In Search of P.D. Ouspensky






Second Quest Edition © 2006


Editor’s note: Gary Lachman’s account of his involvement with Gurdjieff’s esoteric system of thought was first published in the November-December 2004 issue of Quest Magazine, under the title “In the Work.”






(pp. 191-199)



GURDJIEF’S GERMAN ADVENTURE wasn’t successful. He gave some lectures in Berlin but once again failed to put his institute on sure footing. An attempt to purchase the Hellerau in Dresden, a former center of the Dalcroze Euchythmics Institute, led to a legal battle and the sinister allegation that Gurdjieff had used hypnosis to get his way. The owner had already leased part of the building to other tenants, one of whom was the progressive educationalist A. S. Neill, but Gurdjieff wanted the whole space and somehow convinced the owner to agree. When Neill and the others angrily waved their leases, the owner relented, and Gurdjieff, uncharacteristically, took him to court. The owner told the judge that Gurdjieff had hypnotized him into breaking the lease, and Gurdjieff lost the case. For a man who could speak inside Ouspensky’s chest, it was probably not difficult to convince a landlord that Gurdjieff’s and his own best interests were indentical.1  Yet several years before, Gurdjieff had taken an oath never to use his powers for his own benefit – this “artificial life,” as he later called it, would act as an “alarm clock,” a permanent “wake up call” and stimulous to “self-remember.” If he did indeed use his powers in trying to secure the Hellerau, he either did not live up to his oath, or the oath, like so much else he said, was a story.


Ouspensky heard of Gurdjieff’s difficulties but, with characteristic discretion, spoke of them vaguely, mentioning only “strange events . . . which ended in legal proceedings.”3  He had by this time begun to write the account of his years with Gurdjieff. Eventually, after much agonizing, indecision, and retitling, this would appear posthumously as In Search of the Miraculous. We don’t know if Ouspensky ever asked Gurdjieff exactly what had happened in Dresden, although it would be naive to expect that if he did, he ever got a clear reply. He had the opportunity, though, because in February of 1922, Gurdjieff arrived in London.


Hearing of Ouspensky’s success, Gurdjieff, who had already struck out several times with his institute, decided to pay his ex-lieutenant a call. Ouspensky invited Gurdjieff to his lectures and introduced him to his following. His attitude, he says, had become more “definite.” As before, he still felt there was more to be gained from Gurdjieff’s work, and he decided to once again help him with his institute and the ongoing “Struggle of the Magicians,” still yet to see a performance. But Ouspensky was adamant: he, personally, could not work with Gurdjieff. Everything that had come between them before was still there.


His students felt otherwise. They were electrified by the master’s visit. At Warwick Gardens, some sixty people gathered to hear the message straight from the source. Gurdjieff’s presence was so impressive that for most of the time the audience sat in silence. On the platform, along with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, were Olga de Hartmann and Frank Pinder, acting as Gurdjieff’s translators. Gurdjieff launched into a talk on our many “I’s” and on the impossibility of altering our emotions through mere decision. After several minutes of stunned silence, one brave soul ventured a question. “What would it be like to be conscious in essence?” “Everything more vivid,” was the concise reply.


Almost at a stroke, Ouspensky had the rug pulled from under him. After hearing Gurdjieff, Orage, Ouspensky’s main catch, changed allegiances. “I knew that Gurdjieff was the teacher,” he declared. This was the general assessment, and when Gurdjieff announced that he was thinking of setting up his institute in London, we can imagine Ouspensky’s chagrin: he tells us that if this was the case, he would go to Paris or America. Yet, faithful to his ex-teacher, Ouspensky did everything he could to assist him, and his students collected enough money to pay for all of Gurdjieff’s troupe to come. No doubt thankful for this assistance, Gurdjieff himself was, however, not yet through with Ouspensky, and in a private meeting, he informed his renegade student that all his attempts to teach the system were worthless. His own development, too, was at risk. To save himself, he had to immediately and without reservation give up his pride and, as his wife currently was, once again become a student.


We can imagine Ouspensky’s response. When he rejected Gurdjieff’s advice, Gurdjieff took advantage of yet another lecture to announce to Ouspensky’s group that their teacher was neither mandated nor qualified to teach his – Gurdjieff’s – system, thus placing doubts on its source in the Sarmoung Brotherhood. Adding insult to injury, when Ouspensky noticed that Pinder’s translation was incorrect and mentioned this, Gurdjieff openly rebuked him. “Pinder is interpreting for me – not you,” Gurdjieff announced to the baffled group. The whole thing was clearly planned, and one can forgive Ouspensky for finding it difficult to not express some negative emotions that evening. It was one final “act” for which Ouspensky could never forgive Gurdjieff.


Gurdjieff later told Pinder that now Ouspensky’s students would have to choose a teacher. The faithful, like Pinder, saw in this nothing but Gurdjieff’s open-hearted concern that Ouspensky and his flock not be led astray. Less generous minds might see it otherwise: having failed in Tiflis, Constantinople, Berlin, and Dresden, Gurdjieff took advantage of Ouspensky’s success to try to set up his own establishment in London. Yet once again it was not to be. The institute opened, but Gurdjieff was denied the necessary visa. When he decided that now he would try France, Ouspensky no doubt heaved a sigh of relief.


With money collected by Ouspensky’s followers – mostly from Lady Rothermere and Ralph Philipson, a coal-mine millionaire – in July of 1922, Gurdjieff purchased a beautiful but run down chateau in Fontainebleau, about forty miles outside of Paris. The Prieure de Basses Loges had an interesting history, having been the home of Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Maintenon; then later a Carmelite monestery; and more recently the property of Fernand Labori, the defense lawyer in the famous Dreyfus affair. After Gurdjieff got his hands on it, its reputation reached new proportions. Here, finally, the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man would enjoy a solid base.


Almost immediately after the Prieure’s opening in September there was a gerneral exodus of Ouspensky’s students across the English Channel. Orage, Nicoll, Bennett, and many others left gray London for the enchanted forest of Fontainebleau. To Ouspensky it seemed that “a very motley company” had gathered there. Some were from St. Petersburg, some from Tiflis, some from Constantinople, some from his own London groups. Ouspensky felt that many who scampered off had acted too hastily, but they had already made up their minds to go, and there was little he could do. He himself arrived for his first visit toward the beginning of November. Although he discovered very interesting and animated work underway, Ouspensky felt that the whole project was not correctly organized and would prove unstable. As in Essentuki, the inhabitants did the housekeeping, gardening, cooking, and general all-round chores, but here the grounds were immense and the upkeep considerable. Gurdjieff lectured, and taught the movements, dances, and exercises.


The attraction of the Prieure, some of Ouspensky’s students had remarked, was that it seemed to offer a kind of shortcut. It did, via the strenuous pass called “super effort.” Having given up the New Age for Fontainebleau, the forty-nine-year-old Orage found himself digging a ditch and then filling it in again, several times. The “alarm clock” of not smoking, the hard labor, and Gurdjieff’s frequent piquant remarks soon had the portly editor in tears. Nicoll abandoned a lucrative Harley Street practice and arrived with his wife and infant child. He was saddled with the job of “kitchen boy.” Awakening at 5:00 AM, Nicoll lit the boilers and got the day started: by 11:00 PM he had washed hundreds of filthy, greasy dishes, cups, pots, and pans, without soap or hot water. His wife did the cooking. This went on for three months. For some reason, Gurdjieff singled Nicoll out as the general scapegoat and when, as often did, some mishap occurred, the master would shout “Nicoll!” and ape a gesture of despair. “More!” and “Quicker!” were the general commands, and Gurdjieff (to mix metaphores) was adept at shuffling the deck so that dozens of corns were stepped on each day, creating as he believed, the necessary friction of “yes and no.” But perhaps the greatest super effort was left for a child. The novelist Fritz Peters, brought to the Prieure as a young boy by his aunt Margaret Anderson, a member of the literary avant-garde, was required by Gurdjieff to mow the vast lawns of the grounds in increasingly less and less time, until at last the massive acreage was to be covered in one afternoon. It is a testament to the dedication Gurdjieff instilled – and to young Peter’s stamina – that he was successful at his chore.


One visitor to the Prieure who was not required to work was the writer Katharine Mansfield. An ex-mistress of Orage, who had more or less discovered her, she was introduced to Ouspensky when it was clear that she was already dying from tuberculosis. When Ouspensky spoke with her, she was, he said, “halfway to death.” She was determined to make the best use of her time, and for her this meant going to the Prieure. Ouspensky himself gave her the address. Later, meeting her on another visit to Fontainebleau, he spoke with her about her spiritual longings. She felt that she and everyone else were like the survivors of a shipwreck, cast ashore on an inhospitable island unaware of their predicament – a sentiment that Ouspensky, with his sense of the absurdity of life, no doubt appreciated. Gurdjieff, well aware that Mansfield’s last days were upon her, put her up in the Prieure’s barn, where, he said, breathing the air of cows would have a salutary effect. Whether it did or not is unknown, but from her letters, Katharine Mansfield’s last days seem to have been filled with a peculiar joy. Nevertheless, after her death at the beginning of 1923, Gurdjieff enjoyed the sinister reputation that colored much of his notoriety for the rest of his career. Around the same time, Ouspensky discovered that, in his absence, rumors had spread about Gurdjieff’s predilection for seducing his female students. With typical loyalty, Ouspensky squashed these, although he may have had reason to give them second thought.


Ouspensky made several trips to Fontainebleau, and on most of them, Gurdjieff invited him to live at the Prieure. Ouspensky declined. It was, he admitted tempting, but in the end Ouspensky said he could find no place there. Gurdjieff was not inclined to let Ouspensky go peaceably. One morning in London Ouspensky awoke to find a telegram from Sophie Grigorievna, requesting that he come to the Prieure immediately. When he did, Gurdjieff met him. He informed Ouspensky that he was not happy with many of his students and felt that the work was getting out of control. Assembling his pupils, Gurdjieff divided them into seven groups, the first of which included Orage, Dr. James Young (another psychosynthesizer), and Dr. Stoerneval. Gurdjieff then announced that only the first group could remain to work with him; all the others had to leave, including Ouspensky’s wife and step-daughter. If this wasn’t enough of a shock, he topped it off with another announcement: from that moment on he was breaking off all relations with Ouspensky. His dressing-down of his former student was now complete. It’s unclear what prompted this action, but evidence sadly points to some in-group bickering between Orage and Ouspensky over Ouspensky’s alleged “failure” to secure a British visa for Gurdjieff. There was also flak over remarks Ouspensky had made to a journalist. In an article about the Prieure in the London Daily News Ouspensky was quoted as saying, “Gurdjieff and I have reached our present state of knowledge by long hard work in many lands . . .”  The journalist himself wrote that “In Gurdjieff he [Ouspensky] found a kindred spirit who had gone farther on the same road.” For someone who had lectured much on the need not to identify with petty egoisms or to refrain from “inner considering” – basically, caring about what others might think of you – to be troubled by the loss of a little limelight seems baffling. Ouspensky had managed to raise the funds for the Prieure, and as a noted and respected author, his imprimatur in an article on Gurdjieff’s work could only have been to its advantage.


The fracas was enough to cause much friction, and it sadly highlights that even on the road to the miraculous, petty vendettas and the desire to win the guru’s approval were not absent. When Gurdjieff began to berate Ouspensky for not being more careful about the choice of people he allowed into the work – which was precisely Ouspensky’s concern regarding Gurdjieff’s own selection process – we can imagine Ouspensky had reached a limit. He continued to visit the Prieure, but every blandishment by Gurdjieff to tempt him to return and work was rejected.


Gurdjieff was, in any case, no longer banking everything on the possibility of drawing Ouspensky back. His ex-student had turned enough new material in his direction for him to consider other candidates for Ouspensky’s position. One was J. G. Bennett. On one of Bennett’s visits Gurdjieff invited him on a business trip to Melun – he was still, all the while, involved in several money-making schemes – and on the drive home (an initiation in itself, as Gurdjieff was an appalling driver) they turned onto a forest road. In a clearing they spoke in Turkish, and Gurdjieff informed Bennett of the vast plans he had in store. He intended to purchase more land on which he would build an observatory to study planetary movements. Gurdjieff told Bennett that he had great potential and that although the work was long, in his case, two years devoted to Gurdjieff’s teaching would be sufficient for him to work alone – a contradiction of his dictum that alone a man could do nothing. Bennett was clearly attracted to the idea but also had some hesitation. Gurdjieff then suggested that Bennett accompany him on his coming trip to America and act as his interpreter. After that, the master continued, he could give lectures on his own. Bennett considered the idea but in the end declined. Gurdjieff may have known that he would; when Bennett tried to speak with him about his decision, his teacher ignored him. When leaving the Prieure for London, Bennett couldn’t even find him to say goodbye. Bennett would remain Ouspensky’s student, and not until 1948, twenty-five years later, would he take up with Gurdjieff again.


Another target was Nicoll. Having lost interest in Bennett, Gurdjieff decided that Orage was his new man. But he evidently thought Orage could use some assistance, so he offered Nicoll the opportunity to accompany Orage to the New World. There is of course the possibility that Gurdjieff recognized the growing relationship between Nicoll and Ouspensky and thought it best to separate the two. As it happened, Nicoll, who had been at the Prieure for a year, had decided it was time to return to London and declined Gurdjieff’s offer. Gurdjieff’s reaction to this is unkown. In any case, in Orage he found an able and highly motivated exponent, and in December 1923, Orage and Dr. Stoerneval crossed the Atlantic, bringing the work to New York. Orage spent the next decade promoting Gurdjieff’s ideas in the United States, only to break with him when he contravened his teacher’s wishes and married Jessie Dwight, a young, strong-willed, independent woman who had no interest in Gurdjieff. At that point, when the tug-of-war between teacher and wife was at its height, Gurdjieff glared at the newlywed Jessie and warned, “If you keep my super-idiot from coming back to me, you boil in burning oil.”7  Most of Orage’s mission in America consisted of attempts to drum up cash for the Prieure, demands for which became incessant and, by Orage’s own admission, cost him much of the following he had diligently built up. It is to Orage’s credit that he eventually cashed in his chips, returned to England, and threw himself again into literary and journalistic work. He died in 1934, after giving a speech on economics over the BBC.







(pp. 201-210)



ON HIS RETURN from Fontainebleau, Nicoll resumed his place at Ouspensky’s lectures. At this time, Ouspensky was collecting the material that would eventually be published as A New Model of the Universe. On a visit to Ouspensky’s basement flat, Nicoll found him at work. Ouspensky, he wrote,


has the New Testament in German, French, Russian and English, and when he is speaking of a verse he looks at the translation in each of them and in the Greek version. He has a number of dictionaries in his room. He is fond of pencils sharpened to very fine points and always has several on the table. His mantelpiece is covered with old photographs, prints and packets of toning paper. He sits on a small uncomfortable chair. The walls are covered with a miscellaneous collection of pictures belonging to the landlord, all of which I have stared at many times without being able to remember any of them.1


Nicoll was responsible for bringing another important student into the fold. Resuming his Harley Street practice, Nicoll bumped into his old friend Kenneth Walker – like himself, a doctor who moonlighted as a writer. Walker had recently published a children’s book about Noah’s Ark, and, echoing Ouspensky, Nicoll told him of a group of people in London who were in the process of building an Ark themselves. Walker knew that Nicoll had given up his practice and thrown himself into a strange life with a mysterious Asian guru, and was at first put off by his friend’s remarks. Eventually he let himself be talked into going to one of Ouspensky’s meetings. He was to attend them for the next twenty-four years.


    Walker’s account of the early days of Ouspensky’s groups makes them sound like the clandestine meetings of a secret and illegal organization, a kind of modern-day Illuminati. Secret they may have been, but illegal they were not, and it’s difficult to decide whether the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere Ouspensky created was an expression of some mild paranoia or a kind of acting of his own. When Walker arrived at Warwick Gardens, he found a woman at the door who checked that his name was on the list. He then entered a room, bare except for several small chairs that faced a blackboard and a small table. A few paintings graced the walls, and a vase holding some artificial cherry blossoms sat on a windowsill. People arrived in twos and threes and kept to a studious silence. The audience looked intelligent, Walker thought, but not particularly interesting. Ouspensky arrived well after the announced start of the lecture. Walker found the chairs uncomfortable, and the whole atmosphere reminded him of the Presbyterian churches of his youth.


    At this point Ouspensky was a very solid man of medium height, whose closely cropped gray hair made Walker think he looked more like a scientist or lawyer than a mystic. Ouspensky sat at the table and, without looking at the audience, took a sheet of paper from his pocket. This he scrutinized for several seconds, held it a few inches from his pince-nez. Finally he turned to the group and said “Well?” before beginning a staccato talk on our illusory sense of “I.” It was, more or less, a routine he would maintain for the next seven years. He encouraged the group to test everything he said. “Faith,” he told them, “is not wanted here . . . To accept something on trust, when you can prove it or disprove it, is laziness.” When a woman asked about art, suggesting that Leonardo, Michelangelo, and other greats could not have been entirely mechanical, Ouspensky disagreed. There was no attempt to argue, convince, or cajole. To Walker, Ouspensky seemed “so detached from everything that I felt even an explosion would fail to shake him.” Then, abruptly, the talk was over.


    At the end of the meeting, Walker asked if there would be another next week. He was advised to leave his telephone number; he would, perhaps, receive a call. Then, as he was leaving, he saw the secretary tell a group of people who were talking in front of the doorway to disperse. Walker was baffled by the need for secrecy; nevertheless, Ouspensky himself seemed impressive and Walker wanted to know more. After attending a few more meetings, Walker requested a personal interview.


    When he arrived at Gwendyr Road, Walker had to wait, as Ouspensky was busy developing some photographs. Walker took the opportunity to examine the room. A bed ran along one wall, with two chairs opposite it, one on either side of a gas fire. On another wall was a low bookcase. On a table in the center of the room Walker found an assortment of things: books, papers, a typewriter, photographs, some old prints, letters, a camera, a galvanometer, and a scientific instrument of some unidentifiable kind. There was a half-empty tin of sardines on the mantelpiece, along with some bread and cheese and an unwashed plate, knife, and fork. To Walker all this suggested a “nice disregard for the inconveniences of which life is chiefly composed.”3  When Ouspensky returned, he turned on the gas fire and both men sat down. Walker then discovered how difficult it was to “have a conversation with a man who would answer questions, but initiate nothing himself.” After a few general questions – one of which, “Why are you giving these lectures?,” made Ouspensky laugh – the meeting ran out of steam. One nugget of wisdom did pass between them: “To have a clearly defined aim in life is of the very greatest importance,” Ouspensky told his increasingly uncomfortable guest. Walker no doubt appreciated this, but his general impression was of Ouspensky’s impersonality. Ouspensky was, he said, a man who remained far away.4


    With the exception of Nicoll, Ouspensky’s reticence was a character trait that most who came into close contact with him would experience. Bennett remarks that after returning to London from the Prieure, he wanted very much to speak with Ouspensky about a profound experience he had with “super efforts,” when, like Ouspensky, he had broken through his resistance and reached the Great Accumulator. But when he tried, he found Ouspensky unresponsive. And when he did talk about Gurdjieff’s remarks about different energies and their different speeds, Ouspensky showed little interest.


    Chances are that Ouspensky wasn’t interested; to his detriment, as the years went by, he showed less and less interest in any ideas outside of his own obsessions. But another factor was also at work. At one point Mrs. Beaumont had spoken of her misgivings about Gurdjieff to Ouspensky and asked if he thought he was a good man. At that time Ouspensky assured her that he was. Now he had second thoughts.


In January 1924, at the apartment of Ralph Philipson, his main financial supporter, Ouspensky called together his key students and informed them that he was breaking off all contact with Gurdjieff. Although they knew that for several years relations between the two had not been cordial, the announcement was nevertheless a shock. Ouspensky asked for their ideas on how they should continue. After a few remarks he concluded that in the future, his groups would work independently of the Prieure; this meant that they would have to choose between working with him or with Gurdjeff. If they chose him, it meant they could have no contact with Gurdjieff. After several minutes of silence, it took Philipson, a no-nonsense Northumberland businessman, to ask the obvious question: why?


“Gurdjieff is a very extraordinary man,” Ouspensky replied. “His possibilities are much greater than those of people like ourselves. But he can also go the wrong way. I believe that he is now passing through a crisis, the outcome of which no one can foresee. Most people have many ‘I’s’. . . But with Gurdjieff there are only two ‘I’s’; one very good and one very bad. I believe that in the end the good ‘I’ will conquer. But in the meantime it is very dangerous to be near him.”5


And if the good “I” didn’t win, someone asked?


“He could go mad. Or else he could attract to himself some disaster in which all those round him would be involved.”6


Six months later it seemed that Ouspensky had been right.


Orage’s American mission was a success, and after a celebrated performance of the “movements” at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, Gurdjieff headed across the Atlantic. He and his dance troupe were a hit in New York, and the charming and intellectually effervescent Orage introduced Gurdjieff to dozens of literary, artistic, and professional admirers, building up groups and a strong body of dedicated students. In June, Gurdjieff returned to France. Back at the Prieure, although he had broken ties with his master, Ouspensky once again paid a visit to Gurdjieff. About this occasion Margaret Anderson remarked that, sitting at Gurdjieff’s left at a lavish dinner, Ouspensky acted like a small boy, flushed with the Armagnac forced upon him.7 Knowing Ouspensky’s fondness for spirits, it’s difficult to conceive of drinks being “forced” on him, and Anderson’s account suffers from the same considerations as those of others trying to earn points with the master. It’s curious though that Ouspensky, having drawn a line in January, was again a guest of Gurdjieff. Perhaps he was investigating the reports he had heard about Gurdjieff’s relations with his admiring female students. Or perhaps he was visiting his wife.


On July 8, Gurdjieff and Olga de Hartmann were in Paris, scheduled to return to the Prieure that afternoon. The two had made the trip together several times, and Olga showed great bravery riding with Gurdjieff, who, as Ouspensky remarked, drove a car as if he were riding a horse. On that day, before heading back, Gurdjieff asked Olga to take his Citroen to a mechanic and have the steering checked; he also signed over to her his power of attorney and, in a final odd decision, ordered her to take the train, leaving him to drive alone. Used to her master’s strange requests, Olga complied, although it was a hot day and the train would be sweltering. At the intersection of the Paris-Fontainebleau and the N 168 roads from Versailles, traveling at around 70 mph, Gurdjieff’s car swerved off the road and smashed head-on into a stone embankment, then came to a halt at a tree. The Citroen was wrecked. Gurdjeff was found by a passing policeman, his head resting gently on a car cushion. He was unconscious and covered in blood, and had suffered a massive concussion.


How his head got on the cushion remains a mystery. It’s inconceivable that he and it were thrown out of the wreck in so neat a fashion. Yet how he could crawl out and arrange it himself, given the injuries he sustained, is equally baffling. Brought first to a hospital, and then to the Prieure, he remained unconscious for five days, kept alive by oxygen. It would take him months to recover. As Ouspensky had in Finland, Olga de Hartmann, in Paris waiting for her train, heard Gurdjieff’s voice speaking to her. By all accounts this happened around the same time as the accident.


But was it an accident? Suspicion remains that Gurdjieff somehow arranged it; the precautions he took beforehand suggest as much. Yet he was also an abysmal driver, and the other factors could be coincidence. As one writer suggests, he may have wanted an excuse to close down the Prieure and relieve himself of his students – many of them, at least. In any case, from Ouspensky’s perspective, the signs were all too clear. Gurdjeff had transgressed, lost contact with the Source, and, as Ouspensky had predicted, brought retribution upon his head. Gurdjieff’s accident effectively put an end to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Visitors came, and he occupied the grounds for another decade, but for all intents and purposes, this phase of the work was over.


When Ouspensky heard about the accident, he was stunned. Although he had foreseen something like it, the fact that Gurdjieff had fallen victim to an accident was peculiarly upsetting. Gurdjieff was supposed to be outside “the law of accident.” Having worked on himself, having achieved the level of Man Number Five – possibly more – he was supposed to be under “the law of fate,” and to have rid himself of a few of the forty-eight laws under which man on the Earth is compelled to live. Yet he had now suffered something as mundane and stupid as a car crash.


Ouspensky confided his fears to his friend Boris Mouravieff. He, too, had succeeded in escaping Constantinople; unlike Ouspensky, he had found a home in Paris, where, he reports, Ouspensky visited him often. Mouravieff would also come to London, although for some reason Ouspensky never introduced him to his students. Mouravieff had met Gurdjieff in Constantinople and he visited him sometimes in Paris, but, by his own admission, he never came under his spell. He was in fact very critical of Ouspensky’s relationship with his teacher. From his perspective, Ouspensky’s romantic “search” had left him open to abuse, a vulnerability that Gurdjieff took full advantage of; Gurdjieff’s domination of Ouspensky was “calculated and perfectly established from the very beginning.”8  Mouravieff in fact found this to be true of most of Gurdjieff’s students. Gurdjieff’s whole system, he believed, was little more than a means of bringing people under his control. Gurdjieff’s method of convincing his students that they were merde left them in a condition in which he could propose “any absurdity to his disciples, perhaps even a monstrosity, and be sure in advance that it would be accepted with . . . enthusiasm.” When Mouravieff brought this up, Gurdjieff’s students would look at him with contempt, yet an anecdote told by Bennett suggests Mouravieff may have been right. Gurdjieff, Bennett said, had “ruthless methods of getting rid of those he did not want. He seemed to invite and yet to detest a kind of stupid adoration . . . One lady was particularly foolish about him, and he played a cruel trick on her that showed me how seriously we should take his warning to trust nothing and no one, and especially not himself.”10  At a formal tea one afternoon, Gurdjieff informed this particularly adoring follower that the best way to enjoy ice cream was with mustard. When she dutifully returned with the mustard pot, he shouted, “You see what is round idiot! She all the time idiot! Why you here?”  The poor woman burst into tears, packed her bags and left.11  She was of course foolish, but it’s difficult not to suspect that Gurdjieff felt no qualms about making an example of her. Mouravieff may have only been taking Gurdjieff at his word when he warned he was not to be trusted.


Mouravieff was involved with editing and translating the manuscript of Fragments of an Unknown Teaching and so was privy to Ouspensky’s account of his relationship with Gurdjieff, a subject about which the friends were prone to argue. At one point Mouravieff believed that Ouspensky, for all his criticisms, still remained under some kind of hypnotic spell. This came out particularly when Ouspensky came to Paris and, with Mouravieff, visited the site of Gurdjieff’s crash. Inspecting the scene, Ouspensky fell into a deep silence, then turned to Mouravieff. “I am scared,” he said. “It is frightful . . . The institute of Georges Ivanovitch was precisely created to escape from the law of accident . . . I am still asking myself if it is really pure accident? Gurdjieff has always sold integrity, as well as the human personality in general, very cheaply. Has he not surpassed the measure? I tell you, I am terribly frightened!”


The two friends went on to Fontainebleau, where Ouspensky asked Mouravieff to telephone his step-daughter at the Prieure. Mouravieff was told she was not there. At lunch, Ouspensky kept returning to the question of integrity, linking this with Gurdjieff’s accident. Then suddenly Ouspensky dropped the subject; Mouravieff prodded him several times, but he refused to speak about it. That evening, back in Paris at a bar in Montmartre, Mouravieff persisted and Ouspensky finally spoke his thoughts. “Suddenly,” Mouravieff writes, “his expression changed. I had the impression then that before me existed another man – no longer the one with whom I had spent such an agreeable evening . . . He turned to me abruptly and said, ‘Imagine that a member of the family had committed a serious crime; nobody would want to talk about it.'”12


At that point, Mouravieff remarks, he felt afraid. Was Ouspensky’s reluctance to talk about the affair a sign of Gurdjieff’s hypnotic domination? Or was it more simple? Ouspensky believed in Gurdjieff and, through him, in the work. Now he saw that Gurdjieff was not awake, at least not all of the time. More than likely, all his doubts and the illicit rumors he had heard came to mind as well. It was at this point, Mouravieff says, that Ouspensky’s heavy drinking began. Their Paris evenings were habitually capped by long sessions in a variety of Montmartre bars. At this point a note of sadness enters the story. Later Ouspensky would say that after the accident Gurdjieff went insane. Others would make similar remarks. Gurdjieff himself provided some of the strongest reasons for their suspicions, mostly in the form of his books Herald of Coming Good and the monumental Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, two of the most unclassifiable works ever produced with a pen.13







Chapter 17.  “He Could Go Mad”


1. Pogson, Maurice Nicoll, p. 95


2. Kenneth Walker, Venture with Ideas (London: Jonathan Cape, 1951), pp. 24-26


3. Ibid., p. 40


4. Ibid., pp. 43-44


5. Bennett, Witness, p. 126. Another possible reason, one that the discreet Ouspensky would not mention, is that he had discovered the truth about the rumors concerning Gurdjieff and his female students.


6. Ibid.


7. Margaret Anderson, The Unknowable Gurdjieff (New York: Weiser, 1970), pp. 83-84


8. Mouravieff, Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and the Work, pp. 11-12


9. Ibid, p. 16


10. Bennett, Witness, p. 111


11. Thomas de Hartmann tells another story. At one point he asked Gurdjieff if he had to place complete confidence in him and fulfill unquestioningly all he advised him to do. Gurdjieff replied, “Certainly, on the whole it is so. But if I begin to teach you masturbation, will you listen to me?” (Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff, p. 66). This raises the question of the “double-bind” students find themselves in regarding the dictums of their teacher. By definition the teacher is above the level of the student, and so the student is in no position to judge the teacher’s actions. Yet if one is not to be a “round idiot,” one is supposed to use common sense and think for oneself, something Gurdjieff warned was a sure road to disaster. If you do this, you are an idiot; if you don’t, you exhibit self-will. It’s a no-win situation. And if the answer is that the student is supposed to outgrow the need for the teacher, then why, in several instances, does the teacher urge the student to depend on him? It seems the best way to obey your teacher is to disobey him – which suggests that those who rejected Gurdjieff were several steps ahead of the game.


12. Mouravieff, Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and the Work, pp. 20-21


13. Aside from Meetings with Remarkable Men, all of Gurdjieff’s writings pose severe obstacles for the reader. The outrageous claims, the jaw-breaking neologisms, and boa-constrictor syntax are enough to put off the average person, and even the most dedicated seekers have a difficult time discovering what Gurdjieff is trying to say, let alone understanding it. No work presents these hurdles more relentlessly than Beelezebub’s Tales to His Grandson, a 1200-page science-fiction epic made up of the conversation between Beelzebub (one of the names, we remember, of the Devil) and his grandson as they hurtle through the cosmos in the spaceship Karnak. Here Gurdjieff opines freely and at length on everything from the creation of the universe to feminism. Responses to this situation differ widely. Orage remarked that Gurdjieff’s writings demand to be read “from the real heart” and that in them he found “a parallel with the Bible.” Bennett claimed to have read Beelzebub’s Tales dozens of times. Claude Bragdon commented that reading Gurdjieff’s prose was like “bumping over cobblestones,” and Rom Landau remarked that “it gave you in many instances the impression of the work of a man who was no longer sane.”


Followers argue that the difficulties are intentional, another example of Gurdjieff not making anything easy for his students. Others remark that he was simply an atrocious writer, while still others, like the psychologist Anthony Storr, suggest that Gurdjieff’s prose style displays a tendency towards “schizotypy.” While not schizophrenic, schizotypic people display certain behaviors and characteristics associated with mental disorder. One of these is a penchant for neologism – inventing new words – something Gurdjieff seems quite fond of. Another is a pompous, bombastic style – again a quality familiar to Gurdjieff’s readers. Another is a detached, affectless demeanor and a tendency toward megalomania. Gurdjieff’s remark to C. S. Nott about his working to achieve a condition to which “nothing from outside could touch [him] internally” suggests the first, while, to give only one example, Gurdjieff’s fantastic claims about future projects found in Herald of Coming Good suggest the second. Gurdjieff, of course, is not alone in displaying these traits . . . but coupled with some of his more outrageous actions, it is difficult for the question of his sanity – for sake of a better word – not to arise. A catalog of Gurdjieff’s “crazy” behaviour would require a book, but a few instances do reveal, if nothing more, a clear predilection for the bizarre. After his mother’s death in 1925, Gurdjieff erected a gravestone that read “Here lies the mother of one who sees himself forced by her death to write a book Les Opiumistes.” She was well over eighty and her death was no shock, while the book was never written. Two telegrams sent to Orage in 1930 were signed “Grandson and Unique phenomenal Grandmother” and “Ambassador from Hell.” In Paris in 1944, at the death bed of the novelist Luc Dietrich, Gurdjieff produced two oranges and informed him that this was the most important day of his life. The announcement for Herald of Coming Good read “First Appeal to Contemporary Humanity” and was priced “From 8 to 108 French Francs.” The book was ill-received and was quickly withdrawn and repudiated.


All this, of course, can be understood as part of Gurdjieff’s unique method, his “crazy guru” style. But perhaps living in France – for many years in Paris – rubbed off: Gurdjieff was aware of the surrealist climate and so made use of it. Yet, to this writer at least, too many of these explanations are as far-fetched as what they want to explain. I, for one, can make no sense of several of Gurdjieff’s remarks, which strike me as in-jokes couched in an exceedingly private language, another schizotypic habit. But then, like Ouspensky, I would no doubt have been exasperated by Gurdjieff’s “acting.” Added to his often arbitrary behavior, his sudden mood swings from ferocious rage to solicitous concern, and his seeming need to dominate others and unwillingness to accept them on their own terms, his writings suggest, to me at least, a personality radically unlike most people’s. This, of course, is what attracted many people to him.







THE REQUIEM SERVICE  for Peter Demian Ouspensky was held at the Russian Church in Pimlico, London. The service’s closing verse seemed peculiarly apt for its recipient:


Give rest eternal in the blessed falling asleep, O Lord,
To the soul thy servant departed this life,
And make his memory eternal.
Memory eternal!
Memory eternal!
Memory eternal!


Once, during  a stay in Paris, Madam and Ouspensky sat at a cafe with some students, and though the students tried their best to communicate, Ouspensky seemed peculiarly withdrawn. Perhaps speaking to both her husband and her pupils, Madam remarked that it was “very hard to make a friend of Mr. Ouspensky.” This was a verdict that some of his oldest students shared at the end of their teacher’s life. For Kenneth Walker, Ouspensky had been linked in his mind with his parents: “As I had always respected, but never really known, my father, so had I always respected but never really knew Ouspensky . . . As human being and human being we two had never met.”1  This from a man who had been Ouspensky’s pupil for twenty-four years. J. G. Bennett felt much the same. Hearing of Ouspensky’s death, Bennett “felt a great love towards him, such as I had never known while he was alive.” A “great cycle” of his own life had closed, spanning twenty-seven years, and Bennett felt “love and gratitude” toward his ex-teacher. But he “felt no nearer to him then than [he] had before.”2  C. S. Nott was also saddened by the news. He had liked Ouspensky and believed he was a good man. But he could not forgive him one mistake, that “kink in him [that] had caused him to reject Gurdjieff as a teacher.”


And what did Gurdjieff think? According to one report, after their break Gurdjieff “nearly always spoke of Ouspensky in scathing terms as one who exploited his ideas; brought many of his pupils grief . . . even caused their death; and who, if he had not left Gurdjieff to set up on his own, need not have ‘perished like a dog.'”3  To “perish like a dog” was the reward one earned for not working on oneself, a fate Gurdjieff used as a favorite threat to put the fear of the Lord – or himself – into his students. But had Ouspensky “perished like a dog”? Gurdjieff was not known for sentimentality, and in the Fourth Way there is, at least according to Bennett, a peculiar custom known as the “way of blame,” part of which entails speaking less than kindly about the dead. When Alexandre de Salzmann, one of Gurdjieff’s closest pupils, was dying of tuberculosis, Gurdjieff refused to visit him. When de Salzmann finally summoned the strength to see Gurdjieff at the Cafe Henri IV, the master was, according to one witness, “not very kind”.4  De Salzmann died a few days later. Yet when he heard of the death of Orage, Gurdjieff shed tears and whispered, “I loved Orage like a brother.” Clearly the master’s response to the demise of his students was unpredictable and, like everything else about him, open to many interpretations.


Then again, perhaps some students of Ouspensky’s received final words about their teacher that have not come down to us, since after Ouspensky’s death, many of them found their way to Gurdjieff.


“You are sheep without a shepherd. Come to me.” This was the telegram that Gurdjieff sent to Lyne after hearing of his ex-pupil’s demise. Until Ouspensky’s death, many there knew Gurdjieff only as a name, and one hardly spoken at that. He may have been dead, he may have been mad, he may have been a black magician. Now, with the loss of their own teacher, they had an opportunity to find out. Ouspensky’s death, the strange circumstances surrounding it, and his last, startling meetings had thrown his London students into chaos. Some gathered around Rodney Collin; others followed Francis Roles. And others took Madame’s advice when she told them there was only one thing to do: go to Gurdjieff. He was neither dead nor mad and was still teaching in Paris. He was, as he said, a shepherd, and was always open to increasing his flock.


Some went, but not all. Maurice Nicoll declined the invitation and carried on with his groups until his death in 1953. Rodney Collin followed his own star. Francis Roles carried on Ouspensky’s teaching “according to the letter of the System” as best he could; eventually he would align himself with Alan McLaren of the School of Economic Science and, in the early 1960s, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Others did go, but not for long. Disgusted with Mendham, in 1948 de Ropp met Whm Nyland, then Gurdjieff’s US representative, and through him was led to the master. For de Ropp, Gurdjieff was “the most extraordinary human being” he had ever met. He practiced the movements and got used to being told that he and his companions moved “like worms in shit.” But de Ropp, fond of nature and wholesome living, quickly grew to loath the ambience of Gurdjieff’s late years: crowded, smoky hotel rooms, the many disciples, the endless lunches, and, most of all, the famous “toasts to the idiots.” He had already seen enough alcohol around Ouspensky. Gurdjieff seemed old and sad, and in any case, remembering Gurdjieff’s remark about guinea pigs, de Ropp reflected on his own experiments with those animals and concluded that they were stupid creatures. He soon left. Kenneth Walker led a brigade of Ouspensky’s followers to Gurdjieff’s Paris apartment, where he and his wife, both teetotalers, were also subjected to the toasts. Although he too recognized Gurdjiefff’s power and wrote a few books on the work, he seems to have quietly withdrawn from the scene. He died in 1966.


The one student of Ouspensky’s who remained with Gurdjieff was Bennett. Following Madam’s advice, in 1948 Bennett went to Gurdjieff’s apartment on the Rue de Colonels Renard and, twenty-five years to the month, tried to pick up their conversation where they had left it, back at the Prieure in 1923. For many years after, in the English-speaking world, aside from Gurdjieff and Ouspensky themselves, Bennett’s name was the one most associated with the work. Yet he, like Rodney Collin, found himself moving in other directions, becoming a devotee of Subud, Hinduism, and finally, Roman Catholicism. At one point he was convinced by Idries Shah, the writer on Sufism, to hand over the ownership of Coombe Springs, a spiritual community along the lines of the Prieure and Lyne. Shah had convinced Bennett that he was a representative of the Masters of Wisdom (another name for the Inner Circle) and that by donating Coombe Springs he would be helping them in their work. After Bennett agreed, Shah promptly sold the property for a considerable sum.


Gurdjieff survived Ouspensky by two years and twenty-seven days, dying on October 29, 1949, also in strange circumstances. The coroner who performed the autopsy allegedly remarked that Gurdjieff should have been dead years before, as all his internal organs were nearly destroyed. Against her husband’s wishes, Madam had sent her master the manuscript of Fragments, asking if he thought it should be published. Legend has it that Gurdjieff said, “Before I hate Ouspensky, now I love him. This very exact, he tell what I say.” In Search of the Miraculous, the account of his life with Gurdjieff that Ouspensky had refused to publish, is now the most widely read book on the work.


* * *


Throughout this book I’ve tried to keep my own remarks to a minimum, contenting myself with providing the “evidence” and wanting the story of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to more or less tell itself. Yet having “lived” with Ouspensky during the months of research and writing – vicariously, it’s true, yet nonetheless intensely – I can’t come away without asking a question, one, I suspect, most readers will find themselves asking as well: what went wrong? For clearly something had. How did the author of one of the most exhilarating and optimistic books on philosophy and metaphysics, Tertium Organum, end his days in sadness, depression, self-abuse, and a complete rejection of his life’s work? For myself, it’s clear that Ouspensky’s final meetings, when he denied even the existence of the system he had taught for more than twenty-five years, put an end to his life in the work and was not, as some of his followers believed, beginning a new phase of it. Through a supreme effort of will and with blistering honesty, Ouspensky publicly announced that he had made a mistake. The system didn’t work – or, at least, it didn’t achieve the goal he had believed it would. Had he suspected this earlier? More than likely. The fact that he considered some of his closest students “fools,” as well as the fact that he no longer saw himself as an explorer of man’s “possible evolution” but felt he was merely going through the motions of a job, suggest that he had had misgivings for some time before his final, liberating confession. He had banked everything on the methods and ideas he had learned from Gurdjieff. And he was wrong.


But perhaps there were other mistakes as well. For me, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest it was a mistake for Ouspensky to abandon his own creativity and ideas to become an exponent of Gurdjieff’s teaching. That teaching was new, formidable, intellectually impressive and, with Gurdjieff himself as an example of the possibilities it offered, very attractive, especially for a scrupulously honest man like Ouspensky, who had the courage to admit that his own efforts at securing the miraculous were not successful. And yet, as Colin Wilson points out, there was a streak of pessimism in Ouspensky that prevented him from seeing how successful his efforts really were. Although he felt he had not profited by them, during his nitrous oxide experiments Ouspensky had glimpsed the deeper reality underlying our world of space and time. If nothing else, a reading of Tertium Organum alone confirms this. For my taste, nothing Gurdjieff wrote, nor any other Fourth Way book, approaches Ouspensky’s first work in its enthusiasm, insight, brilliance, and ability to convey difficult ideas with seemingly effortless clarity. Yet some lack of confidence, some sense perhaps of his own weakness, led him to reject his early work and instead devote himself to a search for people who were successful at grasping the miraculous and could perhaps show him how it could be done. His romanticism prompted him to believe that somewhere there existed a different life, a world without byt, without the boring necessities of the wooden world he returned to after his nitrous oxide excursions, a world devoted solely to the miraculous. Hence his readiness for Gurdjieff.


Here, I believe, Ouspensky’s own thoroughness and dedication worked against him. For once having accepted the system, he stuck to it with an admirable but ultimately counterproductive tenacity. And here, perhaps, Gurdjieff is to blame. Gurdjieff’s insistence on our mechanicalness, our sleep, our utter lack of will, freedom or ability to do, led Ouspensky to believe that without the system there was no hope. His pessimism about his efforts, combined with his insight into human folly, suggested that, unpalatable as it was, Gurdjieff’s grim assessment of mankind was correct. Peter may have believed in the transformative power of art, poetry, nature, and love, but Demian was too aware of humankind’s perennial predilection for self-deception.


Demian, it seems, won out, but clearly he was helped by the efforts of his teacher, Gurdjieff. If Ouspensky had doubted himself less, or if his hunger to find the miraculous had been less urgent, he might have shrugged off his master’s endless chiding, reprimands, criticisms, and rebukes and much sooner gone his own way, assimilating what he had learned and synthesizing it with his own insights. But as we saw at the outset, Ouspensky was prime material for the struggle between “yes and no.” His intellect and drive were powerful enough for him to recognize that he was an exceptional man. Yet his very honesty prevented him from lying to himself about his success in finding the miraculous. And then, to meet a man who knew, a man whose very presence spoke of mastery and power – to the romantic intellectual, aware of his own shortcomings, such a man must have made an extraordinary impression. The fact, too, that Ouspensky had lost both his father and grandfather when very young must be brought into the equation. One part of him, the fiercely independent philosopher, wanted to scale the heights of higher consciousness on his own; another, self-conscious, self-doubting, wanted no doubt to win the magician’s approval. “Yes and No” pulled at him from the start, and it was not until his last days that the tug of war ended and Peter emerged once again, sadly, with little time left to do more than regret his mistake.


It is clear to me that Gurdjieff was wrong to hammer away at Ouspensky, and this suggested that the infallible master had his blind spots. Either Gurdjieff was unable to see Ouspensky’s own powers and abilities, or his need to dominate was too great. It is true, Ouspensky could have left whenever he wanted to. Some need, some weakness prevented him from cutting the ties earlier or, indeed, ever: although physically separated from Gurdjieff, it’s clear that Ouspensky was never very far from him in his mind or heart. Was it a salutary lesson to continually and without remorse hold Ouspensky’s weakness up to him and to others as well? Clearly Ouspensky loved Gurdjieff and wanted his approval. Yet Gurdjieff had learned the virtues of separating his inner life from the world outside, and no doubt he saw Ouspensky’s affection as just another manifestation of mechanicalness. And if the object was to get Ouspensky to stand on his own two feet, then why did Gurdjieff undermine all of Ouspensky’s efforts to do that, why did he go out of his way to humiliate him? Gurdjieff, too, perhaps had a weakness, a need to dominate and master the people around him. Like some sadly dysfunctional relationships, in many ways the two were made for each other.


It is no mystery, then, what had happened to turn the poetic author of Ivan Osokin and Tertium Organum into an often humorless, dour, and unapproachable teacher, a position he was not truly suited for. Gurdjieff had happened. In the presence of the great master, poetic, life-loving Peter felt somehow childish and immature, all his philosophy and love of beauty and goodness were made to seem mere adolescent romanticism. So he changed himself, “worked on himself,” until that weakness disappeared and he became hard. This is why in later life he dismissed his students’ remarks about higher consciousness, mysticism, and the miraculous. His dismissals were, no doubt, directed at himself as much as at them; no one is as rigorous in rejecting a former self than the converted. But Peter never really disappeared. He was only hidden, and over time he gradually returned – regrettably, too late. It was unkind of Madame Ouspensky to laugh at her husband’s attempts to reach the Inner Circle, but in a way she was right. Ouspensky did not need to find the source of Gurdjieff’s ideas, which in any case was more than likely Gurdjieff’s own fertile mind. He did not need to find an esoteric school. He did not, perhaps, even need to find the miraculous. It was only at the end of his life that he realized what the real goal of his journey was: himself. One hopes that the next time around, this insight, perhaps the most valuable of the many he passed on to his students, comes to him sooner.