Anthony Storr on Gurdjieff

I recently found a second-hand copy of Anthony Storr’s Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus. I always like to consider a different perspective. In this case, it is not just a different but quite an opposite point of view. It is quite useful and sometimes quite bracing to do so. I recall that when I was eighteen years old, I had been quite impressed by Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilisation. I had never read anything like it. I was not sure it was right, in fact I was not even quite sure what it meant in very many places, but I knew I was reading the work of a highly intelligent man who had studied a lot of interesting writers, not least Freud, and was able to speak about them in ways which I could occasionally understand, and realise that I was reading something quite new for me. I then obtained his One Dimensional Man, but I found it much harder than Eros. I decided to try and understand him better, and I came across Alisdair McIntyre’s little book on Marcuse. I was stunned. Something in me resented McIntyre’s criticisms, but they were unanswerable. I had, therefore, the most educative experience of having been most favourably impressed with one writer, and then having seen that there was much there I had initially missed; in other words, that my youthful enthusiasm had been not just misplaced but badly so.

With Storr, the experience has been different. I think he just misunderstands not completely, but radically. There is much about Gurdjieff he gets right, but these are details. Of course, he is selective in what he mentions, and the selection is rarely favourable to Gurdjieff. But the big point is that he has mistaken the very nature of Gurdjieff’s teaching and his intentions. I shall concentrate here just on one issue: Storr’s misunderstanding of Gurdjieff’s method, particularly of the role of “belief”. I think that if Storr saw that Gurdjieff did not call for blind belief, much else would have fallen into place for him. That, I think, is his foundational error.

We need do no more than note some minor mistakes. Gurdjieff’s mother was Greek, not Armenian, and he did not just acquire some Greek and Turkish, he was fluent in Greek and at least good in Turkish, and also in Russian, even if he spoke the latter with a Caucasian accent (23). I do not know the basis of the claim that Gurdjieff “stated that he had a teacher from whom he was never separated, and with whom he constantly communicated, presumably telepathically” (24). The one comment I know of that he still had a teacher is far outweighed by many others which asserted his own authority. There are other similar errors. These are not so serious.

More grave however, although still details, are the misstatement that Gurdjieff taught that by self-observation one could coordinate physical, emotional and intellectual functions and so a man could “direct his own destiny” (25). Coordination is not so easy that self-observation alone will do the trick, and to direct one’s own destiny is not possible. But one can learn to refrain from doing, and then to do, but internally. One can choose with far more freedom than we have, how to respond to one’s destiny. It then appears that, as a psychiatrist, Storr had had occasion to treat some of Bennett’s former pupils, and blames Bennett for the “dire effects” he saw in them (26-27). He gives no further details, but there is no reason to doubt Storr’s sincerity. I am a bit puzzled by his statement that Gurdjieff’s behaviour to the de Hartmanns in their flight from Russia was “unreasonable” (27). I wold have thought that Gurdjieff saved their aristocratic lives. Similarly, just because some people with mental problems invent new words, it does not mean that everyone who does so is mentally unwell (29). I can hardly imagine Storr really thought this compelling.

Now we approach a more central matter. Storr has a special dislike of Gurdjieff’s cosmology, which he correctly notes, is unsupported by “objective evidence” (29). But that does not necessarily make it a “psychotic delusional system”. He is quite scathing about what Gurdjieff said about the moon, and is surprised that anyone could ever take it seriously (29-32). After establishing that Gurdjieff was perfectly capable of practising deceptions, he avers that Gurdjieff probably did believe his own cosmology, “just as paranoid psychotics believe in their own delusional systems” (36). He wanders around, and then comes back to it: “Reviewing his picture of the universe, it is hard to understand that any intelligent, educated person could believe in it” (41).

There is much else in this chapter I could take up, but this point will do: I think Storr has completely misunderstood what Gurdjieff was about. He did not ask any of his pupils to believe in anything, let alone his cosmology. It was presented as being an idea from higher mind, and part of a larger whole which also has psychological and moral consequences and ramifications.

Gurdjieff’s ideas about the moon have to be taken with the entirety of the Ray of Creation. I see nothing inherently implausible in the idea that a power, let us call Him God, created the universe from the top down, using laws (observable regularities), and that the entire universe serves Him. Man is a little different in that he has a choice: he can serve God consciously and make a future for himself, or he can serve unconsciously, and simply serve the planetary needs (e.g. by participating in the carbon, water and air cycles). After all, we can see how when organic life dies it enters the planet, and forms all sorts of phenomena from coal seams to soil. What Gurdjieff says is that a part of the human psyche is pulled to the moon at death, as if by a magnet. It may be so, it may not, but no one is asked to believe it. We know the effect of the moon on organic life, on the tides, and perhaps even on human behaviour. What is delusional about entertaining the hypothesis that a psychic substance is also drawn to the moon? If it reminds us to remain collected, and that we are struggling against mechanical forces, it serves a useful purpose. However, belief is not required by Gurdjieff. In groups, one is not tested for dogmatic adherence, at least not on those points. One can, however, use the theory of the Ray of Creation to make sense of man’s place as an element of organic life, and of the planet, and the universe.

The Ray of Creation is able to link man in a universal scheme, and explain why we have some possibilities, but not as many as we perhaps fondly imagine. It explains the nature of the powers we are struggling with, just as St Paul did 2,000 years ago using a different system. By explaining the involution and evolution of consciousness, Gurdjieff offers a map to more consciousness. The point is to try following the map and see what you find. Belief is by no means necessary. In fact, blind belief would hinder, because – as the Ray of Creation explains – we are meant to develop our own independence, to understand, rather than follow. On this basis, the sun stands for up, and the moon stands for down. What is so crazy about that?

Joseph Azize, 5 March 2019

One comment

  1. Dear Joseph I read your comments on this book with interest. I have not read this book myself but it is not the first time that Gurdjieff´s cosmology with regard to the role of the moon have been ridiculed . Even some prominent writers of the work ie. Robert de Ropp had problems with it and wrote in one of his later works that he rejected it. The main tenants of Gurdjieff´s psychological system he did not reject.
    To suggest that Gurdjieff was delusional and therefore psychotic shows that the author has completely failed to appreciate who Gurdjieff was and what his purpose was. However , as a medical doctor myself , I am not surprised as this would be the opinion of most psychiatrists whose ´science `and Weltanschauung is completely materialistically based.

    Kind regards


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