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Academic Approaches to G. I. Gurdjieff and the “Work”

Panel Chair: Carole Cusack | Monday, August 24, 3:30-5:30 p.m.| Venue

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (c. 1866-1949) is often spoken of as one of the three foundational figures of both new religious movements (NRMs) and modern ‘secularised’ esotericism. His teachings have been accorded significant influence on the ‘New Age’, yet he is far less studied than the two other foundational figures, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), co-founder of Theosophy, and Rudolf Steiner (1851-1925), founder of Anthroposophy. Much of Gurdjieff’s biography is speculative, and his teaching (termed the ‘Fourth Way’, or the ‘Work’) is contested in terms of its sources (Christian, Sufi, original standalone system) and its proper scholarly classification (religion, spirituality, esotericism). The academic study of the Gurdjieff tradition has been slow to develop, and insider, sui generis accounts still dominate publications about Gurdjieff. This panel considers issues including Gurdjieff’s sources and teaching techniques, the proper scholarly placement of Gurdjieff in Religious Studies, and orthodox and heterodox continuations of the Gurdjieff teaching.

Carole Cusack

Intentional Communities in the Gurdjieff Teaching

G. I. Gurdjieff (c. 1866-1949) claimed that individuals could not advance spiritually but that in a group progress was possible. He founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, first in Tiflis in 1919, and for a second time at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Fontainebleau-Avon, south of Paris, in 1922. At the Prieuré Gurdjieff’s pupils pursued tasks as part of a program of spiritual exercises he devised to lead them from false personality to true self, from a multitude of ‘I’s to a ‘real I’. These activities included Movements (the ‘sacred dances’), physical labour, ritualized eating, drinking, and bathing in the Turkish bath, and ‘inner exercises’. Key pupils of Gurdjieff established similar live-in venues for pursuit of the ‘Work’: P.D. Ouspensky at Lyne Place, Surrey; J. G. Bennett at Coombe Springs, Surrey; Sophia Ouspensky at Franklin Farms, Mendham, NJ; and others. The Work or the ‘Fourth Way’ did not mandate retreat from everyday life, but was compatible with family and childrearing, and work. This paper uses examples of scholarly literature on intentional communities and social history of other groups attempting the same types of experiments in living contemporaneously, to illuminate a previously-unstudied aspect of the Gurdjieff tradition.

Steven Sutcliffe

Gurdjieff as Bricoleur

Several titles have been given to the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff (‘esoteric Christianity’, heralding the ‘new age movement’, a standalone system called ‘the Work’). Scholars have qualified their accounts by noting Gurdjieff’s exposure to Theosophy and/or to his background in a patriarchal folk culture. Nevertheless, Gurdjieffian practitioners have tended to stress a complex unity of ideas and structure effectively underpinning a ‘canon’, the particular fascination and mystique of which is represented as derived from a ‘quest’ for (never fully) fathoming its sources. Gurdjieff’s teaching is thus presented as a largely sui generis ‘movement’ evolving from a complex but self-contained dynamic. Adapting Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, I argue that Gurdjieff is better understood not as launching a new ‘system’, but as pulling together ‘a heterogenous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited’ and which is based on ‘elements … collected or retained on the principle that “they may always come in handy” ’ (pp. 17-18). I argue that Gurdjieff’s bricolage is typical of the ‘western guru’, an authority figure from the mid-twentieth century formed by the intensified cultural hybridity of the modern period, and who is better examined within social and cultural history rather than within ‘new religions’ or ‘esotericism’.

Michael Pittman

Exploring Gurdjieff’s roots in Contemporary Anatolia and the Caucasus

G. I. Gurdjieff (1877?-1949) was born in Gyumri, Armenia and raised in the Caucasus and eastern Asia Minor. As a polyglot and liminal figure, between East and West, his work has had a decisive influence in contemporary culture in diverse areas (philosophy, religion, literature, psychology and ecology). In his semi-autobiographical work, Meetings with Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff cites the formative influence of traditions present in the Caucasus, including a variety of forms of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Sufism, and the role of the ashok, or bard, in the region. This paper provides a renewed assessment of Gurdjieff’s early explorations of Sufism and Early Christianity in Anatolia and the Caucasus by investigating contemporary contexts, teachers, and teachings. Gurdjieff’s work is based on a range of disciplines, especially inner ones, which might be best described as contemplative. This inner, or contemplative, work continues to be pursued and practiced in contemporary Sufi and, to some extent, Christian settings. Based on interviews and site visits in Turkey and Armenia, this paper will explore the continuing significance of these practices and traditions and to understand the ways that these forms remain relevant in shaping the contemporary trends in spirituality, particularly in the U.S. and North America.

Johanna Petsche

Gurdjieffian Overtones in Leon MacLaren’s School of Economic Science

After Gurdjieff died in 1949, Gurdjieff-based groups emerged, including a colourful assortment of fringe groups. These groups were established by individuals who never met Gurdjieff but who, in some or other way, assimilated elements of his teaching into new religio-spiritual systems. One of the most noteworthy yet little understood of these groups is the School of Economic Science (SES), founded by Leon MacLaren (1910-1994) in London in 1937. The SES was initially inspired by the work of nineteenth century American economist Henry George. However, in the early 1950s when MacLaren studied with Dr Francis Roles, who was P. D. Ouspensky’s personal physician and one of his earliest pupils, he gradually integrated into SES teachings concepts and practices of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. This paper will examine the substantial influence of the work of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky on the SES, particularly in regards to MacLaren’s emphasis on residential living and working, the significance of the Laws of Three and Seven in his cosmology, and his use of the ‘natural octave’ in his large-scale musical compositions. This paper draws on firsthand accounts, original materials and unpublished music manuscripts thanks to the generosity of a number of members and ex-members of the movement.


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