16 June 2018


Tobias Churton. Deconstructing Gurdjieff; Biography of a Spiritual Magician. Inner Traditions USA. 2017.

Of all the spiritual teachers who have reached some measure of public prominence and fame there is none quite so enigmatic and fascinating as George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (?1877-1949). One of the key points of his teaching was that most humans are disunited three-brained beings in a state of hypnotic 'waking sleep', acting more or less like machines according to their programming and external stimuli. It's not looking much better at this time of writing in 2018.

To many 'seekers of truth' in the developed Western world, Gurdjieff appeared to be a man who, in his Eastern travels, had found the ultimate reality and the true knowledge of mankind's origins and purpose in creation. When he eventually came to the West his fame had spread far and wide, and many came to him seeking answers. The question was, in essence, coming from a fairly hopeless state in a confused and endlessly conflicted world, how could one possibly awaken to full consciousness and potential? Gurdjieff's method was 'The Work', a process of remorseless and objective self-observation and exercises that combined the methods of the fakir, monk and yogi. For that reason he referred to it as the 'Fourth Way'.

The first three ways of self-development are, respectively, working on the physical body, the emotions or heart-centre, and the mind or psyche. In Gurdjieff's system a person works on harmonising all three aspects of oneself, while also living in the world and participating in it. However, this would be a gross over-simplification of his method and the esoteric knowledge that he imparted both to his disciples and in his writings. In person he could be a harsh taskmaster to his disciples, because 'discipline' was what they actually needed, at least in his opinion.

During my formative years as a teenager in the Sixties, Gurdjieff became an influence on my developing thought about the purpose of life itself. Over the intervening decades I read much of Gurdjieff's writings and many of the books about him, but never felt that I had fully understood what he was really about. Was he the 'real deal', a true spiritual master, or a bit of a charlatan and impresario? The mystique that grew around his image and reputation was immensely difficult to penetrate, and none of the many biographies and memoirs available, while always fascinating, satisfactorily answered that question. There was a need for a definitive biography which would impartially collate and analyse the known facts of Gurdjieff's life and teachings while demystifying, or 'deconstructing', the man himself. And Tobias Churton has done just that. This is a masterful work by a writer and researcher at the peak of his powers, although I suspect that it will leave a few Gurdjieff adherents a bit disgruntled by this rigorous revision.

Churton is a leading British scholar of esoteric subjects, notably Gnosticism, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism, with an extensive list of publications to his name, including major biographical works on Aleister Crowley and William Blake. According to the Gurdjieff book's flyleaf, Churton has produced seventeen books to date, a prolific output by any standard, all of which must have been good practice for tackling the enigma of Gurdjieff. He has the gift of writing with clarity and wisdom on the most complex esoteric subjects.

Diving straight into the fundamental problem, Churton's Preface is entitled 'Caveat Lector' (Reader Beware). In only ten pages he gives the most concise yet most complete overview of Gurdjieff's life, work and significance that I have ever come across. He explains the difficulty facing any would-be writer of a Gurdjieff biography. In the first place, very little can be confirmed with certainty about his early life. And in the second place, even more importantly, Gurdjieff himself played with facts as though they were themselves fiction of a higher mind of which he was an agent.

Referring to Gurdjieff's best known and most approachable book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, Churton says emphatically that it "is in no wise an autobiography", although it certainly reads like one. With its stirring tales of adventures and journeys in search of lost knowledge, culminating in Gurdjieff's initiation into the mysterious 'Sarmoung Brotherhood', which may never have existed, it is more of an allegory of the search for ultimate truth. As Churton says, Meetings is more like a Hollywood treatment of Gurdjieff's life. In fact the book did provide the material for the impressive and rather dreamy 1979 film of the same name, directed by Peter Brook.

A key to understanding Gurdjieff's modus operandi is an observation made by his most influential disciple, P.D. Ouspensky, a Russian intellectual and philosopher. When they first met in Moscow in 1915, Ouspensky immediately perceived that Gurdjieff was "always acting", and Churton adds that Gurdjieff was "many men, and appeared in many disguises." One of the main influences on Gurdjieff as a boy was his Greek father, who taught him the value of hard work and self-reliance. His father was an ashokh or traditional bard, entertaining folk across Transcaucasia with songs and ancient legends. The aim was to captivate and enchant his audience, reaching into their hearts.

Gurdjieff's first book, written before Meetings with Remarkable Men, was Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. Churton describes it as an "even more peculiar, often perhaps intentionally ludicrous and unnecessarily elongated work". I have to agree with that assessment. Having tried, many years ago, to read the book I found it utterly impenetrable, with the most bizarre neologisms of Gurdjieff's own making, such as 'The Law of Heptaparashinokh' or 'being-Partkdolg-duty'. There are some who take the book very seriously and spend years trying to decipher all of its meanings and references. I have come across some articles online that claim some of the obscure words are from Martian and Saturnian languages. Gurdjieff himself said that "All the keys are in Beelzebub, but they are not near their locks". But is it worth the effort to find them?

Churton poses the question:"What is to be believed?" and makes a perceptive point regarding truth generally: 'gospel' truth is actually a report by those who are already convinced. A factual journalist would have recorded the death of Jesus as a failure by a rebellious upstart. To his followers it was a triumph. But was it all a sideshow? One has to find the wisdom in any given story. The parable of the Good Samaritan has, as Churton observes, far more weight as an example of ideal behaviour to a stranger in distress (in answer to the question 'Who is my neighbour?') than a report of a mugging of a traveller on the road to Jericho. Gurdjieff was certainly influenced by religions such as Christianity and Sufism, so he had no trouble with spinning a yarn as a parable.

It is instructive to know what were the formative influences on the young Gurdjieff himself, before he began influencing others with his self-perceived mission to humanity. One of these that seems deeply significant is the occasion when Gurdjieff as a young boy was present at the moment his grandmother died, holding her hand. Just before dying she put her hand on his head and solemnly told him never to do as others do. In case he hadn't got the point, she repeated that he must do something that nobody else does. He certainly took this to heart immediately, going out and diving into a bin full of peelings for the pigs. Then at his grandmother's requiem service forty days later while everyone was mourning with stony faces, he broke away from the group and began skipping around the grave while singing some cheerful doggerel. Churton here cites the words of William Blake: "If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise" and observes that "Gurdjieff cultivated energetic inventiveness as the principle mode of being. Be an individual at all costs."

Another significant experience was when he witnessed a Yezidi boy trapped inside a circle drawn on the ground, absolutely terrified yet causing much amusement to a group of children making fun of him. He could not escape until Gurdjieff rubbed away some of the circle, whereupon the boy dashed out and ran away in a distraught state. This had a profound effect on the young Gurdjieff and stimulated his interest in hypnosis. He became a master hypnotist, although at some point in his adult life he said that he had renounced the gift so as not to interfere with other's free will. He saw and experienced many other phenomena that convinced him of the power of concentrated thought and the possibilities of magic.

I was reminded of the dictum 'when you can walk on water, take a boat' by the many references to Gurdjieff's practical skills and hard work to support his family and followers in times of war and poverty. "He could turn his hand to many trades: embroider a cushion, fix a lock, build a stove, mend a watch. He could shape metal and stone." In his later life he told some Americans that as he had come from a poor family with no material security he became "an expert, cunning old blade." I like the story of when he successfully wheedled the secret formula out of a local Greek street trader for making plaster of Paris busts for home decoration. Gurdjieff "pretended to be a blockhead" and played on his patriotism by speaking Greek. It all came from the objective need to survive, and Gurdjieff always knew how to make money in any situation.

I believe that Gurdjieff genuinely wished for the liberation of mankind, as shown in his chosen name 'Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man' for his project at the Priory in Avon near Fontainebleau. He can be compared in some ways to Aleister Crowley, although the two men were totally different in character. By the way, Churton convincingly debunks the old story that Gurdjieff kicked Crowley out of the Priory one evening after dinner. It is one of those apocryphal stories that gathered weight with re-telling.

After Gurdjieff's death in 1949, the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright announced the passing of "the greatest man in the world". While that sounds like hyperbole, there can be no doubt that he was a great man, with flaws like everyone else, and there is a lot to learn from him and his life. Taking the role of a 'guru' can put an intolerable strain on a human not equipped for the role, as Ouspensky found during his time in America. I am grateful to Tobias Churton for this book, because for me it lays to rest some of the doubts and questions I have long retained about George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Along the spiritual journey one often has teachers, gurus and religions for guidance, and all of this experience is useful for wisdom. But at the end of the day, with maturity, we have to stand on our own two feet and find our own ultimate truth. – Kevin Murphy.

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