Books: A nice chap to drink with

Independent on Sunday (London)
November 7, 2004, Sunday


by JAH WOBBLE Ouspensky: poetic and life-loving TOPHAM PICTUREPOINT

I t is the fate of P D Ouspensky that whenever his name is mentioned,
it is nearly always in relation to G I Gurdjieff, that mysterious
“esoteric master” who turned up in Moscow around 1913, claiming to be
a be a spiritual master. One thing is for sure: Gurdjieff, a powerful
and mesmerising personality, was a master at encouraging and
nurturing myths about himself and his origins. This of course makes
him even more fascinating. According to popular belief, Gurdjieff was
of Greek-Armenian parentage, and grew up in the Caucasus amongst
various cultural and religious traditions. He claimed to have
travelled extensively through remote areas of central Asia, stopping
off at monasteries and the abodes of gurus, gaining great knowledge
of all things esoteric, especially ritualistic dance. Initially
Ouspensky was cynical about Gurdjieff and his ambitions to spread his
knowledge to the West. However, he soon became his main disciple.
George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky embarked upon introducing the
powerful ideas of the former’s “Fourth Way”. Gurdjieff believed that
people were asleep, that they were in a sort of prison, and that they
needed to escape. But of course he explained that is impossible to
achieve that escape on your own. “You need the support of a
organisation.” (It’s funny how they always say that.) Gurdjieff’s
system continues to be practised by groups all over the world.

Predictably the two men fell out some years later. Ouspensky started
his own operation, and wouldn’t even let his students utter the name
of Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff disparagingly said of Ouspensky that he was a
nice person to drink vodka with, but was essentially a weak man, who
lacked the necessary resolve to stick to the master’s plan. Since
then history has resigned Ouspensky to little more than a support
role to Gurdjieff.

This is not the first book to be written about P D Ouspensky. Colin
Wilson’s The Strange Life of P D Ouspensky and William Patrick
Patterson’s Struggle of the Magicians are probably the most notable.
The most striking difference, between these books and Lachman’s, is
the latter’s championing of Ouspensky’s cause. Typically Ouspensky is
portrayed as a bright yet flawed man, who betrayed his master’s
vision, and backed away from gaining true enlightenment. Lachman lays
his cards on the table in the introduction. It transpires that in the
late 1970s Lachman’s world (like many others before him) had been
rocked upon reading In Search of the Miraculous, Ouspensky’s account
of his time with Gurdjieff. Lachman subsequently immersed himself in
other books written by Ouspensky, as well as books written by
Gurdjieff himself. Indeed the author followed the teaching laid out
in those writings for several years. Eventually however, Lachman
moved on to explore other ideas. He was finally spurred into action
upon reading Patterson’s less than complimentary biography of
Ouspensky: “As far as Patterson was concerned, Ouspensky failed to
grasp the importance of Gurdjieff’s mission and when it came to it,
couldn’t abandon his own independence, self-will, and egoism in order
to devote himself entirely to Gurdjieff’s work… But as I read on I
found myself cheering for the wrong team.”

Even before reading Patterson’s biography, the author had found
himself revisiting, for the first time in years, Ouspensky’s
writings. Lo and behold, Lachman found that Ouspensky’s works before
meeting Gurdjieff were the most impressive of all, especially his
only novel, the beautiful and deeply metaphysical The Strange Life of
Ivan Osokin (which is a favourite of mine). I must say that I concur
with the author on this one. In my twenties I read Meetings with
Remarkable Men and other stuff on the “Fourth Way”. However, I wasn’t
that taken with it. I found it to be a jumble of ideas that with the
benefit of late-20th century hindsight (1960s hippie bullshit, dodgy
ashrams etc) didn’t hold water. Whereas Ivan Osokin had a wise and
compassionate feel to it. Above all, it had humour and innocence.
Lachman concludes that Gurdjieff had a negative effect on Ouspensky’s
personality, let alone his writing: “In the presence of the great
master, poetic, life-loving Peter felt somehow childish and immature;
all his philosophy and love of beauty and goodness were made to seem
mere adolescent romanticism. So he changed himself, worked on
himself, until that weakness disappeared and he became hard.” True as
that might be, it would be wrong to simply dismiss Gurdjieff as a
charlatan and control freak. However, it’s nice to see Ouspensky
appear, albeit belatedly, from the shadow of his master.

Indeed, Lachman would like it to be realised that before Ouspensky
met Gurdjieff, writers such as J B Priestley, Aldous Huxley and
Malcolm Lowry held him in high esteem. Ouspensky’s ideas were also
important to the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, as
well as to going some way towards laying the foundations for early
Russian modernism. Weak, insignificant man? I don’t think so.