He was a remarkable, complicated, brilliant, infuriating and inspiring man. His life’s work was to synthesise a philosophy for the perfection of human consciousness, bringing together Sufism, esoteric gnosticism, fakirism, shamanism, and incorporating all aspects of intellectual thought, art, music, dance and physical endeavour. But it was more than just a philosophy, it was a practical guide through the rigours and difficulties of human physical, mental and emotional existence. A blueprint or manual for the evolution of the spirit.
He was born in the 1870s in Kars, which was then part of the Russian empire, a town on the border between what we would now call Turkey and Armenia. It seemed to be in a permanent state of flux, a gateway for all kinds of cultural inroads, and most of the time seemed to be inundated with invasions from its many neighbouring countries and areas. So the young Gurdjieff was exposed very early on in his life to the mysteries of the outside world. He went off in pursuit of more journeys into the unknown.
By his thirties he had travelled extensively all over Asia, and in Russia, skilfully avoiding wars, and managing to gain access to esoteric communities, monasteries, and dervish brotherhoods from Armenia to Bokhara, from Egypt to Tashkent. He was a man of some personal power and charisma. He attracted a large following of ‘pupils’ who travelled with him on his sometimes perilous journeys in obscure regions of Asia and the orient. Eventually he settled in France where he set up a school to pass on his vast knowledge which he had absorbed over a lifetime of searching. The school proved to be difficult in the extreme for both him and his students. As a teacher he was oblique, one moment very demanding, the next playful. He would pile hardship upon hardship to his faithful devotees, but then he would just as easily overwhelm them with cognac so that they would lose their ‘inhibitions’ (he believed that the vast majority of humans were little more than robots, fast asleep in their lives. His calling was to ‘wake them up’).
The Gurdjieff School didn’t really work out. He called his coterie of followers ‘idiots’ but in his own inimitable affectionate way. He was disappointed in them. If he had had any hair on his head he would have torn it out. He disbanded the school, deciding that he would spend the remaining years of his life writing a great book which would not only clearly set out his spiritual theories but would also outlast him. His teachings would be able to continue, even after the teacher had gone. This book took some years to materialise. Eventually the great massive tome ‘Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson’ was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. It wasn’t the great illuminating success that Gurdjieff hoped for. If anything it obfuscated his teachings, the great knowledge became lost in a fog of allusions, metaphors, wordplays, tall stories, impenetrable parables, and at fifteen hundred inscrutable pages, it is a dense, opaque and sometimes harrowing read. If you persevere with it, it will suddenly expose little gems, pearls of understanding, moments of epiphany. It will never be voted ‘book of the month’ and yet over time, with effort from the reader it can be deeply inspiring.
Gurdjieff also composed music. Although he was more or less Armenian by birth, his father was partly Greek. The earliest recordings of Gurdjieff’s music were only made later in his life, when he was in France. They are composed on a harmonium. Is this because it happened to be the instrument which was to hand? Was it his intention to produce music which adhered to the European tempered scale or was it by chance? The music he heard in his youth would have been micro-tonal music played on the old oriental instruments of that time and region. One would think that this ancient and beautiful music of Turkey and Armenia would have been the closest to his heart. The European harmonium, with it’s twelve tone chromatic system is not capable of playing the nuanced ‘maqam’ or mode of Asia minor. Anyway, his recorded harmonium work, although some of it is clearly improvisation, does show the warm, and profoundly compassionate nature of the man.
This is an improvisation based upon one of Gurdjieff’s improvisations.