The Final Months:
January to October 1947
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.