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.

18th February 2010: Seven Lessons From An Unknown Teacher

This post briefly discusses some lessons that LHP and Rune-Gild practitioners can learn from the Graeco-Armenian magus George Gurdjieff and the orthodox Gurdjieff Foundation, based in New York.


This personal interpretation remanifests a series of email dialogues with Vesa Itti, and with Petri Laakso in late 1997-early 1998 around the time of his IV* Recognition in the Temple of Set. In a follow-up entry I will discuss some of the limitations and criticisms.


I don’t speak for the Foundation, the Temple, or the Gild, just myself.


1. A Transcultural Mission from Syncretic Cultural and Religious Sources. Gurdjieff’s advice to ‘Take the ‘wisdom’ of the East and the ‘energy’ of the West and then seek’ foreshadows Eranos, Esalen, the Integral Institute, and the current interest in integrative, holistic frameworks. Part of the recent growth in academic Gurdjieff Studies such as Jacob Needleman and J. Walter Driscoll is a renewed attention to reconstructing and synthesizing the diverse sources that Gurdjieff tapped in the Caucasus, the Hindu Kush, Tibet, Egypt, India, and elsewhere, in pursuit of the Akhaldan Society and the Sarmoung Brotherhood. Graham Hancock fans, take note.

2. Embodied Forms of Initiatory Practice. The reading sessions for the legominism Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950), the ‘Teacher of Dances’ guise and Movement performances, the ‘Toast of Idiots’ dinners, the ‘Stop!’ exercises, and the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann piano collaborations all point to a practice-based cultivation of ’embodied’ awareness. This experience is central to an effective group and is not always emphasised in the various books on Gurdjieff and his followers.


3. Stark Methodologies. What is also clear is the starkness of the methodologies and practices in the Gurdjieff ‘Work’ in contrast to the Theosophical-inspired occult groups that G. viewed with contempt. No adornment – emphasize only what is necessary, the rest is baggage. One of the reasons for this is Gurdjieff’s experiences in the Caucasus, Turkey, Greece and Russia during periods of civil war, political instability, and revolution. Rather than Aleister Crowley this aspect of Gurdjieff — his experience of human conflict and violence — is perhaps closer to the contemporary experiences of New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, King’s College strategist Patrick Porter, author William Vollmann‘s distilled ‘Moral Calculus’; in his study Rising Up and Rising Down (2004) or University of Notre Dame professor and anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom.


4. Heuristics to Understand LHP Methodologies. Contemporary books on Gurdjieff often focus on his self-described methodology of the ‘Fourth Way’: the fusion of fakir, monk and yogic methods of self-initiatory knowledge in everyday life. Whilst important, many of Gurdjieff’s other heuristics — the Law of Three, the Law of Seven, and the Law of Accident in particular — might be frames to test, contextualize and evaluate the appropriateness, effectiveness and unforseen effects of LHP methodologies. These heuristics refer to causal relationships, the flow of time and change, and unexpected forces that any practitioner or methodologist will face.


5. The School as Initiatory Laboratory. Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleu, France, is an oft-emulated model for groupwork. LHP practitioners also often cite Pyotr Uspenskii’s comments attributed to Gurdjieff about the role of the School and the ‘third line of work’ for the School’s growth and survival. If only they looked at what happened and why the Institute failed (and perhaps read some organizational dynamics literature by Barry Oshry or Gareth Morgan). These days Fontainebleu is more well-known for the MBA business school INSEAD.


6. A Model of the Psychecentric Consciousness. Pyotr Uspenskii has emphasized Gurdjieff’s model in his description of seven types of man, various centers, the psychology of initiatory experience, the Enneagram symbol, humanity as ‘food for the moon’, and the Ray of Creation cosmology. Uspenskii’s language was proto-scientific and anticipated the cybernetic models popularised by Timothy Leary, John Lilly and Robert Anton Wilson in the 1970s. Thus, some interpret Gurdjieff as a modernist rather than a traditionalist who drew on syncretic cultural and religious sources.


7. Aletheia. Over a decade ago, I sat in on an email debate between Petri Laakso and Vesa Itti on if Gurdjieff’s ‘Work’ could fit into Setian philosophy, the Farr/Crowley aeonic model, and what his Word might be. Itti and Laakso eventually settled on Aletheia as the Greek word for Truth-as-Unconcealment. In retrospect this poses several issues for orthodox Gurdjieffians. It is perhaps closer to Uspenskii’s idee-fixe on ‘self-remembering’ rather than Gurdjieff’s emphasis on observing one’s mechanical life and then trying to Do. It is identified with German philosopher Martin Heidegger‘s phenomenological hermenutics, and his Remanifestation of Aletheia. Trying to put Gurdjieff or any other person into these frames is difficult: whatever clarity is gained, something may also be ‘lost’, ‘fragmented’ or remain ‘unknown’ (with a nod to a certain Uspenskii book). Words will be Understood in different ways, different contexts, at different times, and by different people. Finally, this can be ‘wiseacring’ or self-hypnotic speculation: we don’t Know, we weren’t with Gurdjieff during his Oath on 13th September 1911, and in many cases, only have secondary sources.


Despite these limits and concerns, the Itti-Laakso proposition that Gurdjieff’s Word could be Aletheia raises some intriguing possibilities and directions that I will explore further in future posts.