My new book, Revolutionaries of the Soul (Quest 2014) is a collection of articles and essays written over the last twenty years or so, taken from various publications, such as Fortean Times, Quest Magazine, Lapis and others. The 16 mini-biographies form a kind of “Who’s Who” of modern esotericism; included in the mix are essays on C.G. Jung, Rudolf Steiner, Madame Blavatsky, Colin Wilson, Jean Gebser, Emanuel Swedenborg, and several others. Here is an excerpt from my essay on P.D. Ouspensky, best known as the most intelligent and articulate disciple of the enigmatic esoteric teacher Gurdjieff, but who was a brilliant philosopher and thinker in his own right. The essay is about Ouspensky’s impact on London in the 1920s, and the opening sections show what Ouspensky had to go through in order to get there.
For Russian intellectuals not partial to the Bolshevik revolution, 1919 wasn’t exactly a good year. The earthquakes of anarchy brought on by a world and then a civil war, and the prospect of an unknown and uncertain future, sent artists and thinkers suspicious of Lenin and the Bolsheviks running to Europe. Berlin, Paris, and London swelled with the influx of émigrés And for esoteric philosophers, obsessed with questions of time, consciousness, and the “psychology of man’s possible evolution,” it may have seemed a particularly inauspicious year.
Such might have been the feeling of P.D. Ouspensky, philosopher of the eternal recurrence, author of a work on translogical metaphysics, and, at the time, a somewhat beleaguered student of the enigmatic Greek-Armenian teacher, G. I. Gurdjieff.
In Chapter Eighteen of his masterpiece, In Search of the Miraculous (1949), the story of his time with Gurdjieff, Ouspensky tells of his escape from the revolution and of his journey across Russia, from St. Petersburg through the Caucasus, to Turkey, Constantinople, and the outskirts of Europe. The record reads like an adventure story. Russia at that time had become a vast minefield of war, famine, sickness, and crime and Ouspensky’s report rivals the less than verifiable accounts of Gurdjieff’s own spiritual journeys in Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963). As a journalist, Ouspensky covered the revolution in a series of letter for the New Age, the London magazine of ideas edited by the man who would soon take Ouspensky’s place as Gurdjieff’s chief lieutenant, A.R. Orage.
Ouspensky’s account of everyday life during the revolution, his analysis of political events, and his profound antipathy for the Bolsheviks, come through in his Letters from Russia 1919. They flesh out the cool, distant, philosophical voice characteristic of In Search of the Miraculous. Times were difficult. In one letter he writes: “I personally am still alive only because my boots and trousers and other articles of clothing – all ‘old campaigners’ – are still holding together. When they end their existence, I shall evidently end mine.”
While the workers of the world united, the author of books on the tarot, the fourth dimension, and the superman, whose talks about India and his travels in the East filled lecture halls in St. Petersburg and Moscow, carried luggage as a house porter to support his family.
But in 1919 Ouspensky experienced more than a physical journey and revolution. As the charismatic “arch-disturbed of sleep” Gurdjieff led his band of students across an exploding Russia, Ouspensky faced his growing doubts about his teacher and decided to act. Since 1915, when they first met in a cheap Moscow café, Ouspensky had sat at Gurdjieff’s feet and absorbed his teaching. The irony of meeting the “magician” Gurdjieff in precisely the drab, grey everyday world that Ouspensky had journeyed to the East in order to escape was not lost on his commentators – nor, I think, on Ouspensky himself.
At the start of his inner and outer adventures with Gurdjieff, which would eventually lead him to London and independent work, Ouspensky said that he “had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road, unlike anything hitherto known or used by us.” He knew then as “an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us.”
The “miraculous” that he searched for was a penetration into this new reality. That he should find it in an unfashionable back-street café, frequented by small dealers and commission agents, and not in the ashrams of India or the bamboo jungles of Ceylon, must have piqued his sense of the absurd. Subsequent events could only have added to it, not the least of them his uncertainty about Gurdjieff as a transmitter of what he later came to call the “system.”
As any practitioner of the “Fourth Way” soon discovers, a “mystery theater” atmosphere surrounds the lives of its early advocates. Some see the split between guru and chela as a vast historical symbol, a living hieroglyph of esoteric wisdom, acted out by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky for some reason unknown to their followers and perhaps unknowable except for some future students. Others see Ouspensky as a weak intellectual, unable to grasp the true import of Gurdjieff’s teachings; see, for example, James Moores’ less than unbiased account in Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (1991) and William Patrick Paterson’s Struggle of the Magicians (1997). Still others, like myself, simply recognize that however remarkable a man Gurdjieff was, Ouspensky himself was no pushover. The mind capable of writing A New Model of the Universe (1931) would sooner or later leave Gurdjieff’s nest and set up on his own.
And such, at the beginning of his perilous escape from the revolution, were Ouspensky’s own thoughts. During a six week stay in Essentuki, in the Caucasus, Gurdjieff, according to Ouspensky, began to change. Suddenly, for no reason, he abandoned the “work on themselves” he had put his followers through for the previous three years, and said he was leaving for the Black Sea. Why had he stopped, especially after the great difficulties his group had faced in getting the “work” started there? Ouspensky “had to confess that my confidence in G. began to waver from this moment.” Thus began a separation that cost the philosopher many a painful decision and a trial by fire that at times had the potential of costing him his life.
It’s clear from his letters that Ouspensky loathed his time in Ekaterinodar, a city of squalor, bribery and sickness. He came there by way Essentuki, where he had arrived at his momentous decision to leave Gurdjieff. It was not a sudden revelation, but the product of a slow, cumulative process. “For a whole year,” he writes, “something had been accumulating and I gradually began to see that there were many things I could not understand and that I had to go.”
And so he tried. When conditions got worse – Cossack raids on the Bolshevik-occupied city – Ouspensky decided to leave. He would try to reach London, where he knew Orage and others from the New Age and where he could make a living with his pen. But he wouldn’t leave before Gurdjieff. Reluctant to abandon his teacher, Ouspensky stayed until the last moment, waiting until Gurdjieff left before making his own departure.
But by then it was too late. Madness erupted, and Ouspensky was trapped. All ways out of Essentuki were cut off. For a man who had been taught that human beings are in “prison”, caged by the walls of “sleep”, the less metaphorical restraints of a bandit Bolshevik regime, complete with robberies, executions, “requisitions”, and famine were, one suspects, a goldmine of opportunities to “remember himself.” And indeed it was during this period that Ouspensky discovered a strange new self-confidence. Not ordinary self-confidence, but rather a “confidence in the unimportance and the insignificance of the self, that self which we usually know.” If something big faced him, something that would strain his every nerve, this new “I”, he believed, would be equal to it. And this, Ouspensky wrote, was the result of his work with Gurdjieff.