In Search of P. D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff by Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman. In Search of P. D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2004. Hardcover, 329 pages.

Lachman, a former rock composer and performer as well as a student of Gurdjieff’s “ Fourth Way,” has authored several other works, including A Secret History of Consciousness and a history of the 1960s counterculture. In the present book, he casts a long-overdue searchlight on Gurdjieff’s arguably greatest disciple—Peter Demian Ouspensky (1878–1947)—whose posthumously published book In Search of the Miraculous attracted numerous readers at the time but who today is all but forgotten.

The charismatic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (c. 1877–1949) was one of the most intellectually independent and also one of the most controversial occult figures of the first part of the twentieth century. He vigorously taught Eastern esoteric teachings of uncertain origin, but revolving around the idea that one must develop critical self-observation (“self-remembering”) in order to overcome inherent “robotic” tendencies. He called his teaching the “ Fourth Way.”

Ouspensky, who was raised in an artistic and intellectual family in Moscow, wrote his philosophical work Tertium Organum in 1911. It was published in America in 1922 and quickly became a bestseller, establishing Ouspensky’s reputation as a maverick philosopher. Ouspensky (reluctantly) met Gurdjieff in 1912 and ended up being greatly enamored of this teacher. He introduced many of his own students and friends to that strange and mysterious master.

He studied with Gurdjieff intensively in the years 1915–1917, and the master welcomed him not merely as a disciple but a trusted collaborator. From 1921 on Ouspensky lived in England, expounding and elaborating the Gurdjieffian system of thought (with the master’s permission) and quietly influenced the intellectual scene there. Among others, he impacted on Aldous Huxley and J. B. Priestley. Feeling that his teacher was changing the very principles that had drawn him to join Gurdjieff, Ouspensky separated from the master in 1924. From then on, both teachers went their own ways. Gurdjieff in France, Ouspensky mainly in England.

Like Gurdjieff, Ouspensky attracted his own small circle of students and proved a hard task master. However, he seems to have been more consistent in presenting the “ Fourth Way” and in his treatment of students.

Often Ouspensky is accused of having “stolen” and then pedaled Gurdjieff’s teachings, or to have completely misunderstood them. Gurdjieff himself did not pay any compliments to his former disciple, but then he also managed to alienate two other great intellectuals who were once very close to him—A. R. Orage and J. G. Bennett. Lachman clearly favors Ouspensky and remarks that Gurdjieff’s own teachings were not as unique as his followers have claimed.

His portrayal of Ouspensky is insightful and incisive. The Ouspensky emerging from Lachman’s treatment is an individual who early in life was an old soul who saw through conventional life and had glimpses of the “miraculous” reality hidden from the view of ordinary folk; who was fascinated with biology as a child but was bored with regular schooling and later disliked and avoided academia; who, as an adult, found women more interesting than men and treated them with chivalry (unlike Gurdjieff); who was fascinated with dreams and was an inveterate lucid dreamer; who had an experience of “cosmic consciousness” prior to meeting Gurdjieff; who went to India in search of spiritual awakening but returned empty handed only to attach himself to Gurdjieff; who was an authoritarian but also self-divided, lonely, and often dour individual; who was naturally reticent and impersonal who, as the years went by, would stay up half the night drinking.

After spending several years in the United States, Ouspensky returned to England in 1947—a sick and apparently broken man who, when asked whether he had abandoned “the System” replied: “There is no System.”

In his well-written biography, Lachman speculates that Ouspensky, who “loved Gurdjieff and wanted his approval,” never quite succeeded in cutting the emotional ties to the rascal master. In turn, Lachman argues, Gurdjieff was probably too tough on Ouspensky. But, then, Ouspensky seems to have far too tough on himself.

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