As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.
Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.
By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.
Meetings with remarkable men is the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).
I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.
And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.
Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.
While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.
Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.
To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.
He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.
This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.
Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.
This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:
Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.
If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.
It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.
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Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.