Writing about Gurdjieff is both a rewarding and unrewarding task at the same time. On the one hand, various theories and suppositions can be constructed about how he obtained the knowledge he taught, and to interpret his actions and contradictory deeds in various ways. On the other hand, to understand what Gurdjieff in fact represented is a hard task, and perhaps to understand the motives and reasons for his actions is simply impossible for us. To some, he seemed a charlatan with abilities, who cleverly fooled people; to others, he seemed a great Teacher with whom it was rather hard to study, however. In between these two polar opinions are numerous variations, combining within them individual elements of both.
The memoirs written by the students of Gurdjieff suffer from a prejudice of viewpoint, no matter how objectively their authors tried to write. Each one wants to hide something – in fact not necessarily about himself, although that, too, but about Gurdjieff. What the authors of the recollections cannot accept or understand, or what they are embarrassed about is covered with a veil of understatement and silence.
A vivid example of this is the famous book by Pyotr Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous. It is believed that it fairly accurately conveys the teaching of Gurdjieff in the form that he presented it during the period of his work in Russia. Possibly, that is the case. But by separating the methods of Gurdjieff’s work from a description of his teaching, Ouspensky removes an important part of the context in which the teaching was given. As we know, precisely because of Gurdjieff’s methods, and also in part because of his behavior, Ouspensky left his Work. And that is the question: can theoretical knowledge be separated from the practical methods that are supposed to validate it, as Ouspensky tried to do? And in general, does anyone except perhaps smart philosophers need theory that is not confirmed by practice?
In his book, Ouspensky thoroughly ignores the methods by which Gurdjieff worked with him and the other students. A few exercises are mentioned, and the practice of self-remembering is more or less described in detail. But there was much more real work – and in fact, not only in the form of exercises. What is this – Ouspensky’s unwillingness to remember what he didn’t like, or a peculiar law of Omerta, a promise to keep silent about what happened until death itself? All the more so because while working with his own students in London, Ouspensky forbade them to speak with, greet, or even pay attention to those who for one reason or another left the group. Generally, Ouspensky was inclined to making the work secret, but it is not a fact that the reason for his silence was an unspoken agreement or promise given to Gurdjieff. There are serious reasons to suppose that precisely Gurdjieff’s methods, which he used for work with students, were the reason for why Ouspensky broke off relations with him.
Let us imagine a situation in which you are inspired by certain ideas and you very much like them. You would like to live by them and somehow use them in your daily activity. But then you come up against the fact that following the ideas, a simple constant reflection on them, is insufficient from the perspective of the person who taught them to you. Practice is needed, which does not at all correspond with what you imagined, and which “drops” you from the skies to the earth, and which even requires some sort of incomprehensible efforts that are disproportionate to your preparation.
At first you are patient and suppress protest, but then your dissatisfaction becomes unbearable, and you leave. That is what happens with practically everyone who leaves the real Work – whether Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way or the Sufi Way. As is known, they are to some extent similar. The very same story happened with Ouspensky, which he could never admit to himself, even with all his intellectual “honesty.” And none of those who leave admit this to themselves. They find justifications of the most diverse kind and sometimes they are obviously ridiculous. Ouspensky, for example, told his students that Gurdjieff had lost his mind. The recollections of other students – if these are recollections, and not a paraphrase and interpretation of Gurdjieff’s ideas – also contain justifications in which the authors justify either themselves or the Teacher. And the books of those who wrote about Gurdjieff, who were not personally acquainted with him are generally worthless. He was too incomprehensible even for those who associated with him for many years, whereas for those who formulated their point of view from others’ words, Gurdjieff was like an extraterrestrial.