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Considering Fragments

By Allan Lindh


In the decades since George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff′s death, many books have been written about the man, and the teaching he brought to Europe and America from Central Asia. Since today many people′s first contact with this teaching is via the written word, the question naturally arises as to which of these books can best serve as an introduction to these ideas. His own masterwork, All and Everything: Beelzebub′s Tales to his Grandson, is somewhat difficult. His other two books: Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life is Real Only Then, When I Am, while seemingly less difficult, present definite challenges of their own. Gurdjieff confides to the reader in the Introduction to Meetings with Remarkable Men: [1]


But since, little by little, I had become more adroit in the art of concealing serious thoughts in an enticing, easily grasped outer form, and in making all those thoughts which I term ′discernable only with the lapse of time′ ensue from others usual to the thinking of most contemporary people, I changed the principle I had been following and, instead of seeking to achieve the aim I had set myself in writing by quantity, I adopted the principle of attaining this by quality alone. (p.7)

Given the inherent difficulty of Mr. Gurdjieff′s writings, the question naturally arises as to whether any of the other written material that has grown out of his legacy has the real stamp of authenticity? Of particular note in this regard is P.D. Ouspensky′s In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, [2] which for many people has served not only as an introduction to the ideas Mr. Gurdjieff brought, but an introductory guide to their practical application as well. However, given Ouspensky′s early break with Gurdjieff, questions naturally arise as to how reliable Fragments is as an introduction to work on oneself. After all, the conversations Ouspensky records - more than two-thirds of Fragments consists of direct quotes from Gurdjieff - took place in Russian almost a century ago. Yet Fragments is written in refined, and rather philosophical English. Not only did Ouspensky have to remember his conversations with Gurdjieff - note-taking during meetings was forbidden - but he had to translate his personal notes into a language that he learned late in life.
Fortunately we have published appraisals of Fragments from some of Mr. Gurdjieff′s most senior students. In a discussion of the Gurdjieff literature, Dr. Michel de Salzmann provided his strong endorsement: [3]

Michel de Salzmann...

...there is now only one book, except for the books of Gurdjieff himself, which can be considered, without prejudice, really useful for followers of the teaching. This is In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky. Gurdjieff′s pupils have always felt deeply indebted to Ouspensky for this as yet unrivaled contribution to his work. Besides being a fascinating narrative, it is a brilliant, honest, and faithful exposition of the author′s memory of what was transmitted to him. The feat of memory is all the more remarkable when one realizes that note-taking was rigorously forbidden. Although it corresponds to an initial stage of Gurdjieff′s teaching, both in time (1915 to 1923) and as regards the pupil′s preparation, it retains a remarkable strength and freshness in orienting an active questioning in those who are now working in this way.
Ouspensky′s qualifications and motives were doubtless exceptional, but the secret quality emanating from his book comes precisely from the fact that it takes us as close as possible to the conditions of oral teaching, in which the Master′s presence brings about an "incarnation" of the ideas, and reveals them in a wholly new dimension.

In an introduction to Jean Vayse′s book Toward Awakening, John Sinclair (Lord Pentland) - who worked closely with Ouspensky for about a decade, and with Gurdjieff at the end of the 1940s - provided his evaluation of Fragments: [4]

Lord Pentland...

In Search [his reference to Fragments] was written and meticulously revised by Ouspensky over a period of at least ten years in order to give as honest and objective an account of the teaching as possible. Probably his achievement will never be equaled. In any case it was intended to preserve the teaching in as pure and impersonal a form as possible.

In addition, we have accounts by several people of the circumstances under which the decision to publish Fragments was made. C.S. Nott, who was a student of Gurdjieff′s for over thirty years, recorded an exchange with Ouspensky in the mid-1930s in his book Further Teachings of Gurdjieff: [5]

C.S. Nott...

Some time later he gave me a typescript to read, saying that he was writing down all that he could remember of what Gurdjieff had said to him. When he asked my opinion of it I said that it was wonderful stuff; it was in a different vein from Tertium Organum, and A New Model of the Universe, much higher on the scale of ideas; it was a verbatim report of Gurdjieff′s talks.
"But you will surely publish this?", I asked. "Apart from Beelzebub′s Tales and the Second Series, it′s the most interesting collection of Gurdjieff′s sayings and doings that could possibly be got together."
"I may publish it - but not if Gurdjieff publishes Beelzebub′s Tales."
To my question "Why?" He did not answer.
It was eventually published, after Gurdjieff′s death - Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, which the American publishers stupidly dubbed In Search of the Miraculous. (pp. 106-107)

Later in the same book, Nott described the situation in the winter of 1948 when Gurdjieff first received a copy of the Fragments manuscript:

C.S. Nott...

Gurdjieff himself visited Mendham to see Madame Ouspensky, though he would never stay there. Madame had presented him with the complete typescript of Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, and Gurdjieff, hearing it read, said that Ouspensky in this respect was a good man. He had written down what he had heard from him, exactly: "It is as if I hear myself speaking." (p. 243)

In his autobiography, Witness, John Bennett provided a first person account of Gurdjieff′s reaction to Fragments, based on his time with him in New York and Paris in 1949: [6]

John Bennett...

He had just taken the final decision to publish the volume of All and Everything - Beelzebub′s Tales to His Grandson and had been asked by Madame Ouspensky to decide whether or not Ouspensky′s own book, Fragments of an Unknown Teaching should also be published. He remained undecided about the latter for some time, pointing out when he heard it read aloud that certain of his ideas were far more clearly and strongly expressed in Beelzebub. He finally agreed on condition that it should not be published in advance of his own book.
Gurdjieff frequently complained that Ouspensky had ruined his pupils by his excessively intellectual approach, and that he did better with people who came to him with no preparation at all. On the other hand, he praised Ouspensky for the accuracy of his reporting. Once I read aloud in front of him an early chapter of In Search of the Miraculous. He listened with evident relish, and when I finished he said: "Before I hate Ouspensky; now I love him. This very exact, he tell what I say." (p. 205)

Two additional accounts of meetings with Gurdjieff, during the last year of his life, shed more light - from a somewhat different perspective - on his evaluation of Fragments as an introduction to the teaching he brought.

New York, Winter, 1948-9

Gurdjieff returned to America in December of 1949, and resumed the daily luncheons and dinners that he held in his rooms at New York′s Hotel Wellington during previous visits. Louise March kept a journal during the visit, and her recollections were later published by one of her students, from which the following is drawn: [7]

Louise March...

Meals at Gurdjieff′s New York table were as ceremonious as ever. The ritual of the toasts to the idiots still accompanied every meal. The only table decoration was a glass filled with tarragon, dill, and spring onions. The herbs, along with all kinds of smoked fish, were eaten with the fingers when the Armagnac was poured. Gurdjieff never permitted flowers as table decorations. He stormed, "Nonsense of flowers spoils food."
Mr. Gurdjieff himself still went shopping, as he had done on his previous visits, at the fresh meat and vegetable markets. As before, melons were served regardless of the season. Now, on this last visit, every meal began, after the obligatory fresh herbs, with avocado halves served with salt and pepper, and sometimes with olive oil as well. When avocados couldn′t be found in the New York markets, friends sent them from South America.
After every luncheon a chapter from a draft of Ouspensky′s In Search of the Miraculous was read. Mme. Ouspensky had sent it to Mr. Gurdjieff with the question, "Should it be published?" Mr. Gurdjieff praised it often, "Very exact is. Good memory. Truth, was so." Sometimes Gurdjieff was dissatisfied, "Is too liquid. Lost something."

Paris, Summer, 1949

Gurdjieff returned to Paris in February of 1949, and resumed meetings in his apartment. Elizabeth Bennett kept a journal of her time in Paris during the summer of 1949, which years later she published, together with her husband John Bennett′s journal of that time period, as Idiots in Paris. She states in the Foreword that, "I have added nothing to the text, but I have cut out one or two passages too personal to be of interest to anyone but the writer, and one or two details of Gurdjieff′s illness and treatment. Apart from these small deletions, the manuscript is untouched."
Her straight-forward narrative of events in Mr. Gurdjieff′s apartment during the last summer of his life contains many references to the readings that formed part of the daily routine: [8]

Elizabeth Bennett...

We would go to lunch at midday. There was always a reading aloud of some part of Gurdjieff′s own writings, or occasionally from P.D. Ouspensky′s In Search of the Miraculous, called throughout the diaries Fragments, a reference to Ouspensky′s original choice of a title. The reading would last for one or two hours and then we would go to the dining room for lunch. (p. vii)
July 30th. ...We went back to the flat at 10:30 for dinner. We read Fragments. There was a large crowd there: the Woltons, with two children, Dr. Walker, the Jaloustres, Vera Daumal, Hylda, Dryn and Lucien, Dr. Bell and Miss Crowdy, Mr. Stewart, some English whom I don′t know and various members of the French group, besides those sixteen who had been on the trip... (p. 13)
July 31st. ...In the evening he listened with great enjoyment to the reading of Fragments, leaning forward with his elbow on his knee and his cigarette-holder in his hand, his eyes snapping, shaking with laughter at the references to himself. (p. 15)
August 2nd. ...In the evening he was enjoying the reading from Fragments so much - chapter XII, about the right use of sex energy - that we did not start dinner until ten or twelve. (p. 19)
August 3rd. ...Gabo went to do more picture hanging in the dining room, and Page began to read Chapter XIII of Fragments. We went on till midnight, when we started dinner. (p. 21)
August 4th. ...his was French night, and Page began to read at 8:30. We finished all we had of Fragments and went on to Impartial Mentation [Chapter 47 of Beelzebub′s Tales]. (p. 24)

In A Study of Gurdjieff′s Teaching, published in 1957, Kenneth Walker provided another account of Gurdjieff′s reaction to the Fragments manuscript: [9]

Kenneth Walker...

I owe a great deal to Ouspensky for all he did for me during those earlier years, and I am deeply grateful to him for his patient and clear-headed interpretation of Gurdjieff′s teaching. He had a much better command of English than had Gurdjieff and a methodical and tidy mind which imposed order on the latter′s less systematized method of teaching. His patience was remarkable. From 1917 onwards he sought clearer and yet clearer formulations for the ideas he had received from Gurdjieff, with the intention, possibly - for he never spoke with certainty about this - of publishing them in the form of a book after the latter′s death. But he died before his teacher, and it was upon Gurdjieff that the responsibility then lay of deciding whether or not Ouspensky′s much-revised typescript should be sent to a publisher. Gurdjieff had a Russian rendering of it read to him, declared it to be an accurate account of his own teaching and gave instructions that it should be published forthwith. (pp. 14-15)

However, later in the same book, Dr. Walker provided another perspective on the teaching as transmitted by Ouspensky, one that sheds yet another light on Fragments:

Kenneth Walker...

I realize that far too little emphasis was placed by Ouspensky at this time on preparation for self-remembering, and it was only after we had met G. many years later in Paris that we understood how necessary this was. The first step to self-remembering was to come back from our mind-wandering into our bodies and to become sensible of these bodies. We all know, of course, that we possess limbs, a head and a trunk, but in our ordinary state of waking-sleep we receive few or no sense-impressions from these, unless we happen to be in pain. In other words, we are not really aware of our bodies. But G. taught us special exercises first for relaxing our bodies to the fullest possible extent, and then for ′sensing′ the various areas in our bodies, exercises to which reference will be made later in this book. These exercises became of immense value to us and were particularly useful as a preparation for self-remembering. (p. 46)
At a very much later date the great importance of the faculty of attention in our work was again brought home to us. This was after Ouspensky′s death, when some of us went over to Paris to study under G. himself. G. immediately taught us a number of exercises in muscle-relaxing and in what he called ′body-sensing′, exercises which were and still are of greatest value to us. We were told to direct our attention in a predetermined order to various sets of muscles, for example, those of the right arm, the right leg, the left leg and so on, relaxing them more and more as we come round to them again; until we have attained what we feel to be the utmost relaxation possible for us. Whilst we were doing this we had at the same time to ′sense′ that particular area of the body; in other words to become aware of it. We all know, of course, that we possess limbs, a head and a body, but in ordinary circumstances we do not feel or sense them. But with practice the attention can be thrown on to any part of the body desired, the muscles in that particular area relaxed, and sensation from that region evoked. At the word of inner command the right ear is ′sensed′, then the left ear, the nose, the top of the head, the right arm, right hand and so on, until a ′sensation′ tour has been made of the whole body. The exercise can, if required, be rendered still more difficult by counting backwards, by repeating strings of words or by evoking ideas at the same moment that the relaxing and sensing is being carried out.
The question may well be asked, "What benefit can possibly result from learning all these yogi tricks with the body?" This is not difficult to answer. There are three reasons for doing such exercises as these: the first is that it is excellent training for the attention; the second that it teaches a person how to relax; and the third that it produces a very definite inner psychic change. This change can be summed up in the statement that the exercise draws together parts of our mechanism which previously had been working disconnectedly. But external descriptions of these valuable exercises and of the results obtained from them are quite useless. They can only be understood by personal experience of them, a fact which emphasizes once again the impossibility of imparting knowledge of this kind in a book. All special exercises of this kind have to be taught by word of mouth, and, so far as I know, they have never been committed to writing. It is for this reason that my description of them has deliberately been left incomplete. (pp. 69-70)

Similar recollections are found in an interview with Dr. Meredith Thring in London in 2001:

Dr. Meredith Thring...

What I want to say more than anything is that I worked with Ouspensky and Bennett for about twelve years if not thirteen, the end of ′37 to ′48, eleven years. Ouspensky died and actually in 1949 I happened to be in America and they immediately published, Mme. Ouspensky published In Search of the Miraculous which Ouspensky had refused to publish because of Gurdjieff′s book.
The point was with Ouspensky, it was in effect philosophical knowledge we got really. You knew you had ′many ′I′s′, you knew that you couldn′t DO and that you had to ′not express′ negative emotions and so on and we worked on these things all those years. And we had all the diagrams that are in In Search of the Miraculous and there was quite a lot to go on, but somehow it was all hopeless. There was no hope there, you couldn′t do, but when we went to Paris it was entirely different, it was like going into a different world, a world in which negative emotions and trivial things... they just weren′t there. It was like a world where you were free of all that. You were just concerned with work. We started doing the movements and I am hopeless at the movements because I am totally un-musical but I got enough of them to realize what kind of work, what kind of control of attention, complete control of attention in all the centres is necessary for that. So I got a taste for what that means.
The most important thing I got from Paris was the idea of sensing your body, and also sitting quietly and sensing your limbs and so on. And even then I got the sense of opening oneself and freeing oneself from the thoughts that go on all the time and the associations in the moving centre and the associations in the intellectual centre, being free of these. So I got a taste of what it is all about. And I got hope, there was a message of hope, always. It wasn′t ′cannot do′ it was trying to do work. The impression I got of Mr. Gurdjieff was entirely different from the impression I had from Ouspensky and Bennett; it was the impression that I can only describe as Universal Benevolence. He really wanted you and me, everybody, to be influenced towards developing themselves as a result of being in contact with him and his emanations. This was very, very strong and it has been with me ever since.
Because Mme. Ouspensky, the moment Ouspensky died, rang up Bennett and the people at Lyme Place and so on and said "Go over to Mr. Gurdjieff at such and such an address" and so they did. And Gurdjieff apparently said that he was delighted with Ouspensky; he said "Now he is my friend" because he had seen... In Search of the Miraculous. It is marvelous we have got two different formulations of his teaching. Some of them disagree quite a lot. The Moon for example in In Search of the Miraculous is the growing tip of creation - in Beelzebub it is an awful mistake. But they do together produce a very powerful impression, and it′s very important, that′s what I am glad to do in my book is to put them together from references to things from both books and from all the others, from Views From the Real World and so on. It is so important that you don′t just have one verbal formulation you have different verbal formulations which apparently at first sight disagree and that′s the way you get towards something real. I think we are incredibly fortunate to have had Mr. Gurdjieff.
All I know is that I didn′t get the feeling from Ouspensky that there was a way through and I did get it from Gurdjieff.
And I think the point about this, you see, Ouspensky was a journalist and he could write quite well and clearly and be easy to understand from that point of view. Gurdjieff deliberately made his book very difficult, sentences a whole page long so that you′ve got to puzzle over it. You′ve got to be persistent with it.

Question: Do you think the hopelessness that you say Ouspensky brought, that there was no hope, you couldn′t do anything, this is very strong in Fragments and he reports it as coming from Gurdjieff. I just wondered, do you think this feeling of hopelessness is coming from Ouspensky all the time, or, do you feel Gurdjieff′s teaching changed a great deal from the beginning?

Professor Thring: I don′t think it changed, no. I think it was Ouspensky′s caste of character that is in that book. I don′t believe Gurdjieff ever taught that it is hopeless.

Question: And yet Gurdjieff was pleased with Fragments, wasn′t he?

Professor Thring: Oh yes, because Fragments is a very clear account of the theory so to speak, beautifully written and it adds a lot to the knowledge and I think that Beelzebub′s Tales contains far more if you can get down to it. Far more, in fact when he, in the Second Series, keeps promising to put a whole lot of things in the Third Series, it is my view that they are in here, hidden away deeply. For all those things he says he will write about, he has written about and they are hidden away.

Question: Do you think he has animated a feeling of hope when he was in Russia... do you think he had that feeling then?

Professor Thring: I′m sure he had because the message he came back from was: there is a way! That was his message. There is a way and I think I am going to try and communicate it to you. You see this is where religions fall down in my opinion, they don′t tell you a way.
...this is very interesting because under Ouspensky it was ′Remember Yourself′ but when we got to Paris it was ′Do I Am.′ This is a fact!

There is one other commentary on Fragments that speaks frankly to Ouspensky′s contribution, and to the question of completeness. In the 1950s, Sri Anirvan, a Baul master in the Samkhya tradition sent one of his students, a French woman, Lizelle Reymond, back to Europe to find the students of Gurdjieff. In To Live Within, an extraordinary account of her time with Sri Anirvan, she compiled material from his letters and notes of her conversations with him, which he revised before his death in 1978. The following extracts are from that material: [10]

Lizelle Reymond...

Tantric teaching demonstrates that all life is born from the Void - the Gods and Goddesses, the higher and the lower prakriti. The Void is the matrix of universal energy.
One has access to it by four stages. In his book In Search of the Miraculous, Ouspensky speaks about the first two stages. He remained silent about the last two because he had left Gurdjieff. In all of his subsequent personal teaching, which is very important, he tells of the development of these first two stages and of his experiences with his Master. The writings of Gurdjieff, on the other hand, open for us the frontiers of the two last stages. These are cleverly hidden in his mythical narrations.

The four stages are (p. 194):

  1. plurality of "I′s"
  2. a single "I"
  3. no "I"
  4. the Void.

...Gurdjieff had this lightly tinted whiteness. He never stopped playing with all the colors of life; that is why fools cry out against him. Ouspensky, who was a philosopher, tried to stay in the whiteness he had discovered; but if you are the disciple responsible for the kitchen, your duty is to prepare the food. If you refuse to do this, you will be sent away by the Master, or you will leave of your own accord and your refusal will be a weight that will burden you for years and possibly even crush you. (p. 257)
All spiritual experiences are sensations in the body. They are simply a graded series of sensations, beginning with the solidity of a clod of earth and passing gradually, in full consciousness, through liquidness and the emanation of heat to that of a total vibration before reaching the Void. The road to be traveled is long. (p. 231)

We might consider also that by Mr. Gurdjieff′s own account, he was not the original source of the teaching he brought: [11]


I am small compared with those who sent me.

He received a traditional teaching formulated within the cultures and languages of the Middle East and Central Asia, and having embodied that teaching, undertook a cultural and linguistic translation and transmission into a Western scientific cultural milieu - first into Russian, later English and French. Ouspensky was one of the students who helped with the translation into Anglo-American culture and language. Of course, Gurdjieff was one step closer to the source, and was by all accounts possessed of greater being - a real Master. But Ouspensky mastered the written English language to a remarkable degree, had an orderly mind and a philosophical bent, and worked for almost half his life at transmitting what he had received from Gurdjieff to thousands of students via lectures, the written word, and group meetings.

In the final pages of Fragments, Ouspensky describes a conversation with Gurdjieff in Constantinople in 1920:


Somewhere about this time I told him in detail of a plan I had drawn up for a book to expound his St. Petersburg lectures and talks, with commentaries of my own. He agreed to this plan and authorized me to write and publish it.

It seems likely that this was the genesis of In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, and this account suggests that Gurdjieff had authorized such an introduction in advance, some 30 years earlier. If so, then the apparent differences between the ideas and language of Fragments and All and Everything may be more apparent than real, with one a very well organized and carefully structured introduction, the other a complete mytho-epic statement of the teaching. Of course the two works are not on the same level, but the evidence suggests that Fragments was considered by Gurdjieff an authentic introduction to the ideas he brought from the East. Even when he must have known in 1949 that he was dealing with his last group of students - the ones who would assume responsibility for the teaching - first-person accounts suggest that he sometimes had them listen to chapters from the manuscript of Mr. Ouspensky′s introduction.

Notes and References

  1. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1969).
  2. Ouspensky, P.D., In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of a Unknown Teaching, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1949).
  3. Salzmann, Michel de, "Footnote to the Gurdjieff Literature", in Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography, by J. Walter Driscoll and the Gurdjieff Foundation of California (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985), pp. xviii.
  4. Pentland, John , From the Foreword to Toward Awakening: An Approach to the Teaching Left by Gurdjieff, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980) pp. iii-iv.
  5. Nott, C.S., Further Teachings of Gurdjieff: Journey Through This World, (New York: Samuel Weisner, Inc., 1969)
  6. Bennett, J.G. Witness. (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bennett Books, 1962).
  7. McCorkle, Beth, The Gurdjieff Years, 1929-1949: Recollections of Louise March (Walworth, New York: The Work Study Association, Inc., 1990), pp. 74-75.
  8. Bennett, J.G. and E. Bennett, Idiots in Paris. (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1991) p. vii.
  9. Walker, Kenneth. A Study of Gurdjieff′s Teaching, (London: Jonathan Cape, 196?)
  10. Reymond, Lizelle. To Live Within: A woman′s spiritual pilgrimage in an Himalayan hermitage. (Portland, Oregon: Rudra Press)
  11. Nott quoting Orage recollecting Gurdjieff, in C.S. Nott, Further Teachings of Gurdjieff, p. 31.