George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (Russian: Гео́ргий Ива́нович Гурджи́ев, Greek: Γεώργιος Γεωργιάδης, Armenian: Գեորգի Գյուրջիև) was born to a Caucasus Greek father called Ἰωάνης Γεωργιάδης (Yiannis Georgiades) and an Armenian mother Evdokia in Alexandropol, Armenia (now the city is called Gyumri,). The name Gurdjieff represents a Russified form of the Pontic Greek surname "Georgiades" (Greek: Γεωργιάδης). The exact date of his birth remains unknown; conjectures range from 1866 to 1877. Some authors (such as Moore) argue for 1866. Both Olga de Hartmann—the woman Gurdjieff called "the first friend of my inner life"—and Louise Goepfert March, Gurdjieff's secretary in the early thirties, believed that Gurdjieff was born in 1872. A passport gave a birthdate of November 28, 1877, but he once stated that he was born at the stroke of midnight at the beginning of New Year's Day (Julian calendar). Although the dates of his birth vary, the year of 1872 is inscribed in a plate on the grave-marker at the Cimetière d'Avon, in the Prefecture of Paris, France.
Gurdjieff spent his childhood in Kars, which between 1878 and 1918 was the administrative capital of the Russian ruled Transcaucasus province of Kars Oblast, a border region recently captured from the Ottoman Empire consisting of extensive grassy plateau-steppe and high mountains with a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population that had a history of respect for travelling mystics and holy men and for religious syncretism and conversion. Both the city of Kars and the surrounding territory was home to an extremely diverse population: Kars Oblast was home to Armenians, Russians, Caucasus Greeks, Georgians, Turks, Kurds, and smaller numbers of Christian communities from eastern and central Europe such as Caucasus Germans, Estonians, and Russian sectarian communities like the Molokans and Doukhobors. Gurdjieff makes particular mention of the Yazidi community. Growing up in a multi-ethnic society, Gurdjieff became fluent in Armenian which was the spoken language at home, Pontic Greek, Russian and Turkish, speaking the last in a mixture of elegant Osmanli and some dialect. He later acquired "a working facility with several European languages." Early influences on him included his father, a carpenter and amateur ashik or bardic poet, and the priest of the town's Russian church, Dean Borsh, a family friend. The young Gurdjieff avidly read Russian-language scientific literature. Influenced by these writings, and having witnessed a number of phenomena he could not explain, he formed the conviction that there existed a hidden truth not to be found in science or in mainstream religion.
Seeker after truth
In early adulthood, according to his own account, Gurdjieff's curiosity led him to travel to Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet and Rome, before returning to Russia for a few years in 1912. He was always unforthcoming about the source of his teachings. The only account of his wanderings appears in his book Meetings with Remarkable Men. Most commentators leave his background unexplained and it is not generally considered to be a reliable or straightforward autobiography. Each chapter is named after an individual "remarkable man", many of them putatively members of a society of "Seekers after truth".
J. G. Bennett, who researched Gurdjieff's sources extensively after his death, suggested these characters were symbolic of the three types of men Gurdjieff used to refer to: men #1 centered in their physical body; men #2 centered in their emotions, and men #3 centered in their minds. He asserts that he has encounters with dervishes, fakirs and with descendants of the extinct Essenes, whose teaching had been, he claimed, conserved in a monastery at Sarmoung. The book also has an overarching quest narrative, involving a map of "pre-sand Egypt," and culminating in an encounter with the "Sarmoung Brotherhood", an organization which has never been definitively identified. One account claims that we was a tax collector to the Dali Lama in Tibet and that is how he was given access to all the monasteries there where he spent months at each remote location to learn their unique teachings.
Gurdjieff wrote that he supported himself during his travels with odd jobs and trading schemes (one of which he described as dyeing hedgerow birds yellow and selling them as canaries). On his re-appearance, as far as the historical record is concerned, the ragged wanderer had transformed into a well-heeled businessman. His only autobiographical writing concerning this period is Herald of Coming Good, a work, if anything, even less reliable than Meetings. In it, he mentions acting as hypnotherapist specializing in the cure of addictions, and using people as guinea pigs for his methods. It is also speculated that during his travels he was engaged in a certain amount of political activity, as part of the great game.
On New Year's Day in 1912, Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow and attracted his first students, including his cousin, the sculptor Sergey Merkurov, and the eccentric Rachmilievitch. In the same year he married the Polish Julia Ostrowska in Saint Petersburg. In 1914, Gurdjieff advertised his ballet, The Struggle of the Magicians, and supervised his pupils' writing of the sketch "Glimpses of Truth." In 1915, Gurdjieff accepted P. D. Ouspensky as a pupil, while in 1916 he accepted the composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife Olga as students. At this time he had about 30 pupils. Ouspensky already had a reputation as a writer on mystical subjects and had conducted his own, ultimately disappointing, search for wisdom in the East. The Fourth Way "system" taught during this period was complex and metaphysical, partly expressed in scientific terminology.
In the midst of revolutionary upheaval in Russia, Gurdjieff left Petrograd in 1917 to return to his family home in Alexandropol. During the Bolshevik Revolution, he set up temporary study communities in Essentuki in the Caucasus, then in Tuapse, Maikop, Sochi and Poti, all on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia, where he worked intensively with many of his Russian pupils. Gurdjieff said, "Begin in Russia, End in Russia".
In March 1918, Ouspensky separated from Gurdjieff, settling in England and teaching the Fourth Way in his own right. The two men were to have a very ambivalent relationship for decades to come.
Four months later, Gurdjieff's eldest sister and her family reached him in Essentuki as refugees, informing him that Turks had shot his father in Alexandropol on 15 May. As Essentuki became more and more threatened by civil war, Gurdjieff fabricated a newspaper story announcing his forthcoming "scientific expedition" to "Mount Induc". Posing as a scientist, Gurdjieff left Essentuki with fourteen companions (excluding Gurdjieff's family and Ouspensky). They traveled by train to Maikop, where hostilities delayed them for three weeks. In spring 1919, Gurdjieff met the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife Jeanne and accepted them as pupils. Assisted by Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff gave the first public demonstration of his Sacred Dances (Movements at the Tbilisi Opera House, 22 June).
In Georgia and Turkey
In 1919, Gurdjieff and his closest pupils moved to Tiflis. There, Gurdjieff's wife, Julia Ostrowska; the Stjoernvals, the de Hartmanns and the de Salzmanns, gathered the fundamentals of his teaching. Gurdjieff concentrated on his still unstaged ballet, The Struggle of the Magicians. Thomas de Hartmann (who had made his debut years ago, before Czar Nicholas II of Russia) worked on the music for the ballet, and Olga Ivanovna Hinzenberg (who years later wed the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright) practiced the ballet dances. In 1919, Gurdjieff established his first Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.
In late May 1920, when political conditions in Georgia changed and the old order was crumbling, his party travelled to Batumi on the Black Sea coast and then took ship to Istanbul. Gurdjieff rented an apartment on Koumbaradji Street in Péra and later at 13 Abdullatif Yemeneci Sokak near the Galata Tower. The apartment is near the kha’neqa’h (monastery) of the Molavieh Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann witnessed the sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes. In Istanbul, Gurdjieff also met his future pupil Capt. John G. Bennett, then head of British Military Intelligence in Constantinople, who describes his impression of Gurdjieff as follows:
It was there that I first met Gurdjieff in the autumn of 1920, and no surroundings could have been more appropriate. In Gurdjieff, East and West do not just meet. Their difference is annihilated in a world outlook, which knows no distinctions of race or creed. This was my first, and has remained one of my strongest impressions. A Greek from the Caucasus, he spoke Turkish with an accent of unexpected purity, the accent that one associates with those born and bred in the narrow circle of the Imperial Court. His appearance was striking enough even in Turkey, where one saw many unusual types. His head was shaven, immense black moustache, eyes which at one moment seemed very pale and at another almost black. Below average height, he gave nevertheless an impression of great physical strength
Prieuré at Fontainebleau
In August 1921 and 1922, Gurdjieff travelled around Western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work in various cities, such as Berlin and London. He attracted the allegiance of Ouspensky's many prominent pupils (notably the editor A. R. Orage). After an unsuccessful attempt to gain British citizenship, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man south of Paris at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Fontainebleau-Avon near the famous Château de Fontainebleau. This once-impressive but somewhat crumbling mansion, set in extensive grounds, housed an entourage of several dozen, including some of Gurdjieff's remaining relatives and some White Russian refugees.
First car accident, writing and visits to America
Starting in 1924, Gurdjieff made visits to North America, where he eventually received the pupils taught previously by A.R. Orage. In 1924, while driving alone from Paris to Fontainebleau, he had a near-fatal car accident. Nursed by his wife and mother, he made a slow and painful recovery against medical expectation. Still convalescent, he formally "disbanded" his institute on 26 August (in fact he dispersed only his "less dedicated" pupils), which he explained as an undertaking "in the future, under the pretext of different worthy reasons, to remove from my eyesight all those who by this or that make my life too comfortable."
After recovering, he began writing Beelzebub's Tales, the first part of All and Everything in a mixture of Russian and Armenian. The book was deliberately convoluted and obscure, forcing the reader to "work" to find its meaning. He also composed it according to his own principles, writing in noisy cafes to force a greater effort of concentration.
Gurdjieff constituted a new teaching group in Paris. Known as The Rope, it comprised only women, many of them writers, and many lesbians. Members included Kathryn Hulme, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson and Enrico Caruso's widow, Dorothy. Gurdjieff became acquainted with Gertrude Stein through Rope members, although she was never a follower of his.
World War II
Although the flat at 6 Rue des Colonels-Renard was very small for the purpose, he continued to teach groups of pupils throughout World War II. Visitors recalled the pantry, stocked with an extraordinary collection of eastern delicacies that served as his inner sanctum, and the suppers he held with elaborate toasts to "idiots" in vodka and cognac. Having cut a physically impressive figure for many years, he was now distinctly paunchy. His teaching was now far removed from the original "system", being based on proverbs, jokes and personal interaction, although pupils were required to read, three times if possible, copies of his magnum opus Beelzebub's Tales.
His personal business enterprises (he had intermittently been a dealer in oriental rugs and carpets for much of his life, among other activities) enabled him to offer charitable relief to neighbors who had been affected by the difficult circumstances of the war, and also brought him to the attention of the authorities, leading to a night in the cells.
After the war Gurdjieff suffered a second car accident in 1948, but again made an unexpected recovery and finished his books. Gurdjieff died on October 29, 1949, at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His funeral took place at the St. Alexandre Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 12 Rue Daru, Paris. He is buried in the cemetery at Fontainebleau-Avon.
Children. Gurdjieff had seven known natural children:
- Cynthie Sophia "Dushka" Howarth (1924–2010); her mother was dancer Jessmin Howarth. She went on to found the Gurdjieff Heritage Foundation.
- Sergei Chaverdian; his mother was Lily Galumnian Chaverdian.
- Andrei, born to a mother known only as Georgii.
- Eve Taylor (born 1928); the mother was one of his followers, American socialite Edith Annesley Taylor.
- Nikolai Stjernvall (1919–2010), whose mother was Elizaveta Grigorievna, wife of Leonid Robertovich de Stjernvall.
- Michel de Salzmann (1923–2001), whose mother was Jeanne Allemand de Salzmann; he later became head of the Gurdjieff Foundation.
- Svetlana Hinzenberg, daughter of Olga (Olgivanna) Ivanovna Hinzenberg and a future stepdaughter of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Information from various sources including Wikipedia: