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Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

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1:56a
A peek behind the curtains ...
As regular readers of these reviews know, I primarily read non-fiction, so it is a rare case (much of what I read tends to be “on the dry side”) when I hit a book that I can barely put down. Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff by Thomas & Olga de Hartmann was, delightfully, one of these. This is a very interesting book, as it is a relatively recent combination of Thomas de Hartmann's memoirs (which stopped mid-sentence upon his death in 1956), which had been widely published previously, with the unpublished memoirs of his widow, Olga, who continued in the Gurdjieff work until her death in 1979.

The editorial team here (two generations of Thomas Daleys) were given open access to Mrs. de Hartmann's archives and went back to the original manuscripts to make a fresh translation from Russian to English. They then took the two, Thomas' much longer text, and the notes that Olga had written, and shuffled them together in proper chronology, putting her copy in italics interspersed with his narrative. As noted above, Thomas' material ceased rather abruptly, and Olga had added a ten-page or so “conclusion” which brought the story to a close, and the editors have added to this a “Chronology” to make it easier to follow the activities of the book.

If you are not familiar with the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, you are missing one of the seminal sources of much of recent “western metaphysics”, expanding largely through his students P.D. Ouspensky and J.G. Bennett and their students and associates. If I were to recommend starting points, I'd say to read Gurdjieff's Meetings With Remarkable Men and Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous, both of which are fascinating. Gurdjieff claimed to have been part of a “working group” of “seekers” who combed the world seeking out authentic ancient knowledge, the results of which search he had synthesized into his system. Here's a particularly direct reference to this from the book:

In esoteric schools there were men of high attainment who studied the nature of a man as a whole. Their pupils were people who wished to develop their being. They spoke sincerely and openly about their inner search, how to achieve their aim, how to approach it, and of their characteristics that stood in the way. To go to such real confession one had to make a major decision: to see one's real defects and to speak about them. Mr. Gurdjieff told us that this was absolutely essential – especially for one to see his chief feature, the one around which (as around an axis) turn all his stupid, comical, secondary weaknesses.
However, this is jumping ahead a bit, as the book is more about the de Hartmann's relationship and activities with Gurdjieff than about “the work” particularly.

The book starts in the middle of WWI, in 1915, beginning in St. Petersburg with Russian minor noble de Hartmann entering the military. He was already a composer and musician of note, and through this and his connections he is transferred to the Guard, and generally spared the worse parts of the War. He and Olga had been seeking out “teachers” and at one point he is introduced (in circumstances most untoward for a Guards officer) to Gurdjieff, and the connection sticks, and he and Olga decide to follow Gurdjieff no matter what.

Of course, the war is quickly followed by the revolution, and for most of the book the de Hartmanns and other students are trekking across Russia attempting to stay out of the way of the conflict (and especially the Bolsheviks, who would have shot him on sight). Again, this is not so much a book about “the work” but of their “Life with Mr. Gurdjieff”, and it's certainly a different window onto this remarkable situation than many of the other books out there. The action follows them to southern Russia, the Crimea, Constantinople, Berlin, and eventually to Paris, and the famed Institute in the suburbs thereof, and finally to America.

This has elements of a biography, a travelogue, a metaphysical memoir, and an adventure story. There is very little “uneventful” material here … probably because so much of Gurdjieff's “work” involved setting up challenging situations for his students to work through. De Hartmann is constantly having to battle dual responsibilities of being a student, and Gurdjieff's main musical interpreter. There is a significant body of material that was developed for various “exhibitions” produced by Gurdjieff, in Paris, New York, and elsewhere, which is still available. I've not heard much of this, but it's been on my list to get, given the right situation.

Now, obviously, I came to this book with a lot of “background” and being familiar with the characters (interestingly, the grandfather of one of my highschool friends figures in here, as he had been the personal physician to the Tsar and one of his houses features in the story), and the philosophical underpinnings, my impression of the tale is different from that of one who had little or no knowledge of “all things Gurdjieff”. While I immensely enjoyed reading this, I wonder if it would be as engaging to one “coming to it cold”, and, as such, I need to offer the caveat that this is a delightful book about some of Gurdjieff's followers' experiences with him, but it might end up being confusing if this is one's first exposure the the genre. On the other hand, this is not a “dense” book on “the work” and so should be more accessible than some that jump right into the metaphysical depths.

Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff is available for a very reasonable price (at about twelve bucks) from the on-line guys, and the Morning Light Press softcover edition is new this year, so the brick-and-mortar vendors that carry philosophical and metaphysical titles might well have copies too. However, do make sure you're getting the new edition, as earlier versions don't have Mrs. de Hartmann's contributions and are in a possibly less-focused translation. I liked it a lot, and (with the books recommended above), I'd think it's a good read for anybody!


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