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MARGARET ANDERSON- The Unknowable Gurdjieff

Posted by irisheaven on February 11, 2013

Margaret AndersonChapter I

ONE NIGHT last winter-one of those nights of cold unending rain that one never ex­pects on the Riviera-I opened a book, The Days Before, by Katherine Anne Porter. I had been told that she had written about Katherine Mansfield, and I hoped she had understood Kath­erine’s experience at the Gurdjieff Institute, about which so many distorted reports have been pub­lished.

Two or three years ago I had read Katherine’s letters to Middleton Murry, and had been so moved by what she said of the months she spent with Gurdjieff at Fontainebleau that I felt I under­stood all she hadn’t been able to say. Now I wanted to read what Katherine Anne Porter had to say about Katherine Mansfield’s life, as well as her art.
On page 82 I came upon this sentence: ‘She be­lieved (or was persuaded that she believed) she could achieve a spiritual and mental rebirth by the practice of certain disciplines and the study of eso­teric doctrines.’ On page 87 came the summing-up: ‘She deliberately abandoned writing . . . She had won her knowledge honestly, and she turned away from what she knew to pursue some untenable theory of personal salvation under a most dubious teacher.’

I closed the book and listened to the relentless rain. Katherine’s miracle-(‘the laws of one cosmos operating in another’)-had been dismissed, de­nied, in a few irresponsible words.

It is now thirty-five years since a group of my friends and I went to see Gurdjieff at the Chateau du Prieure in Fontainebleau-Avon, to ask if we might study with him. From that day to this day his thought and his science have shaped our lives. I often try to imagine what life would have been like without Gurdjieff. The first image that comes to me is a simple one: it would be like trying to imagine, from a prison window, what life is like outside.

How distressing it is (and how unsurprising) to discover, as I so often do, the number of intelligent people to whom Gurdjieff is unknown and by whom, in consequence, he is vilified.

For one, there is Francois Mauriac, that sym­pathetic Frenchman whose prose delights me, whose nostalgic emotions so often meet my own, but whose Catholicism leaves me in the same state of rebellion and mystification as do all the other organized regions of the world. Considering the deformations that have permeated ‘religion’ through the ages, it isn’t astonishing to find that Mauriac has decided to regard Gurdjieff as a char­latan, or that he wrote not long ago:

[Katherine Mansfield savait] qu’il y a ‘quelque chose d’autre’. Nous la voyons un peu de temps rôder au tour du catholicisme. C’est finalement au mage Gurdjicff qu’elle donne sa foi-dans son phalanstère de Fontaine­bleau qu’elle vient s’abartre misèrablement. Ce qui l’y avait poussée, c’était cette idée qu’il ne sert à rien de soigner le corps, qu’il faut retrouver son âme afin de ne pas mourir . . . Tant de souffrance aurait pu l’amener affleurs, vers une autre lurnière. La petite fille perdue s’est trompée de route. Mais elle a cherché, elle aspiré. C’est tout ce qui nous est demandé. Le reste relève de la grâce.

(Katherine Mansfield knew there is ‘something else’. We see her for a little while considering the possibility of Catholicism. In the end it was to Gurdjieff, the mage, that she gave her faith, at the phalanstery of Fontaine­bleau, where she went to die in misery. What had led her there was the belief that it is useless to nurse the body, that one must regain one’s soul in order not to die … So much suffering could have led her elsewhere, towards another enlightenment. The poor little girl lost her way. But she aspired, she searched. That is all that is asked of us. The rest depends on grace).

There are, to me, at least five false judgments in this summary. Little by little I will show why I think so.

This kindly man, so open to all that is elevated, so indulgent towards much that is not, has been willing to condemn someone of whom he knows nothing at first hand; and to condemn him, in other critical articles, in extreme terms.

I wanted to write him a letter. But, knowing how he would answer-if he did answer, which was doubtful-I gave up the idea. Though I could have carried on a debate with him for months or years, if invited to, I decided that instead of writing a letter it would be better to write a book; and to write it as if it were a matter of life or death to me to convince Mauriac of his error.

Such a book would have to be written simply, clearly, and untechnically. Well, I can write simply, because I don’t know any other way to write. And perhaps I can write clearly, because I believe in Gurdjieff. I believe in what he taught, and I believe it so intensely that, in spite of my limitations, surely something of his intention should shine through my conviction, even if it shines dimly.

Thus Francois Mauriac is in a way responsible for this book. It should of course be written by someone else someone equipped to write it. But no one comes forward with the kind of book which I think could make Gurdjieff plain.

‘Can he be made plain?’

‘No. But some of his ideas can be made plain.’

‘To whom?’

‘I really don’t know. But when I remember what pains he took to make plain some of his most difficult teaching, I think someone should try at least to make plain his function-what he called his “obligation”.’


‘So that there will be fewer people to whom one wants to cry, “Is it nothing to you, all ye who pass by?” ‘

Several books have been written about the Gurd­jieff science. Ouspensky did his prodigious best, but his In Search of the Miraculous is difficult reading for those who approach it without first having had some contact with Gurdjieff. Orage did his expert best, only to be regarded by many as ‘a slave to a fad’, a ‘doomed disciple of that weird mystic Gurd­jieff’. Others have tried, bur their efforts have been largely negated by their use of the Gurdjieff termin­ology, which is obscure unless first presented by Gurdjieff himself. His own book, All and Every­thing, is, I think, incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t studied with him. His Meetings with Remarkable Men* has already attracted five thousand readers in France, but only because its teaching is outweighed by its anecdotal interest.

The fact is that Gurdjieff remains unknown, ex­cept to those followers who worked with him.

One reason for this non-recognition is that it is too difficult to write about him. His science belongs to the knowledge of antiquity, and this knowledge is transmitted by word of mouth, never written about except in general terms.

Second, it is difficult to explain the difference between Gurdjieff’s doctrine and the vaguer re­ligious doctrines of the East. These philosophies and practises, based on the ‘great truths’, have taught men much, but they have not taught ‘con­scious knowledge’ in Gurdjieff’s way; nor (as I think can be proved) have they taught with his clarity and power.

But Gurdjieff is not only unknown. Perhaps he is unknowable.

A Gurdjieffian I know puts it this way: ‘Gurdjieff’s failure was that he produced no single dis­ciple who understood what was wanted of him.’

Perhaps this is true. I suppose it must be, I sup­pose it is inevitable. But I wonder why I don’t quite believe it; why I think it is close to, but not totally, the truth.

‘If what you say is true,’ I argue, ‘why do the Gurdjieff groups continue their efforts today? Why did Gurdjieff make his effort? We can’t believe that he was without foreknowledge of his failure (if such it was). Why then did he work with pupils? More for his own sake than for theirs?’

‘In a way. The pupils are as necessary to the teacher as the teacher to the pupils; the teacher is obliged to give back what he has received. But Gurdjieff never found a man who was able to raise himself to “the step below the master”. Yet thou­sands, due to Gurdjieff, took one, even two, steps up that stairway of the “Fourth Way”, and their lives were vitalized and purified, even with a mini­mum of work.’

This I know to be true. So instead of saying that no disciple understood what was wanted of him, I would say that several may have understood but that they found it too difficult to do what was wanted.

The only thing one KNOWS is that if Gurdjieff’s theory of human evolution were understood and practised, our planet would be freed of hate, madness and war. But since these states are, ap­parently, the conditions through which men are destined to struggle, it seems superfluous to try to change them.
The conclusion therefore would appear to be that nothing can be done, that nothing should even be attempted, to release humanity from its sad, savage, repetitive fate.

These were my negative musings on that winter night.

Since they weren’t conducive to sleep, and since a negative attitude isn’t natural to me, I kept on thinking until I came to an idea.

If one has the extravagant ambition to create an awareness of Gurdjieff’s function and accomplish­ment, one must choose a responsive audience. Why not ignore the genus intellectual, since it is usually the last to respond with great emotion to a great idea, and address oneself to the kind of people who, Gurdjieff said, wanted and could benefit by what he had to offer. He described them as people who possess a ‘magnetic centre’-that is, those who have a place in themselves which can receive the sub­stance of great knowledge, those who are suscept­ible to the influence of ‘higher forces’. He divided such people into two groups-the first composed of those in whom ‘education’ has not atrophied the tendency of aspiration; the second, of those he called ‘simple man’.

This elimination of ‘the many’ would mean ac­cepting Gurdjieff’s dictum that only small numbers of men can develop those ‘quality vibrations ‘which can change their fate; that they in turn can influence others who are influencable; and that thus the ‘accident’ into which all men are born has, sometimes, a happy turning.

My conception of an understandable book about Gurdjieff is that it should be addressed to the two types of influencable aspirants, and written as far as possible (at least in the beginning) in words of one syllable.

I would pass over facts (biographical) and con­centrate on teaching. I have little interest in the facts that people seem to want most … where was he born? what were his circumstances? his education? his training? what legends grew up about him? was he the precepteur of the Dalai Lama? etc., etc., etc. Gurdjieff himself has written about his childhood, his parents, his teachers, his travels, his experiences, his knowledge. What matters is the knowledge.

In this book I shall write of what he said when I was there to hear him say it; of what he taught us, how he taught it, and what effect it had not only upon me but upon my friends, since each of us experienced it differently, and each of us has written of it in her own way.

Such a book is far from being a study, a portrait, a treatise, a manual or a document. I should like it to be a sort of primer. The most I hope to accom­plish is an evocation; the least, a rectification which will prevent anyone from ever again hav­ing the hardihood to call Gurdjieff an imposter. I would call this accomplishing a great deal.

*Recontres avec des Hommes Remarquables.



Margaret Anderson and The Little Review

Intimate Circles

some photos

more excerpts


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