Gurdjieff Reconsidered

The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy

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Roger Lipsey
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , February
     2019.
     384 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781611804515.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Author and art historian Roger Lipsey provides a valuable, but problematic, re-examination of G.I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949), one of the 20th century’s most controversial mystics and spiritual teachers, in Gurdjieff Reconsidered: The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy. The text represents an amalgamation between a proper apologia of Gurdjieff’s body of work—aimed at the many critics of his writings and teachings—and a biographical account of the his life, enhanced by the use of a plethora of published and unpublished sources.

Lipsey is an acclaimed biographer and senior member of the New York Gurdjieff Foundation, and biographical sections of the book benefit greatly from the author’s expertise in the biographical genre as well as his clear, incisive, and lucid style. However, sections devoted to the critique of Gurdjieff’s detractors are often marred by an over-zealous approach, which at times abandons an etic, objective treatment of the subject: such is the case with his description of author Katherine Mansfield, briefly a member of Gurdjieff’s group, as “one of us” (7); or in describing Gurdjieff’s eyes as full of “serenity and sacred sadness-classic values of Western Spirituality” (14).

The book includes a foreword penned by Cynthia Bourgeault, author and Episcopal priest: immediately the emic overtones of the following chapters are made clear by the assumptions that Gurdjieff was sent as a teacher “clearly on a cosmic assignment” (xiii) or by the acknowledgement that events during his life happened as if “on providential cue” (xiii). Bourgeault’s own judgment of Lipsey’s work is that “it’s an insider’s portrait, for sure” (xv) and that “the vision Gurdjieff illuminated is more urgently needed than ever.”

Chapter 1 is Lipsey’s declaration of intent for the text: in acknowledging the double objective he hopes to achieve—a rebuttal of Gurdjieff’s critics and a rich biographical account of his life—the author provides us with a tentative mnemonic. This shapes the chapters to come: Russia and the theoretical development of Gurdjieff’s ideas; the communal years at the Prieuré and the mise en pratique of such ideas; the period of loss represented by the 1930s; the period of fulfillment brought by the 1940s.

The most substantial section, chapters 2 through 7, are a biographical account of Gurdjieff’s life: from stories of his travels to the far east to his early teachings in Russia, through the frantic, yet productive period at the Prieuré des Basses-Loges d’Avon to his final days in post-war Paris. This is where the book holds its value, for Lipsey’s knowledge of the subject is impressive, and the use of an astounding number of primary sources, comprised of published accounts and manuscripts held in the archives of the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris as well as other private collections, help illustrate Gurdjieff’s character and its development over the decades. Among the unpublished materials, the private writings and correspondence of key figures such as Margaret Anderson, Kathryn Hulme, Solita Solano, and René Zuber render the reading of these chapters fresh and engaging to the Gurdjieff scholar, and the use of newspaper clippings describing his years at the Prieuré validate Lipsey’s theory that Gurdjieff’s reputation was indeed distorted by the media and unsympathetic critics. The biographical section also presents the reader with new theories and revelations: the figure of Émile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865-1950) is viewed by the author as a developer of sacred dances contemporary to Gurdjieff (96-100), an idea deserving of further research. Nevertheless, Lipsey’s insider weltanschauung is also apparent in these chapters. In one example, the eulogy of Jeanne de Salzmann (1889-1990), the author acknowledges the accusation of writing a “hagiography” (163) but at the same time dismisses such critiques by stating: “yet there are people whom one is simply grateful to have known” (163).

Chapter 8, entitled “Derision,” represents the most problematic section of an otherwise remarkable work. Lipsey sets out to rebut authors who have, in his view, vilified Gurdjieff and his teachings throughout the decades. The academic reevaluation of characters considered to be beyond the pale or objectionable is not new: in the past decade, figures such as Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)—the so-called “wickedest man in the world”—have been, to use a term dear to Lipsey, reassessed and reconsidered. Nevertheless, the author’s stance is that of a confidant incensed at the negative portrayal of his master: in Lipsey’s words, “you would think that derision would be out of the question, that the merit of Gurdjieff’s accomplishment would shelter his reputation and teaching from assaultive extremes of criticism.” Unfortunately for Lipsey, this is seldom the case, and, in the domain of Western esotericism, there have been many less-controversial figures that have received far more criticism than Gurdjieff. The chapter progresses through a book-by-book rebuttal of all critiques leveled against Gurdjieff, including works by Louis Pauwels (1920-1997), Jean-François Revel (1924-2006), Anthony Storr (1920-2011), Peter Washington (b. 1946), and Whitall Perry (1920-2005). The texts critiquing Gurdjieff show a marked lack of serious research, therefore Lipsey is right in raising the issue of mainstream misrepresentation of Gurdjieff. However, it is his method—the emic zeal that the author employs to dismiss such critics—that is questionable.

The book concludes with a chapter on Gurdjieff’s magnum opus Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson and a short coda.

Lipsey’s Gurdjieff Reconsidered is a welcome addition to the field of Gurdjieff Studies and the field of Western esotericism, more generally. The book is an excellent introduction to Gurdjieff’s ideas, thanks to the author’s use of an abundance of primary sources. Nevertheless, its opening chapter and chapter 8 suffer from an emic approach, marring an otherwise commendable undertaking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christian Giudice is a post-graduate scholar in the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion at the University of Gothenburg.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roger Lipsey is a biographer, art historian, translator, and, for many decades, a participant in the Gurdjieff teaching. Among his recent books is Hammarskjöld: A Life, which has been hailed as the definitive biography of Dag Hammarskjöld.

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