Gurdjieff International Review
Gurdjieff, G. I.
by Michel de Salzmann
By the term consciousness Gurdjieff understood something far more than mental awareness and functioning. According to him, the capacity for consciousness requires a harmonious blending of the distinctive energies of mind, feeling, and body, and it is this alone that can allow the action within man of those higher influences associated with such traditional notions as nous, buddhi, or atman. From this perspective, man as we find him is actually an unfinished being unconsciously led by his automatic conditioning under the sway of external stimuli. The wide variety of Gurdjieffs methods may all be understood as instrumental toward realizing self-consciousness and the spiritual attributes of real manthat is, will, individuality, and objective knowledge. These methods and his teaching about the evolution of man are implicated in a vast network of cosmological ideas that are spelled out in his own writings and in P. D. Ouspenskys In Search of the Miraculous (New York, 1949).
During his lifetime, notwithstanding the sensationalistic press accounts written about him during the 1920s, Gurdjieff was almost unknown outside his circle of followers. From the 1950s onward, however, his ideas began to spread both through the publication of his own writings and through the testimonies of his pupils. His exceptional personal character, especially his genius for using every circumstance of life as a means for helping his pupils feel the whole truth about themselves, gave rise to numerous misleading accounts that for many years overshadowed the integrity of his ideas. Today, however, the Gurdjieff teaching has emerged out of this background of rumor and innuendo to be recognized as one of the most penetrating spiritual teachings of modern times.
Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol in the southern Transcaucasian part of Russia. His father was Greek and his mother Armenian. Exceptionally gifted, as a boy he was favored with tutors from the Orthodox church and was precociously schooled for both the priesthood and medicine. Convinced that the thread of perennial esoteric knowledge was somewhere still preserved, he left the academic path to engage himself in a quest for ultimate answers. For some twenty years (18941912) he pursued his searchmostly in Inner Asia and the Middle Eastfor the core of the ancient traditions. This chapter of his life remains a mystery, although the significant events are recounted in his autobiographical narrative Meetings with Remarkable Men.
In 1913 Gurdjieff appeared in Moscow with a fully developed teaching and began to organize around him groups of pupils drawn mainly from the intelligentsia. From then on the outline of his life can be more clearly traced. Both the Russian writer P. D. Ouspensky and the composer Thomas de Hartmann describe the continuity of his work throughout the hardships of the Bolshevik Revolution and the journey that brought him and his followers to the Caucasus (1917), then to Constantinople (1920), and finally to Fontainebleau, France, south of Paris, where in 1922 he was able to establish on a firmer basis his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré dAvon.
The institutes doctrine and experimental methods soon attracted many leading artists and intellectuals from England and the United States, who came to meet Gurdjieff and eventually work with him. Most of them, like Maurice Nicoll, Jane Heap, and Katherine Mansfield, had been introduced to the teaching by A. R. Orage, the noted critic and editor of The New Age, and by P. D. Ouspensky.
In early 1924, Gurdjieff made his first visit to the United States, accompanied by a large group of pupils, where, mainly in New York, he gave a series of public performances of his work on sacred dances. His aim was to show the forgotten principles of an objective science of movements and to demonstrate its specific role in the work of spiritual development.
In the summer of 1924, after a nearly fatal automobile accident, Gurdjieff decided to reduce the activities of his institute and the circle of his followers, and to secure the legacy of his ideas in written form. By 1934, he had completed the first two series of his writings and part of the third. In the meantime he maintained contact with his older pupils, returned twice to the United States (in 1929 and 1933), and settled definitely in Paris.
In 1935, Gurdjieff resumed his work with groups, assisted by Jeanne de Salzmann, his closest disciple, who was later responsible for the continuation of his work. Although extreme discretion was demanded of his followers, the groups in France expanded continuously, even throughout the war, and included outstanding figures in literature, art, and medicine, such as René Daumal, Kathryn Hulme, and P. L. Travers. After the war, Gurdjieffs international family of pupils again gathered around him. He made his last visit to America in December 1948 and in spite of illness continued his work intensively until his death, in Paris, on 29 October of the following year.
Beelzebubs Tales to His Grandson, first published in English in 1950, is his masterpiece, an unprecedentedly vast and panoramic view of mans entire life on Earth as seen by beings from a distant world. Through a cosmic allegory and under the cloak of discursive anecdotes and provocative linguistic elaborations, it conveys the essentials of Gurdjieffs teaching. Meetings with Remarkable Men, published in 1963, tells the tale of Gurdjieffs youth and his unremitting search for knowledge. Gurdjieff originally intended to complete his trilogy with a final series entitled Life Is Real Only Then, When I Am; the manuscript, however, was never completed, and part of it was lost. The remaining part, raw and fragmentary, was published in 1981. Views from the Real World, published in 1973, is a collection of talks given by Gurdjieff and recorded by his pupils in the 1920s. Gurdjieff also left a considerable amount of music, composed in collaboration with Thomas de Hartmann. Some of this music was used to accompany the movements and sacred dances that constituted an essential part of Gurdjieffs teaching and that have been documented and preserved by his pupils.
The specific work and correlative research proposed by Gurdjieff have been carried on and expanded, under the guidance of his pupils, through foundations and societies in most major cities in the Western world. A number of other groups have also appeared, which, though not connected with his pupils, claim to follow Gurdjieff or to have some relation to his teaching.
This essay was previously published in The Encyclopedia of Religion, 16 Volumes, Mircea Eliade, editor in chief, New York: Macmillan, 1987.
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Featured: Fall 1999 Issue, Vol. III (1)
Revision: October 1, 1999