Today may, or may not be the birthday of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, also commonly referred to as Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff and G. I. Gurdjieff, an influential early 20th-century mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and composer of Armenian and Greek descent, born in Armenia under Russian rule. Both the day of his birth and the year are mysteries. He once wrote that he was born on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day according to the Julian calendar which people infer is January 13th but a passport states that his date of birth was November 28th 1877. People close to him (and his grave marker give 1872 as the year, and other sources say 1866. Given his penchant for inventing stories about himself and the people he met, there is no way of knowing, but today’s date is as good as any to celebrate a great man, and one of my heroes.
For me the most important aspect of Gurdjieff’s philosophy was that he believed in developing a kind of deep spirituality that was available to people in all walks of life, not just to those – such as monks or Sufis – who devoted all their lives to spirituality. Gurdjieff taught that most humans do not possess a unified mind-body consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. Gurdjieff described a method attempting to do so, calling the discipline “The Work” (that is, “work on oneself”) or “the Method.”
Gurdjieff argued that many of the existing forms of religious and spiritual tradition on Earth had lost connexion with their original meaning and vitality and so could no longer serve humanity in the way that had been intended at their inception. As a result, humans were failing to realize the truths of ancient teachings and were instead becoming more and more like automatons, susceptible to control from outside and increasingly capable of otherwise unthinkable acts of mass psychosis such as World War I. At best, the various surviving sects and schools could provide only a one-sided development, which did not result in a fully integrated human being.
According to Gurdjieff, only one dimension of the three dimensions of the person— the emotions, or the physical body or the mind—tends to develop in such schools and sects, and generally at the expense of the other faculties or “centers,” as Gurdjieff called them. As a result, these paths fail to produce a properly balanced human being. Furthermore, anyone wishing to undertake any of the traditional paths to spiritual knowledge (which Gurdjieff reduced to three— the path of the fakir, the path of the monk, and the path of the yogi) were required to renounce life in the world. Gurdjieff thus developed a “Fourth Way” which would be amenable to the requirements of modern people living modern lives in Europe and the US. Instead of developing body, mind, or emotions separately, Gurdjieff’s discipline worked on all three to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development.
All I can do here is give a brief glimpse at the man and his teaching. You’ll have to read his works to get a better understanding, although they may not help much either. I first read his Meetings with Remarkable Men not long after it was published in English in 1963, and it took me a fair way into the book before I realized that rather than being what it claimed to be – namely, an autobiography and a description of profoundly spiritual men – it was mostly a series of tall tales, and nothing in it revealed anything directly about his philosophy or of the people he met. Every chapter ends with more or less the same ways – to the effect: “he told me the deepest thoughts which profoundly moved me, and which I will explain later.” I finally twigged that much of what he had written was a spoof when he described a trip across the Gobi desert which was obviously, and laughably, false. Gurdjieff was nothing more or less than a complete paradox of a man, but he had many devoted disciples, as well as many students who fell away from him for one reason or another: usually his quixotic temperament and ideology. What I have gleaned of his philosophy over the years has left a lasting impression on me.
Gurdjieff (Russian: Гео́ргий Ива́нович Гурджи́ев, Greek: Γεώργιος Γεωργιάδης, Armenian: Գեորգի Գյուրջիև) was born to a Caucasus Greek father, Ἰωάνης Γεωργιάδης (Yiannis Georgiades), and an Armenian mother, Evdokia, in Alexandropol (now Gyumri), Armenia, then part of the Russian Empire in the Transcaucasus. The name Gurdjieff represents a Russified form of the Pontic Greek surname “Georgiades” (Greek: Γεωργιάδης).
Gurdjieff spent his childhood in Kars, which, from 1878 to 1918, was the administrative capital of the Russian ruled Transcaucasus province of Kars Oblast, a border region recently captured from the Ottoman Empire with extensive grassy plateau-steppe and high mountains with a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population that had a history of respect for travelling mystics and holy men and for religious syncretism and conversion. Both the city of Kars and the surrounding territory were home to an extremely diverse population: Armenians, Russians, Caucasus Greeks, Georgians, Turks, Kurds and smaller numbers of Christian communities from eastern and central Europe such as Caucasus Germans, Estonians and Russian sectarian communities like the Molokans and Doukhobors. Gurdjieff makes particular mention of the Yazidi community. Growing up in a multi-ethnic society, Gurdjieff became fluent in Armenian, Pontic Greek, Russian, and Turkish, speaking the latter in a mixture of elegant Osmanli and some dialect. He later acquired “a working facility with several European languages.” Early influences on him included his father, a carpenter and amateur ashik or bardic poet, and the priest of the town’s Russian church, Dean Borsh, a family friend. As a boy Gurdjieff avidly read Russian-language scientific literature. Influenced by these writings, and having witnessed a number of phenomena that he could not explain, he formed the conviction that there existed a hidden truth not to be found in science or in mainstream religion.
In early adulthood, according to his own account Gurdjieff’s curiosity led him to travel to Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet, and Rome before he returned to Russia for a few years in 1912. He was always unforthcoming about the source of his teachings. The only account of his wanderings appears in Meetings with Remarkable Men, which is not reliable – at all. He claims to have met dervishes, fakirs and descendants of the extinct Essenes, whose teaching had been, he claimed, conserved at a monastery in Sarmoung. The book also has an overarching quest narrative involving a map of “pre-sand Egypt” and culminating in an encounter with the “Sarmoung Brotherhood”, an organization that has never been definitively identified.
Gurdjieff wrote that he supported himself during his travels with odd jobs and trading schemes (one of which he described as dyeing hedgerow birds yellow and selling them as canaries). In the book he says that it’s always possible to make money in business if one is shrewd. On his reappearance after his travels, as far as the historical record is concerned, the ragged wanderer had transformed into a well-heeled businessman. His only autobiographical writing concerning this period is Herald of Coming Good, a work, if anything, even less reliable than Meetings.
From 1913 to 1949, the chronology appears to be based on material that can be confirmed by primary documents, independent witnesses, cross-references and reasonable inference. On New Year’s Day in 1912, Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow and attracted his first students, including his cousin, the sculptor Sergey Merkurov, and the eccentric Rachmilievitch. In the same year, he married the Polish Julia Ostrowska in Saint Petersburg. In 1914, Gurdjieff advertised his ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians,” and he supervised his pupils’ writing of the sketch “Glimpses of Truth.” In 1915, Gurdjieff accepted P. D. Ouspensky as a pupil, and in 1916, he accepted the composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife, Olga, as students. At the time he had about 30 pupils. Ouspensky already had a reputation as a writer on mystical subjects and had conducted his own, ultimately disappointing, search for wisdom in the East. The Fourth Way taught by Gurdjieff during this period was complex and metaphysical, partly expressed in scientific terminology.
In the midst of revolutionary upheaval in Russia, Gurdjieff left Petrograd in 1917 to return to his family home in Alexandropol. During the Bolshevik Revolution, he set up temporary study communities in Essentuki in the Caucasus, then in Tuapse, Maikop, Sochi and Poti, all on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia, where he worked intensively with many of his Russian pupils. In March 1918, Ouspensky separated from Gurdjieff, settling in England and teaching the Fourth Way in his own way and attracting his own students. Subsequently the two men had a highly ambivalent relationship.
Four months later, Gurdjieff’s eldest sister and her family reached him in Essentuki as refugees, informing him that Turks had shot his father in Alexandropol on 15 May (as a part of the long-forgotten Armenian genocide). Posing as a scientist, Gurdjieff left Essentuki with fourteen companions and travelled by train to Maikop, where hostilities delayed them for three weeks. In spring 1919, Gurdjieff met the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife Jeanne and accepted them as pupils. Assisted by Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff gave the first public demonstration of his “Sacred Dances.”
In 1919, Gurdjieff and his closest pupils moved to Tiflis. There, Gurdjieff’s wife, Julia Ostrowska; the Stjoernvals; the Hartmanns and the de Saltmarsh gathered the fundamentals of his teaching. Gurdjieff concentrated on his still unstaged ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians.” Thomas de Hartmann (who had made his debut years ago, before Czar Nicholas II of Russia) worked on the music for the ballet, and Olga Ivanovna Hinzenberg (who years later married the architect Frank Lloyd Wright) practiced the ballet dances. In 1919, Gurdjieff established his first Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.
In late May 1920, when political conditions in Georgia changed and the old order was crumbling, his party travelled to Batumi on the Black Sea coast and then took ship to Istanbul. Gurdjieff rented an apartment on Koumbaradji Street in Péra and later at 13 Abdullatif Yemeneci Sokak near the Galata Tower. The apartment is near the kha’neqa’h (monastery) of the Molavieh Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Thomas de Hartmann witnessed the sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes. In Istanbul, Gurdjieff also met his future pupil Capt. John G. Bennett, then head of British Military Intelligence in Constantinople, who describes his impression of Gurdjieff as follows:
It was there that I first met Gurdjieff in the autumn of 1920, and no surroundings could have been more appropriate. In Gurdjieff, East and West do not just meet. Their difference is annihilated in a world outlook which knows no distinctions of race or creed. This was my first, and has remained one of my strongest impressions. A Greek from the Caucasus, he spoke Turkish with an accent of unexpected purity, the accent that one associates with those born and bred in the narrow circle of the Imperial Court. His appearance was striking enough even in Turkey, where one saw many unusual types. His head was shaven, immense black moustache, eyes which at one moment seemed very pale and at another almost black. Below average height, he gave nevertheless an impression of great physical strength
In August 1921 and 1922, Gurdjieff travelled around western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work in various cities, including Berlin and London. He attracted the allegiance of Ouspensky’s many prominent pupils (notably his eventual editor and translator, A. R. Orage). After an unsuccessful attempt to gain British citizenship, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man south of Paris at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Avon near the famous Château de Fontainebleau. The once-impressive but somewhat crumbling mansion set in extensive grounds housed an entourage of several dozen, including some of Gurdjieff’s remaining relatives and some White Russian refugees.
New pupils included C. S. Nott, René Zuber, Margaret Anderson and her ward Fritz Peters. The generally intellectual and middle-class types who were attracted to Gurdjieff’s teaching often found the Prieuré’s spartan accommodation and emphasis on hard labor in the grounds disconcerting. Gurdjieff was putting into practice his teaching that people need to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually, hence the mixture of lectures, music, dance, and manual work. Older pupils noticed how the Prieuré teaching differed from the complex metaphysical “system” that had been taught in Russia. In addition to the physical hardships, his personal behavior towards pupils could be ferocious:
Gurdjieff was standing by his bed in a state of what seemed to me to be completely uncontrolled fury. He was raging at Orage, who stood impassively, and very pale, framed in one of the windows…. Suddenly, in the space of an instant, Gurdjieff’s voice stopped, his whole personality changed, he gave me a broad smile—looking incredibly peaceful and inwardly quiet— motioned me to leave, and then resumed his tirade with undiminished force. This happened so quickly that I do not believe that Mr. Orage even noticed the break in the rhythm.
Starting in 1924, Gurdjieff made visits to North America, where he eventually received the pupils taught previously by A.R. Orage. In 1924, while driving alone from Paris to Fontainebleau, he had a near-fatal car accident. Nursed by his wife and mother, he made a slow and painful recovery against all medical expectation. Still convalescent, he formally “disbanded” his institute on 26 August (although he dispersed only his “less dedicated” pupils), which he explained as an undertaking “in the future, under the pretext of different worthy reasons, to remove from my eyesight all those who by this or that make my life too comfortable.”
After recovering, he began writing Beelzebub’s Tales, the first part of All and Everything in a mixture of Armenian and Russian. The book was deliberately convoluted and obscure, forcing the reader to “work” to find its meaning. He also composed it according to his own principles, writing in noisy cafes to force a greater effort of concentration.
In 1925, Gurdjieff’s mother died, and his wife developed cancer; she was to die in June 1926. Gurdjieff was in New York from November 1925 to the spring of 1926, when he succeeded in raising over $100,000. In all he made six or seven trips to the US. During them, he alienated a number of people with his brash and undisguised demands for money which some have interpreted in terms of his following the Malamatiyya technique of the Sufis, that is, deliberately attracting disapproval.
Despite his fund-raising efforts in the United States, the Prieuré operation ran into debt and was shut down in 1932. Gurdjieff constituted a new teaching group in Paris. Known as The Rope, it comprised only women, many of them writers, many of whom were lesbians. Members included Kathryn Hulme, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson and Enrico Caruso’s widow, Dorothy. Gurdjieff became acquainted with Gertrude Stein through Rope members, but she was never a follower.
In 1935, Gurdjieff stopped work on All and Everything. He had completed the first two parts of the planned trilogy but only started on the Third Series (later published under the title Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’.) In 1936, he settled in an apartment at 6, Rue des Colonels-Renard in Paris, where he was to stay for the rest of his life. In 1937, his brother Dmitry died, and The Rope disbanded.
Although the apartment at 6 Rue des Colonels-Renard was very small for the purpose, he continued to teach groups of pupils throughout World War II. Visitors recalled the pantry, stocked with an extraordinary collection of eastern delicacies, which served as his inner sanctum, and the suppers he held with elaborate toasts to “idiots” in vodka and cognac. His teaching was now far removed from the original “system”, being based on proverbs, jokes and personal interaction, although pupils were required to read, three times if possible, copies of Beelzebub’s Tales.
After the war, Gurdjieff tried to reconnect with his former pupils. Ouspensky was reluctant, but after his death (October 1947), his widow advised his remaining pupils to see Gurdjieff in Paris. J. G. Bennett also visited from England, the first meeting for 25 years. Ouspensky’s pupils in England had all thought that Gurdjieff was dead. They discovered he was alive only after the death of Ouspensky, who had not told them that Gurdjieff was still living. They were overjoyed to hear so, and many of Ouspensky’s pupils including Rina Hands, Basil Tilley and Catherine Murphy visited Gurdjieff in Paris. Hands and Murphy worked on the typing and retyping of the forthcoming All and Everything.
Gurdjieff suffered a second car accident in 1948 but again made an unexpected recovery:
With iron-like tenacity, he managed to gain his room, where he sat down and said: “Now all organs are destroyed. Must make new”. Then, he turned to Bennett, smiling: “Tonight you come dinner. I must make body work”. As he spoke, a great spasm of pain shook his body and blood gushed from an ear. Bennett thought: “He has a cerebral haemorrhage. He will kill himself if he continues to force his body to move”. But then he reflected: “He has to do all this. If he allows his body to stop moving, he will die. He has power over his body”.
Gurdjieff died at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His funeral took place at the St. Alexandre Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 12 Rue Daru, Paris. He is buried in the cemetery at Avon (near Fontainebleau).
Eating was a supremely important act for Gurdjieff. He insisted that, “Man should eat, not as an animal, but consciously.” He chose eating as the one experience that all human beings share:
When you do a thing, do it with the whole self, one thing at a time. Now I sit here and I eat. For me nothing exists in the world except this food, this table. I eat with the whole attention. So you must do—in everything. To be able to do one thing at a time—this is the property of man, not man in quotation marks.
If one knows how to eat properly, one knows how to pray.
It is important to compose a dish in its correctly-blended elements as a composition of music or the colors in painting. Harmony in scale. Must have much knowledge to be a good cook. A culinary doctor.
When I eat, I self-remember.
Thomas de Hartmann also tells us that:
To taste life fully was one of Mr. Gurdjieff’s principles. During our life with him we tried every sort of eastern dish, some very exotic. He told us that in the East they have always paid particular attention to the refinement of food elements. The aim is not to gorge oneself under the table, but rather to sample, in tiny portions, all kinds of variation of taste experiences. I can still see him vividly, his muscles completely relaxed as always. Slowly he lifts to his mouth a very good pear, not peeled. Unhurried, he takes a bite of it as if striving to absorb its entire aroma, it’s entire taste.
Given the foregoing it’s a bit difficult to suggest a single recipe to celebrate Gurdjieff’s life. Anything from an unpeeled apple to an enormous Chinese banquet would work because it’s less in what you eat as in how you eat it that is the key to Gurdjieff’s method. In that light I will give you some insight into Armenian cuisine, since Gurdjieff was Armenian. I have mentioned Armenian cooking once before: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/jude-the-obscure/
Armenians will stuff just about anything (with anything). This recipe is for a stuffed leg of lamb, but you can just as easily use lamb breast. The array of herbs, spices, and other flavors meets Gurdjieff’s desire for richness of cuisine. You should probably drink lots of vodka, brandy, or calvados with the meal if you want to follow in Gurdjieff’s footsteps.
Armenian Stuffed Lamb
1 (5 -6 lb) leg of lamb, semiboned (shank bone left in,)
3 garlic cloves, cut into 12 slivers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp dried mint
2 tsp dried oregano
salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ cup minced celery
1 cup long-grain rice
3 tbsp pine nuts
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 cups chicken broth
3 tbsp dried currants
freshly ground pepper
¼ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp cinnamon
Marinate the lamb by first making 12 small incisions on the outside surface and inserting the garlic slivers. Then combine the oil, lemon juice, mint, oregano, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Place the lamb in a non-reactive dish and spread the marinade evenly over the inside and outside surfaces. Let the meat stand covered at room temperature for 2 hours or refrigerate overnight.
Make the stuffing about an hour or so before roasting the lamb. Melt the butter in large saucepan or deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and sauté until soft but not browned. Stir in the rice, pine nuts and parsley. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice turns opaque (2-3 minutes). Gradually stir in the broth then add the currants and pepper to taste. Heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer covered until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the allspice and cinnamon while fluffing the rice with a fork. Let the stuffing cool at room temperature for about 1 hour.
Heat the oven to 475°F/250°C.
Stuff the open pocket of the lamb with about 2 cups of stuffing. Press the open ends together and tie at 1-inch intervals with kitchen string. Place the lamb on a rack in roasting pan. Spoon the remaining stuffing into a small casserole and set aside.
Roast the lamb until browned (about 15 minutes) then reduce the heat to 350°F/175°C. Carefully pour 1½ cups of water into the pan. Continue to roast, basting every 15 minutes, for about 45 minutes. Fifteen minutes before the lamb is done, spoon 2 tablespoons of pan juices over the stuffing in the casserole and bake in the oven until heated through. Transfer the lamb to carving board and let stand covered with a tent of foil for 15-20 minutes.
Spoon the fat from the pan juices, then heat the to a rapid boil, scraping loose the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Strain into a sauceboat.
Slice the lamb into ½” thick slices and serve with the stuffing and pan juices.