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Ouspensky Foundation
updated till: 6-dec-01

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History of the Work
- Gurdjieff -
 

 

How G.I. Gurdjieff dug the well

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was born in Alexandropol, Armenia, during the Russian-Turkish war. His father was Greek and his mother Armenian. His father's name was Giorgios Giordades; this first became Gurdjian in Armenian and then Gurdjieff in Russian (pronounced Gurd-zhee-ev). His father was a wealthy shepherd, but more importantly, he was also an Ashok, a bard, who could still recite the Gilgamesh epos, then 3000 years old! Towards the end of the war, he settled in Kars with his family. After Turkey was conquered by the Russians, this area saw disastrous forced migrations of peoples, including 80,000 Turks fleeing westward to escape from the Russians. To replace these Turks, the Russians had invited groups of Greeks, Armenians, Yezidis and Assyrians to settle in the region.

In this meltingpot of races, nations, and cultures, permeated by ancient traditions and customs, the young Gurdjieff grew up. He learnt to speak Armenian from his mother and Turkish from most of the peoples around him. Later on he learnt Tibetan, some Persian dialects, English and French, so that he could be at home in an area ranging from the Black Sea to the Gobi Desert, as well as in most parts of the Western world.

When, in 1949, Frank Lloyd Wright announced during a meeting of the Cooper Union in New York that "recently a man had died - G.I.Gurdjieff - whose work will have more influence on the future of the world than any other man of this millennium", we will also have to take into account that he was raised in that derelict town of Kars, cut off from the mainstream of civilisation.

John Bennett describes Kars as he found it on his visit in 1952. The houses were in fact built under the ground with an entry through the roof. It was a mode of living that has persisted in Asia Minor for 8,000 years because of the climatic conditions, with winters of 40 degrees Celsius below and summers 40 degrees above zero!

In the cathedral of Kars, Gurdjieff received his first education as a choirboy, and was chosen by Dean Borsch to become a doctor or a priest, because he turned out to be very bright. However, he became neither, perhaps through the influence of his grandmother who told him on her deathbed: "My son, never act in your life as other people do. Either do nothing - just go to school - or do something that nobody does." He certainly followed her advice.

His father gave him a Spartan education, with hard physical work, little sleep, bathing outside in the frost, and handling poisonous snakes. But soon he went off to find answers to questions which neither his father nor the Dean could answer.

There is a story that as an eleven-year old he disappeared for five days with a few gypsies to learn from them everything he could, and by the time he was fourteen he had visited Constantinopel and many other places in Armenia. He was confronted with strange phenomena, for which nobody could give him an explanation, like clairvoyance, miraculous cures, rain-dances, and people who were trapped in a circle.

In his book Meetings with remarkable men, he writes: "If there are phenomena, the reality of which we cannot deny, but which cannot be fitted into our accepted conceptual framework, then something is wrong with that framework and we must look for another."

Together with his friend Pogossian and a small group of young scientists, musicians and linguists who called themselves 'Seekers of the Truth', he began to search for hidden knowledge, because they were convinced that "there was a certain something which people formerly knew, but that now this knowledge was quite forgotten." One day they find a pot with a papyrus inside it containing a reference to the Sarmoun Brotherhood, an esoteric school founded in 2400 BC. On the papyrus was drawn a map of pre-sand Egypt and a symbol of the enneagram. Thus, they set out to find this brotherhood.

It was not until ten years later that he finds a remnant of this brotherhood in Bokhara in Central Asia, where he is led to blindfolded and remained for three months. He never talked about this later, or about what he learnt there, but it is almost certain that here he became acquainted with the sacred symbol of the enneagram and with the sacred dances or movements, which he later passed on to his pupils as an essential part of the teaching.

'Sarmoun' is an old Persian word that means: 'enlightened'. The brotherhood was active in the golden Babylonian time of Hammurabi (1728-1686 BC) and is connected with Zoroaster (606 BC), the teacher of Pythagoras, during the latter's twelve-year stay in Babylon.

His Heroic Journeys

Between 1896 and 1900, he went to Tabriz, Turkestan, Orenburg, Sverdlovsk, Siberia, Bokhara, Merv, Kafiristan, the Gobi Desert, Chardzou, the Pamirs and North India. He also goes to Tibet where he stayed for more than a year, studying the language, rituals, dance, medicine, and psychic techniques. These journeys sometimes returned him to his father's door penniless, exhausted and ill. He complained of Bokharian malaria, Beluchistan dysentery, Kurdistan scurvy, Ashkhabadian Bedinka and Tibetan hydropsy. In addition, he revealed the scars of three successive bullets wounds. He had been to unusual places indeed.

How did he manage to stay alive all that time? He was a real entrepreneur. He made a fortune in every possible type of business: antiques, carpets, oil wells and pickled herrings. He repaired typewriters and sewing machines; cured drug-addicts and remodelled ladies' corsets; and painted sparrows to sell them as 'American canary birds'.

In 1908, after a schooling period of twenty years, he stands all-alone in Tashkent, for his companions either left him or died. He was now left with the task to pass on to humanity the knowledge he had gathered.

He started working as a professional hypnotist and healer of drug-addicts and alcoholics, for which Tashkent, as a centre of opium, hashish and vodka, had plenty of opportunity.

Between 1909 and 1912, he organised three groups to work with, but in the end he abandoned this and chose to work in Russia instead. He went to Moscow, where he arrived with a fortune of one million roubles and two costly collections of carpets and Chinese porcelain. He began to give lectures, bought an estate, and even organised the publication of his own newspaper. This would happen again and again: he amassed a lot of wealth and used the money for the work or to maintain his followers and family. He married Julia Yussovna (also known as Ostrowska) one of the Tsarina's ladies in waiting, who would accompany him for the rest of her life as his wife and dedicated pupil.

Who was this mysterious Mr. Gurdjieff, the dancing teacher, monsieur Bonbon, the Tiger of Turkestan?

Many people have asked this question and those who were close to him seemed equally puzzled. Hundreds of books have been written about him and still you wonder who this man was.

What we do see is that it was clearly his task to seek for answers and to gather and unify what he found. It was urgent. A hundred years later, the effects of the two World Wars would be stark: the beliefs, customs and rituals of millennia would be swept away forever by the 'muddy flood' of modernism of the West. It was as if he had read the signs of the times with rare and painful foreknowledge.

One of his remarkable characteristics, which indicated the strength of his unique personality, was that he took three oaths at certain intervals in his life:

The first, at the age of 30, was to give up his extraordinary power of hypnotism.

The second, in 1911, was to bind himself for 21 years to lead a highly principled life. The maxim was: to play a role outwardly, never to identify inwardly.

The third he took in 1928: to dismiss the followers who had assisted him faithfully for ten years, like the De Hartmanns, because their association had served its purpose both for him and them.

What kind of impression did he make on his followers?

When Ouspensky met Gurdjieff for the first time, in 1915, he gave the following description:

"I saw a man of oriental type, no longer young, with a black moustache and piercing eyes, who astonished me first of all because he seemed to be disguised and completely out of keeping with the place and atmosphere (a small café), the sight of whom embarrasses you because he is not what he pretends to be and yet you have to speak and behave as though you do not see it."

There are a number of people who have mentioned the power of his eyes on first meeting him:

Margaret Anderson:

"I just had enough time to carefully look at a dark oriental looking man, whose life seemed to dwell in his eyes."

And Henri Tracol wrote:

"Who is Mr. Gurdjieff? I don't know him. This seemingly foolish old man - truth falls from his lips as from a child. This peasant from the Donau with the ingenuity of a Chinese diplomat. Who is he behind those masks? And yet behind the roles he plays, we feel the power of his unity - but that is of course indescribable."

What did he teach and how?

One of the central themes of the esoteric teaching he gave was that man is a tri-cerebral being consisting of three parts, intellect, emotion and a physical body, and these three should be brought into harmony with each other. Another central theme was that man is asleep and lives a totally mechanical life. He expounded this through the principles of the law of three and the law of seven or octaves, which in combination form the sacred symbol of the enneagram. About the enneagram he said:

"All knowledge can be included in the enneagram. Each completed whole, each cosmos, each plant is an enneagram. A man can be quite alone in the desert and he can trace the enneagram in the sand and in it read the eternal laws of the universe, and every time he can learn something new that he did not know before."

The explanation of the enneagram in terms of nine character types, which one can find described in many books nowadays and on many websites, does not originate from him, it is a modern invention.

Because of man's mechanical nature, he had to invent pretty drastic means to bring about a transformation in the people who followed him. He demanded exceptional physical and emotional efforts and never failed to create a little extra friction.

He tried two experiments in 1917 and in 1918, which were the most turbulent years of the revolution, where he worked with forty students for periods of a few months each.

The first was in Essentuki where Ouspensky and also Olga and Thomas de Hartmann were present.

Thomas de Hartmann (1886-1956) belonged to the Russian aristocracy and his star as a composer was rising when he met Gurdjieff in 1916. Pavlova and Nijinski danced to his music in the presence of the Tsar. He wrote some hundred compositions, operas, symphonies, sonatas and even music for the plays of Kandinsky, but he did not become famous for that. His fame rose through his dedicated service to Gurdjieff. As an army officer he narrowly escaped the revolutionary forces in St. Petersburg by joining Gurdjieff in Essentuki the last minute. A day later and he would surely have been shot.

Gurdjieff tested this group of fourteen people quite hard to break their mechanical patterns. He gave them relaxation exercises; made them look at their own postures and gave them gestures for hands and feet by means of which they had to communicate for a whole week not using words at all, and he introduced the 'stop exercise'.

Suddenly he told them that they would go to Persia and, as they had no money, he wanted to go there by breaking stones on the road. As this was too rough for the ladies, he would not take Olga De Hartmann, who begged to come. Eventually he allowed her to come, provided she washed the men's feet. Little did they know that after four days of walking, having experienced every kind of deprivation, they arrived in a town where Gurdjieff had rented a villa. They never got to Persia, it was a test to see who would be prepared to follow.

Thomas de Hartmann wrote about this in Our life with Mr.Gurdjieff:

"I think that Gurdjieff is the only man on earth who ever led people on an expedition that, when looked at from the outside, seemed so unnecessary and ended with 'nothing'. But it was full of meaning and value for those who took part in it and who remembered why they came."

When the experiment was over (a few months before the October Revolution in 1917) he dismissed the whole group, saying that he would stop all work, to the dismay of everyone and especially of Ouspensky, who began to lose faith in Gurdjieff from that time onwards. Gurdjieff's sister and family joined him on their flight from the armies more dead than alive, and brought him the sad news that his father had been killed by the revolutionaries.

In spite of everything he continued.

The next year, in 1918, he had the second experiment, this time in Tuapse, on the Black Sea. They stayed there for two months with forty people, including Ouspensky and the De Hartmanns. This became the new phase of the work with a strict system and discipline of exercises, movements, gymnastics, discussions, lectures and physical work.

A few examples of this 'discipline' were:

- when they ran out of money, he asked Thomas de Hartmann, the aristocrat, to sell silk in the town where many of his old friends lived.

- on another occasion he asked the ladies to hand in their jewellery, except for their wedding ring. Olga de Hartmann cried all night about having to part with the family heirlooms, and when she handed them in the next day, Gurdjieff merely nodded and pointed her where to put them. A little later, however, he called her back and returned them to her, which unfortunately did not happen to all the ladies.

This second expedition ended full of adventures and dangerous situations as they tried to escape from the Bolsheviks, with Gurdjieff guiding them skilfully past the Red and White lines five times, it was often a matter of life and death. This expedition ended in Sochi and for the second time he told them that it was all over, that they had to look after themselves, as he had run out of money. Five people remained, however. This time Ouspensky was not one of them, he had already left.

From Sochi they went to Tiflis, where they were joined by Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann. He was a designer and painter and she a Dalcroze pupil. With their help, the work on movements began to develop, with the first public performance in the Opera House in Tiflis in 1919. He accepted Oligivanna Hinzenberg (later the wife of Frank Lloyd Wright) as his pupil, who also became one of the great movement teachers. They remained with him till the end and assisted him in every way with the development of his work, while Jeanne de Salzmann would continue the work after his death. From Tiflis they travelled to Constantinopel, then to Berlin and finally to Paris, where he stayed till his death.

Music played a great part

Gurdjieff had been exposed to music from an early age. He had been a choirboy in the cathedral in Kars, played the guitar, and a small hand organ, as well as the piano. He carried out many experiments with the vibrations of sound, also for the purpose of healing people. He had searched for the universal meaning of the octave, and on his journeys heard and remembered many unusual melodies and sacred songs in the old monastic communities he visited. Later, he wrote them down with the help of Thomas de Hartmann. Thus this musical oeuvre composed by two people is a unique collection consisting of some three hundred compositions.There have been orchestral compositions as well, but these seem to have been partly lost until today. Perhaps they will surface one day like it happened before, when at the time the Prieuré was put up for sale, an unknown pupil of Gurdjieff found a suitcase full of manuscripts in the chaos of the auction, and luckily hid it from the auctioneer!

There is a description by De Hartmann about the way they worked together on the compositions:

"Mr. Gurdjieff would repeat several sections, but often - to vex me, I think - he would begin to repeat the melody before I had finished writing it, and often with subtle differences, which drove me to despair. This was not only a means of recording for posterity, but equally a personal exercise for me to grasp the essence of the music. When the music was written, he would tap on the lid of the piano a rhythm on which to build the accompaniment. Then I had to perform at once what he had been given, improvising the harmony as I went. Once Gurdjieff said: 'It must be done so that every idiot could play it.' But God saved me from taking these words literally."

The music served several purposes, one was to accompany the readings of Beelzebub Tales when the students would gather in his Paris apartment. He would play the music himself, improvising mostly on his small handorgan. But most of the compositions were made to accompany the movements.

Madame Solange Claustres, one of his few surviving pupils and movement teachers, gives a remarkable description of his music:

"His music has nothing to do with what we generally know and recognise as music. Gurdjieff's music is a world of sounds of a universe unknown to us, as it were beyond time. Parts of his music bring back images of forgotten lives hidden here and there in the world. It is as if Gurdjieff wanted to pass on to us rapidly disappearing sounds. Some parts resemble a call which comes from afar and which may resonate in us in a very subtle and profound way. This very special music carries not only a message but also a question and helps us to listen to a voice which speaks directly to our being and heart."

Movements

The movements or sacred dances also originate from his journeys to the East, which, like the music, he discovered in ancient monasteries, where they were practised as spiritual exercises. He passed these on and later invented his own as well. They are meant to bring about a harmonious state of being so that the three centres, head, hart and body would become one whole living organism. For this to take place, a great precision, attention and self-observation was required on the part of the student.

There are two periods in which these movements were created. The first period was between 1918 and 1924. In 1924, he suffered a very serious car accident, after which he no longer gave movements until the second period in the last ten years of his life from 1940-1949. In that period he concentrated on movements alone, and gave no other form of instruction.

There are now some 120 movements left, a third of what had existed, and they are still being practised by groups all over the world.

Gurdjieff did not just keep these movements behind closed doors, but had them performed on the great world stages, as in the Theatre de Champs Elysées in Paris, and in Carnagy Hall in New York in 1924. A journalist who did not know what to make of what he saw, remarked: "Mr. Gurdjieff, these dancers look like automatons." "Yes", he answered, "but inside they are free."

Fontainebleau

Between 1922 and 1932, he lives with his family, who had come as refugees from the Caucasus, and many followers, especially British and Americans, in the Prieuré, near Fontainebleau, under the name of The institute for the harmonious development of man.

They work on the land, look after the cattle, and build a 'Study House' for the performance of movements. In the English Daily News of 1923, they were called 'the forest philosophers'. In 1924, the Institute was dissolved because of his car accident, and he moves to an apartment in Paris where he stays until his death in 1949.

Paris

Here he holds his legendary lunches, with people packed together in his apartment, listening to the readings from Beelzebub and drinking the toasts of the idiots. He is visited by a number of famous French writers and artists, Luc Dietrich, Henri Tracol, René Zuber, René Daumal, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright from America. But he still carries on with composing new movements and teaching them to a class of some seventy people every night, as well as inspiring a group of the younger generation which he called 'the calves', and whom he gave extra attention. No doubt he had in mind the future of his work. In order to secure the correct passing on of the movements after his death, he put his best movement teachers in charge in various countries, a task they have executed with devoted precision. Thus, Jessmin Howarth was put in charge of America, her daughter Dushka in charge of England, and Jeanne de Salzmann of France. This way, he prepared himself and his followers for his departure.

Two days before he was taken to hospital, he called in four people who happened to be sitting in the salon, and he just looked at them for a long time, saying not a word. They believed he was saying goodbye.

The Priest at the Russian Church stated that there had never been such a funeral before; that he had never seen such mass grief, or such a concentration of attitude, on the part of the mourners. Even the undertaker who had never seen Gurdjieff before, broke down at the grave and wept.