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Gurdjieff, Georgei Ivanovitch (1872-1949)

Gurdjieff, Georgei Ivanovitch (1872-1949)

Mystic and spiritual teacher of Greek ancestry, born at Alexandropol, Armenia, near the borders of Russia and Persia. In 1896, at about the age of 20, Gurdjieff left home to spend 20 years searching for the esoteric truths of life in Tibet, India, and the Arabian countries. His quest is described obliquely in his own book Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963), but much of this book must be regarded as parable rather than strict fact or autobiography.

In 1912 Gurdjieff launched his own system of psychophysical culture in Russia. Early disciples included Dr. de Stjoernval, a Finnish physician, composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife, sculptor Vladimir Pohl, and journalist Peter Demianovitch Ouspensky. It was Ouspensky who later developed his own interpretation of the work of Gurdjieff and became the leading publicist for his system.

In spite of the Russian Revolution, the Gurdjieff group continued to grow, and Gurdjieff established his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man around 1917 in Tiflis, later moving to Constantinople, then to France, where the group became firmly established at a chateau in Fontainebleau. Many well-known intellectuals spent time with the group, including Katherine Mansfield, Clifford Sharp (editor of the New Statesman ), and A. R. Orage (editor of the New Age ).

Gurdjieff's system was a flexible one, employing both systematic and variable techniques to break habits of thought and emotion and awaken a higher consciousness. He would often shock his pupils out of routine reactions by a kind of westernized Zen technique. Fastidious intellectuals might be obliged to clean out stables, teetotalers to drink alcohol. In addition Gurdjieff devised psychophysical group exercises, involving breathing techniques, music, and dance. He called his system the Fourth Way, as distinct from that of the fakir, monk, and yogi, and was especially concerned with involvement in everyday life.

In 1924 he visited the United States with his disciples, who gave astonishing demonstrations of physical and mental control. Various writers and editors of the day supported his work, including Hart Crane, Jane Heap, and Margaret Anderson.

His influence has been widespread and survives in modern times through such individuals as Maurice Nicoll and J. G. Bennett and a continuing tradition of Gurdjieff groups that carry on unobtrusively. The books of P. D. Ouspensky have attracted many seekers to the work of Gurdjieff, although Ouspensky himself tended to intellectualize a system that depended upon firsthand experience.

Gurdjieff himself was an enigmatic figure, whose lifestyle often appeared at variance with that of a mystic master. He enjoyed good food and wine and was capable of apparently inconsistent behavior, usually explained away by his disciples as being designed deliberately to shock individuals out of habitual reactions.

His book All and Everything: Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson (1950) can be variously interpreted as turgid writing or a tongue-in-cheek attack on the reader's level of consciousness. Time magazine once aptly described Gurdjieff as a "remarkable blend of P. T. Barnum, Rasputin, Freud, Groucho Marx, and everybody's grandfather."


Bennett, John Godolphin. Gurdjieff: Making a New World. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

. Is There Life on Earth?An Introduction to Gurdjieff. New York: Stonehill, 1973. 1st Bennett Books ed., Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Bennett Books, 1989.

De Hartmann, Thomas. Our Life with Gurdjieff. New York: Penguin, 1972.

Driscoll, J. Walter. Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.

Lefort, Rafael. The Teachers of Gurdjieff. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973.

Ouspensky, P. D. Tertium Organum (the third organ of thought): A key to the enigmas of the world. Rochester, N.Y.: Manas Press, 1920.

Pauwels, Louis. Gurdjieff. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972.

Speeth, Katherine Riodan. The Gurdjieff Work. Berkeley, Calif.: And/Or Press, 1976. Rev. ed., Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989.

Webb, James. The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1980.

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