In search of PD Ouspensky

I wrote this piece in 2009 after I’d finished reading Gary Lachman’s In search of the Miraculous, a book I really enjoyed and which I got a lot out of. The author started out as the bassist in an early version of Blondie, before they really hit big in the late 70’s, and wrote or co-wrote a handful of their early songs. Then after having drifted out of rock and roll, he was inspired in large part by the works of Colin Wilson to start writing about the influence of the occult on literature and culture in general. I discovered him after finding one of his articles online (it was about Colin Wilson so funnily enough I found Lachman through Wilson), and then afterwards getting his excellent “Turn Your Mind Off” from the Mitchell library. I highly recommend his work; he makes the kind of fascinating interconnections between the obscure, underground world of the occult and the magical, and the supposedly more mainstream manifestations of modern culture that Wilson himself excelled at (incidentally my first introduction to Gurdjieff was Colin Wilson’s the War Against Sleep) . His webpage is here. The piece below has been edited quite heavily. There was a lot in the original I didn’t like, I hope it reads better now. — AFK, 11/3/13

A few years ago I, like so many others since its posthumous publication over six decades ago, fell under the spell of Peter Demian Ouspensky’s ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, the author’s meticulous, yet gripping account of his years of training under the mystical tutelage of the enigmatic and yet ever so slightly sinister Mr G — which was of course Ouspensky’s way of referring to the highly influential Greco-Armenian magus G I Gurdjieff.

Having found a copy in my university library and having flicked through it and been suitably intrigued, I was compelled to take it out. It was such a thrill to read that I ended up quickly devouring the whole book in a few short bursts of concentrated reading. What’s more it was like absolutely nothing I had ever read before: offering up tantalising glimpses into a mysterious and self-contained philosophy that promised a direct route into higher realms of consciousness. A route that would ultimately enabled those who were fearless enough to take it an escape from the mundane world of mechanical suffering to which, or so these teachings claimed, we were helplessly chained by our distorted perceptual apparatuses and deeply maladjusted brains.

These were grand claims, and any charlatan could have made them, and yet Ouspensky who gave up everything, his career, his reputation, and ultimately his mental well being, to follow Gurdjieff, did not so easily fit the mould of gullible aspirant. He was a sceptical, and extremely intelligent man, one who was unfazed by the exotic trappings of the mystic East which normally prove so alluring to other Western seekers. He had visited India looking for a path to the miraculous, but came away disappointed, finding little that was concrete beyond vague promises and hints of the esoteric or transcendenta — or at least little that someone who so closely identified himself with the science and philosophy of the West could easily latch onto. But Gurdjieff offered something that Ouspensky found irresistible; indeed so much so that he was willing to overlook the many misgivings he had about Gurdjieff, his personality, and his methods of teaching, and become his disciple. Nonetheless these deep misgivings never went away and would ultimately lead, many years later, to the final schism between the two.

Gary Lachman’s ‘In Search of PD Ouspensky’ is a biography of Ouspensky, a figure who has up till now been pretty much always relegated to the status of a supporting player, one who struggled to move out from under the grand shadow cast by Gurdjieff’s lead man. This is something that Lachman sets out to rectify in his book. According to him, Ouspensky deserves to be seen as an important thinker and occult theorist in his own right — and he makes his case well: it is abundantly clear by the end of the book that Ouspensky does not deserve to fall prey to the indignity of having his reputation reduced to that of a mere vessel for Mr G’s teachings.

In fact, Ouspensky had made his name as a renowned writer well before his fateful meeting with Gurdjieff. He had commanded audiences of thousands at his lectures, and his Tertium Organum, a brilliant treatise on the mystical and mathematical meaning of the ‘fourth dimension’, was a major influence on the Russian and European avant gardes of the early 20th century. Indeed, it is more than likely that it was Ouspensky’s reputation as a successful and respected expositor of esotericism that convinced Gurdjieff to make the first furtive moves toward netting this valuable and illustrious potential pupil. It was a strategy which ended up paying dividends: Lachman argues that without Ouspensky’s help Gurdjieff would scarcely have been able to spread his teachings beyond the small informal bands of followers he had managed to gather around him prior to meeting Mr O.

Lachman does a commendable job of shedding light on Ouspensky’s early life and rehabilitating his standing as a writer in the first few chapters of the book by arguing for the value of his pre-Gurdjieff writings, works which Ouspensky himself later denounced. He then moves his focus on to Ouspensky’s time with Gurdjieff — although obviously he couldn’t hope to convey the sense of excitement and discovery as effectively or with as much lucidity as Ouspensky’s own account — before detailing their final separation. The fact is that the more Ouspensky studied and practised Gurdjieff’s system the stronger became his conviction that he had finally stumbled onto the route into the miraculous that he had been desperately searching for for so many years. So that one has to ask, why the split — if he still kept on believing, as he obviously did, that Gurdjieff really had something momentous to offer?

After their rift, Ouspensky established himself as a teacher of Gurdjieff’s system living out his later years a broken man, lonely and beset by doubt and uncertainy — the poetic “radiance” of his younger years replaced by a stiff taciturn outer shell which he seldom himself allowed to soften. Which leads Lachman to query whether it wouldn’t have been better if Ouspensky had never met Gurdjieff? which leads back in its own turn to the question, never far from the surface whenever one encounters Gurdjieff, namely, was there more to all this than an extremely charismatic conman plying his trade on some influential and highly credulous people using advanced techniques of psychological manipulation? And I suspect there was and is more to it and that a rigid, unyielding skepticism in this case is akin to a willful blindness. Nevertheless, between the two reassuring extremes of the positivist’s quick and easy dismissal and the devotee’s wholesale suspension of critical judgment there is a vast territory with very few signposts.

Lachman attempts to shed light on what must be by its very nature for the most part forever occluded and beyond rational clarification, namely Ouspensky’s relation with Gurdjieff and with Gurdjieff’s system. There was something there, some kind of power that compelled Ouspensky, and others, sophisticated folk whose naivety is similarly hard to presume or take for granted, to give up everything to commit themselves to their own Dark Magus. As he progressed through the system, Ouspensky seems to have been geniunely convinced that he was beginning to achieve real results: that Gurdjieff’s claims were starting to become manifest.

But then like most people who read Miraculous I became deeply puzzled when it came to Ouspensky’s account of his break with Gurdjieff (but not with Gurdjieff’s teachings). For me ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ was ‘about’ Gurdjieff’s system, Ouspensky own role was simply as an excellent expositor who had been successful in his account (as Gurdjieff himself later testified) precisely because he was able to refrain from bringing too much of himself into it.

As it was Gurdjieff put the Guru-disciple/teacher-student relationship at the core of his teachings, giving it a singular pre-eminence as the sole means through which one was finally able to obliterate the mechanical self and achieve true freedom. You cannot ‘awaken’ by yourself, he taught, because it is impossible to get anywhere by dint of individual willpower alone. So that in order to achieve any kind of result, it was necessary to completely, unquestioningly surrender your faith and your free will to another: to lay yourself prostrate at the feet of one whose authority ultimately derived from his or her achievements on the path. The important point being that you can never question the validity or wisdom of the Guru’s commandments, no matter how absurd or counterintuitive, since all such doubts and hesitations invariably arise from a benighted level of understanding. Gurdjieff in particular taught that the normal, unenlightened, man’s intuitions are almost always incorrect. This entails an absolute obedience, a severe form of spiritual slavery, that runs counter to all our humanist cultural inclinations, as it must have done for Ouspensky, a man who was very much a product of his Westernised cultural millieu; needless to say it also implies the kind of relationship that simply cries out to be abused, and that has in fact become a beacon for every kind of fraud and charlatan.

Gurdjieff openly boasted of using his students as guinea pigs, and was happy to let it be known that they were merely a means for him to achieve his own hidden ends and to treat them with a corresponding disdain. Of course if you came even some of the way towards accepting his claims to spiritual authority then you could not judge him or his behaviour using conventional criteria– even if it was impossible to escape the feeling that he was abusing his power. But Gurdjieff had a zenlike disregard for convention and consistency, making an absolute virtue of contradiction and abrogating prior claims to an extent pathological by the standards of normal behaviour. This left the way open for more enterprising and less weak-willed students to take the initiative and circumvent the necessity for total submission to Gurdjieff’s stated commands and pronouncements.

Lachman is convincing when he argues that it was precisely Ouspensky’s inflexible adherence to Gurdjieff’s teachings, even after their mutual split, that ultimately proved to be his downfall. Ouspensky had taken on Gurdjieff’s criticisms of his volubility and his extrovert tendencies as a barrier to the work completely to heart and this led to the dour aloofness and unapproachability for which he was notorious in later years. Ouspensky stuck to the system literally up to his final days, unwilling to admit that somewhere along the way his approach to it had become too ‘mechanical’ – which was ironic given that the “robotic”, machine-like aspect of human consciousness was precisely what the system was supposed to overcome.

Later on Ouspensky who along with everything else was utterly convinced by Gurdjieff’s claims that his system had its origins in some secret mystical school, became more and more preoccupied with the idea that he might be able to establish contact with this secret brotherhood by himself. He came to believe that Gurdjieff had gone seriously awry somewhere along the way and that it was precisely because he had lost his connection to the source. Ouspensky therefore made several bids to publicise his own school in order to attract the secret brotherhood’s attention. Inevitably all these later efforts came to no avail which just added to the mounting sense of failure and helped to bring about the physical and mental decline of his later years. In the end he turned to drink to ease his misery and loneliness, as is the Russian way, and his body quickly deteriorated under the weight of this heavy regime.

It is hard to feel anything but sorrow and pity for this broken man who had tasted so much of renown and intellectual glory during his younger days in the heady intellectual atmosphere of fin de siècle St Petersburg — a time and a place that had been forever swept away by an epic tide of savagery — and having banked everything on the pursuit of enlightenment under the guidance of one man was unable to admit to himself that he’d been wrong — almost up till the very end. At the time of his demise, the contradictory accounts of which Lachman can do little to disentangle, he seems to have finally accepted that the system had failed him.

Lachman describes a strange parallel between the sad decline of Ouspensky’s later years and the plotline of one of his earliest published works: a novel in which the central protagonist, Ivan, is given the chance to relive past moments in his life over again and, more crucially, the ability to alter the course of his life as he sees fit. But Ivan finds himself incapable of avoiding the same mistakes he made first time around and he winds up doomed to mechanically repeat his previous history. Ironically, while brooding over the failures of those years following the split with Mr G, Ouspensky must constantly have been asking himself where it was that he had gone wrong — given all the immense promise that Gurdjieff’s system had held out for him at the time — but for the most part he seems to have been unable or unwilling to pinpoint where he made his own mistakes.

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2 thoughts on “In search of PD Ouspensky

  1. Pingback: disinfo chat « Anas’s Blog

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