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In Search of P. D. Ouspensky
The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff
By GARY LACHMAN
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2006 Gary Lachman
All rights reserved.
CHILDHOOD OF THE MAGICIAN
IN OUSPENSKY'S FAMILY there was a tradition that the names "Peter" and "Demian" were passed on from father to son alternately, one generation to the next. The Peters were life-affirming optimists who enjoyed good food and drink, companionship, and the pleasures of art. The Demians were world-rejecting ascetics, pessimistic critics who viewed life as a deceptive trap. Readers of Hermann Hesse's novel Narcissus and Goldmund will recognize the polarity immediately.
Peter Demianovich Ouspensky—the last of his line—was saddled with both character traits, an inheritance perhaps at the root of his paradoxical personality. Ouspensky once remarked that he had the smells of the tavern in his blood, and in his later years he would often reminisce in late-night drinking sessions about his wild days in Moscow and St. Petersburg when he knew "everyone" and would hold court at the infamous Stray Dog Café. This same Ouspensky, however, never got over his feeling that life—our ordinary, everyday life—is a trap. Byt was the strange Russian word he used to describe this feelingof a "deeply rooted, petrified routine life." It was, in essence, to escape the deadening monotony of byt that he set off on his search for the miraculous, the strange inner and outer journeys that led him to Gurdjieff. A central part of Gurdjieff's work is the notion that anything of value must be gained through one's struggle with oneself, with the "yes and no" within. If this is the case, then fate seemed at work well before Ouspensky ever thought of his search. The Peter and Demian within him predisposed him to a lifelong "yes and no." If in the end it was Demian who won, it was not an easy struggle, nor a lightly held victory. Beneath the formidable exterior of the stern taskmaster of the work, the warm, friendly, and poetic Peter still lived, and when relaxed and in congenial company, he would make occasional and sometimes surprising appearances.
The source of this coincidence of opposites—the basic formula for the alchemical Great Work—can be found in Ouspensky's parents. His mother was a painter and was well-read in Russian and French literature; more than likely it was her influence that had the young Peter reading books like Lermontoff's A Hero of Our Time and Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches at the age of six. Later he would tell his more intimate pupils that Lermontoff was his favorite poet. His father, an official in the land survey office, was also a painter as well as a lover of music, a trait that apparently he did not pass on to his son. Another of his interests, however, would become a central symbol for his son's life work. Ouspensky's father was a good amateur mathematician whose special pastime was the fourth dimension, a topic that held widespread interest among mathematical professionals and hobbyists in the late nineteenth century. Although Ouspensky later wrote on higher mathematics and adopted the imperturbable demeanor of a demanding tutor, he was never a professional mathematician, despite the descriptions of him that still appear on the covers of his books. In fact, he never completed his university education and was, in effect, a dropout. He did, however, absorb his father's interest in the mysterious fourth dimension, which became for him a kind of metaphysical magic bag into and out of which emerged everything that the dreary, pedantic, and severely limited positivism of his youth rejected—that is, everything that was "miraculous." It is this combination of the artistic and the scientific, the poet and the mathematician, that gives Ouspensky's early writings their particular zest and attraction.
Peter Demianovich Ouspensky was born in Moscow on March 5, 1878. He later told his students that his earliest memories were of his maternal grandmother's house on Pimenovskaia Street and of the stories of old Moscow she would tell him and his sister. For someone for whom self-remembering became a nearly lifelong obsession, it shouldn't seem surprising that memory, the clear evocation of the past, was of central interest. Like his contemporary the French novelist Marcel Proust—his elder by only seven years—Ouspensky had an uncanny ability to recreate the past, to recapture "other times and places," in Colin Wilson's useful phrase. He claimed to remember himself at an early age, with clear recollections of events before the age of two. By the time he was three, he remembered events and his surroundings with a poignant vividness. He spoke of a trip down the Moscow River—the boats gliding down the water, the smell of tar, the hills covered in deep forests, an old monastery. The exhibition of 1882 and the coronation of Alexander III in 1883 stood out particularly, with their fireworks and celebrations. Years later, Ouspensky would tell his most important student, Maurice Nicoll, that he didn't have the same interests as other children, that the usual toys and games held no attraction for him. "At a very early stage," he said, "I saw what life was like." Ouspensky believed this was so because as a child he could still recall his past life, his last time around on the wheel of recurrence. Nicoll, who had been a more normal child, was a "young soul," still fresh to things, and so could not. Ouspensky believed he had already been around many times. "The study of recurrence must begin with the study of children's minds, and particularly before they begin to speak," he told his students. "If they could remember this time they could remember very interesting things." Whether Ouspensky's vivid early recollections were the product of recurrence or of a peculiarly strong but normal memory is an open question, as is the notion that as a child he remembered his past life. What is clear is that remembering is something he would spend all of his life trying to do.
Although Ouspensky tells us that his family didn't belong to any particular class and that his grandmother's house was a meeting place for people from a variety of social strata, in the Russia of his youth the social world was strictly divided. Either one was part of the peasantry or one was a gentleman. Given its cultured background, Ouspensky's family belonged to the intelligentsia. They were decidedly not peasants. Young Peter grew up in a milieu of writers, artists, and poets. Ouspensky's grandfather was a painter, adding to the artistic influence of his parents, and although he died when Peter was only four, it's clear he had a powerful influence on the young boy. A portrait painter at first, Ouspensky's grandfather later worked for the church, which provided him with his own studio where he worked on his religious paintings. Church painting at that time was a special industry, a particular artistic guild with its own unique importance. Although the later Ouspensky showed little interest in religion—when the journalist Rom Landau asked if he believed in God, Ouspensky said, "I don't believe in anything"—it would be surprising if seeing the images in his grandfather's work had no effect on the imaginative young boy. Along with art—and later, science—the atmosphere of the holy and sacred must have given the precocious child an early sense of the transcendent. He surely inherited a love of painting, and from an early age began to sketch, an interest that in later life would express itself in his fondness for old prints and for photography. This last interest shows Ouspensky in an unusual light, revealing a keen awareness of new developments in culture. Although his tastes ran to traditional modes he was also aware of the influence a burgeoning technology was having on the sensibilities of his day. His first novel, Kinemadrama—later published as Strange Life of Ivan Osokin but written in 1905, when he was twenty-seven—was originally conceived as a film script. The man who sought out hidden knowledge and the ancient wisdom of the past was also very aware of how new developments in mass culture were affecting the consciousness of his time.
Along with his vivid childhood memories, Ouspensky relates some early experiences of what he later called the "miraculous," that "other world" of magic and mystery that attracted him his entire life. When his mother took him to school for the first time, she became lost in a long corridor and did not know which way to turn. Peter then told her the way, although it was the first time either of them had ever been in the building. He described a passage at the end of which were two steps, and a window through which they would see the headmaster's garden. There they would find the door to the headmaster's study. This turned out to be true. He also related an experience at an even younger age, when on an outing to a town outside Moscow, he remarked that it wasn't as he had remembered it from a previous visit, some years before. As with the school, he had never been to the place before. He later realized that in fact he hadn't visited the place, but had dreamt of being there. The notion that in dreams we sometimes have a vision of the future would become a central theme of another time-theorist with whom Ouspensky's name would later be linked, the aeronautical engineer J. W. Dunne. As we will see, in the 1920s and 30s, Dunne's ideas, like Ouspensky's, would influence some of the leading writers of the time.
Ouspensky would soon become interested in dreams. "Possibly the most interesting first impressions of my life came from the world of dreams" he would later write. But unlike Dunne, he didn't relate his dreaming mind to his precognitive experiences. For him, the feeling of déjà vu was linked with the idea of "eternal recurrence," the strange belief, which he later found in the philosopher Nietzsche and other writers, that we live our lives in exactly the same way, over and over again in an endless series of repetitions. It was an experience he seems to have shared with his sister, with whom he was exceptionally close. He tells how they used to sit at their nursery window and predict how people passing in the street below would act. Their predictions were usually accurate. But they would never mention this to the adults, who would simply not believe them. Ouspensky believed that in their early years, children were much more open to the miraculous, and it is only when they begin to imitate the adults around them that they lose touch with it. Ouspensky clearly belonged to that small group of human beings who are determined not to lose this sensitivity, and for him it emerged as a haunting, almost painful sense of the mystery of time.
But the forces working against him were considerable. Another pastime brother and sister shared was enjoying a strange little children's book called Obvious Absurdities, which showed odd pictures, like a man carrying a house on his back, or a cart with square wheels. To the prescient young children the oddest thing was that the pictures didn't seem absurd at all. "I could not understand what was absurd in them," Ouspensky wrote. "They looked exactly like ordinary things in life." As he got older Ouspensky became "more and more convinced that all life consisted of 'obvious absurdities.'" Later experience, he said, "only strengthened this conviction."
By the time Ouspensky was eight, he had developed a passion for natural science. Everything to do with plant and animal life fascinated him. His appetite for knowledge met with little satisfaction in the humdrum schools he was forced to attend. Like many brilliant but easily bored children, Ouspensky found school dull. But while his fellows, equally bored yet not so brilliant, occupied themselves during their Latin lesson with forbidden novels by Dumas or other romantic authors, Ouspensky read a textbook on physics. While his classmates may have been daydreaming of some adventure story or indulging in fantasies about the girl next door, Ouspensky was "greedily and enthusiastically" overcome by "rapture" and "terror," awed by the mysteries that were opening around him. Reading a chapter on levers, he found that all around him "walls are crumbling, and horizons infinitely remote and incredibly beautiful stand revealed." For the first time in his life, his world emerged out of chaos. Between the disparate phenomena of experience his young mind began to forge links, connecting, ordering, unifying, and presenting to his consciousness an "orderly and harmonious whole."
This is the archetypal appeal of science—the tremendous impact, on a sensitive mind, of its own ability to make sense of its experience. It shows that fundamentally Ouspensky was not, as he is often called, a mystic, nor even an occultist. The impersonality of his later years had its roots in the philosopher's attraction to a truth and order beyond the personal, beyond the self—something, as Ivan Osokin recognizes at the end of Ouspensky's novel, that would exist even "if he were not there." Some people find their greatest happiness in objective things, things having no immediate relation to their personal lives. Ouspensky was one of these people, and his early encounter with the liberating vision of science was his first introduction to the vast world beyond himself, a world of meaning and order.
But no one, not even Ouspensky, is wholly impersonal. And a boy of ten, even one who has just had his first vision of the fascinating universe beyond himself, has a great deal of the personal to contend with. In Ouspensky's case, there was more than the usual amount of chaos, not only in the world, but in his own life.
Before Peter reached his fourth birthday, his father died. Not long after, while he was living with his grandmother on Pimenovskaia Street, his grandfather died as well. In effect, Peter became the sole man of his family, and no doubt his mother placed high hopes on her precociously brilliant son. The loss of two strong and influential father figures may well have primed Ouspensky for later events.
In other circumstances, given his family's status in the intelligentsia, expectations for Peter's future career would have been high. But personal shock and disruption were not the only elements at play. The Holy Russia that Ouspensky was growing up in was a society heading for a crash.
Russia in the late nineteenth century, like its counterpart and soon-to-be opponent, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a powerful old giant, tottering under its own weight and entering a cycle of bad government and neglect that would lead to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In the year Ouspensky was born, the cry for a constitution went up among the liberal intelligentsia. Other, more extreme groups, like the political secret society The People's Will, openly espoused terror and revolution as a means of toppling the three-hundred-year-old Romanov regime. Just before Ouspensky's third birthday, Tsar Alexander II was blown to bits by an anarchist's bomb. Alexander III, his successor, who ruled for thirteen years, tried to clamp down with a policy of repression and "zero tolerance," but after thirteen years he died, exhausted by the effort. Nicholas II, the last of the Tsars, whose name, with that of his wife, Alexandra, will forever be linked to the strange "holy sinner" Rasputin, was a kindly, ineffectual dreamer, absolutely unsuited to deal with the crisis. He tried to reach a compromise between his unrealistic belief in his own absolute rule and the people's clamor for a constitution. But his actions were too little too late, and the momentum of radical change could not be stopped.
It was against this backdrop that young Ouspensky began to question authority as well. Not political authority; he was still a boy and in any case he felt little solidarity with the revolutionary cliques that made up the youth culture of his time. (He would later speak of political gatherings where everyone just "talked and talked.") The authority Ouspensky railed against was that of the science he had only recently discovered. After his initial enthusiasm, he slowly came to see that the vision of "horizons infinitely remote and incredibly beautiful" that had so powerfully affected him had little to do with the plodding conservatism of the professional scientist. "There was a dead wall everywhere," he said, and he soon found himself banging his head against it. Scientists, he said, were killing science just as priests had killed religion. He became very "anarchistically inclined." Not that he took to throwing bombs: like most creative thinkers, Ouspensky had a deep trust and confidence in his own insights and was inclined to favor them over the official, received opinions. Mentally, morally, and emotionally he was coming of age in a time that encouraged this kind of independence.
Excerpted from In Search of P. D. Ouspensky by GARY LACHMAN. Copyright © 2006 Gary Lachman. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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