In Search of the Miraculous: Ouspenski and Gurdjieff 65 years on
In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching is a central text on the life and works of the once popular Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff. Though now largely forgotten by the Western mainstream, Gurdjieff is an extremely curious, multi-sided figure of late 19th-early 20th century European history. He is defined retrospectively as anything from psychologist to spiritual guru, philosopher to yogi, or even as an egomaniacal cult-leader. The author of the text, Pjotr Demianovich Ouspenski, was a Russian esotericist popular in the UK in the 1920s and 1930s and for many years was himself a disciple of Gurdjieff. In Search of the Miraculous was a collection of Ouspenski’s memoirs, posthumously published, vis-à-vis his old master.
It is also one of the most bizarre and multifaceted ‘historical’ texts I have ever come across: an autobiography expressing Ouspenski’s personal journey; an outline of Gurdjieff’s cosmology and practices; a socio-political history spanning both Russian and European national experiences around the First World War; and an insider’s critique of a psychological movement that gained prominence and popularity in early 20th century Europe. The text also chaotically developed, at extreme length, pseudo-scientific propositions about the nature of the universe that no establishment physicist could possibly agree with. The result, though patience-testing, was unique.
Regardless of how much the modern reader buys into the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky cosmology, the text is historically significant for a number of reasons. For a start, one is given a detailed insight into Ouspenski’s life and the era he lived in. Ouspenski framed his search for ‘the miraculous’ under the growing spectre of the Great War (WWI). He despaired that something – some vital aspect of spirituality or meaning – had been long since lost in the West and could only be found in teachings from ‘the East’. Ouspenski thought that the teachings of particular Eastern occult, esoteric, or yogic schools would resolve deficits in the mechanistic and overly-rational Western mind-set. In Ouspenski’s discussion of these issues, in terms resonant with ‘orientalist’ trends in late 19th-early 20th century European thought and literature, he set out the motivations for his foray outside the limits of his immediate culture. Ouspenski’s description of an apparent Western receptiveness to ‘Eastern’ thought also provided historical context for Gurdjieff’s relative success in Western Europe.
In addition to its portrayal of a foundational context, the text offers insights that complement the historical narrative of how Western psychology and psychoanalytical theory originated and developed. Given Freudianism’s prominence in 20th century popular culture and academia, it is easy for a historian to overlook many of its contemporary competitor theories. Gurdjieff’s school was one such movement that grew in parallel to, and competed with, the Freudian movement in its early years. It applied its own psychological notions within a peculiar additional cosmology. Though Gurdjieff discussed sexuality à la Freud as the central motive to all biological ‘mechanicalness,’ his esoteric work attempted to help his followers become truly conscious of their connection to the world and the broader universe. Set against the above-mentioned Great-War context of despair, such ideas appealed to many people in the West concerned that their nations were unconsciously sleepwalking towards gruesome self-destruction.
Beyond its relevance to a historical picture of early-20th century popular psychology, In Search of the Miraculous contributes to a wider genealogy of 20th century intellectual history. With its exposition of Gurdjieff’s thought on the centrality of language and miscommunication, Ouspenski’s text offers the possibility to connect Gurdjieff’s teachings to those of other major figures such as Wittgenstein, Lacan, and Foucault. Ouspenski discussed, at length, Gurdjieff’s ideas on linguistic and conceptual subjectivities, even between people who supposedly speak the same language. Though two people might speak English or French, Gurdjieff contended that no two people could ever truly understand one another, as every individual had a different framework for their own usages of even basic terms like ‘man’ or ‘dog’. This fundamental inability to communicate was, for Gurdjieff, a central barrier to the possibility of social or political cohesion, as well as a central contributor to the type of discord that led to the conflicts of the day. Though any investigation would need to tread carefully around minefield notions such as intellectual ‘influence’ (for methodological reasons as highlighted by figures like Quentin Skinner in his authoritative Visions of Politics), it is interesting to consider Gurdjieff’s relation to ideas on linguistics, consciousness, and miscommunication or manipulation in politics, that resonated throughout the 20th century. Indeed, the work of massive figures like Wittgenstein in the UK, and Lacan and Foucault in France, was heavily concerned with these issues. Given Gurdjieff had a significant following in both the UK and France, Ouspenksi’s text could certainly be included on any historian’s reading list with in connection with these better-known intellectual traditions.
Finally, Ouspenski’s memoirs on Gurdjieff may be of historical interest to anyone with an interest in the Western uptake of yogic practice. Yoga has arguably never been more popular and mainstream in Europe and the USA, with many average gyms now offering some form of yoga class as part of the standard package. Ouspenski provides detailed insight into how Gurdjieff incorporated practices from Eastern yogic traditions within the teachings he transmitted to his Western followers. These practices pervaded all levels of Gurdjieff’s work, which interlinked the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual in a manner that was contemporarily appealing and unusual. As such, Ouspenski’s text could be of great value to anyone looking into the history of how yoga has diffused into, or been appropriated by, mainstream western culture.
Ouspenski’s In Search of the Miraculous, then, can be considered significant from a number of historical angles. Perhaps the text’s most endearing feature, however, is that in spite of its chaotic recollections, impenetrable idiosyncrasies, and nonsensical psuedo-science, on completion one comes away with the sense that Ouspenski might just have found a hint of something miraculous after all.