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Ouspensky and Gurdjieff: an historical choreography

by James Moore

The Beginning: 1912-15

Tertium Organum

Early (1916) Russian edition of Tertium Organum

(Photo courtesy of By the Way Books)

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.

The New Age

By Alfred Orage and Holbrook Jackson editors [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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