Let’s talk about Gurdjieff. This isn’t about the man himself or his teachings. I mean let’s talk about Gurdjieff on a semantic level. What do people mean when they talk about Gurdjieff?
Firstly, let me admit I am no expert on the subject. Up until last year Gurdjieff was a mystery (still is) discussed on esoteric podcasts and blogs, or occasionally brought up in metaphysical discussions. With plenty of time on my hands during the pandemic, I read (and watched the film adaptation of) Meetings with Remarkable Men. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the book (although the movie has some cool dance scenes worth checking out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKPwZqUUrQo&t=435s Peter Brooks is amazing, I sent him an email about his article in Parabola that I hope got to him), it just seemed like a collection of tall tales. Next I read PD Ouspensky’s classic about his time with Gurdjieff, In Search of the Miraculous, and it hit me like a wet sausage to the face. Sure, there is a lot of pseudoscience and mumbo jumbo in it, but I just remember having to put the book down, gobsmacked, as ‘G’ hit me with truths about humanity, and truths about myself I hadn’t quite fathomed. I wish I could read it over again with the same effect, I plan to read it at least every other year until I fully ‘get it’.
Inflamed with a convert’s zeal, I went looking for Gurdjieff’s omnibus, All and Everything, or Beezelbub’s Tales to his Grandson. I was so enthusiastic about it that I sought out his original text from a Gurdjieff organization in New Mexico for the princely sum of 60 bucks. I waited for it with giddy excitement.
When I finally received the 1200 plus page book, I hit a brick wall. The man writes with a shovel! The first few dozen pages are a warning to not buy the book because it’s not written in “the current fashion” or other such comparisons. He never gets to any point, it seems, and now three hundred pages in, it’s the most dull and obtuse work of science fiction, or even fiction, that I have ever read. It’s a total gobbledygook. Now, before I get any emails, I know the book is meant to be a hard read, and that Gurdjieff reportedly worried that he had made the esoteric truths too obvious. This is a man, after all, who reportedly demanded extra effort from his students- like go back and walk twenty miles in the rain for no reason “extra effort”. In keeping with that MO, he implores you in the opening to read it three times, once like a regular book, once like you’re reading it to someone, and once more to try and understand it. I’m going to do that, mind you, although it may be in my Golden Years before the third time is finished. I’ll get back to you.
So, unless everyone is a good deal sharper than me, I have to believe that when people talk about Gurdjieff they’re really talking about “G”, PD Ouspensky’s construct from In Search of the Miraculous. I think they’re really talking about some distilled version of the teachings of that book, even, as ‘G’ emphasizes in the text that every student needs a particular teaching method. The major theme is obedience to a master, and never once has anyone brought this up in fancy cocktail party conversation about Gurdjieff, in my experience at least- everyone just glibly mentions “The Fourth Way” as though they have any idea what that means.
Like many gurus, Gurdjieff seized control over the lives of his disciples, but unlike them he had no inclination to write a new bible or usher in a new age or other such megalomaniacal feat. This control, I believe, was both a burden to him and something that fulfilled him. He needed to “feel out” a person to know how best to wake them, or if it were even possible to do so. I feel confident that he would consider most people who invoke his teachings these days to have at best a superficial understanding. Let me be the first to admit that about myself.
So, if you think you know Gurdjieff, you probably “ain’t nothing but a “G” thing”. That’s not a bad thing.