talks with gurdjieff
george ivanovich gurdjieff (1866-1949)

forest philosophers
the true source of love

fontainebleau, sunday

if i tried to picture to myself the effect produced on the mind of the reader by my description of this remarkable colony at fontainebleau, brought together by a common desire to realise an ideal of perfected consciousness and living, i should judge that he would be saying that it is all picturesque and interesting to a point, but that not enough has been told him of the teaching of the prophet who may be called its spring of inspiration. i had desired from the first to talk to m. gurdjieff himself, but after three days it was only at midnight on thursday that i was able to see him, and then under circumstances, already described, which gave no opportunity for what i wanted. in the very early hours of this sunday morning, after his work with his pupils in the study-house was over, he invited me to his room at the priory, and talked to me at length.

why dissatisfied?

even so, i cannot report an interview, for m. gurdjieff insisted that what i might write should be the outcome of my conversations with two members of his immediate surroundings to whom he later recommended me. since i had been coming here the question had been forcing itself upon me as to what it was in the experience of all these people which had made them dissatisfied with normal life and the normal type, of which they themselves presumably had been examples. i remember that i once put the question to mr. orage, and this is what he replied: "there are men in london who are already as 'clever' as it is possible for men to be under ordinary conditions and who are asking themselves whether this is the ultima thule—whether they have reached the final limits of their evolution."

"we believe that there is something more, and so we are here." i repeated my question now. what is it that is wrong in ordinary life, and what is it that m. gurdjieff desires to correct? "First of all," came the reply, "it is necessary to distinguish between 'essence' due to heredity and 'personality' which accrues as the result of environment, education, and such causes.

undeveloped "essence"

"every man is aware of the deficiencies in his undeveloped 'essence', but because he cannot realise that everybody else is in like case he shows a bold front to the world, and leaves behind his 'personality', which is not himself at all.

"at the present time the west does not sufficiently discern the differences between these two characteristics of men, and makes no efforts at all to educate the 'essence.' hence, in the adult, 'personality' is fully grown, while the 'essence' remains infantile, and it is this disproportion that we think is the first place to correct."

"for example?" i asked.

"love springs from 'essence' and not 'personality.' it may be that a child will not love its parents while showing affection for other people. that we can correct, not with force or in any artificial way, but really so that the child will love them in the deepest meaning of the word. indeed, we educate children on new methods so as to develop the two principles side by side, but from the outset forming a complete individual. the adult 'essence' is educated and brought up to the level arrived at already by the 'personality.' when this is achieved the two can work together, and it is then that actual progress towards the attainment of wisdom commences, and the harmoniously developed man takes the place of a one-sided, distorted entity."

the institute claims very high powers for members who have become so "harmonised," and i was assured that among its present instructors are men who are proficient at any and every trade and handicraft, starting from the simplest and proceeding to the highest type of "work"—sculpture, painting, philosophy, and the sciences. "has the ideal of such harmony ever been attained?" i asked. "yes, many times," was the answer; "but not many times in europe. the men who have realised it belong almost entirely to the east, and it is still true that the west has an entirely erroneous conception of progress in eastern lands. this is the result of using only mechanical and material standards. it is only by deliberate self-training that harmony is attained."

not all immortal

"immortality," he added, "is not necessarily a blessing bestowed on everybody. if a man has a soul, then he lives forever, but not every man is born with a soul. he may acquire one during life on earth, if he so desires, and will submit to the necessary training. but it is quite possible to live happily and to die without possessing a soul. relatively few men and women enjoy that luxury."

not a sect
enlarging the faculty knowledge

ouspensky, a middle-aged, much-traveled and learned russian who lives at west kensington, is the chief missionary for gurdjieff's strange academy in the forest of fontainebleau, which has been described in the daily news. among well-known people deeply interested in the school are mr. algernon blackwood, mr. j. d. beresford, mr. a. r. orage, mr. j. w. n. sullivan, mr. middleton murry, dr. maurice nichol, and lady rothermere. by his lectures and books, mr. ouspensky hopes to attract a number of other distinguished students, but at present he is only attempting to appeal to a very limited circle.

"i don't like to see the work cult applied to the movement," he told a daily news interviewer yesterday, "because that is apt to give an entirely wrong impression. we are not trying to found a church or a sect, but simply to promote a method of education and study. man, we say, is a much more complicated machine than is generally supposed. therefore, man must learn to know himself a little better. little by little he must rediscover those faculties and forces that lie buried in the depths of his nature; and so, by understanding himself, he will at last understand the universe. gurdjieff and i have reached our present stage of knowledge by long and hard work in many lands. it has been much like what is going on at the present moment in the valley of the kings at luxor."

petrified knowledge

"long ages ago there existed great civilisations and profound knowledge, traditions of which still exist. what remains of the knowledge has often become petrified, so that it is now mere superstition embodied in apparently unmeaning ritual. as at the tomb of tutankhamen, mountains of rubbish have to be cleared away before the treasure is revealed; but we know now that the treasure is there. as a first step it is necessary to realise that man's mind has become dulled. you must improve your instrument. the human faculty of knowing must be enlarged. that is why ordinary science and art have reached a point at which they can go no further. progress into the regions beyond involves a perfect harmony of mind and body such as can only be secured by careful training under the right conditions. hence the institute in the forest of fontainebleau, where each action of the body is brought into relation with some desired activity of the mind."

in this connection mr. ouspensky was particularly anxious to make it clear that the hard manual labour described in the articles by a daily news special correspondent has nothing to do with a tolstoyan love of work for work's sake. it has to be infinitely associated at the fontainebleau institute with certain ideas and is merely one—often a brief—stage in the education of the student. in the same way, the dancing which forms an important part of the curriculum is intended to develop particular mental faculties, each dance being an exercise associated with a mental problem. according to gurdjieff and ouspensky, the dances of the dervishes, which they have closely studied on the spot, are of this nature, though the dervishes themselves have lost almost all knowledge of their true significance.

kindred spirits

before meeting gurdjieff at moscow in 1915, mr. ouspensky had made a special study of the psychology of art during travels in central asia, egypt, and india, and had also specialised in certain branches of higher mathematics. in gurdjieff he found a kindred spirit who had gone farther on the same road, and the two enthusiasts joined forces, traveling and teaching in russia as they were driven hither and thither by the tide of war or famine. after some years of this wandering life they found themselves in constantinople, and from there drifted across europe till they pitched their camp in the famous forest near paris. "my book, telling of our discoveries so far as they have gone, should be out this summer," mr. ouspensky stated. "i am thinking of calling it fragments of an ancient teaching. in the meantime i am lecturing before small private classes, which is as much as my command of english permits."

"when students have once got over the initial difficulty of thinking along new lines and grasping the meaning of the terms employed—which may sometimes take a good many weeks—they make steady progress in quickness of perception and understanding, even without taking a course at the institute. the difficulty on our side is to translate our discoveries into modern forms, but i hope that there, too, progress is being made."