Gurdjieff Studies

P D Ouspensky

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Piotr Demianovich Ouspensky, incontestably the most famous and influential pupil of the Greco-Armenian spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, was born in Moscow on 5 March 1878. His early impulse to search for a substrate of hidden meaning beneath life’s “obvious absurdities” was lent adult scope by his profession of journalist and author; in youth he travelled extensively, both literally and in the realm of ideas.


In 1912 Ouspensky sprang improbably to national fame through his book Kluck Kzaradkam (Tertium Organum), which, invoking the concept of the Fourth Dimension, audaciously challenged the constraints on human consciousness implicit in Aristotle’s Organon and Bacon’s Novum Organum. By autumn 1913 Ouspensky had adventitiously come to Gurdjieff’s attention, when Moscow newspapers reported his departure for Egypt, Ceylon, and India. In London, while en route to the East, the celebrity author briefly met the editor of the critical weekly New Age ‘Alfred Richard’ (James Alfred) Orage, an admirer of Ouspensky’s recently translated essay on Tarot symbolism.


On 13 November 1914, a week after Ouspensky’s return to Russia from Colombo, he was intrigued by a notice in the newspaper Golos Moskvi, which referred to a ballet The Struggle of the Magicians, ostensibly belonging to ‘a certain Hindu’. Five months later when Ouspensky was lecturing on esotericism, he was approached by the musician Vladimir Pohl and by Gurdjieff’s cousin the sculptor Sergei Dmitrievich Mercourov. They spoke extravagantly of Gurdjieff’s ‘occult’ group; disclosed surprisingly that Gurdjieff was the ‘Hindu’ Impresario; and urged Ouspensky to contact him. After considerable hesitation Ouspensky agreed, and his first meeting with Gurdjieff in Moscow – momentous within the Gurdjieffian canon – was effected by Pohl in April 1915 in ‘a small cafe in a noisy but not central street’. Ouspensky was thirty-seven.


The encounter went well and after associating daily for one week, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky tacitly accepted the respective roles of teacher and pupil. Ouspensky, though elated, was professionally obliged to return to the capital Petrograd, where he worked and lived in a small room on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Liteynaia Street. Not until six months later was contact resumed during Gurdjieff’s three brief visits there in the autumn of 1915; indeed Ouspensky’s formal studies under Gurdjieff, commenced only in February 1916, when Gurdjieff although ill began to lecture in Petrograd fortnightly. From a circle assembled chiefly by Ouspensky, Gurdjieff gradually constituted his first Petrograd group, whose six members included Ouspensky and his romantic intimate Anna Ilinishna Butkovsky-Hewitt, the Finnish psychiatrist Dr Leonid Robertovich de Stjernvall, and Andrei Andreivitch Zaharoff. To this group during the five months between February and June 1916, Gurdjieff conveyed (in a systematic expository way, to which he never fully returned) virtually the entire apparatus of his cosmological and psychological ideas, which included the Law of Three, the Law of Seven, the Ray of Creation, the Table of Hydrogens, the Food Diagram, and the Cosmoses. With such unique acuity did Ouspensky register all this complex material that Gurdjieff confided to him the task of first outlining it to two highly significant new participants: the eminent classical composer Thomas Alexandrovitch de Hartmann and his young wife Olga Arcadievna.

During midsummer 1916 Gurdjieff came to live in Petrograd in an apartment close to Ouspensky at the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Pushkinskaia; his groups, enlarged to thirty, met almost every evening, often in the house of Mme E. N. Maximovitch. In August, at the Maximovitch country dacha in Finland, Gurdjieff induced in Ouspensky an intense telepathic and mystical experience, which seems to mark the apogee of their rapport.


Through the autumn and winter of 1916 Ouspensky saw little of Gurdjieff (who had returned to Moscow to work there). Late in October Ouspensky was mobilised, commissioned in the Guards Sappers, and conveniently posted to regimental H.Q. in Petrograd, two miles from his new home on Troitskaia. Into this large apartment Ouspensky received the domineering divorcee Sophia Grigorievna Maximenko aged forty-two, with whom he entered into so-to-say a ‘marriage of inconvenience’. Possibly the unconventionality of this arrangement, as well as Ouspensky’s acute myopia, contributed to his premature and welcome demobilisation from the Guards in January 1917.


At the beginning of February 1917, Gurdjieff made his last visit to Petrograd, lectured on the ‘Diagram of Everything Living’, and shortly returned to Moscow. Suddenly came civil disorder; the enforced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on 2 March 1917; and the downfall of the Romanoff dynasty. During the ensuing confusion of the provisional government (led by Prince Georgi Evgenievitch Lvov, later by Aleksander Feodorovitch Kerensky) Gurdjieff’s precise whereabouts were uncertain, and communication with him at first impossible, then inconclusive. Despite the seniority of Dr Stjernvall, it was Ouspensky who emerged in this vacuum as the de facto steward of the Petrograd group: energetic, paternalistic, and far-sightedly aware of the necessity of emigration.


Early in June 1917 Ouspensky was suddenly invited by telegram to come to Gurdjieff in his home in Alexandropol, on the distant Russo-Turkish frontier. Here he met Gurdjieff’s closest relatives: his father Ivan, his mother Yevdokia, his younger brother Dmitri Ivanovitch (and probably Gurdjieff’s wife Ulosifna Osipovna Ostrovska). After a fortnight Gurdjieff asked Ouspensky to return to Moscow and Petrograd and call the groups to new work with him in the south. Ouspensky faithfully and quickly discharged this trust: in mid-July he rejoined Gurdjieff, at Essentuki, on the northern foothills of the Caucasus, bringing Mme Ouspensky and her adult daughter Lenotchka Savitsky.


Only thirteen pupils succeeded in congregating at Essentuki, and Gurdjieff worked intensively with them night and day. His techniques included fasting, acceleration of tempo, relaxation, cultivation of attention and bodily sensation, the ‘Stop Exercise’, and simple Movements. Ouspensky – replete with the theory of the Work – was suddenly and richly exposed to its praxis, in his fortieth year. After six weeks Gurdjieff ended this experiment and went to Tuapse, taking only Zaharoff. From this juncture Ouspensky – obscurely disappointed in his expectations – began to prefer Gurdjieff’s ideas over Gurdjieff himself.


Early in September 1917 Ouspensky returned to Petrograd alone to retrieve some belongings, finally leaving on 15 October (ten days before the Bolshevik revolution). He wintered with Gurdjieff in the Caucasus, successively at Uch Dere, Olghniki, and Essentuki, but received no instruction. On 12 February 1918, Gurdjieff issued a circular letter over Ouspensky’s signature calling the remainder of his Moscow and Petrograd groups south. By March forty people had assembled and Gurdjieff began a second period of concentrated work – significant as the last episode of Ouspensky’s real pupilship. As in the first Essentuki experiment, Gurdjieff’s emphasis was on practice not theory, and a variety of complex exercises were given. The sacred dances (in which Ouspensky had negligible interest or facility) implied for him that Gurdjieff was now tending towards religion. Concluding that Gurdjieff’s methods did not suit him, Ouspensky painfully resolved to part. In May 1918 he left Gurdjieff’s house and resumed writing A New Model of the Universe which romantically evoked his early travels and speculations.


Although Ouspensky continued to hold aloof from Gurdjieff throughout the summer of 1918 (while the Civil War progressively engulfed Essentuki) he loyally interested himself in Gurdjieff’s audacious plan to extricate his people over the Caucasus Mountains. Gurdjieff, with his party, left Essentuki, at the beginning of August 1918 and Ouspensky did not see him again for nearly two years. Political developments quickly overtook Ouspensky in Essentuki, stranding him there ten months with Mme Ouspensky, his stepdaughter Lenotchka Savitsky, and – very soon – his step-grandson Leonidas (‘Lonya’) Savitsky. Their ordeal between September and December 1918, entailing cold, hunger and typhoid, left Ouspensky with an ineradicable detestation of Bolshevism. In this stressful period, during which he courageously found work as a house-porter, schoolmaster, and librarian, Ouspensky first made long-term plans to teach Gurdjieff’s ideas.


In January 1919, Essentuki was liberated by the Volunteer Army under General Anton Ivanovitch Denikin: conditions eased, and (from Alexander Nikorovich Petrov in February and Olga de Hartmann in May) Ouspensky had news of Gurdjieff’s circumstances. Unwilling to rejoin Gurdjieff, Ouspensky decided that, once conditions permitted, he would emigrate to London and teach Gurdjieff’s System there. He chose England because he had friendships in literary and theosophical circles (e.g. with A. R. Orage, Carl E. Bechhofer-Roberts, and Mme A. L. Pogossky); because his book The Symbolism of the Tarot had been published in English; and above all because he accurately foresaw that no other European people would give a readier hospitality to Gurdjieff’s ideas.


Between June 1919 and January 1920, Ouspensky spent his final precarious months in Russia attendant on the hard-pressed White forces. He left Essentuki with his family at the beginning of June and went, via Rostov-on-Don, to Ekaterinodar capital of the Kuban. During the autumn Ouspensky somehow found a way to send five articles to Orage, who published them in the New Age. Orage also commended him to Major ‘Frank’ (Francis William Stanley) Pinder, influential in Ekaterinodar as Head of the British Economic Mission to Denikin’s Volunteer Army; Pinder then helped by generously employing Ouspensky out of his own pocket, to write the Mission’s press summaries.


Here in Ekaterinodar in September 1919, under grimly adverse conditions, Ouspensky began to teach his first Gurdjieffian group (a precocious initiative, which Gurdjieff had neither explicitly approved nor forbidden). Ouspensky was forty-one. He had recently declined two written invitations from Gurdjieff to rejoin him in Tiflis: instead in the autumn he accompanied Maj. Pinder and the Mission north to Rostov (leaving his family installed in a suburb of Ekaterinodar). In Rostov Ouspensky was joined by Zaharoff and resumed public lectures. In mid-December an unexpected visit from Bechhofer-Roberts, travelling as a freelance war correspondent, restimulated Ouspensky’s interest in England. By the close of December 1919, Bolshevik forces were at Rostov’s perimeter, and the trio – in imminent danger – dispersed: Bechhofer- Roberts found his way to Tiflis; Zaharoff died of smallpox in Novorossiysk; Ouspensky extricated his family from Ekaterinodar and brought them across the Crimea to Odessa, where they embarked to begin a lifetime’s exile.


In January 1920 Ouspensky arrived destitute in a Constantinople teeming with Allied forces, demobilised Turks, and Russian refugees. On completing shipboard quarantine, the family were fortunate to find accommodation in a single room in a large lodging house on Prinkipo Island in the Marmara. Ouspensky again supported them, this time by teaching mathematics to children, and English (which he scarcely knew) to fellow émigrés. Once established, Ouspensky began lectures on Gurdjieff’s ideas in Pera, Constantinople’s European quarter; here, in the upstairs offices of the Russky Mayak (a Y.M.C.A. for White Russians) he excited broad interest, gradually forming a nucleus of twenty to thirty pupils. He anticipated the arrival of Gurdjieff and his company, which was rumoured in bazaar gossip, and which materialised in June 1920.


The ensuing year – the last throughout which Gurdjieff and Ouspensky had substantial contact – was characterised by Ouspensky’s complex vacillations. At outset, when he brought Gurdjieff to his lectures and magnanimously surrendered all his pupils to him, there seemed promise of full reconciliation. Indeed from July to September 1920 the two men related closely: exchanging visits, making excursions, attending dervish ceremonies, and working together on the scenario of Gurdjieff’s ballet The Struggle of the Magicians. However by October, when Gurdjieff opened his Institute in Constantinople at No.13 Yemenedji Sokak, the same psychological difficulties arose for Ouspensky as at Essentuki: accordingly he dissociated himself and withdrew for two months to Prinkipo. Here in mid-November 1920, he was gratified to receive, from Nikolai Alexandrovitch Bassaraboff in New York, a substantial royalty cheque, with the unanticipated news that Tertium Organum had been published successfully in English: this reinforced Ouspensky’s intention to settle in England or America. In December, once Gurdjieff’s Institute was established, Ouspensky resumed his own lectures at Russky Mayak, and also began group discussions at Matchka, in the flat of Mrs Winifred Alise Beaumont (then living with John Godolphin Bennett who a year later became Ouspensky’s pupil).


Despite their now independent trajectories, the relationship between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky was still fundamentally unimpaired. In spring 1921 Ouspensky accepted an invitation to give weekly lectures at Gurdjieff’s Institute. He also interested himself in Gurdjieff’s Movement classes at the Grand Rabbinate, both by volunteering young pupils and by attending Saturday night demonstrations (his interest however fell short of personal participation).


On 19 May 1921 Ouspensky received the then substantial sum of £100 from Mary Lilian, Lady Rothermere in Rochester New York, cabled with the encouraging message: ‘Deeply impressed by your book Tertium Organum wish meet you in New York or London will pay all expenses’. With his path to London now smoothed, Ouspensky secured from Gurdjieff permission to write and publish a book on his ideas. His last three months in Prinkipo were not without tension: he suffered bureaucratic delay in obtaining his British entry visa; and Mme Ouspensky, disapproving his course, resolved to remain with Gurdjieff. Ouspensky finally left alone for London in mid-August 1921.


Ouspensky was to live twenty years in England propagating (and financially reliant on) Gurdjieff’s ideas. His reception in London in August 1921 was well prepared. Lady Rothermere installed him in a Bloomsbury hotel near Taviton Street; provided him with a meeting place in her studio in Circus Road, St John’s Wood; liberally distributed copies of Tertium Organum; and introduced him to figures like T. S. Eliot. Ouspensky’s old acquaintance A. R. Orage orchestrated the recruitment of pupils: from journalistic circles he drew Rowland Kenney first editor of the Daily Herald and Clifford Sharp editor of the New Statesman; from the Theosophical Society and the Quest Society many minor figures; and from the ‘psychosynthesis group’ the Jungians Dr Henry Maurice Dunlop Nicoll and Dr James Carruthers Young. Ouspensky, by extolling ‘his synthesis and the method of study and practice he had evolved’, quickly stamped his authority on this small section of London’s intelligentsia. (His indebtedness to Gurdjieff received little emphasis.)


By October 1921, Ouspensky was surprisingly well established: in Eugenie Kadloubovsky he had found a devoted secretary; in his cat ‘Vashka’ companionship; and in Ralph Philipson a financial backer less intrusive than Lady Rothermere. At 55a Gwendwr Road in West Kensington he had rented a modest maisonette (his principal residence for the next fourteen years); and through theosophical connections he enjoyed the use of a large meeting room at 38 Warwick Gardens, where he held groups three or four times a week. Despite this all-round consolidation, Ouspensky’s mood vacillated, and in December he briefly considered returning to Constantinople.


Commencing on 8 March 1922, Gurdjieff made a three week visit to London, and at Ouspensky's invitation talked with his groups (Olga de Hartmann interpreting).  It was wounding to Ouspensky that Gurdjieff completely won over the allegiance of most of his pupils and patrons, who on their own initiative set out to found and fund Gurdjieff’s Institute in London at Hampstead. Had this eventuated, Ouspensky was resolved to maintain his independence by moving to France or America: however the Home Office refused Gurdjieff a permanent entry permit to Britain and on 14 July 1922 he settled in France.


Much relieved, Ouspensky immediately visited Paris to confer; his English supporters then volunteered substantial funds, with which, on 30 September 1922, Gurdjieff bought the Prieuré at Fontainebleau as a permanent centre for his work. On the same day at Gwendwr Road, Ouspensky interviewed the critically ill writer Katherine Mansfield and referred her to Gurdjieff. In autumn 1922, with or without Ouspensky’s acquiescence, all his most promising pupils (except J. G. Bennett) namely A. R. Orage, Dr Nicoll, Dr Young, Rowland Kenney, and the diplomat Eric Graham Forbes Adam, congregated at the Prieuré, together with Katherine Mansfield, Lady Rothermere and Mme Ouspensky. Ouspensky himself joined them in November to observe rather than participate.


Katherine Mansfield’s death at the Prieuré on 9 January 1923 excited in England a shallow journalistic interest in the Work, not unhelpful to Ouspensky (who projected himself as Gurdjieff’s equal rather than his apprentice). Alluding to Gurdjieff’s ideas as ‘our discoveries’, Ouspensky announced to the press the imminent publication of his book Fragments of an Ancient Teaching (in fact posthumously published twenty-seven years later as In Search of the Miraculous). Throughout the year Ouspensky worked stolidly to reconstitute his position in London, following the exodus to the Prieuré. By October Rowland Kenney and Dr Nicoll had returned and the latter quickly introduced another pupil of substance, the surgeon Dr Kenneth Macfarlane Walker. Although Ouspensky refused Gurdjieff’s repeated invitation to come and live at the Prieuré, he paid several short visits in 1923, and was there in the first week of 1924, when Gurdjieff left to tour America with thirty-five pupil dancers.


Returning immediately to England, Ouspensky assembled his ten senior pupils and backers in Ralph Philipson’s flat in Portland Place, and announced he had broken off all relations with Gurdjieff and would in future operate quite independently. Those who chose to remain under his supervision (they included Dr Nicoll, J. G. Bennett, Rowland Kenney and Dr Walker) must never again communicate in any way with Gurdjieff or his pupils, or even mention his name. Though rigorously imposing this rule on his followers, Ouspensky reserved to himself, for at least seven years, a latitude to see Gurdjieff occasionally; and as early as June 1924 revisited the Prieuré to hear an account of Gurdjieff’s successful tour of the U.S.A.


However, Ouspensky was in London on 8 July 1924, when Gurdjieff sustained serious injuries in a car crash on the Paris-Fontainebleau Road. He did not visit Gurdjieff during his convalescence but he went to ponder at the site of the accident (which he concluded was a sinister retribution for Gurdjieff’s hubris). Gurdjieff, himself sobered by his narrow escape from death, resolved to focus on committing his teaching to writing and began his magnum opus Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Supervision of the emergent study groups in America he deputed in October 1924 to A. R. Orage, who loyally discharged his mandate but built up quite a following of his own.


1925 (year of the first extant MS. of In Search of the Miraculous) found Ouspensky depressed: cut off from Gurdjieff and doubtful of his capacity to evolve independently. There now entered his mind the fixed idea that he must discover ‘Higher Source’, an entity he situated either in Asia or on a supernal plane. Eager for contact with the Mevlevi dervishes he prevailed on Forbes Adam, a former protégé of Lord Curzon, to insist on a posting to Constantinople: unhappily, on 7 July 1925, two days after his arrival there, Adam – Ouspensky’s most influential pupil – shot himself. Further clouds loomed in August, when the dubious commercial adventurism of J. G. Bennett in Greece brought Ouspensky innocently to the attention of M.I.5. As a final rebuke Mme Ouspensky, on leaving the Prieuré, declined Gurdjieff’s advice to join her husband in England.


Ouspensky next made brief and adventitious contact with Gurdjieff and Mme Ouspensky at the funeral of Mme Ostrowska, who died from cancer at Fontainebleau on 26 June 1926. In England Ouspensky had drawn close to his pupils Dr and Mrs Nicoll and from 1927 on spent every other week-end in the tranquillity of Alley Cottage, the Doctor’s retreat at Sidlesham. By contrast, in March 1928, his other senior pupil J. G. Bennett was in Athens jail. Police seizure and misinterpretation of Bennett’s private correspondence resulted in Ouspensky – an ardent anti-Bolshevik – being summoned to the Home Office to answer a farcical imputation of Bolshevik sympathies. So aggrieved was Ouspensky that he forcefully instructed his pupils to sever all relations with Bennett (as earlier with Gurdjieff). In summer 1928, Gurdjieff’s calmer disengagement from his principal helpers in France stimulated Mme Ouspensky to come to England for the first of successive summer visits. Henceforward, though the Ouspenskys’ personal relationship remained platonic even fractious, they shared their teaching role in England and America: he tirelessly retelling Gurdjieff’s ideas, she attempting to create, in successive country houses, Prieuré-like conditions for practical work. By 1929 Ouspensky was more than ever committed to his long-held personal theory of ‘Eternal Recurrence’: the strong sense that in every particular he was reliving his life – underpinned by the hypothesis that his death, whensoever, would merely return him yet again to his birth in Moscow on 5 March 1878.


Early in 1930 Ouspensky was disconcerted to receive the transactions of a small London group independently constituted by Bennett without prior permission; then in early summer A. R. Orage also problematically re-appeared in England, having effectively separated from Gurdjieff. By October 1930 Ouspensky had become concerned to entrench his own position, even at the cost of some popularisation: at Warwick Gardens he began public lectures on ‘The Search for Objective Consciousness’, précising Gurdjieff’s psychological ideas, without acknowledgement, as his (Ouspensky’s) ‘System’. To these lectures he invited Bennett and his small group thus effecting a brief reconciliation.


In mid 1931 Ouspensky saw Gurdjieff for the last time, at the Cafe Henri IV at Fontainebleau, intimating that since Gurdjieff’s work had not succeeded in attracting the attention of ‘Higher Source’ he himself was now attempting to. A final rupture resulted, which on Ouspensky’s side was embittered. On returning to England, Ouspensky made (through Rosamund Sharp) an unsuccessful attempt to recapture the interest of Orage. His disappointment here was offset by the publication of A New Model of the Universe which complemented his lectures in attracting many new pupils. In this climate of expansion Ouspensky tasked Dr Nicoll, on 9 September 1931, to go away and teach Gurdjieff’s ideas independently (the only such explicit mandate Ouspensky ever gave); a little later in the year ‘The Dell’, at Sevenoaks, was taken for the work of Mme Ouspensky, at last permanently settled in England.


Confused echoes of New Model and even of the Warwick Gardens lectures were beginning to be heard from literary sources, and in July 1932 Ouspensky was nettled to find himself caricatured as ‘Professor August Moe’ in The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan. Nevertheless this widening interest drew more members to the study groups, and ‘The Dell’ was relinquished as inadequate in the second week of September, when the Ouspenskys were lent ‘Little Gaddesden’, a large Victorian mansion in seven acres of land near Hayes in Kent.


On 26 August 1933, Gurdjieff published his first book Herald of Coming Good, its extravagant and provocative tone suggesting to Ouspensky that its author had gone mad. Copies sent to Ouspensky’s pupils, by C. S. Nott and Elizabeth Gordon, were called in and destroyed. (Here Ouspensky happily anticipated the wishes of Gurdjieff himself, who quickly withdrew and suppressed his apprentice work.)


By 1934 the contradictions between Ouspensky’s inner and outer life were more troublesome. Outwardly all seemed well: J. G. Bennett had returned to the fold while A. R. Orage, who had declined to, died suddenly on 5 November; a second edition of New Model swelled the stream of new enquirers and for these Ouspensky refined from his earlier lectures six lucid introductory readings, subsequently published as The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution. To deliver these, he enlisted from his pupils distinguished proxies like Dr Francis Roles (his personal physician), Robert John Grote Mayor (a member of the Cambridge ‘Apostles’), and a latecomer to his circle Henry John Sinclair, Lord Pentland (a former President of the Cambridge Union Society). In private by contrast Ouspensky was melancholic and had begun to drink: despondent at not contacting Higher Source; tormented by the personal implications of Eternal Recurrence; and consumed by nostalgia for St Petersburg. In spring 1935 this nostalgia was reinforced by a brief and poignant visit to Little Gaddesden from Olga and Thomas de Hartmann (whose Second Piano Sonata is dedicated to Ouspensky’s idea of the Fourth Dimension).


In 1935 recruitment was further stimulated by the journalist Rom Landau’s best-seller God Is My Adventure with its substantial, explicit, and highly favourable reference to Ouspensky and ‘his System’. By mid-summer even the facilities at Little Gaddesden had become quite inadequate. Therefore, with funds from well-to-do pupils, Ouspensky bought his most famous seat Lyne Place at Virginia Water twenty-three miles south-west of London – an imposing Regency house in nearly 100 acres of farm land. Three months later both Ouspenskys moved in (though retaining both 55a Gwendwr Road and 38 Warwick Gardens for use in London). The residential core at Lyne was Russian – the Ouspenskys, the Savitskys, Mme Kadloubovsky, and a handful of St Petersburg pensioners: a few senior English pupils were co-opted for periods to manage the household and grounds; and hundreds came every week-end to work.


The acquisition of Lyne set the seal on Ouspensky’s sense of independence from Gurdjieff (who contrastingly had been obliged to sell the Prieuré in 1933): for example though Ouspensky accepted from C. S. Nott a typescript copy of G.’s seminal work Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson he refused to read it; then in November he rebuffed the lesbian editor Jane Heap, who had modestly applied to enter his groups (after herself teaching in France for eight years with Gurdjieff’s consent). While rejecting these concrete possibilities, Ouspensky consoled himself with lingering hopes of contacting Higher Source.


Rom Landau’s essay had been that of a gifted dilettante, but in October 1936 there appeared the first relevant (though guarded) book by one of Ouspensky’s senior pupils: this was Kenneth Walker’s autobiography The Intruder, built around coded Work ideas, especially that of multiple selves. Among Ouspensky’s steady stream of recruits in 1936, three would later acquire significance: Rodney Collin-Smith, his sponsor Robert S. de Ropp, and the young Marie Seton who was bilingual in English and Russian. Meanwhile however, Ouspensky had begun to distance himself from J. G. Bennett, distrusting his self-will and extravagant claims.


By the autumn of 1937, Ouspensky was exciting new interest among youthful members of the British intelligentsia: he was read by Denis Healey a future Chancellor of the Exchequer; Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley visited him at Lyne, having attended his lectures at Warwick Gardens in company with Christopher Isherwood. He resisted their urgings that, in view of Europe’s instability, he should emigrate to America. Just as Rom Landau had been repudiated after his book, J(ohn) B(oynton) Priestley now earned resentment for two generous literary salutes: first in his play I Have Been Here Before premiered at the Royalty Theatre on 22 September (where Ouspensky is sympathetically characterised as ‘Dr Görtler’) and secondly in his autobiographical Midnight on the Desert, where Priestley describes his fascinated reading of New Model. Aldous Huxley also drew criticism for introducing glimmerings of ‘Ouspensky’s System’ into Ends and Means.


By 1938, Ouspensky had delegated much routine teaching, freeing himself to plan the institutionalisation of his groups. Suspecting – correctly – that he was still under Home Office surveillance, he secured (through Kenneth Walker) the prior approval of Scotland Yard. In April 1938 he formed the ‘Historico-Psychological Society’ of which he was the ‘Official Lecturer’. (The Society’s Committee included Ouspensky and his wife, Dr Walker, Lord Pentland, and Dr Roles; R. J. G. Mayor was librarian and treasurer.) Ouspensky next preoccupied himself with drafting, for the strict adherence of Society members, scores of prohibitive rules, which he believed would promote consciousness: pupils should never mention Gurdjieff; never address each other by Christian names; never converse together before strangers; never speak to anyone who had left the groups etc.


Ouspensky gave his last lecture at Warwick Gardens on 13 October 1938, the Society by then having acquired Colet House at 46 Colet Gardens, an elegant and imposing building (close to Gwendwr Road) with a studio accommodating over 300 People. Ouspensky at 60 – magisterially established at Lyne and Colet; surrounded by distinguished and loyal lieutenants; supported by the Historico-Psycho-logical Society; and having directly and indirectly under his governance 1000 pupils – seemed embarked on his great days. Yet shadows were not lacking: the Munich crisis in September had emphasised the fragility of all institutions; Mme Ouspensky, having contracted Parkinson’s disease, was becoming bedridden; and Ouspensky himself (desolated by his continued failure to contact Higher Source, or personally to acquire the noetic insights of a decisive mystical experience) was drinking more heavily.


The final months of peace seemed to promise a vitalisation of the Society, through three independent shocks. The first was a striking demonstration of the Movements, given at Colet by a small class taught by Gurdjieff’s pupils Rose Mary Nott and Jessmin Howarth; the second was a successful overture to the hereditary head of the Mevlevi dervishes, made in April by J. G. Bennett, and enthusiastically welcomed by Ouspensky; the third and overriding one was C. S. Nott’s plan to bring Gurdjieff himself to London in September, to treat Mme Ouspensky’s chronic illness. All these endeavours foundered on 3 September 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany. Conscription and evacuation completely disrupted the groups and Ouspensky’s work in London effectively stopped. Lyne Place – far-sightedly stocked with every sort of provision – became a haven for several Work families.


Contraction, austerity, danger, and war psychosis marked Ouspensky’s closing period in England. On 29 May 1940 the British Army evacuated from Dunkirk; Paris (where Gurdjieff remained) fell on 14 June; eight days later France capitulated. With Hitler controlling the entire European seaboard from Norway to the Spanish frontier, Ouspensky made a deeply meditated (and largely erroneous) political analysis: that Germany would quickly win the war; that German hegemony would provoke a pan-European proletarian revolution, fanned by the U.S.S.R.; and that the Americas alone would survive as a bulwark against the detested Bolshevism. In August 1940 the Battle of Britain was at crescendo, not least in the skies above Lyne; on 23 August there commenced the ‘Blitz’ on London, in which 55a Gwendwr Road was destroyed.


Judging both present conditions and future prospects in England as quite impossible for his work, Ouspensky prepared to emigrate. He announced his intention abruptly at his last wartime meeting in England, held at Lyne on 25 January 1941: in practical terms his senior cadre were tasked to keep Lyne going, and for their inner work to ‘stop thoughts’ (they might also, Ouspensky believed, derive some benefit from reading Monks of Athos by Dawkins). Asked if he would begin groups in America, Ouspensky unexpectedly responded that he could not foresee conditions in a continent which he had visited ‘only in previous incarnations’. Six days later, on 31 January 1941, he sailed from Liverpool for New York on the S.S. Georgic, leaving behind him virtually all his disconcerted pupils.


Ouspensky’s six years in America were notable chiefly for the calamitous decay in his health, hopes, and integrity. He arrived in New York in March 1941 approximately on his sixty-third birthday, accompanied by a recent adherent the bravura writer Rodney Collin-Smith. Mme Ouspensky and her family had preceded him. Ouspensky’s welcome was assured by his many influential contacts: a reception was given him at Miss Scott’s apartment; a New York studio was found for him on 79th Street; and Marie Seton (independently in America) was engaged as his private secretary.


In attracting new pupils, Ouspensky could capitalise on his stature as author of Tertium Organum and New Model. He had nevertheless to take account of entrenched Oragean followers (including Mr and Mrs Nott, Muriel Draper, Jessmin Howarth, William Welch and Willem A. Nyland). At an early exploratory meeting with twenty of the Orage group in Muriel Draper’s house on Madison Avenue. Ouspensky showed more resolution than tact: he insisted Beelzebub not be discussed; that ‘Gurdjieff was wrong’; and that he would leave for California if the group succeeded in extricating Gurdjieff to New York. Generally the group was unimpressed, judging Ouspensky to be over-intellectual, pretentious, and lacking in real authority. Only a minority, encouraged by C. S. Nott, accepted Ouspensky provisionally and faute de mieux; from these Ouspensky scrupulously refused money, insisting it be sent to Gurdjieff in Paris.


Helped by his wayward step-grandson Lonya, who gave public readings of the well-rehearsed Warwick Gardens lectures, Ouspensky gradually formed around his Oragean nucleus a new circle, whose first recorded meeting at 79th Street was on 10 June 1941. Within a month however he had further alienated the old core by his assertion – evoking painful memories – that Orage had forgotten much and invented much. Ouspensky’s own presentation of the System, even in his early years in America, proved flat and stale. Not only were his energies depleted by age, drink, and the debilitating East Coast climate, but he had lost all personal conviction. Of the forty-five people whom he gathered initially, only six remained at the end of 1941.


In the autumn Schuyler B. Jackson (a former Oragean then resident in Florida) suggested a suitable country house, ‘Franklin Farms’ at Mendham, New Jersey, and Janet Collin-Smith (Rodney Collin-Smith’s wife) indicated willingness to pay for it. In a message read aloud at Lyne Place on 1 November 1941, Ouspensky reported this development, called on experienced helpers to join him, insisted Lyne be maintained at the ‘highest possible level’, and warned against Bolshevism. (The Orage group’s incompatible hopes that Gurdjieff himself might be brought to Franklin Farms were finally dashed on 11 December, when the U.S.A. declared war on Germany.)


The purchase of Franklin Farms and the installation of the Ouspenskys were completed in 1942, The imposing three-storey granite house, a former residence of the Governor of New Jersey, stood on a hilltop in 400 acres of agricultural land, with numerous out-buildings. Ouspensky had separate quarters from Mme Ouspensky and was chauffeured to his regular New York lectures by his most intimate disciple Rodney Collin-Smith. Against the grand back-cloth of Franklin Farms, Ouspensky was able slowly to increase his American following to approximately 150. Nevertheless his first priority from 1942 onwards was to defend his international reputation and self-styled ‘leadership of the Work’.


Here the news from England was mixed: Dr Walker’s latest books Diagnosis of Man and The Circle of Life handled their System insights discreetly and signalled no challenge; altogether more alarming were reports of J. G. Bennett’s unlicensed lectures and of his intention to produce an explicit book on the ideas. In May 1942 Ouspensky wrote pressing Bennett to desist but received an evasive reply which further disturbed his equilibrium. When in New York the publisher’s blurb on an imprint of New Model erroneously asserted that its author was ‘working with Gurdjieff in London’, Ouspensky’s reaction was disproportionately vehement.


Ironically his assiduously promulgated image, as the only true custodian of a deeply valued teaching, was no longer mirrored in his private reflections. Pressed by Marie Seton – who had grown concerned over his gourmet life-style and explosive temper – he shocked her by confiding his contempt for his pupils, his conviction that neither they nor he had gained anything from the System, and his intention, nevertheless, to maintain the role of teacher, because of the comfort and luxury it afforded. She urged him to give up the lectures until he had found his way again; when he refused, she left the Work.


Though – by his own admission – Ouspensky was in a painfully false situation in America, he did not deceive himself; nor perhaps was his unwillingness to undeceive his pupils wholly egotistical. His attention was attracted increasingly to England where, at least by contrast, his work had had a shining integrity. He had long since identified the chief threat to his legacy there as J. G. Bennett, with his headstrong initiatives and dubious esotericism. Now even Bennett’s mathematics were capable of disturbing him: as an author whose lifelong reputation turned on his interpretation of the ‘Fourth Dimension’, he construed Bennett’s preoccupation with a fifth dimension as a futile provocation. His last personal letter to Bennett, just before Christmas 1943, curtly dismissed the latter’s substantial paper on this subject. Worse was to come: early in 1944 Ouspensky was shocked to learn that Bennett had gone to Lyne and canvassed his own ideas for developing the System, as against Ouspensky’s principle of conserving it; he immediately issued instructions further curtailing Bennett’s authority.


Ouspensky’s last three years in America invite compassion: he was trapped in a moral cul-de-sac; his only writing was a two-page introduction to his formal and repetitious lectures; his health finally collapsed – his kidneys irreparably damaged by drink, and his general functioning almost suggesting he had had a stroke. At Mendham he was troubled and bewildered by his wife’s acerbic vehemence; in New York he found the moral and material support of so-to-say the ‘Orageans’ progressively withdrawn, as Gurdjieff re-emerged after the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944. More and more Ouspensky began to shun human contact outside a small circle of intimates, which included Lord Pentland (appointed to Washington by the British authorities in 1944) and the melodramatic Rodney Collin-Smith. He continued to brood darkly on J. G. Bennett, first ordering all members of the Historico-Psychological Society to ostracise him, and later (in spring 1945) instructing his London solicitor to demand from that ‘charlatan and thief’ the return of ‘all Mr Ouspensky’s material’.


From V.E. Day on 8 May 1945, Ouspensky’s English nucleus at Lyne Place – strangely ill-informed of his ruined health and oblivious of his altered disposition – awaited his return with almost Messianic expectation. Ouspensky procrastinated. Ostensibly he was consumed with impatience for Colet Gardens to be de-requisitioned from the Admiralty and prepared to receive him. More probably he was waiting stoically for the final crisis in his health: the precise psychological moment when he could enact with deathbed candour the long-planned dénouement of his life (which entailed nothing less than the simultaneous sacrifice of his own reputation and his pupils’ hopes).


Ouspensky gave his last (and subjectively meretricious) lecture on the benefits of the System in New York in the summer of 1946. On 18 January 1947 at the Grand Ballroom of Steinway Hall, he suddenly announced to his demoralised group of sixty that he was leaving for England the next day: Mme Ouspensky would remain at Franklin Farms, and those under her direction could continue; the rest must shift for themselves. He sailed from New York on the S.S. Queen Elizabeth on 19 January 1947 (his considerable entourage including Aubrey Wolton, Basil Tilley, and his newly acquired secretary Miss Quinn). Mme Ouspensky, now incapacitated with Parkinson’s disease, did not see her husband off, and they never met again.


Ouspensky arrived at Southampton on 23 January, and was driven with Miss Quinn straight to Lyne Place. There senior Society members and Mme Kadloubovsky were reunited with him in an atmosphere of suppressed emotionality, only heightened by his undisguisable physical frailty. Within days Gurdjieff sent a message inviting Ouspensky to join him in Paris, and for the last time Ouspensky refused a reconciliation. Instead, on 6 February he tasked Dr Roles to supervise the speedy collection of an audience of 300 – selecting new and normal people ‘uncontaminated’ by System ideas. Such was Ouspensky’s earliest public hint of his startling re-orientation.


On 26 February he painfully took the platform at Colet Gardens between Miss Quinn and Aubrey Wolton, for the first of six revolutionary Wednesday meetings. Though his demeanour still impressed, his replies to increasingly desperate questions were curt, dismissive, obstructive – breathing abroad the spirit of desolate nihilism earlier confided to Marie Seton. Essentially he claimed he had given no teaching in the past and had none to give now. His audience of bemused newcomers groped for an explanation in clinical terms; more ironically the old cadre – as Ouspensky might have foreseen – reassured themselves that his volte face was nothing more than a salutary and emancipating teaching device. The possibility that he was simply confessing the bald truth, as he now saw it, was not entertained in any quarter.


At a second meeting, on 5 March 1947, Ouspensky’s sixty-ninth birthday, he again frustrated all questions and reiterated his bankruptcy, and so again at a third meeting one week later: he could not credit the possibility of evolution, and had no help to give. On 23 March, after just two months in England, he threw Lyne Place into further turmoil by announcing that, since ‘a start could not be made that way’, he was returning to America. Consequently in ensuing weeks scores of disciples made frantic arrangements to meet this contingency – only to be told that Ouspensky would in fact be staying. In this atmosphere of confusion, a fourth barren meeting at Colet was held on 7 May.


At Lyne Ouspensky was at first substantially dependent on his secretary Miss Quinn and his physician Dr Roles: these were joined in mid-April by Rodney Collin-Smith, and in mid-May by Lonya and an old Russian friend from pre-1914. The senior English pupils half sought and half feared confidences from this intimate coterie. By 19 May Miss Quinn had been authorised to promulgate the somewhat obvious fact that Ouspensky had ‘abandoned the System’ but few English pupils would credit her. Ouspensky himself, when pressed by Dr Walker, at the fifth and penultimate Colet meeting on 21 May, was at pains to convey his even starker judgement by retorting ‘There is no System’. Then, briefly departing from his nihilistic tenor, he advised people to ‘remember’ (alluding not to Gurdjieffian ‘self-remembering’ but to Eternal Recurrence). At his final meeting on 18 June, Ouspensky conveyed – with more desperation than hope – the need for everyone to begin again, starting from what he or she really wanted. Then, having denied the possibility of life after death, he was helped from the platform and given an injection. He never spoke in public again.


Ouspensky’s last days are highly problematical. What is certain is that his inevitable and imminent death, his stress on Eternal Recurrence, and his abjuration of the System, created in the closed circle at Lyne an electrifying atmosphere. Though the majority of his pupils met the situation with a calm self-interrogation, a few (including Dr Roles) preferred various chimerical consolations involving telepathy, transmutation, and angelic presences etc. Most indulgent among the latter was Rodney Collin-Smith, who conceived events as a neo-Mediaeval Mystery Play, in which his own and Ouspensky’s every action bore cosmic significance


After Lonya left for Mendham on 4 June, Ouspensky had for intimate company Miss Quinn, Rodney Collin-Smith and Josch the cat; he kept very much to his room, though on fine days he might spend an hour under the cedar tree, and on wet days in the Green drawing-room; he ate very little, spoke very little, slept very little, and smoked a good deal; he continued to be attended by Dr Roles.


In late August Ouspensky evidently wished to replicate in Mendham and New York the shock administered at Colet and Lyne, and announced his intention to leave for the U.S.A. on 4 September. Despite the earlier débâcle in March and despite his increasing debility, his pupils on both sides of the Atlantic were again galvanised into action. Only when his luggage was actually aboard, and Southampton dock gates opened to admit his Daimler, did he say, “I’m not going to America this time”.


In the last months of his life, Ouspensky – urged on by Rodney Collin-Smith – undertook exhausting car journeys by night to revisit West Wickham, Sidlesham, Sevenoaks, and Hayes. (Mere nostalgia can hardly account for this stoical effort, hence more plausibly construed in the context of Eternal Recurrence.) Though the story that Ouspensky, on his final day, dressed painfully and gave his disciples at Lyne a moving valediction, is almost certainly apocryphal, there is broad consensus that he worked on himself at the end, in a manner reflecting nobility of spirit.


At dawn on 2 October 1947, Piotr Demianovich Ouspensky died at Lyne Place. He was buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church in the parish of Botley’s and Lyne, and a requiem service was held at the Russian church in Pimlico. When the elders of the Historico-Psychological Society sought guidance from Mme Ouspensky in Mendham she unexpectedly referred them to Gurdjieff in Paris. Several complied (Walker, Tilley, Wolton, and Pentland): others held aloof (Roles, Mayor, Collin-Smith). After two years of intense activity, focused on Gurdjieff’s apartment at 6 Rue des Colonels Renard and more briefly on the Wellington Hotel in New York, Gurdjieff himself died at Neuilly on 29th October 1949... The vexed politics of the ensuing Gurdjieffian diaspora – however fascinating historically, psychologically and sociologically – are not ideally addressed within the paradigm of a Gurdjieff/Ouspensky dichotomy.


As the author of Tertium Organum and A New Model of the Universe, Ouspensky’s substantial and quite independent literary reputation is assured. His position within the Gurdjieffian canon is more equivocal: inevitably so, since he quickly repudiated Gurdjieff and ultimately repudiated his ideas. From the time that he struck his independent posture in England in 1921, Ouspensky assiduously projected himself as Gurdjieff’s equal (so successfully that the image prevails, even today, in journalistic borrowings and middle-brow assumptions). Yet no repudiation, no historical revisionism, can cancel out the simple fact that Gurdjieff taught Ouspensky; that in thirty years Ouspensky brought nothing except a superb expository skill, to the ideas he received from Gurdjieff in 1916.


In his precociously assumed role of teacher Ouspensky exercised great natural authority, probity, industry, and organisational ability. During his twenty year dispensation in England, no-one promulgated Work theory with more fidelity and intellectual virility than he; and arguably no-one tempered it less with feeling, or buttressed it less with praxis. Ouspensky drew no understanding from Gurdjieff’s Movements or Sacred Dances; in group he offered small personal counsel or encouragement; nor – despite Essentuki – did he grasp the pivotal importance of Gurdjieff’s exercises in attention and bodily sensation. By 1925, when he first acknowledged a certain deficiency, he revealingly situated it in the domain of knowledge (‘the missing parts of the System’) rather than in the quality of his work on himself.


Ouspensky will be remembered for centuries. His enduring memorial will be his posthumous book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, a masterpiece of clarity and psychological juxtaposition. “No system of gnostic soteriological philosophy that has been published to the modern world,” writes the critic Philip Mairet, “is comparable to it in power and intellectual articulation”. Yet the paradox is breathtaking, for here par excellence is the book of the abandoned System, comprising for three parts in four the words of Ouspensky’s repudiated master George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.


Copyright © James Moore 2007


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