20th December 2010: Gurdjieff-Ouspensky and ‘Attention Cascades’

Google Ngram Viewer: GurdjieffOuspensky

Google’s Ngram Viewer enables you to track the longitudinal patterns of authors and terms across 5.2 million books and 5oo years of history. The data-set has some limits: it can’t cover secondhand purchases or patterns in library borrowing; it’s limited by copyright access to Google Books databases. However, it can be integrated with other data-points, such as publishing trends in a subculture, the waxing and waning of a topic’s interest due to particular books, ‘idea entrepreneurs’, specific events, and inter-generational change. In other words, the more knowledge you have of a subculture, and the role of specific books within it, the more you might be able to infer from it.

I chose the literature on the Graeco-Armenian magus George Gurdjieff and the Russian journalist Pyotr Uspenskii (Ouspensky) for several reasons. It is a structured ‘body of work’ with primary sources, pupil narratives, and second- and third-generation commentaries. This segmentation means it can be compared with a range of authors and topics using bibliometrics, historical research, and anthropological methods. It anticipated themes of the 1960s Age of Aquarius and 1970s environmental movements. It grew endogenously after some specific events, such as the timed release of Gurdjieff’s authorised writings and the early popularity of Ouspensky’s neo-Theosophical writings on consciousness, mathematics, and comparative religion. The fluctuations in Google’s Ngram Viewer can be interpreted, in part, as the rise-and-fall of what Ouspensky called the ‘Fourth Way’ in the Human Potential movement and other subcultures.

Ouspensky established his reputation with The Fourth Dimension (1909) and Tertium Organum (1912) before meeting Gurdjieff in 1915. World War 1 and the 1917 Russian Revolution delayed Ouspensky’s introduction to the West, where from the 1920s onwards he was known in London intelligentsia circles. Ouspensky’s citations overshadowed Gurdjieff in the 1920s and early 1930s; with G. peaking due probably to well-publicised trips to New York, interactions with authors such as Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, and scandals involving his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleu, France, including the death of author Katherine Mansfield. This meant that for many people the Ouspenskiian ‘second line, and even the Oragean version, of ‘The Work’ was more accessible than Gurdjieff’s Paris-based groups, particularly during World War 2.

Ouspensky and Gurdjieff peaked again in the late 1940s, with the posthumous release of O.’s In Search of the Miraculous (1947) and G.’s mammoth Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950). Ouspensky’s transcripts The Fourth Way (1957) again reignited interest. However, it appears that Gurdjieff’s Meetings With Remarkable Men (1961) introduced him to a far broader audience, leading to G.’s positioning as a ‘crazy wisdom’ teacher in the 1960s and as a forerunner of the Human Potential movement. C.S. Nott, Fritz Peters, and other pupils released their memoirs and teaching autobiographies, creating a rich, autobiographical second class of literature. Yet G. remained inaccessible compared with others, even after a late 1970s ‘cascade’ around Life Is Only Real Then, When ‘I Am’ (1978) and Peter Brooks’ film adaptation of Meetings With Remarkable Men (1978).

Google’s Ngram Viewer picks up four ‘cascades’ of interest in both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky since the late 1970s, reflecting the Lakatosian growth in ‘Fourth Way’ literature, compared with other ‘lines of transmission’. The mid 1980s and early 1990s are in part due to publisher reissues of earlier books: my interest coincided with Arkana’s early 1990s re-release of Ouspensky, Nott, Anderson, and others from the backlists of Alfred A. Knopf and other older publishers. The mid-to-late 1990s saw a consolidation around ‘third generation’ authors like David Kherdian and William Patrick Patrick Patterson; Lord Pentland’s transcripts; philosophers such as Jacob Needleman, and archivists like J. Walter Driscoll. This also coincided with interest in the Enneagram as a psychological typology, which G. was briefly associated with, and with the appearance of ‘G-O’ bookmarks from Richard Burton’s controversial school. The post-2001 interest is due probably to a re-release of G. and O.’s books; Patterson’s documentaries and books; Needleman; John Shirley’s excellent 2004 introduction; the release of Jeanne de Salzmann’s transcripts; and academics who have discovered and written about Gurdjieff in scholarly circles. Other factors such as G.’s reputation in the Human Potential movement, various ‘fake’ G. books, promoters such as the occult author Colin Wilson, and the internet may have affected the Google Books data-set.

Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s publishing history appears to have a wave-like nature due to ‘attention cascades’. The genesis of their ‘core’ books survived two world wars, revolution, personal schisms, and organisational scandal. Increasingly, the ‘core’ books and the autobiographies of pupils are being supplanted by second and third generation studies of varying quality. An important aspect of this is the role of small, specialist publishing houses, such as Bennett Books which keeps alive the legacy of Gurdjieff’s pupil John Godolphin Bennett. Yet ironically the books are only one ‘form of transmission’ compared with the exercises, dances and in situ teachings often tailored to individuals.