talks with gurdjieff
george ivanovich gurdjieff (1866-1949)

the second american demonstration
gorham munson

orage was fifty-one on this february night in 1924. he gave no sign of middle age. no hint of grey in the dark hair, and only a slight recession of the hairline near the part of the left.... his body was firm and strong from a year of hard physical work at the institute, yet easy in its carriage. "you expected a man who looked like that to talk well," wrote holbrook jackson of orage in the years when they were colleagues in the leeds art club; and this was a way of saying that intelligence was the keynote of his appearance.

a few minutes after we met orage on the sidewalk, we heard him "talk well" from the stage of the neighborhood playhouse. he gave a sort of preface to the demonstration of "various movements of the human body taken from the art of the ancient east-examples of sacred gymnastics, sacred dances and religious ceremonies preserved in certain temples in turkestan, tibet, afghanistan, kafiristan, chitral, and other places." he declared that mr. gurdjieff, founder of the institute for the harmonious development of man, was able to prove that in the orient certain dances have not lost the deep religious and scientific significance they had in the remote past.

at this introductory lecture ... orage spoke of "a new quality of concentration and attention and a new direction of the mind" to be achieved through the exercises. he said:

dancing still has quite a different meaning in the east from what we give it in the west. in ancient times the dance was a branch of real art, and served the purposes of higher knowledge and religion. a person who specialized in a subject communicated his knowledge through works of art, particularly dances, as we spread knowledge through books. among the early christians dancing in churches was an important part of the ritual. the ancient sacred dance is not only a medium for an aesthetic experience, but a book, as it were, or script, containing a definite piece of knowledge. but it is a book which not everyone who would can read.

how quickly we learned the truth of the last observation. the two sets of "obligatory exercises," the initiation of the priestess, the dervish dances, the pilgrimage movement called "measuring-one's-length," the folk- and work-dances, the enneagram dance—all these and many others had a strange impact that can only be described as awakening. the design and the detail were extraordinarily precise, and one could well believe that they were an exact language to convey knowledge. but one could not read it, only feel it; and the feeling was—tremendous. here was an experience produced by art that was entirely different from all former art experiences the audience had ever had, as many confessed in the weeks that followed when gurdjieff held lectures and formed a class in movement at the rosetta o'neill studio on upper madison avenue.

it cannot be said that the visit of gurdjieff took america by storm, it can be said that it raised a conversational storm in the circles of the intelligentsia. and this storm was no teapot tempest, as events soon showed.

orage and a second emissary had arrived in new york in december, 1923, and orage had given a talk at the famous sunwise turn book shop in january. he related that g. i. gurdjieff had been a member of a society called seekers of truth which had made several expeditions into asia in 1895 and afterwards. these expeditions investigated ancient records and sought for hidden knowledge. gurdjieff had then appeared in russia in 1913 and had made preparations to found an institute. revolutionary turmoil, however, frustrated his plans, and gurdjieff and his pupils had trekked across asia minor and turkey and on to germany. finally, gurdjieff had established the institute for the harmonious development of man at fontainebleau-avon in a château that had once been the residence of madame de maintenon. the effect of this information was to heighten the mystery of gurdjieff.

the newspapers were facetious in their reporting of gurdjieff's demonstrations at lesley hall, neighborhood playhouse, carnegie hall, but the press accounts were offset by a serious article, "the forest philosophers," by c. e. bechhofer roberts in the century. the gurdjieff visit, however, was not nearly the sensation in the press that it was in conversation, where it stirred up quite as much rejection as it did curiosity. all that spring and into the summer months the question of gurdjieff—a new pythagoras or a charlatan?—was the most controversial topic at intelligentsia gatherings.

the crowds who came to see the gurdjeiff demonstrations and the several score who joined a class in movement that met every night at the rosetta o'neill studio never looked like the people who attend theosophical lectures or turn out to welcome highly touted swamis. rather they were the people one saw at the first night of an o'neill play or at the opening night of the society of independent artists or at a league of composers concert. i do not know any better word to describe them than intelligentsia, a word that has lost its vogue but is still serviceable for identifying the public that in 1924 read the dial and the new republic and vanity fair, listened to stravinsky and schoenberg, looked at picasso and matisse, discussed psychoanalysis and the progressive education of john dewey, and inclined toward socialism. some of us had heard of orage, and orage's reputation was undoubtedly a considerable factor in attracting the intelligentsia to the gurdjieff meetings....

i must not give the impression that orage played the central role in the tour of the gurdjieff pupils. the indisputable triumph of the tour was the program of ancient dances and movements. people who had no use for the ideas of gurdjieff excepted the dances from their censure; the dances, they said, were strange and wonderful. and indeed it was a unique and profound experience that they gave. there had never before been anything like them in america.

unthinkingly we regard ourselves as heirs of all the ages, but there are breaks and declines and discontinuities in the history of man; and we inherit only fragments of a knowledge forgotten. the ancient dances collected by gurdjieff bridged the gaps in the long history of the race and affected us across millennia. here for the first time americans saw the ancient objective art of dancing.

orage was a sponsor for the ideas of the gurdjieff system. people who were usually negative toward the occult and the esoteric hesitated to dismiss without inquiry a system of ideas that had an advocate in the skeptical orage. "there must be something to it," they conceded, "if orage has given up his review and gone to fontainebleau."

the awakening twenties