The Anatomy of a Myth

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

Mention Gurdjieff to most people today and you will be greeted by a blank look. Between the two world wars it would have been different; and if television had existed at the time there is no doubt that the man, and his establishment at Fontainebleau outside Paris, would have been the subject of a documentary. Many intellectuals stayed there for varying periods, and the writer Katharine Mansfield died there of tuberculosis; an event that led to much criticism at the time.

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was a major Western guru, whose influence can be detected in many modern esoteric movements dedicated to spiritual development, rather as Freud's influence is seen in many forms of psychotherapy that are not formally linked to psychoanalysis. Gurdjieff was a highly enigmatic figure, who combined elements of the sage, the adventurer, the comedian, and the confidence trickster. Some revered him, some loved him, some feared or hated him, but no one who met him seems to have been indifferent. He appears to have been a combination of Svengali, Cagliostro, and Groucho Marx. He was immensely resourceful. One of my favourite Gurdjieff stories tells how he once raised funds by catching sparrows, dyeing them yellow, and selling them as 'American canaries'.

To write a biography of Gurdjieff is a daunting task, given that Gurdjieff himself went out of his way to sow confusion about his past, continually spreading rumours and fantastic stories about what he had done and where he had been. There have nevertheless been numerous attempts to unravel the mystery; this is one of the best. Moore did not meet Gurdjieff himself but he has read extensively and has talked at length with surviving disciples.

Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol in 1866; his father was Greek, his mother Armenian. Later the family moved to Kars. As a young man Gurdjieff apparently travelled widely in search of esoteric knowledge, although it is difficult to know how much of what he said about these years is true; certainly it contained a large element of fantasy. There are stories that he was involved in espionage in Tibet, where he claimed to have stayed at a mysterious monastery at which he acquired much of his knowledge. Shortly before the First World War he turned up in Moscow, where he attracted a group of disciples, among whom was a young engineer called P.D. Ouspensky. Ouspensky later became an influential esoteric teacher in his own right, expounding the System he had acquired from Gurdjieff at this time.

As civil war broke out in Russia in 1918, Gurdjieff escaped with a small group of followers and taught for a time in Tbilisi, but when conditions deteriorated he escaped again, this time to Constantinople (Istanbul). In 1922 he visited London, where Ouspensky was now living; but Gurdjieff's followers were unable to get permission for him to stay. It was this that led to Gurdjieff's setting himself up in Fontainebleau. Here he remained until 1933, when he lost possession of his establishment owing to financial difficulties. It appears he had by this time lost interest in it. He then lived in Paris until the outbreak of war. After the Liberation his American disciples sought him out, bringing funds (the 'American oil well' which Gurdjieff had said he would have access to after the war). He resumed teaching, though in a different way from previously. He died in 1949.

Gurdjieff's teaching methods were Zen-like: enigmatic in the extreme, with elements of slapstick comedy. He wrote a good deal, often in a deliberately obscure style. Once, when he thought he hadn't made his meaning difficult enough, he said to his amanuensis: "Bury the dog deeper." He insisted he meant to say 'dog', and not 'bone'; this remark seems typical of the man.

He liked to go on long drives, although he never had any driving lessons, and had at least two very serious accidents, in one of which he almost died. He would arrive at a hotel late at night and demand accommodation and food for his entourage; by exerting his charm he generally won over the hotel staff in spite of the inconvenience he put them to. These expeditions, and Gurdjieff's behaviour generally, are hilarious to read about, but it must have taken considerable devotion on the part of his disciples to live with his eccentricities.

It's probably impossible to write about a figure like Gurdjieff from a neutral standpoint. Moore explains his own position at the outset. By using the term 'myth' to refer to Gurdjieff he does not mean to dismiss him as bogus; quite the contrary. It is evident that he thinks Gurdjieff to have been a major esoteric teacher, and he has himself practised Gurdjieffian methods since 1956. This might lead one to expect to find a work of hagiography, but not so; the general approach is fairly objective and scholarly, although also very readable. Moore's stated objective was to write an entertaining and informative introduction to his subject's life, and I think he has succeeded. There are detailed chapter notes for readers wishing to go further.

%T Gurdjieff
%S The Anatomy of a Myth
%A Moore, James
%I Element
%C Shaftesbury, Dorset; Rockport, Massachusetts
%D 1991
%G ISBN 1-85230-114-7 ">1-85230-114-7
%P xii+415pp

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