Deconstructing Gurdjieff: Introduction

By Tobias Churton

Caveat Lector*

Biographers of Gurdjieff are faced with a serious problem: the extreme scarcity of authentic independent documentation of Gurdjieff’s life both up to his appearance in Moscow in 1912-13 and between that time and the Russian Revolution in 1917. Gurdjieff was at least forty years old in 1917, his mind, self-appointed destiny, and fundamental attitudes already fully shaped by previous experience. As regards factual support for that experience, Gurdjieff’s name finds its way into barely a handful of official documents, themselves not wholly reliable. Seismic tumults from the collapse of the old Russian Empire, aggravated by the twentieth century’s immense conflicts and totalitarian vandalism, have sundered and fragmented the historic continuity that might otherwise have yielded collaborative resources from the Caucasus and Transcaucasia regions in which Gurdjieff grew up. Gurdjieff destroyed his own papers during a protracted personal crisis in 1930. We have no volume of Gurdjieff ’s letters or diaries, however slim, to consult. Personal reminiscences of followers, often highly subjective, are frequently at variance with one another and with verifiable facts.

Self-perceived as a man apart, a kind of spy in a confused, damned world, Gurdjieff persistently objectified the human beings around him; the first thing Gurdjieff ’s most influential follower P. D. (Pyotr Demianovich) Ouspensky noticed about his teacher in Moscow in 1915 was that Gurdjieff was always acting. Gurdjieff was many men and appeared in many disguises. Was he hiding something, or was he hiding from something?

In the Introduction to Meetings with Remarkable Men, written after 1924 and published after his death, Gurdjieff explains that part of his purpose in writing the book is to save himself future trouble in having to answer questions from interlocutors concerning his life and, especially, his beliefs. He complains that such questions have been vexatious to concentration on other more pressing matters and regards these questions merely as ones put by “idle curiosity.” Those interested in his personal life are described as “shameless idlers.” To satisfy their curiosity he has nonetheless, “in revising the material destined for this series [he means this book]” decided to present it “in the form of separate independent tales, and to insert in them various ideas which can serve as answers to all the questions often put to me.” The questions put to him are, he says, to do with the “remarkable men” he has encountered; “marvels” seen in the East; questions of the immortality of the soul; whether or not man has free will; the cause of suffering; the credibility of “occult and spiritualistic sciences”; the nature of hypnotism, magnetism, and telepathy; how he first became concerned with such questions; and what then led him to the system practiced in the institute bearing his name.

Gurdjieff, conscious of writing a “new kind” of book, deliberately shaped and reshaped elements of his life and imagination as illustrations or parables of his system. He dramatized ideas. The ideas might be real but individual characters may not be, though their behavior may be truthful regarding human nature or Gurdjieff’s ideas of ideal or misguided action, observed from experience.

The cooked-up book is what the dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) would call a lehrstücke, a “learning-play” or experimental teaching piece wherein actors adopt roles, postures, and attitudes that exceed conventional distinctions between stage and audience, between idea, image, event, and reality, fact and fiction. Brecht famously declared, “Realism does not consist in reproducing reality, but in showing how things really are.”

In the case of Gurdjieff’s book, Gurdjieff is principal actor as well as narrator, and elements of his experiences, fantasies, prior reading, and thoughts–and what he considers the fantasies and expectations of his readers–play the parts; Gurdjieff “sings their tune.” We can see why Gurdjieff has most appealed to actors, dancers, musicians, painters, impresarios, and storytellers, those especially conscious of the role of symbol and its encoding in artificial forms of address. Artists get or “cotton on” to congenial aspects of Gurdjieff, whereas more prosaic, sometimes troubled minds–perhaps his principal following–struggle with it all, often for years, perennially taking the “black devil” too literally, perhaps too respectfully.

Gurdjieff’s idea of science was that of the ancient Magi, not the modern classroom. He barely ever disguised his loathing for what today is called, without irony, higher education. I personally suspect he had a chip on his shoulder about never having graduated from university, so vehement were his repeated digs at “wiseacreing,” an ungainly word (in translation) that occurs with tiresome, arguably obsessive repetitiveness throughout all his writings and talks; followers have picked the word up and scatter it like buckshot from on high at critics. Gurdjieff was a “university of life” type of graduate, cynical about cynics. Perhaps to lend authority to conviction, he even invented from the store of reality and myth the archetypal sacred university of wisdom–the Sarmoung Brotherhood–a body of such exalted spiritual purity and genuine universality of insight that its denizens would never soil their elegant hands with the muck of modern education reliant on paper qualifications and bookish memory learning.

Unlike the professional talkers and establishment-acceptable pundits, the self-taught apparently polymathic, autodidact Gurdjieff could turn his hand to anything and persuade people to do things they never dreamed of doing. He was the man you’d think you’d want in a real crisis. He talked the talk because, as far as he was concerned, he had walked the walk. Unfortunately for historians and biographers he mostly fictionalized the walk. He didn’t want people to follow his footsteps, but to find their own.

Gurdjieff’s “Men” are remarkable insofar as they have recognized that the true value of life comes only when that life consciously acquires mythic dimensions, when one, with feet on the ground, has yet traversed the stars and touched the beyond. Remarkable men have seen something unremarkable men have not. Such men should engage our attention. Was Gurdjieff himself one of them?

*“Reader Beware”

To learn more click here.

About Tobias Churton:
Britain’s leading scholar of Western Esotericism, Tobias Churton is a world authority on Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism. An Honorary Fellow of Exeter University, where he is a faculty lecturer, he holds a master’s degree in Theology from Brasenose College, Oxford, and is the author of many books, including Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin and Occult Paris. He lives in the heart of England.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff by Tobias Churton © 2017 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.

A Sandra Kynes Double Header

I love Sandra Kynes. She’s an insanely prolific writer whose work never seems repetitive, is always accessible to the average reader even while being scholarly, and despite my only sporadic support she always personally mails a copy of each of her new books. And you know, I don’t seem to see people talking about her as much as she deserves. I’m hopefully going to remedy that now with a Sandra Kynes book review double header. These two book go together great, and I hope after reading this little article you’ll be inspired to pick them both up!

First, get ready to get excited about gardening because I’ll be talking about “The Herb Gardener’s Essential Guide”. On the cover it also reads, “Creating Herbal Remedies & Oils for Health & Healing.” But it doesn’t do just that. Kynes takes you from how to design your garden, whether it’s a single pot or a whole backyard, to understanding your soil, recommended tools, garden maintenance, and more! Seriously, it’s like a super interesting gardening show in the palm of your hand!

Once you’re through that you get to harvest. Kynes discusses the best way to store your herbs based on type and intended use. This is also where she gets into the nitty gritty of making herbal remedies, and as usual, she leaves no stone unturned. Teas, infusions, infusion oils, infusing with essential oils, decoctions, tinctures, bath oils and salts, compresses, creams, diffusers, powders and capsules, foot soaks, ointments, salves, balms, and still more! If that wasn’t enough ways to use your herbs, Kynes also devotes time to culinary uses of herbs for good health, such as cooking oils, butters, and breads.

Then she has a nice selection of profiles for assorted herbs. It includes the herb’s uses, including precautions and contradictions, and their preferred growing environments. There is also a handy appendix that lets you look up herbs by the ailment they treat.

Maybe it’s just me, but “The Herb Gardener’s Essential Guide” got me really excited about herb and herbal gardening.

The other book I’d like to address is “Plant Magic: A Year of Green Wisdom for Pagans & Wiccans”. This book is a reminder that Sandra Kynes is one of the queens of cataloging connections and correspondences. After all, she did write the book “Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Correspondences: A Comprehensive & Cross Referenced Resource for Pagans & Wiccans”. Whereas “Complete Correspondences” covered anything and everything you can imagine, “Plant Magic” pulls the huge interconnected web in to focus solely on plants.

The book is primarily broken down into the 12 month of the year. Each month features “On the Calendar” (essentially holidays like New Year’s Day and Samhain), “In the Garden”, (highlighting plants that bloom during that month), “In the Wild” (profiling plants that can be found in the wild that month), “In the House” (offering ideas of things to do with plants that are appropriate for the month). Of course there is a handy appendix that’s a plant list/quick guide, and one full of magical correspondences. If you are a Wiccan, Pagan, or magical practitioner that’s into plants, I would call this book a must.

For more information on “The Herb Gardener’s Essential Guide”, visit here.

For more information on “Plant Magic”, visit here.

Supermarket Magic

Well this is a bit embarrassing. I bought a book to review because I thought it was brand new and it wasn’t until I went to the publisher’s website that I realized it was published in 2013. 2013! But the book is good, it’s still available to purchase, and it was new to me, so I’m sharing it with you! We’re going to be talking about “Supermarket Magic: Creating Spells, Brews, Potions, & Powders from Everyday Ingredients” by Michael Furie.

I love food, as my ever widening ass can attest to. Which is why I love books that let me look at food in different ways. I also liked the idea of using a supermarket to do your magical shopping. It reminds me of all the times I would buy supplies at the local dollar store. I guess what I’m saying is that it was inevitable that I would end up reading this book, and it didn’t disappoint.

Now when I picked up “Supermarket Magic” I expected it to be wholly focused on what kind of magic you can work when your local supermarket is the closest thing you have to a magical supply shop. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Furie discussed a lot of magical basics and ethics. He then divides the book up into the most frequently used categories of magic: clearing and cleansing, harmony, healing, love, lust, and beauty, luck, money, protection, and psychic ability and divination. He also includes a section about Sabbats.

In each chapter Furie discusses what is involved in the category. Items that are associated with that type of magic, and several spells and/or recipes to use. There is a shopping list at the end of each chapter listing all the items he mentioned in the chapter. I found that particularly clever. He stresses that “Supermarket Magic” isn’t a cookbook, however there are a lot of recipes for brews and potions that sound…..magically delicious. (I couldn’t help myself!) Seriously, if something is tasty AND can have potential magical benefits, why wouldn’t you want to give it a go?

One of the shopping lists.

One of the shopping lists.

With its blend of beginner and advanced ideas “Supermarket Magic” is a great addition to any magic user’s library, whether you’re just starting out, or have been working with magic for years.

You can learn more here.

And by the way, “Supermarket Sabbats”, also by Michael Furie comes out this October! You can learn more, and preorder it here.