Tobias Churton’s Deconstruction of Gurdjieff

Cover Deconstructing Gurdjieff

P.L. Travers was a pupil and a lifelong follower of the somewhat controversial spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. And, it must be stressed right from the start that his teachings are difficult to grasp by people not versed in esotericism. I know I struggled with them enormously at the beginning. And those who are less spiritually inclined readily categorize him as a charlatan. The debate remains.

Gurdjieff was a peculiar character. He did some strange things and, on some occasions, gave downright weird advice to his followers. But then, he also told them not to take anything at face value. His teaching methods were unorthodox, and they did involve humiliation tactics in a group work dynamic, and forced alcohol consumption in the form of the ritual “Toasts to the Idiots.” He believed that human beings needed shocks from outside in order to awaken to their inner truth.

He also used drugs and hormones with a closed group of his pupils known as the Rope. Peculiar or not, he managed to create a system and a following to our present days, and thus he deserves to be taken seriously even if only to understand the psyche of the people who needed his advice. And since I am very much interested in P.L. Travers’s psyche, I had to take Gurdjieff into account.

I didn’t know anything about him until I began investigating the life and literary works of P.L. Travers. To my surprise, I found out that there is an enormous amount of literature on the subject of Gurdjieff and his teachings.

He wrote four books: The Herald of Coming Good, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grand Son, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life is Real Only Then When I am. (The Herald of Coming Good is the only one that was published during his lifetime.) There are also the transcripts of some of his meetings with his pupils during different time periods of his teaching, there are books written by his pupils, books by his modern-day followers, and books explaining his esoteric ideas. Plus, there are the biographies. And I wanted to read a biography,  I wanted to gain some insight into Gurdjieff’s personality in order to better understand the potential causes for his immense influence on P.L. Travers.

Now how was I to choose the right biography? Well, simple. I followed my intuitive pull to a title. I chose a book by its cover. Deconstructing Gurdjieff by Tobias Churton.

I liked the idea of deconstructing something into its forming parts in order to gain a better understanding of its inner workings and what is more, Gurdjieff metaphorically described human beings as machines operating on autopilot. So, I found that there was a certain humor in the title, a tiny mischievous wink in Gurdjieff’s direction.  

Tobias Churton

My intuition didn’t disappoint me, intuition rarely does.

Tobias Churton 2

What makes Deconstructing Gurdjieff  an enjoyable read is the combination of Churton’s expertise in Western Esoterics with his good sense of the historical context of Gurdjieff’s life and his psychological understanding of Gurdjieff’s complex personality.

The effect of Churton’s deconstruction is the exact opposite, the construction of a portrait that is, in all probabilities, closer to who Gurdjieff really was.   

Gurdjieff worked to awaken people from the sleep of the automaton. The automaton was an identity through which the will of others, not of the real “I Am”, the authentic being, was expressed. Human beings were unconscious of their unconsciousness.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

In his book, Churton successfully describes the socio-cultural background of Gurdjieff’s humble upbringing in Russian Armenia and Gurdjieff’s innate temperamental traits.  The reader will also be well informed of the different underlying currents of the Gurdjieff’s system, namely the Yezidis tradition, Sufi tradition, Rosicrucianism, Hermetic Masonry, Pythagorean ideas as well as influences of the esoteric and scientific thoughts in Paris during the 1880s and 1890s.

Carte Gurdjieff

(Picture from Deconstructing Gurdjieff, by Tobias Churton)

Others before Churton have made the connection between the Sufi influence and Gurdjieff’s teachings, but Churton is the first to link the teachings to the Gnostic tradition and Free Masonry.

When Gurdjieff came to reorganize his clubs of students in New York in 1931, he divided the membership into exoteric, mesoteric and esoteric. The rule of three he habitually employed is familiar to the thinking Masons.

The Gnostic conception of body, soul and spirit, evident in Fabre d’Olivet, becomes for Gurdjieff the basis for therapeutic interest in reharmonizing bodily instinct, feelings (soul) and thinking or mentation (mind) to generate awakening from the dream of ordinary, externally directed consciousness, to a higher being or state of being.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

On a more personal level, what I find interesting in Gurdjieff is his imaginative mixture of mystic theories, science and psychology, and even a little bit of science-fiction. The result of this amalgamation is original but in my very humble opinion, ambiguous. To me, the most appealing aspect of his teachings is the psychological aspect but then psychology is not a synonym for spirituality. And this is something that Churton insightfully brings to the reader’s attention.

It seems to me that Gurdjieff has either confused the spiritual with the psychic, eliminating the spiritual, or simply regarded the spiritual as a state of special powers attendant on the acquisition of interior psychic and bodily harmony.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

Not long ago, I reached out to Churton via email with a long list of questions. For the benefit of the readers of this blog, and with infinite gratitude to Tobias Churton, and with the desire to avoid any unintentional changes in the meaning of his response, I am reproducing integrally certain portions of his correspondence:

TC: He (Gurdjieff) was not a scientist; he was not a university professor. He was only a teacher in the sense of a craftsman passing on his advice from an assumed superiority. He did not ever explain precisely what HE knew, or thought he knew. That is, he was unable to produce a successor or true inheritor. This is not unusual in the prophetic field!

He was an autodidact, who got the best out of his life as best he could.  I think his activities going up and down the Transcaspian Railway – even if we only take his word for it – show us that he was a manipulator of people and circumstances to suit himself. That he had wisdom about the follies of the human species we  recognize. That wisdom I tried to illuminate in my book. But he was a “player.”

He was Gurdjieff, and it is unwise, I believe, to follow this kind of figure. I agree with Crowley’s view that some of Gurdjieff’s methods, as revealed at the Prieure, were rather “artificial.” He did not like being attached to people who came to him. His personality, however, had magnetism, and he knew it – though not enough to bring in the money he believed he deserved to live on. He was sore at the loss of his income after the Revolution. Who can blame him?

He was an amateur in a field where there has not been anything like a professional magus since, perhaps, and arguably, the Renaissance, or late antiquity. Such men or women can hardly be judged “objectively.” The myth is as much the man as it is a myth. 

I think I showed that “Meetings with Remarkable Men” can hardly be taken entirely at face-value, and that is not a new insight in itself, but I think I have shown where we can see “scissors and paste” and highlighted Gurdjieff’s instinctive attitudes.  I think my suspicions about his leaning on Freemasonry for his ideals is probably correct and justified.

I am sometimes slightly amazed that Gurdjieff has attracted some serious seekers after spiritual truth, but then, there are not that many non-Indian gurus about in the modern period! I believe people like exploring the mystery of their own being, and almost any guide can encourage the self-interest. Gurdjieff’s methods intrigue, partly because they blend rationality with irrationality – just like the human mind itself.

His perception about contrary “brains” is a reasonable metaphor, but is likely to confuse most people, and lead them into quandaries.

Now, about that last point, we must give Gurdjieff some credit about his theory of the three-brained being. The latest scientific discoveries revealed that our bodies have indeed three brains. In recent years scientists have discovered that the heart contains some 40,000 sensory neurons which “opens the door to vast new possibilities that parallel those that have been accurately described in the scriptures of some of our most ancient and cherished spiritual traditions.

And a similar discovery was made in relation to our gut which apparently comprises some 100 million neurons.

However, I do hope that science never comes to prove Gurdjieff’s strange concept of man being food for the moon. More on that in a future posts on this blog.

 

Roses and Thorns, Thorns and Roses

 

Women of The Rope

I wish I could discuss roses with Pamela L. Travers. I wish I had the opportunity to ask her if she knew about Gurdjieff’s opinion of flowers? And if she did, how did she reconcile her spiritual teacher’s peculiar views with her own love for flowers and gardening.

Clearly, Gurdjieff hated flowers, he believed them to be dirty things, fake things.

Flower is dirty thing, is the poison of the earth, is masturbator thing. You know why created? For helping Kundabuffer. In old science it had evil reputation, it was material for black magic. Flowers not grow lawable.

Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, July 29, 1936

After lunch he went over to a pot of dead flowers and smelled them. Gurdjieff: Finish. Nothing they have. Involution. Never was otherwise. Never active element they have, such dirty thing. From birth was only involution. Always they are false.

Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, January 29, 1938

The quotes above are excerpts from the transcripts of certain meetings with Gurdjieff recorded by lesbian writers Kathryn Hulme and Solita Solano, published in 2012, Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope.

My habit was to rush out to the café across the street everyday and write down everything while still fresh in my mind. Katie also, when she was in Paris, did the same. We would then combine our recollections and establish sequences.

Solita Solano in Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope

These women were part of a special group which met regularly with Gurdjieff during the period between 1935-1939. On the back of the cover of Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope one reads:

In allegory he explained: You are going on a journey under my guidance, an “inner-world” journey like a high mountain climb where you must be roped together for safety, where each must think of the others on the rope, all for one and one for all. You must, in short, help each other “as hand washes hand”, each contributing to the company according to her lights, according to her means. Only faithful hard work on yourselves will get you where I want you to go, not your wishing.

Among themselves they called their group The Rope

There was a link between The Rope and Pamela L. Travers. The link was one of Gurdjieff’s disciples, American publisher Jane Heap, who was also the co-editor of the literary journal The Little Review.  The members of The Rope were part of Heap’s lesbian entourage in Paris, before she left for London on Gurdjieff’s instructions, in the fall of 1935. Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, reports that in the spring of 1936, Pamela and Jessie Orage (the widow of A.R. Orage, Gurdjieff’s emissary in New York) attended Heap’s study group of the Gurdjieff’s teachings in London. And, it was in March 1936 that Pamela and Jessie visited Gurdjieff in Paris at his favourite Café de la Paix, and then went to his flat where some of the members of the Rope were present.

It is possible then, that at some point Pamela became aware of Gurdjieff’s radical views on flowers. Luckily for her (she had a special affection for roses) Gurdjieff’s take on roses was more nuanced.  In Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope the image of the rose appears on three different occasions; in one instance as a figurative conduit for Gurdjieff’s idea of objective love, and on the other two occasions, as an illustration of his concept of the process of the acquiring of a human soul (according to Gurdjieff men are not born with a soul).

Gurdjieff’s concept of objective love

Alice: And roses, even roses? The Bible often speaks of roses.

Gurdjieff: For certain things roses are good-but must be in combination. Roses in the Bible are always mentioned with thorns. There is an old saying: ‘You can understand and love me only when you love -have a passion-for my thorns. Then only I am your slave.’ In old poetry, not your poetry but religious poetry, there is a very beautiful song that the nightingale sings to the rose: ‘Even though I hate your dirtiness, I must love you and sing to you.”

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, July 29, 1936

It seems that for Gurdjieff objective love is attained only when one is aware of the flaws in the object of one’s affection, a love that encompasses the good and the bad, conscious unconditional love. At least this is how I interpret his allegory.

Then somewhat in contradiction with his previous statements about flowers:

The rose is king of flowers. Always in Eastern literature is put with nightingale. Rose is loving-loving rose. And besides loving, rose can have many another emotion which idiot English have no name for. Yes, even nature can feel loving-like woman.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, January 30, 1937

Gurdjieff and the creation of the Soul

In Café de la Paix Gurdjieff started talking about roses, roses, how he felt, how next week would be thorns, thorns when the fourteen thousand franks becomes due on the car. But thorns, thorns in outer world were good because then there are roses, roses in the inner world. ‘Is law-for one dissatisfaction, always a satisfaction.’ Then he asked which I think would he rather have roses, roses in his inner world or in his outer world… then when I answered, he decided that was too complicated a question. He said, better I tell you one thing. This will make you rich for life, richer than your Mr. Rockefeller. There are two struggles – inner world struggle and outer world struggle, but never can these two make contact. (…) Only one thing –must make intentional contact between outer world struggle and inner world struggle. Then can make data which crystalize for third world of man, sometimes called world of the soul.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, February 2, 1936

After roses, roses come thorns. Only then with thorns can have man a possibility for happiness.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, June 12, 1936

In this case, Gurdjieff associated roses with his idea of the reconciling factor in our human suffering. The only way to transcend the pain we experience in our dualistic world is to become conscious of the struggles and use this awareness to work persistently on improving the self. Only by conscious suffering and voluntary work can one acquire a soul, or a rose in the inner world. Which means that one must accept that roses come with thorns. As Gurdjieff puts it, for every dissatisfaction there is a satisfaction. And vice versa.

As for Pamela, she loved roses and was moved by their mysterious, secretive nature. She loved the way in which, layer by layer, the rose’s petals protect its center, revealing its inner world only at the very last moment. In Pamela’s writings the rose appears as a symbol of womanhood, by opposition to the daisy, which she perceived as a child’s flower because of its openness.  This is why she chose to name the princess in her retelling of her favourite fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, Rose:

For instance, the Beauty, who has never before been given a name, is here called Rose-having regard not only to the Grimm’s “Dornroschen” (Rose in Thorns or Briar Rose) but also to Robert Graves’ Druidic language of the tress in The White Goddess, where he speaks of the ‘erotoc’ briar.

All the known versions of the story have in them this strong element of eroticism. Indeed, it can be said with truth that every fairy tale that deals with a beautiful heroine and a lordly hero is, among many other things, speaking to us of love, laying down patterns and examples for all our human loving.

Pamela L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty

For Pamela, as for most of us, love and sex are intertwined while Gurdjieff’s concept of objective love excludes sex. It seems he deemed it to be something dirty. Or maybe he was talking about how sometimes we mistake lust for love.

But conscious love, that is real love. You have only love based on sex; it is sickness, a weakness. You cannot have love. That which perhaps your grandfather had. Today, for everyone, love is based on sex and sex on polarity. So, if a person has a nose like this you love her; if she hasn’t a nose like that, you don’t love her.  Real love is objective; but in Paris objective love doesn’t exist. You have made the word sentiment for sex, for dirty things; you have forgotten real love.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris,

Although it would have been really interesting to discuss Gurdjieff and flowers with Pamela, what really tickles my curiosity is Pamela L. Travers’s own secretive nature.  Did she believe the only way to entice and keep a romantic partner was to remain elusive and mysterious? Or was this obsession with concealment reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s admonition to his pupils to never reveal their inner world, to be like actors on the stage of Life?