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Gurdjieff, George Ivanovich (1866-1949)
by Aveilhe, Tara


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George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866?-1949)

"Greco-Armenian holistic philosopher, thaumaturge, and teacher of Sacred Dances (whose ancillary personae as musicologist, therapist, hypnotist, raconteur, explorer, polyglot, and entrepreneur exercise the taxonomic mind)." —James Moore, “Gurdjieff, George Ivanovitch” (445)

The exact date of Gurdjieff’s birth is unknown, but it is estimated to be somewhere between 1866 and 1877. Born in Alexandropol (Russian Armenia), Gurdjieff grew up in Kars and is said to have trained as both a physician and a priest. As a young man he pursued his interest in esotericism while traveling widely around North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. After returning to Russia (before WWI), he began to gather pupils of his own and set up learning communities in Moscow and St. Petersburg. During the Russian Revolution he moved these teaching groups to various locations near the southern coast of Russia and then to Tbilisi in Georgia. His final destination before moving permanently to Western Europe was Istanbul. It was here that he became enthralled with Sufi devotional dance, which he would apply to his later teachings of “movements” and “sacred dance.” In August 1921, Gurdjieff began traveling around Europe, sharing and demonstrating his transcendent philosophy. In October 1922 he settled south of Paris and established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man (see Fig. 1) at the Chateau Le Prieuré at Fontainebleau-Avon.

Fig. 1: Image Advertising Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man

In 1923, Gurdjieff held “open evenings” of sacred dance and music at the Prieure Study House which attracted a mixture of international figures, including the writer Sinclair Lewis and Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Russian Ballet. Another demonstration at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that same summer garnered very mixed reviews from the Parisian public. In 1924, Gurdjieff traveled to New York and gave a demonstration at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Greenwich Village. This was to be a turning point in Gurdjieff’s popularity in the U.S. Among those who became interested in Gurdjieff’s ideas were Jane Heap, co-editor for The Little Review, critic Gorham B. Munson, and Jean Toomer, author of Cane and a contributor to The Dial. Gurdjieff established his institute’s New York branch that same year. Later in 1924, Gurdjieff had a near-death experience, suffering serious injuries in a car crash. While recovering from the accident, he decided to disband the Paris Institute and began writing an extensive trilogy of his philosophy in order to propagate his ideas more widely. The three-part series, titled All and Everything, includes: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am.’ Between 1926 and 1935, Gurdjieff collaborated with his student Thomas de Hartmann to create a series of 170 devotional compositions for the piano.

In 1936, Gurdjieff became briefly associated with a small group of expatriate lesbian literati in Paris (former associates of Jane Heap) known as “The Rope.” Now aged 70, he decided to settle down in a small apartment at 6 rue des Colonels-Renard, and he quickly garnered a new group of followers composed largely of gifted students from a preparatory group working under his disciple, dancer and musician Jeanne de Salzmann. Gurdjieff worked faithfully throughout the German occupation of Paris and continued work on his piano-accompanied dances titled the 39 Series. During his later years, he occasionally traveled to the U.S. and acquired devoted students from America and London. In Paris he held supervised readings of his works and hosted ritualistic meals accompanied by “Toasts to Idiots.” In 1947, former student and fellow mystic P. D. Ouspensky passed away. Ouspenksy’s book In Search of the Miraculous, published posthumously, was one of very few writings on Gurdjieff’s ideas that Gurdjieff gave his permission to be published. Prior to his own death, Gurdjieff asked Jeanne de Salzmann to take over the work of publishing his writings posthumously and he requested de Hartmann to write musical compositions for his 39 Series – both of which they faithfully carried out. Gurdjieff passed away at age 83 on October 29, 1949, and is buried at Fontainebleau-Avon.

Teachings

Gurdjieff’s teachings were esoteric in nature. His basic philosophy maintained that humanity is in a constant waking sleep and that transcending the sleeping state requires complex inner work (found only in the company of a well-trained teacher). This training is said to lead to a higher consciousness. His methods included teachings based on an eclectic mixture of complex allegories and enneagrams (or nine-pointed geometric figures), along with awareness exercises and the practice of sacred “movements” set to devotional music. According to the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, “his system integrated a semantic critique, a social critique, an epistemology, a mythopoetic cosmogony and cosmology, a phenomenology of consciousness, and a practical existenzphilosophie” (Moore 445). Gurdjieff trained a small group of people to transmit his teachings after his death, and with the assistance of other followers they set up a number of active centers and foundations around the world, which continue today. The 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men, based on Gurdjieff’s book by the same title, was written by Jeanne de Salzmann and Peter Brook and depicts performances of his sacred dances. Since Gurdjieff's death, over fifty recordings of his and de Hartmann’s music have been made, and numerous books about his life, teachings and influence continue to be written.

Public Reception and Influence

Much of G. I. Gurdjieff’s early life and exploits is the subject of speculation. What is known of him before his arrival in Western Europe is based on biographical sketches from his book Meetings with Remarkable Men. Critics have often questioned whether Gurdjieff was as widely traveled and well-versed in eastern dance and musical traditions as he claimed. He is often accused of being an occultist or, worse, a charismatic fraud.

This criticism aside, Gurdjieff’s influence is undeniable, as is the number of followers he collected while in Paris, Berlin and London throughout the 1920’s. He was critically acclaimed by such figures as Frank Lloyd Wright, André Breton and Lincoln Kirstein—and adamantly dismissed by such figures as D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis and François Mauriac. Gurdjieff's influence helps us understand the interest in mysticism and pseudo-Eastern spiritual practices that was so prevalent in the modernist period, and that extends to a magazine like The New Age under the editorship of A. R. Orage. Regular contributors to The New Age, such as Carl Eric Bechhofer and Katherine Mansfield, were devoted followers of Gurdjieff’s teachings (with Mansfield famously dying at Gurdjieff's institute at Fontainebleau-Avon, after seeking treatment there for tuberculosis). And Orage himself resigned as editor of the magazine in 1922 to begin his full-time studies at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. When Orage later moved to the U.S. to set up Gurdjieff study communities in New York, the leader of The New Age began the next chapter of his life—as a new age leader.

—Tara Aveilhe

Works Cited and Selected Bibliographic Resources

  • Bennett, John G. and Elizabeth Bennett. Idiots in Paris: Diaries of J. G. Bennett and Elizabeth Bennett. Gloucestershire: Coombe Springs Press, 1980.
  • De Hartmann, Thomas and Olga de Hartmann. Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.
  • G. I. Gurdjieff.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 22 Sep 2006, 10:20 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Sep 2006.
  • Gurdjieff: A Reading Guide. Ed. J. Walter Driscoll, 1999.
  • The Gurdjieff Foundation.
  • Gurdjieff, G. I. Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950). London: Arkana, 2000.
  • ---. The Herald of Coming Good (1933). Washington: Holmes Publishing Group, 1987.
  • ---. Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’ (1974). New York: Penguin, 1991.
  • ---. Meetings with Remarkable Men. London: Routledge, 1963.
  • ---. Views from the Real World: Talks of G. I. Gurdjieff. New York: Penguin, 1974.
  • Gurdjieff, G. I. and Thomas de Hartmann. The Complete Piano Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann [6 CD boxed set]. Performed by Cecil Lytle. Celestial Harmonies, 1997.
  • Gurdjieff International Review. Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing, 2009.
  • Gurdjieff Legacy—The Teaching for Our Time. The Gurdjieff Journal.
  • Gurdjieff Studies. Gurdjieff Studies, Ltd.
  • Meetings with Remarkable Men (movie). Directed by Peter Brook. Screenplay by Peter Brook and Jeanne de Salzmann. 1979.
  • Moore, James. Gurdjieff and Mansfield. Boston: Routledge, 1980.
  • ---. “Gurdjieff, George Ivanovitch.” Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. Ed. Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Boston: Brill, 2005.
  • ---. Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
  • Needleman, Jacob and George Baker, eds. Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth. Shaftesbury: Element Press, 1991.
  • Nicoll, Maurice. Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teaching. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1996.
  • Orage, A. R. On Love / Psychological Exercises: With Some Aphorisms and Other Essays. York Beach: Samuel Weiser, 1998.
  • Ouspensky, P. D. The Fourth Way: A Record of Talks and Answers to Questions Based on the Teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.
  • ---. In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. New York: Harcourt, 2001.
  • Patterson, William Patrick. Ladies of the Rope: Gurdjieff’s Special Left Bank Women’s Group. Fairfax: Arete Communications, 1998.
  • Tracol, Henri. Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. London: Vincent Stuart, 1956.
  • ---. The Taste for Things That Are True: Essays and Talks by a Pupil of G. I. Gurdjieff. Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1994.
  • Walker, Kenneth. Venture with Ideas: Meetings with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. New York: Pellegrini, 1952.
  • Webb, James. The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers. Boston: Shambhala, 1980.
  • Wilson, Colin. G. I. Gurdjieff: The War against Sleep. Brooklyn: Aeon Books, 2005.
  • Woodson, Jon. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999.
  • Vaysse, Jean. Toward Awakening: An Approach to the Teaching Left by Gurdjieff. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979.
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