Monday 16 May 2016

GI Gurdjieff - The war against sleep by Colin Wilson (1986)

I came across the work of Gurdjieff through the books of Colin Wilson - and I was particularly captivated by the idea of self-remembering which is the term for theose moments when we are aware of Me! Here! Now!

But beyond my secondhand acquaintance via Wilson, I made no further progress with Gurdjieff; indeed quite the reverse. I found his books (and those of Ouspensky, his most famous disciple) completely unreadable, to the point that I could not progress more than a few sentences before being paralyzed with demotivation.

When a movie was produced of Meetings with Remarkable Men in 1979, I was very eager to see it (easier to watch a movie than read a book, I thought) - but did not get the opportunity until the next summer when I was in Toronto, Canada. To say the film was a disappointment is an understatement - it was perhaps the most forgettable and under-whelming couple of hours I have ever spent at the movies; I remember literally nothing about it except a picture of a desert mountainside, and the sense of disappointment afterwards.

(Of course, the movie was directed by Peter Brook, who was one of the most-over-rated, pretentious, boring and hollow theatre/ film directors of all time - so realistically I should not have expected otherwise.)

When Colin Wilson wrote a biography of Gurdjieff in 1986 I was keen - finally - to get to grips with Gurdjieff; perhaps find the key to understanding him? The books is good, as a book - this was a period when everything Wilson wrote was worth reading. But the man himself...

Gurdjieff comes across as a psychopath - much on the lines of another author of that ilk, Carlos Castaneda. In other words; manipulative, impulsive, selfish, abusive, sadistic and quite staggeringly dishonest. Like Castaneda he was wildly evasive and self-contradictory about his place of birth and even his date of birth/ age, so nobody could check even the basic facts about his tall tales.

Of course, Gurdjieff was not just a psychopath - in the sense that he also had talent, intelligence, insights and a massive charismatic charm - so he did have some interesting things to say. But his literary abilities and powers of explanation seemed negative rather than positive - so almost everything written about him and his views come from disciples, acolytes and other admirers.

Furthermore, at the end of the day everything Gurdjieff proposed was merely 'therapy' - it was about feeling better, feeling more alive, having more energy and being more effective. This is fine, so far as it goes - but it does not go far enough. And in the end usually does more harm than good and subverts itself as being merely a transient and subjective psychotherapy.

Gurdjieff had no religious vision, and provided no transcending sense of purpose. He was, therefore, a prescursor of the more dangerous, exploitative and self-serving type of 'sixties cultist or New Age guru.

But well worth reading about - especially when Wilson is on hand to extract the nuggets of wisdom from the sensational and scandalous life story (if you can believe it all - which I don't).


Thursday said...

Very beautiful all this
Warmed up Dante, Milton, Genesis,
A great tradition that has come to grief
In volumes by Blavatsky and Gurdjieff.

- James Merrill

John Fitzgerald said...

I went through a big Gurdjieff phase in the late 90s / early 2000s, inspired by my interest in both Colin Wilson and Peter Brook. It was while reading Brook's artistic and spiritual autobiography, Threads of Time, in 1998, that I first encountered the Armenian 'mage'. I still find myself very much in sympathy with Gurdjieff's central tenet - that humanity is asleep and therefore that we cannot 'do'. We can't do anything at all, in fact, while we're weighed down by the chains of ego, wrong assumptions and a basic misreading of the world and our place in it. We need therefore to wake up, remember ourselves and connect, if only for an instant, with reality - hence the title of one of GG's books: 'Life is Only Real When I Am'.

I even joined a Gurdjieff group for a time. I was only there a short while so I don't want to make any sweeping assertions. On the whole, however, I was impressed by the intensity and commitment to spiritual and physical work which I found there. But there was a coldness, it seemed to me - a dourness, a dryness, a lovelessness - that turned me off and ultimately (amongst other things) served to start reorientating me back towards the Gospel. I found this spiritual aridity - that's the phrase - in both the books by Gudjieff and his followers and, to an extent, in the group itself.

As for Peter Brook, well, I was a huge admirer for over 20 - since my amateur dramatics days in the mid-90s. I've always regarded him as an exemplar, a Prospero-figure conveying vital spiritual truths through his theatrical practice. I made a 'pilgrimage' to his 'Bouffes du Nord' theatre in Paris in 2009, and in 2010 I went to The Barbican to see PB introduce a screening of Meetings with Remarkable Men.

It's only in very recent years actually, since I've started to try to live and pray in a more Christ-centred way, that I've started to entertain doubts about Broook. I'm even wondering now if, in his own way, he might be one of the most influential contributors to this bland, syncretic, New Age style mish-mash of spiritualities which the 'educated' secular mindset seems increasingly seduced by. PB refers to a variety of faiths and religious backgrounds in his interviews and talks, after all, but never, now that I think about it, to Christianity.

Now that I reflect more, I realise that my concerns go right back to that East London night in February 2010. Brook took to the stage and I don't think I'd ever been looking forward to hearing an address more. He was 84 and in terrifc shape. He spoke superbly - so fluent, so resonant - yet immediately after he stopped speaking I found that I couldn't recall a single word he'd said. 'That's supposed to be a bad sign,' I said to myself, and in that moment the image of CS Lewis's character, John Wither (in That Hideous Strength) sprang up in my mind - the ultimate 'empty shell'.

It was a bad night, to be honest. Like you, I found the film a disappointment, and I was lectured on the way out by a self-appointed Gurdjieff 'teacher'. I didn't admit it to myself at the time, but my interest in GG ended definitively that night. I've never looked at anything by or about him since.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - Thanks - that's all fascinating.

SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,
As you will remember, although I rarely comment, I have been a reader of your blog for many years and find many of your postings speak to me directly and throw light on my path - and here’s the strange thing - my path is that of a lifelong follower of Gurdjieff’s teaching!
Knowing that it would probably be a waste of effort, I refrain from making any arguments to convince you that you are wrong about this man, much less to tackle your and JF’s points one by one, as I would love to do. But I will highlight one among the many positive aspects of his teaching. I raise this in the light of the Solzhenitsyn speech you lately posted. One of the functions of the novel exercises and practices Gurdjieff introduced was to enable cosetted Westerners like myself to taste real moral suffering, suffering that enlightens – often in the form of deep remorse for the common and individual weaknesses revealed by that exercise – that purifies and that energises.
This I relate to the suffering that Solzhenisyn speaks of so powerfully.
Allow me just one last point: Gurdjieff, I assure you, was a Christian with a strong sense of original sin. In this, as in many other of his characteristics, he was a thousand miles from the liberal New Agers you associate with him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SoM "Gurdjieff, I assure you, was a Christian "

Specific correction accepted - I should have taken into account that when a man has non-Christian followers, they seldom mention this fact.

Especially if he does not explicitly teach Christianity as a necessary element - presumably because he does not believe it to be so - then the 'system' will usually be assumed to be detachable from the Christianity, and under modern pressures the Christianity will be 'dropped' leaving something very different.

This happened with Rudolf Steiner; who never insisted upon a Christian frame for Anthroposophy - consequently the majority of his modern adherents are secular Leftists (hence de facto anti-Christian, whatever their self-identification), like everybody else.

That Gurdjieff was a dangerous man seems too obvious as to require further emphasis. He reminds me of the 'ambiguous' (but not really) occultist characters in Charles Williams novels - Considine, Tumulty, Henry, Simon - those who seek to harness the unseen world for power, supposedly to be used for the general good, and teach this.

And thanks for your comment. From what I have inferred over the years you have commented here, you certainly seem like a decent person, which is a valuable counter-argument in its way!

drizzz said...

The first thing (person) I thought of when I read your article above "How do you know when you are living in false consciousness?" was Gurdjieff. I pretty much agree with your assessment but can't help revisiting him and especially Ouspensky every few years. I skip over all that stuff about "octaves", no idea to this day what that's all about but maybe that's why I could never read music!

Bruce Charlton said...

@drizz - Self-remembering is an interesting half-insight - but of itself is just a pleasant feeling and doesn't lead anywhere different than normal mortal secular life. I now realize that the *full* story concerning consciousness, that which profoundly changes thought and makes an eternal difference to being, was articulated and enacted by the lineage of Coleridge, Goethe, Steiner, Barfield, Arkle - and perhaps others I don't know of.