Gurdjieff, Work, and the Dark Side of Hidden Truths — A review of some books about a now largely forgotten mystic that is really more of a memoir about me and a story about a guy I used to know.

Meetings with Remarkable Men, G.I. Gurdjieff

Luba Gurdjieff: A Memoir with Recipes, Luba Gurdjieff Everitt

Gurdjieff: A Biography, James Moore

Our Life With Mr. Gurdjieff, Thomas and Olga De Hartmann

Boyhood with Gurdjieff, Fritz Peters

The Unknowable Gurdjieff, Margaret Anderson

When I moved to New York City, I was 18 and clueless. I was deeply curious about art, philosophy, literature and spirituality, but I knew next to nothing. In those pre-internet days, if you were a kid like me, you tended to come across things in a haphazard manner. Someone you knew lent you a book about zen; the zine you bought at the punk show referenced Jack Kerouac; some book you’re reading mentioned a mystic dude who sounds interesting and, it just so happens, a bunch of books about him are being stocked at the bookstore where you work.

That, in a nutshell, is how I fell into a short lived, but intense, interest in the mystic and charlatan known as G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff was a Blavatsky type, who borrowed heavily from various religion traditions, wrapped them up in mythology of a “hidden truth” to which he held the key, and then sold this package as a unique path to an awakened life. He was a contradictory, self aggrandizing, innovative, interesting, and full of shit. He wrote three books, only one of which I read. It claimed to be a memoir of sorts of his interactions with various sages and mystics.

It was, I knew even then, total bullshit.

But as the memoirs cited above show, he had a profound and positive impact on many people. He also had a huge impact on me. His ideas of work strangely shaped my world view and the ideas of some of his followers showed me, first hand, the trouble one can find oneself in when you go looking for hidden truths.


Gurdjieff looking suitably creepy

In a nutshell* Gurdjieff taught a form of self actualization that was achieved through self discipline and work on one’s spiritual and physical self.  There were dances (yep, dances), and specific techniques one was supposed to use. But what resonated with me was the importance of self mastery and of work for its own sake — that the act of doing, be it physical labor, or creative endeavor, regardless of its outcome, was worthwhile I found this inspiring and helpful for getting me off my ass and moving.

This isn’t groundbreaking, and of course, Gurdjieff wasn’t the only one to advocate this. But to a kid floundering around trying to figure out who he was and what he wanted out of life, the admonition to create, and to labor, to figure it out by doing it, was very grounding. I’ve taken that lesson with me throughout my life. My life long fascination with stoicism probably starts here because whether he knew it or not, Gurdjieff cribbed heavily from Aurelius and co.

There were darker lessons from my interest in Gurdjieff as well. When I was getting into the dude, so was someone else I worked with at Tower Books. We’ll call him L. L was a bookstore lifer. In his forties, he’d been working in bookstores for twenty years. He was a kind of awkward, neurotic, hippie that seems to have all but disappeared from the New York of today. We weren’t really friends, but he did invite me join him in checking out a local group that was meeting to discuss their “work” in the Gurdjieff method. I went once to a meeting in a plant filled loft deep in Chelsea. I was 18 and the youngest person there by at least twenty years. There was a lot of vague spiritual talk, someone played some of Gurdjieff’s music, and a woman talked about how she was encouraging her mother to go off her chemotherapy and trust in a more spiritual cure to her cancer.

I was completely turned off by the group and never returned. But L kept going, encouraging me to give it another try. Soon, he stopped coming to work. No one knew why.  Eventually, he was fired. Weeks later, he walked in to collect his final pay check and we spoke for a couple of minutes. He was paranoid and confused. He’d gone off his meds (whatever they were) to better see his true self, and his true self was telling him the world was going to end in blood. I didn’t know what to say, and I regret that I didn’t follow him when he wandered out, lost in his own world.

I should have offered help.

I did take that brief conversation with me, however, and used it to build my deep skepticism about anyone claiming answers to the mysteries of the world.

I randomly ran into L again almost ten years later in a diner on Broadway and 12th. He’d gotten married, was working in another book store, and seemed well. We didn’t mention the end of the world thing, or Gurdjieff.

* and as I remember it twenty years after having read the books above

A Bit Dark, Kinda Cynical, But Still Pretty Woo-Woo: My Remembrances of Being a Young Dude Reading Too Much Robert Anton Wilson

Prometheus Rising

Quantum Psychology


Cosmic Trigger Vol. 1

Cosmic Trigger Vol. II: Down to Earth

Chaos and Beyond the Best of Trajectories

Robert Anton Wilson

It’s probably just best to come out and admit I’ve read pretty much everything Robert Anton Wilson wrote up to about 1995. After that, nothing. Much of Wilson’s writings does not stand up. It’s representative of a certain strain of out-there Esalen Institute, drugged up hippie witchcraft that was big in California in the late 1970s and 80s. Not quite New Age, but rubbing shoulders with it. A bit dark, kinda cynical, but still pretty woo-woo. I’m more than a little embarrassed by how into this stuff I was when I was 19-20, but here we are.

In my defense, it was another time, and exploration was limited by what was carried in the book stores. In my case, Tower Books on Lafayette and East Fourth, which had a huge “alternative” section and where I worked from 1994-1996.  Kudos to Falcon Books, the publishers of Wilson at the time, they knew how to get their shit distributed in the East Village.

Anyway, Wilson’s nonfiction work* is a hodgepodge of western esotericism (Crowley, Spare, et. al) American takes on Buddhism, California drug culture, conspiracy theories, and, kinda remarkably, the writings of the now largely forgotten mystic/charlatan G.I. Gurdjieff. The books are a mix of memoir (notably the Cosmic Trigger books), wacko self-help (Prometheus Rising) and, source materials from across the woo-woo world.

Wilson’s project, presented often with humor and self-depreciation, is a sort of cobbled together world view of self-discovery through introspection, drugs, and self-work in the Gurdjieff style. In the end, it doesn’t amount to much in itself, but it did turn this uneducated white boy on to a lot of very out there and enjoyable stuff. For that, I’m thankful, though I’m sure I could have gotten the same pay off having read only one or two of these.

A final anecdote on Wilson – while working a Tower, a young woman came up to me one day and asked for Cosmic Trigger. She appeared lost and uncertain and when I asked if she was interested in Wilson, she responded “Not really, but my boyfriend was reading this book and now he’s gone insane”. Boyfriend clearly had troubles beyond his tastes in reading material, but he was like a lost kids who, like myself, were drawn to Wilson. Glad I got out in one piece.

Not Recommended.

*I’ve read most of Wilson’s fiction as well, I’ll review that separately at some point.

Robert Anton Wilson