Mystic rivers

By JAMES PARKER  |  July 3, 2007

In matters of money, Gurdjieff flew by the seat of his pants. He arrived in the US expecting rich returns from this “dollar-growing” country, but after a month of free demonstrations and private lectures in New York, his group were without funds. In the doleful words of Thomas de Hartmann, “Mr. Gurdjieff . . . told us that we were now responsible for our own livelihood and each of us should look for work.” The dancers obediently hit the employment agencies, and a subcareer as a Manhattan dishwasher loomed for Hartmann. But then more cash was found, and the caravan turned north, to Boston. Gurdjieff installed himself in the Arlington; his pupils found beds at the YMCA and the YWCA. The second night’s performance at the Fine Arts Theatre, reported the Post, was attended by students from Harvard, BU, Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Simmons, as well as by the director of the Boston Public Library’s music department and “a number of psychology professors and other instructors.” The next day, Gurdjieff and his traveling metaphysical circus set out for Chicago. The dancers were back in France by the end of the month, and Gurdjieff followed them in June, having founded the New York branch of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

In his wake he left confusion, skepticism, scandal, apocrypha, scattered revelations. His marriage of mystical tradition and modernist rigor had put the culture on notice, but the message was unclear. One senses that this was just how Gurdjieff liked it: he was as content to present himself as the rescuer of modern man as he was to play the part of a lubricious carpet salesman or harem master in a battered fez, slurping Armagnac and waxing his moustache ends. For our purposes, we can condense his teaching into a single observation made to a startled enquirer in New York and recorded in James Moore’s superb biography Gurdjieff: Anatomy of a Myth (Element). “You have nervous restless movements,” Gurdjieff told the man, “which make people think you are a booby."
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