this study that the only adequate formula to describe Gurdjieff is the one first used by Clifford Sharp long ago in 1923 in a series of articles appearing in The New Statesman – “the Philosopher of the Forest”[3].

Among the leading figures on the scene of contemporary esotericism, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff plays a special role, for although he rejected the title of “master,” and used the word “esotericism” with great caution, he exerted a vast if unknown influence on the literature, art, architecture, and music of his era. To cite two examples only, both the writer Pamela L. Travers (1899-1996), author of Mary Poppins[4], and Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959), the most famous American architect of the twentieth century, have testified to Gurdjieff’s strong influence on their work. Moreover, Gurdjieff’s teaching also had an extraordinary impact on esoteric philosophy and has been variously interpreted by schools, currents of thought, and independent disciples, as the enormous “Gurdjieff bibliography”[5] attests.

To give a concrete example of the importance Gurdjieff’s name has in the field of esoteric spirituality, let us consider a typical tool used by the sociology of esotericism, that is to say the fact that one of the cultural contexts in which ideas – be they religious or non religious, esoteric or non esoteric – take material shape, depends upon the reception of those ideas within the surrounding cultural setting. In this sense, in a brief study recently appearing in a French book[6], we have attempted to investigate the reception on Internet of some of the leading figures of the esoteric milieu in order to determine just what topics and currents of thought within the panorama of esoteric philosophy attract the most attention on the Web.

With this aim, armed with patience and no little curiosity, we have carried out with our “personal confuter” (term used by the British sociologist of religion Bryan R. Wilson [1926-2004]) a Google search on thirty-six important names related to the field of esotericism. Though by no means exhaustive, this research represents a good point of departure for a discussion on the sociology of the reception of esotericism, and furnishes results which were far from obvious at the outset. It is a fact that among listings on the Internet, Gurdjieff is staunchly positioned in second place, right after Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).

Once again, the name of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff sounds a decisive note in the context of contemporary esotericism. Thus attempts to make the public aware of the originality and the innovativeness of his ideas and his teaching are very welcome – such as, for example, the study by the American scholar Connie Jones, specifically written for the Italian reading public[7]. Indeed, as Jones points out in this book, Gurdjieff intended to transmit a spiritual teaching designed to stimulate inner awakening along with a method for developing conscious intelligence which has continued to attract the attention of scholars, especially in recent times. His teaching brings together elements of ancient wisdom, psychology, and religion. Gurdjieff is not a religious teacher in the traditional sense. He did not try to inculcate belief in his disciples, but to teach them a practice based on the circumstances of daily life in order to reveal to them the law of spiritual influence which, for Gurdjieff provided the foundation for the great religious traditions. His teaching, known to his followers as “the Work” – a term used to express the idea of “work on oneself” and “work towards self-consciousness”– is similar to those esoteric or western alchemical traditions which use their disciples’ research and disciplined efforts in order to awaken a process of inner transformation in them. At the heart of Gurdjieff’s teaching is the idea that man is born with great potential for development, but in the state of ordinary consciousness, he does not have the capacity to understand or fulfil this potential.

The author of this brief paper for years has investigated modern and contemporary esotericism, adopting a methodological approach proper to sociology, trying to understand the attitudes of human individuals and groups participating in the “social formation” of esotericism[8], while bearing in mind that every religion is a complex and diversified universe unfolding in time and in space. The world of religions is even more complex and diversified, and faced with such diversity, the scholar is forced to specialize his research in specific spiritual universes, and in this case, in esotericism. Thus in the course of our research we have often encountered the figure of Gurdjieff[9], and, well aware of the many important distinctions that should be made, we have found that the “system” of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff does indeed fit into the context of esoteric philosophy, although its originality and innovation remains largely unknown even today at the beginning of the 21st century.


2. Biography of a “Remarkable Man”

As we have previously mentioned, Gurdjieff was born in what is modern-day Armenia, the eldest son of a Greek father and an Armenian mother. The year of his birth has been variously given as ranging from 1866 to 1880. He spent his childhood in the Caucasus, a region where diverse cultures, languages, and religions coexist, where East and West meet, where traditional life-styles mingle with modern ones. His father, a bard of the local oral tradition, had a strong influence on the young Gurdjieff, to whom he transmitted the songs and poems of the local oral tradition which Gurdjieff believed contained an ancient wisdom unknown to the modern world.[9a]

Gurdjieff tells the story of how as a boy he wanted to understand the meaning of human life and the role of man in the universe. The power of attraction that these questions held for him compelled him to explore different fields of enquiry in search of an answer, but in each field he found contradictions among practitioners and authoritative scholars. Searching for an understanding free from such contradictions, he undertook the study of numerous scientific and religious texts and went on to study medicine and orthodox theology. His writings indicate an early interest in a vast number of religious and philosophical questions, in the history of science in the west, and in the technological progress of his times. His teaching shows how he tried to reconcile humanistic and scientific matters[10]. A precocious student, Gurdjieff immersed himself in books, performed experiments, and visited centers of study and learning. As he himself claimed, he wanted to understand «why the souls arising in (human) beings are in such an unprecedented, terrifying situation.»[11]

While still a young man, Gurdjieff became convinced that neither conventional religion nor scientific knowledge could adequately deal with the problems he found himself facing. Certain that the answer to his questions might be found in the ancient traditions of the Middle East and Asia, he decided to abandon his academic studies and begin to search for the remaining traces of those traditions. In his book Meetings with Remarkable Men, he describes his journeys to the Middle East, Egypt, Tibet, Central Asia, and elsewhere. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a group of companions who called themselves “the Seekers of Truth,” he spent more than twenty years travelling, learning new languages, examining ancient documents and monuments, studying with spiritual masters, and visiting religious centers and isolated monasteries.

The details of these journeys are found only in his writings and the scholars who have tried to verify them through other sources have found little historical evidence. Scholars who have researched this period of his life have concluded that he may have played other roles than just a mere “seeker of truth” in these years. He may have been a secret advisor to the Tsar, a Russian agent, or a Buddhist monk and advisor to the Dalai Lama.[12]

In his “autobiography” Meetings with Remarkable Men, which mixes the stories of his journeys, his spiritual search, and a teaching in allegorical form, he claims to have studied many traditions, including the esoteric traditions of both east and west. Each adventure, he says, was useful to his research into the meaning of life on Earth, and in particular, into the meaning of human life. His later creations, comprising expositions of his ideas in the form of essays, music, dance, and psychological exercises, indicate the variety of sources from which he seems have drawn but never revealed. All the same, in his writings he mentions not only the influence of the great religions (including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism), but also the teachings of ancient Greece, Babylonia, Egypt, and the mythical Atlantis.[13]

Gurdjieff claimed that his research led him to discover the principles of an ancient, esoteric wisdom, practically unknown to the west in contemporary times, which he combined with his personal experience and understanding[14]. After elaborating a teaching based on his discoveries, he moved westward and created a group of disciples in Moscow in 1913. This was the beginning of a Gurdjieff’s career as master. His first disciples came from the Russian intellighenzia. Among them were Pjotr Demianovic Ouspensky (1878-1947), philosopher, mathematician, and journalist, who in that period had already gained a reputation in intellectual circles thanks to the publication in Russia in 1919 of Tertium Organum[15], a treatise on the nature of the universe. Ouspensky immediately realized, as he himself recounts in his writings, that his own work was the fruit of mere speculation and that Gurdjieff could offer much more: real understanding of the universe and of man’s role in it, an understanding not based on conjecture. Ouspensky became a fervid disciple of Gurdjieff and documented the Moscow period in a monograph which still today remains one of the main expository texts regarding Gurdjieff’s teaching[16].

In Russia a small group of disciples began to form, including Sophie Grigorievna (1874-1963), always known as M.me Ouspensky, Thomas de Hartmann, a talented musician and composer who later collaborated with Gurdjieff in creating pieces of music based on his teachings, and de Hartmann’s wife, Olga Arkadievna de Shumacher (1885-1979) who later served as Gurdjieff’s secretary and contributed to the diffusion of his ideas in France, the United States, and Canada.

This group lasted only a few years. Soon the Russian Revolution (1917) caused the Moscow group to disperse. Gurdjieff managed to gather a few disciples together and lead them out of Russia, then in midst of civil war, to find refuge in the mountains of the Caucasus. This group included Gurdjieff’s wife, Julia Ostrowska (1889-1926), whom he had married in Saint Petersburg in 1912; Ouspensky, the de Hartmanns, and the Finnish psychiatrist Leonid Stjoernval (?-1938). They finally settled in Tbilisi, in Georgia. Here in 1919, the artist and designer Alexandre de Salzmann (1874-1934) and his wife Jeanne (1889-1990), dancer and teacher of dance method created by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950) joined the group. In this period, Gurdjieff named his school the “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man” and began to give public demonstrations of the sacred dances which he claimed derived from his study of a few esoteric communities. After leaving Tbilisi in 1920, the Institute was reassembled in Constantinople and the public demonstrations of the dances began again.

Gurdjieff left Constantinople in 1921 and went to Germany and England in search of a suitable place to set up his Institute. He found it in 1922 at the Château du Prieuré at Fontainebleau-Avon, in the outskirts of Paris. Here he established his residence while continuing to travel widely, and spending much time in Paris until 1933 when the Prieuré was sold. The de Hartmanns played an important role during the period of transition from Russia to France and of the founding of the Institute. They later published a testimony of this period.[17]

While the Institute was operating at the Prieuré, pupils came from Europe and America to participate in what was for them a new way of examining the human condition. They divided into groups to construct buildings, cook, sew, study, and dance, with the intention of putting into practice Gurdjieff’s teachings in their daily lives. A stay at the Prieuré was very demanding from many points of view. Disciples performed exacting physical labor and did mental exercises in cramped spaces and with few comforts. Moreover, Gurdjieff continually changed the conditions in which the group lived and worked and also changed the exercises in order to prevent his pupils from falling into habit. According to reports by disciples, his teaching method was demanding but appealing nonetheless. He created situations which were difficult from a social and psychological point of view, and forced his pupils to examine their inner lives sincerely or to leave to institute.[18]

In spring 1924, accompanied by a large group of followers, Gurdjieff set sail for America, where he held public lectures and organized recitals of his sacred dances in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. He attracted a several disciples among influential people in the local literary and art world, and created a New York branch of his Institute. Shortly after his return to France in June of that same year, life put him face to face with a new challenge. In July, en route to Paris from Fontainebleau, Gurdjieff lost control of his car and ran into a tree. The accident nearly killed him, and he was found by a policeman and taken to the hospital. He was then sent back to the Prieuré, where against all expectations, he gradually recovered.

During his convalescence, Gurdjieff widened the channels for the spreading of his teaching. While continuing to direct the work of his pupils, he wrote copiously, beginning with the three volumes of his All and Everything, which was to become the main exposition of his teaching.[19] It was also in this period that he began to compose music with Thomas de Hartmann. The two men collaborated until 1927 and produced a large corpus of music, partly now available as sheet music, and partly as recordings performed by a variety of musicians.[20]

Between 1929 and 1948, Gurdjieff went to the United States several times to meet with his work groups there, to supervise the translation of his writings, and to concern himself with what he defined as the “material question.”[21] Over time, he had found himself having to support a vast family of expatriates, and his “colossal” expenses were due not only to having to support his entourage, but also to pay for the theatres where the recitals of his sacred dances were held, and for the upkeep of the Prieuré.[22]

Gurdjieff often allowed or obliged his disciples to take a step they rarely wished to take: separation from their master. He broke off relationships or behaved in a way as to make rupture inevitable, even with his oldest and most faithful pupils. In 1922 a confrontation occurred with Ouspensky over misunderstandings dating back several years earlier, to 1915, which led to a separation between the two men[23]. In 1930, he separated himself from the de Hartmanns. He later broke with Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934), influential editor of the literary review The New Age and coordinator of the New York group. Reading the published testimonies, one has the impression that the ruptures with the oldest pupils were part of a paradoxical method adopted by Gurdjieff to enhance the growth of their consciousness, rather than the growth of his organization[24]. After encouraging several disciples to leave him, he definitively closed the Institute in 1933 and moved to a rented apartment in Paris.

Over the 1930s, Gurdjieff diversified his activities. New groups were created in France, England, and the United States.[25] During the German occupation of Paris, from 1940-1944, Gurdjieff continued to hold meetings with his pupils. Several groups continued after the liberation. «Despite the Occupation’s hazards and rigour, Gurdjieff’s Paris group progressively enlarges. At the Salle Pleyel (in morning classes supported only by piano extemporisation) Gurdjieff works indefatigably on new Movements – the “39 Series”. In afternoons and evenings, he supervises readings of his texts and hosts ritualistic meals featuring an inviolable succession of ceremonious “Toasts to the Idiots”.»[26]

Gurdjieff made his last visit to America in December 1948 (remaining until February 1949), where he confides his American endeavour to Lord Pentland (Henry John Sinclair, 1907-1984) [27], and approves the publication of Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous. During Fall 1949, in Paris, Gurdjieff’s health finally collapses: his receipt of a proof copy of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson crowns his life’s work. Given instructions to Jeanne de Salzmann for his texts’ posthumous publication, and sent a message to Thomas de Hartmann requesting compositions for the 39 Series, Gurdjieff dies at the American Hospital at Neuilly on October 29th, 1949. His funeral was celebrated with the Russian Orthodox rite at the church of Alexandre Nevski in Paris and his body was buried at Fontainebleau-Avon.

[1] See James Moore, Gurdjieff: a biography, Element, Shaftsbury 1999.

[2] Idem, s.v. «Gurdjieff», in Wouter J. Hanegraaff (ed. in collaboration with Antoine Faivre - Roelof van den Broek - Jean-Pierre Brach), Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, 2 voll., Brill, Leiden 2005, vol. 1, pp. 445-450 (p. 445).

[3] See Clifford Sharp, «The “Forest Philosophers”», in The New Statesman, XX, n. 516 (3 march 1923), pp. 626-627, and XX, n. 518 (17 march 1923), pp. 687-688.

[4] See Pamela L. Travers, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, Traditional Studies Press, Toronto 1973; and «Myth, Symbol and Tradition», in Jacob Needleman (ed.), Sacred Tradition and Present Need, Viking Press, New York 1975.

[5] An annotated bibliography of this literature, covering up to 1985, prepared by the Gurdjieff Foudations and edited by J. Walter Driscoll includes a general presentation by Michel de Salzmann concerning publications by and about Gurdjieff. A more recent view is offered by J. W. Driscoll, Gurdjieff. A Reading Guide, Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing, Los Altos 1999 (the third edition of this guide, dated 2004, is accessible only online from www.gurdjieff-bibliography.com).

[6] See PierLuigi Zoccatelli, «Notes pour servir à une sociologie de l’ésotérisme», in Jean-Pierre Brach - Jérôme Rousse-Lacordaire (eds.), Études d’histoire de l’ésotérisme. Mélanges offerts à Jean-Pierre Laurant pour son soixante-dixième anniversaire, Cerf, Paris 2007, pp. 35-43.

[7] See Constance A. Jones, G.I. Gurdjieff e la sua eredità, Elledici, Leumann (Turin) 2005.

[8] See P.L. Zoccatelli, «Note per uno studio scientifico dell’esoterismo», in Giuseppe Giordan (ed.), Tra religione e spiritualità. Il rapporto con il sacro nell’epoca del pluralismo, FrancoAngeli, Milan 2006, pp. 222-234.

[9] See Idem, «Note a margine dell’influsso di G. I. Gurdjieff su Samael Aun Weor», in Aries. Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism, vol. 5, n. 2 (2005), pp. 255-275.

[9a] In some of the following paragraph I follow the biography of Gurddjieff as summarized by Constance A. Jones in her excellent book G.I. Gurdjieff e la sua eredità, cit.

[10] George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff’s main publications are Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, Two Rivers Press, Aurora 1999 (original edition 1950); Meetings with Remarkable Men, Janus, London 1963; Life is Real Only Then, When «I Am», Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1981; Views from the Real World. Early Talks in Moscow, Essentuki, Tiflis, Berlin, London, Paris, New York, and Chicago, As Recollected by His Pupils, E.P. Dutton, New York 1975 (original edition 1973); and Herald of the Coming Good, Paris 1933 (new edition: Sure Fire Press, Edmonds 1988).

[11] Idem, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, cit., p. 1117.

[12] See James Webb, The Harmonious Circle. The Lives and Work of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky and Their Followers, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York 1980, pp. 48-73.

[13] See G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, cit.

[14] See Idem, Meetings with Remarkable Men, cit., pp. 30-31; and P.[jotr] D.[emianovich] Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous. Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, New York 1949, pp. 202-204.

[15] See P. D. Ouspensky, Tertium Organum. The Third Canon of Thought. A Key to the Enigmas of the World, Knopf, New York 1981.

[16] See Idem, In Search of the Miraculous. Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, cit.

[17] See Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, Notre vie avec Monsieur Gurdjieff. Édition définitive, Éditions du Rocher, Paris 2004.

[18] For direct testimony of pupils regarding conditions at the Prieuré and exercises performed there, see Alfred Richard Orage, The Active Mind. Adventures in Awareness, Janus, London 1930 (revised and subsequently published as The Active Mind: Psychological Exercises and Essays, Weiser, New York 1965); Charles Stanley Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff. The Journal of a Pupil. An Account of Some Years With G.I. Gurdjieff and A. R. Orage in New York and at Fontainebleau-Avon, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1961; Fritz Peters, Boyhood with Gurdjieff, Gollancz, London 1964; Idem, Gurdjieff Remembered, Gollancz, London 1965; and Tchesslav Tchechovitch, Tu l’aimeras: souvenirs sur Georgii Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, L’Originel, Paris 2003.

[19] The first volume, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man, an overview and critique of human existence, consisting of over 1000 pages, written from the point of view of an “extra-terrestrial” challenges all definitions. According to some authors, it is «a fantastic allegorical satire striving to awaken man to the futility of trying to improve his unhappy condition simply by changing his external environment without changing himself» (Robert S. Ellwood - Harry B. Partin, Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs 1988, p. 136).

[20] For sheet music, see G. I. Gurdjieff - T. de Hartmann, Music for the Piano. Definitive Edition, Linda Daniel-Spitz, Charles Ketcham, Laurence Rosenthal (eds.), 4 vols., Schott, Mainz 1996. For recordings of this music, see the four boxed sets of CDs published by Wergo (Mainz 1997-2001) as well as the recordings by de Hartmann, The Music of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann, a set of 3 CDs, G-H Records, New York 1989.

[21] See G. I. Gurdjieff, «The Material Question», text of a conversation held in New York, on April 8, 1924, in Meetings with Remarkable Men, cit., pp. 247-303.

[22] See J. Webb, op. cit., pp. 262-263.

[23] Ouspensky had already begun to distance himself from Gurdjieff as early as 1918. By 1923, he had preceded Gurdjieff to Europe and had created his own group in London. In an interview granted to the London Daily News (one of several major interviews), Ouspensky promoted the activities of the Institute. Fourteen years later, in a lecture dated Sept. 23, 1937, published in one of the many revisions of The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (in this case, Random House, New York 1981, pp. 119-120), Ouspensky outlined some of his reasons for his gradual separation from Gurdjeiff.

[24] See T. and O. de Hartmann, op. cit.; J. Webb, op. cit., pp. 379-392, pp. 439-460; William Patrick Patterson, Struggle of the Magicians. Why Ouspensky Left Gurdjieff, Arete Communications, Fairfax 1996; and Paul Beekman Taylor, Gurdjieff and Orage. Brothers in Elysium, Weiser, York Beach 2001, pp. 160-184.

[25] See G. I. Gurdjieff , Life is Real Only Then, When «I Am», pp. 89-101.

[26] J. Moore, s.v. «Gurdjieff», cit., p. 447.

[27] See ibidem. On the other hand, Paul Beekman Taylor says Jeanne de Salzmann «she herself had helped establish the “Institute,” soon to be the Foundation, in New York in 1950. Pentland, its future director, had never “worked” with Gurdjieff and only knew him briefly in Paris and New York in 1948 (P. Beekman Taylor, Gurdjieff’s America: Mediating the Miraculous, Lighthouse Editions, London 2004, p. 213).