The Gurdjieff Journal—Fourth Way Perspectives

Book Review
In Search of P. D. Ouspensky:
The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff

by Gary Lachman
Quest Books, 329 pp.

Ouspensky 1912, Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, Coetzee, Theosophy

Would Ouspensky have been better off never meeting Mr. Gurdjieff? At the end of his life, if not before, Ouspensky certainly felt this way and Gary Lachman agrees. He takes Ouspensky as a genius—Webster's definition: "Extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative ability"—a Faust entranced by Gurdjieff's Mephistopheles. "He [Ouspensky] had banked everything," Lachman writes, "on the methods and ideas he had learned from Gurdjieff. And he was wrong.... For me, it's not an exaggeration to suggest it was a mistake for Ouspensky to abandon his own creativity and ideas to become an exponent of Gurdjieff's teaching." And several sentences later, "For my taste, nothing Gurdjieff wrote, nor any other Fourth Way book, approaches Ouspensky's first work in its enthusiasm, insight, brilliance, and ability to convey difficult ideas with seemingly effortless clarity." Tertium Organum, the work referred to, is not Ouspensky's first book, a niggling quibble not worth making much of, but inasmuch as In Search of P. D. Ouspensky has a disconcerting number of such mistakes, as well as larger and more important omissions, it gives an uneasy sense that the book is not the thoughtful consideration one would hope for, but more the polemic of a hurt person, much as we get, for example, with David Kherdian's On a Spaceship with Beelzebub and Paul Beekman Taylor's two books, Gurdjieff & Toomer: Shadows of Heaven and Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium (see TGJ #4, #17 and #25, respectively).

Ouspensky Left the Teaching

Lachman, a former rock and roll musician, was involved with the Work in England for several years. He counts that "time well spent; yet, eventually I found myself moving away from the work to explore other ideas. But as the years went by I returned...." The return was not to the Work but to Ouspensky's early books in which he "found a stimulating and exhilarating mind that is oddly lacking in [his later books] like The Fourth Way." "What had turned the young poetic Ouspensky," he asks, "into an often stern and demanding taskmaster?" A crucial understanding that Lachman, like so many others, doesn't realize is that when Ouspensky left Gurdjieff he left the teaching. And as Gurdjieff said, "There is nothing that shows up a man better than his attitude towards the work and the teacher after he has left it."

That Ouspensky then set himself up as a teacher (it would be like Peter leaving Jesus to teach Christianity) shows what was in the background all along. That at the end of his life, melancholic and drinking too much, he finally confessed, "I taught too early," isn't the point. Ouspensky was never commissioned to teach. The truth behind his announcement upon his return to England in 1947 that he had "abandoned the system" is that he had abandoned it 25 years earlier. Ironically, and sadly, in doing so, Ouspensky unintentionally paralleled the fictional character Ivan Osokin in his novel Strange Life of Ivan Osokin:

It is hard to believe that I can actually do nothing at all. But, at the same time, what have I done so far? I have only spoiled everything. To give myself up to the magician? That again seems strange, even cowardly. Probably this is where the greatest illusion lies, because to become convinced and to admit to oneself that one can actually do nothing is not cowardly at all. On the contrary, if it is true, this is the bravest thing one can do—but it is so difficult to believe.

Before continuing, it should be emphasized that while Gurdjieff thought of Ouspensky as "a weak man"—and who among us would Gurdjieff not see as weak?—Ouspensky was a great seeker with noble and serious aspirations, who was gifted with both a strong and penetrating intellect and an uncommon power of expressing himself with the written word. Was he a genius? Lachman's assessment seems a bit too high, but the point won't be argued, for if he was, then according to Gurdjieff, geniuses, like angels, have no possibility of developing. So even in his choice of title the author gets it wrong.

All & Everything a Classic

Before considering the book at greater depth, let us first set the context by calling to mind the essay of the Nobel Prize–winning writer J. M. Coetzee, "What Is a Classic?" After a thrilling ride of erudition and style through various possibilities and examples, Coetzee offers this:

So we arrive at a certain paradox. The classic defines itself by surviving. Therefore the interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile, is part of the history of the classic, inevitable and even to be welcomed. For as long as the classic needs to be protected from attack, it can never prove itself classic.

One might even venture further along this road to say that the function of criticism is defined by the classic: criticism is that which is duty-bound to interrogate the classic. Thus the fear that the classic will not survive the decentering acts of criticism may be turned on its head: rather than being the foe of the classic, criticism, and indeed criticism of the most skeptical kind, may be what the classic uses to define itself and ensure its survival. Criticism may in that sense be one of the instruments of the cunning of history.

So our author is to be thanked and commended for playing his role in bringing up once again the question of the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky relationship and so, in effect, bringing to mind the unrivaled esoteric classic of the last century and this, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff's All and Everything.

Lachman says what led him to write his book was William Patrick Patterson's Struggle of the Magicians. While he found the book "fascinating," he says, "I found myself questioning its premises that Ouspensky failed to grasp the import of Gurdjieff's mission, and, when it came to it, couldn't abandon his own independence, self-will, and egoism in order to devote himself entirely to Gurdjieff's work." Where Patterson's book was written from Gurdjieff's perspective (Patterson felt too many books had been written from the author's viewpoint and so used a chronicle approach citing in the main text just the historical facts sans interpretations, with references to the text in endnotes), Lachman tells it from Ouspensky's using a narrative largely based upon Patterson's chronology. Fair enough. But in doing so one needs to not overlook or eliminate important and telling facts that weigh against one's interpretation.

Why Did Ouspensky Leave?

Ouspensky 1930, Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, Coetzee, Theosophy

The central question of any book about Ouspensky's relationship with Gurdjieff is why Ouspensky left him, not once but three times—Essentuki, 1918; Constantinople, 1921; Prieuré, 1924. What was the chief impetus behind these three breaks? The early history of the relationship we know from Ouspensky's Search. Having been involved with Theosophy (a pseudoteaching Gurdjieff clearly disdained), Ouspensky said he wanted a teaching "of a more rational kind." He had traveled to India in search of a teaching, but finding none returned to Russia, where in April 1915 he met Gurdjieff, who gave him a more rational teaching than he had ever conceived. While interested in the teaching intellectually, Ouspensky refused to join a Work group. It was only when Gurdjieff began to no more than half answer his questions that he reluctantly agreed to join. A significant point entirely missing from Lachman's book—but an important part of Patterson's Struggle of the Magicians, which Lachman claims to have read—has to do with Ouspensky's frame of mind when he finally consented to join a group. As Gurdjieff was living in Moscow and Ouspensky in St. Petersburg, he had Ouspensky gather people there for a group which Gurdjieff would visit every two weeks. Ouspensky speaks of this as "The St. Petersburg Conditions," an odd bit of legalese, as teachers do not make contracts with their students. Interestingly, this and later Essentuki material appears in Ouspensky's first draft of Search, but was cut from the published version.

The First Break

Ouspensky's first break with Gurdjieff occurred in 1918, only three years and five months after they first met. The break was presaged as early as August 1916 in Finland. Ouspensky had been wanting what he called "the miracle." Gurdjieff gave him a resounding telepathic experience of long duration. Though it brought a wealth of deep insights, Ouspensky refused to be completely sincere with his teacher (breaking the first demand of the Work). He held something back. "I knew that he would not believe me and that he would laugh at me if I showed him this other thing," Ouspensky writes in Search. In other words, he still believes he can see the teacher and so judge him, whereas he will later write that a student cannot see the teacher. So, apparently even this early, Ouspensky was only "auditing" the teaching, not taking himself as a student. Lachman gives only a literal mention of the Finland experience.

Seeing how Ouspensky defended his emotional center with an over-inflated intellectual center (Ouspensky's chief feature was "extreme individualism," and "Wraps Up All Thought"), Gurdjieff ingeniously used Ouspensky's "St. Petersburg Conditions" against him in the hopes of breaking through his student's emotional defenses. Because of the civil war raging in Russia, Gurdjieff called his Moscow and St. Petersburg students to him in Essentuki, in the Caucasus. After they arrived, he told Ouspensky the Moscow students were acting up and that he was responsible. Bewildered, Ouspensky said he was only responsible for the St. Petersburg students. But Gurdjieff insisted. Not only unfair, his teacher's insistence was irrational, something that all intellectuals, and Ouspensky especially, would despise. This was a defining moment: either Ouspensky would remember he was in the Work and observe his emotional center or he would identify with it. He identified and so left Gurdjieff, trumping up the excuse that Gurdjieff was leading them on the religious path, requiring blind obedience and faith. This identification was the real reason behind Ouspensky's break. (It, too, was cut from the published version of Search but is reported in Struggle of the Magicians and again in the video Gurdjieff's Mission.)

The Second Break

In July 1920 Ouspensky reunited with Gurdjieff in Constantinople. The following August he again broke with Gurdjieff and left for London. Again, Gurdjieff had worked on Ouspensky's emotional center, acting strangely and telling him dirty jokes and creating black and white dramas (which always evoked Ouspensky's sensitivity to good and evil).

Though Ouspensky had only fragments of the fuller teaching that Gurdjieff was to later give, his efforts were serious enough for him to have come to a new feeling of "I." He had asked Gurdjieff in early July 1917, after some two years of work on himself: "How can one strengthen the feeling of "I" and strengthen the activity of "I"?" Gurdjieff had told him that he could do nothing about it but that "This should come as a result of all your efforts." Two years later, in June 1919, Ouspensky wrote, "I had acquired a strange confidence." Though there were still "very ordinary stupid small I's" he now had "a big I, which nothing can frighten and which would be equal to everything that happened.... This confidence is the result of that work on myself which I began four years ago."


(1) When people leave the Work. According to Lord Pentland, people leave because of "their grandmother, indigestion, money or sex. And few leave rightly. They sneak out the back door." From a private conversation reported to the author.

(2) So we arrive at a certain paradox. J. M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001), p. 16.

(3) Gurdjieff had this lightly tinted whiteness. Lizelle Reymond, To Live Within (Portland, Ore.: Rudra Press, 1995), p. 257.

(4) At the start. Reymond, pp. 193–94.

(5) St. Petersburg Conditions. William Patrick Patterson, Struggle of the Magicians (Fairfax, Calif.: Arete Communications, 1996), pp. 91–92, 233. Oddly, John Shirley's Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2004) also does not mention this or a number of other salient ideas in Struggle of the Magicians. Shirley, as well, completely overlooks why Gurdjieff went to Egypt and what happened there, which is addressed in Gurdjieff in Egypt, Part I, of the video trilogy The Life & Significance of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.

(6) Without water. Chess Life, October 2004, p. 15.

For the remainder of this article, please order The Gurdjieff Journal Issue #37

If the ideas and perspectives you've found in this article are of interest, please subscribe to The Gurdjieff Journal. We promise you four lively, provocative issues of the only international journal devoted to exploring self-transformation in the contemporary world and the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff. The Gurdjieff Journal publishes interviews, book excerpts, essays and book reviews. It does not, and will not, carry advertising. For its publication, it relies solely on the support of its readership.

Subscription Information

» Articles
    » Essays
    » Interviews
    » Working in the World
    » Meetings
    » Film Reviews
    » Book Reviews
    » Subscription Information
    » Description of Back Issues

Recommend This Page: