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A NEW OR
NOVEMBER 13, 1914. MOSCOW. IN THE OFFICES OF A MOSCOW NEWSPAPER, A THIRTY-SEVEN-YEAR-OLD NEARSIGHTED RUSSIAN JOURNALIST edits material for a forthcoming issue. Only weeks before, he had returned from a journey to the East in search of what he calls "the miraculous." This he sees as "a new or forgotten road," one that would allow him to escape the lies and absurdities of ordinary life, so that he might penetrate its "thin film of false reality" to the hidden reality beyond.
Though he had glimpses of this hidden reality, he understood that his knowledge and efforts were not sufficient. "One thing I see clearly," he says, "that alone, by myself, I can do nothing." He needed to find a school and though there were many such "schools" in Russia as well as in the East, these he found either lacking in real knowledge or personally unsuitable. He was looking for a school of a special type, a school of "a more rational kind." But despite his extensive search in the Eastthis, his second such journeyhe had found nothing. He had come home empty-handed.
So, once again, he finds himself back in Moscow. Though deflated, he has not given up his search. In fact, already his thoughts are of returning to India. Suddenly, a notice in the Golos Moskvi, a rival newspaper he is half-reading, makes a connection with these thoughts of the East. The notice heralds the opening of a new ballet scenario written by a Hindu. His attention, formerly diffuse and thin, now fullyfocuses on the notice. On the screen of his mind imprints the words ... The Struggle of the Magicians.
At once his attention is caught and aroused. The ballet's title calls forth associations of good and evil, images of black and white magicians warring for soulsall of which mirrors the inner picture he has of life. Reading on, he finds the notice promising that the ballet will give a complete picture of Oriental magic, including fakir miracles, sacred dances, and so forth. All interesting, and yet ... yet something about the way it uses language puts him off. He finds the notice's "excessively jaunty tone" irritating. He sees now that it gives a kind of two-sided or `double' impression. It comes to him: This notice is not what it appears to be. The facts say one thing, the tone another. It's as if behind these words someone is laughing. But at whom? And why? Despite these misgivings, he decides to include the notice of the ballet in the coming events section of his newspaper. He does so only after inserting a warning alerting readers that "everything in the ballet that cannot be found in real India but which travelers go there to see."
Though this journalist could hardly know it, this seemingly innocuous notice with its annoying double language is, in effect, the calling card of just that teacher and school for which he has so actively searched these many years. Unlike so many seekers, Pyotr Demianovich Uspenskii is destined to find exactly what he has been searching forwhat he calls the "new or forgotten road."
* * *
In a sense all of Uspenskii's life had been a search. He was born in Moscow on March 5, 1878. Both of his parents were part of Russia's intelligentsia, the educated elite. His mother was a painter with an interest in Russian and French literature. His father, a Survey Service officer, was fond of music and painting. A good mathematician, his father had a lifelong interest in the question of time's fourth dimension. Early on, Pyotr showed an exceptional quality of intellect. As an adult he recalled having "quite clear mental pictures of events" before he was two years old. From the age of three he began to read and says he remembered himself "quite clearly."
When less than four years old, Pyotr received a severe shockhis father died. Thereafter Pyotr and his younger sister lived with their maternal grandparents in their house on Pimenovskaia Street. They were not there long before Pyotr, now four years old, received still another shock. His grandfather, a painter of religious subjects, died. The successive deaths of primal male figures in his life must have had a great impact. Many years later, most likely referring to these deaths, Uspenskii said of his childhood: "I was under less imagination and I saw what life was like at a very early stage." No wonder as a child he did not play with toys. From an early age, then, he had the sense that life in itself was meaningless. "It is only when you realize life is taking you nowhere," he said, "that it begins to have meaning."
At only six years of age, Pyotr was already reading on an adult level. He buried himself in books. Two made an enormous impression on him: Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time and Turgenev's A Sportsman's Notebook. Lermontov's book is especially noteworthy because the ideas it expressesthe plasticity of time and questions of predestination, fate, and recurrenceare those which will occupy Uspenskii throughout his life. That at a mere six years of age such ideas could not only be of interest but be comprehended gives an indication of the rare quality of intellect that was Uspenskii's.
He became interested, too, in poetry and painting, growing especially fond of engravings and prints. Uspenskii mentions, as well, a certain psychic ability that developed. He and his younger sister often sat peering out the window onto the street below predicting to one another what would happen. Later, when his mother took Pyotr to enroll at his first school, she lost her way. Although he had never been in the building before, Pyotr led her to the right passageway. At the end of the passageway, he told her, they would come to two steps and a nearby window. And from the window, he said, they would be able to see the headmaster's garden with lilies growing and, close by, the headmaster's study. All he described proved to be correct.
When he was about eight years of age, natural science and mathematics captured his attention. Within several years he lost interest. "There was a dead wall everywhere," he would say later. "Professors were killing science in the same way as priests were killing religion." At thirteen, dreams attracted him. This led to psychology which, in its esoteric evolutionary sense, became a lifelong interest. Like many gifted children, Pyotr disliked school. "Work at school was dull," Uspenskii once commented on this period in his life. "I was lazy; I hated Greek and school routine in general." He had moments when he sensed the unity of all things and was overcome with its sensation. Instead of studying his physics book, he read a borrowed book on levers. He experienced that "all round me walls are crumbling, and horizons infinitely remote and incredibly beautiful stand revealed. It is as though threads, previously unknown and unsuspected, begin to reach out and bind things together. For the first time in my life my world emerges from chaos. Everything becomes connected, forming an orderly and harmonious whole." [Author's italics] He then asked, "Why am I made to learn a thousand useless things and am not told about `this?'"
Always sensitive to time, he no doubt felt school wasted it. An image in his autobiographical novel, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, is evoked concerning this period where, as punishment for an infraction, the housemaster orders Ivan Osokin to stand under a clock. In a sense, like a card from a tarot pack, this image could represent Uspenskii's lifelong posture toward, and dilemma in, life. It would not be until the end of his life when, finally cornered, unable to go forward or back, that he would come to the final "miracle," that is, galvanize the clarity and will to step through ordinary time.
At sixteen he left school. Nietzsche entered his life, and with Nietzsche, the idea of eternal recurrence. It was a seminal idea for Uspenskii, one that he would develop later in his "period of dimensions" and continue to work with throughout his life. About this time, he became "very anarchistically inclined." A year after leaving school at sixteen, he experienced another shockhis mother died. By seventeen, he had already lost his father, grandfather, and mother. It was then he began to travel.
Uspenskii was born into a time rife with extremism and revolutionary ferment. In 1879, one year after his birth, Narodnaia Volia, the People's Will, was formed. A secret organization, it espoused terrorism as the way to bring down the three-hundred-year-old tsarist regime of the Romanovs. Structured hierarchically and operating in a quasi-military manner, its members pledged to totally dedicate themselves to the revolutionary cause, sacrificing property and life. Narodnaia Volia's mission was to assassinate government officials. Four days before Uspenskii's third birthday on March 1, 1881, a Narodnaia Volia bomb killed Tsar Alexander II. Six years later, Alexander Ulianov was arrested carrying a bomb in an attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Ulianov and his co-conspirators believed in an eclectic political brew of Narodnaia Volia, Marxism, and German Social Democracy. All were executed.
The execution imprinted Ulianov's younger brother, Vladimir Ilich, later known as Lenin, with a lasting hatred. That same year, Lenin enrolled at the university to study law. Within a short time he joined Narodnaia Volia and within months was arrested and expelled. Exiled to Siberia and then deported, Lenin was living in Switzerland when on Sunday, January 9, 1905, thousands of workers led by a priest peacefully marched to St. Petersburg's Winter Palace to present Tsar Nicholas II with a petition of economic grievances. Unable to halt the surging workers, the soldiers fired point blank into the crowd, killing 100 people and wounding several hundred more.
The immediate threat of what was known as "Bloody Sunday" was quelled. Strikes among workers and university students then broke out throughout the country. Succumbing to the pressure, the Tsar allowed the legalization of political parties and trade unions and set up a nationally elected Duma, or parliament. But the Tsar's image of divine rule had been irreparably damaged, and thus began the slow but inexorable erosion of autocratic rule.
Among the workers arrested for revolutionary activity on Bloody Sunday was Uspenskii's beloved sister. She died in prison in 1908. With this loss, all of Uspenskii's immediate family were now dead. Thus, at thirty years of age, Pyotr Demianovich found himself alone in the world. The meaning of life and the mystery of death now became living questions. Soon he was drawn to theosophical literature, which he read voraciously.
Theosophical literature had been banned in Russia, but after Bloody Sunday controls loosened. In 1908 the Russian Theosophical Society was created and registered with authorities. And at some point Uspenskii began to attend its meetings. In his readings he said he came to realize that there is an "unbroken line of thought and knowledge which passes from century to century, from age to age, from country to country, from one race to another; a line deeply hidden beneath layers of religions and philosophies which are, in fact, only distortions and perversions of the ideas belonging to this line." The idea came that there existed schools that had this knowledge. And so he said, "I decide to start on a long journey with the idea of searching for those schools or for the people who may show me the way to them."
In 1908 he and his good friend, Sherbakov, planned his first journey to the East to make contact with "schools of the distant past, with schools of Pythagoras, with schools of Egypt or with the schools of those who had built Nôtre Dame, and so on." Shortly before they were to embark, Sherbakov died. The feeling that death stalked his heels must have been strong in Uspenskii. Others might have postponed the journey, but, with characteristic resolve, he set out alone.
Traveling to Constantinople, Smyrna, Greece, and Egypt, he had many evocative experiences, some transcendent, yet none substantial. He returned to Moscow and in early 1909 left to live in St. Petersburg. Not finding a school, he began experiments in altering consciousness through hashish and nitrous oxide. Drugs, he soon concluded, were a dead end. During this time, too, he began writing Tertium Organum, which he self-published in 1912. The book's impressive clarity and sweep of thought attracted an erudite readership, especially among theosophical circles. Many doors now opened for him. Through one stepped a beautiful young woman who would be of great influence.
1912. St. Petersburg. Soon after the publication of Tertium Organum a beautiful young aristocrat, the daughter of the counsel in the Ministry of Justice and an accomplished pianist, one day came upon the book at a local library. Recently divorced, this twenty-seven-year-old woman was herself filled with a thirst to explore life's meaning. Reading the book she felt an immediate rapport with the author. "Here was a book," Anna Ilinishna Butkovsky told herself, "which seemed to set out to answer the questions I kept asking."
Since the age of seventeen, Anna Ilinishna had read theosophical literature. It evoked in her a strong desire to explore the esoteric worlds she read about. When she attended a lecture at Petersburg's Theosophical Society, it was likely that the author of Tertium Organum was still on her mind. Following the lecture, there were questions and at one point the lecturer called into the audience"Pyotr Demianovich Uspenskii, please be so kind as to give us your opinion on this matter."
A squarely built gentleman of medium height with close-cropped hair and an imposing face rose from a chair. His forehead was high and broad and gave an impression of great intellect. Stubbornness, too, was reflected in his face by a nose that jutted forth and was clipped with a pince-nez. The eyes which peered through the thick lenses reflected a keen sensitivity and uncommon visionary quality.
Through his books, articles, and lectures Uspenskii had become the darling of Russia's theosophical movement. Anna Alekseevna Kamenskaia, the energetic forty-five-year-old General Secretary and co-founder in 1908 of the Russian Section of Theosophy and head of its powerful St. Petersburg branch, spoke of him highly, as did the idealist philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev who called Uspenskii "the most independent and talented theosophical writer in Russia."
For Anna Ilinishna, hearing the sound of the name "Uspenskii" must have been a shock that seemed like a call of fate. At the lecture's close, Anna Ilinishna introduced herself to the author. What the thirty-four-year-old Uspenskii saw through his pince-nez no doubt pleased him, for he sought to make an impression on the vibrant young woman. He confided to her that while, yes, he had attended the lecture, he was also withdrawing from the Theosophical Society.
Nodding toward the people in the hall, he told her scornfully"These ordinary members are sheep...." He then looked toward the lectern and declared"But I feel there are even bigger sheep in the `inner circle.'"
Proud and self-confident, the young woman stood her ground.
"You sound as though you are sorry there are no wolves," she challenged.
"Exactly!" cried Uspenskii. "At least wolves display strength. Sheep are simply sheep, and it is hopeless for them to pretend to aspire to be the image of God, and to develop the hidden, higher faculties."
By conversation's end, Uspenskii asked Anna Ilinishna to join him for coffee the following morning at Phillipoff's, a café in Petersburg's bohemian section. The café was on the corner of Trotsky Street and Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main boulevard. As it happened, Phillipoff's was close to both their homes. Uspenskii's apartment was at the corner of the Nevsky Prospekt and Liteiny Street, while Anna Ilinishna lived with her father on another corner of the Nevsky at Nikolaevski Street.
Arriving at Phillipoff's the next morning, Anna Ilinishna found Uspenskii awaiting her, three empty coffee cups in front of him. They spoke together of the ideas in Tertium Organum, such as the development of super consciousness and his conclusion, for example, that "a prolonged self-consciousness during sensation, feeling or thinking is a very rare phenomenon in man. As a rule what is called self-consciousness is simply thought, and it takes place post factum. True self-consciousness exists in man only as a potentiality, and if it manifests itself at all, does so only by moments."
After discussing more of the ideas, Uspenskii told her of his search for a school "of a more rational kind."
She asked if he would write another book.
He had already started a book, he replied. Its working title was The Wisdom of the Gods. He was uncertain about finishing it. He estimated it would take him twenty years to complete.
"Even if it would take so long," asked Anna Ilinishna, "why is it not worth writing?"
"Because what I want to say in that book is so difficult and elusive that I do not feel equal to it," declared Uspenskii, and posturing a bit, he added, "and I must always feel equal to anything that I tackle."
Anna Ilinishna made no reply.
An arrogant smile formed on Uspenskii's face and he feigned an admission: "Although the realization hurt my pride very deeply, I knew I lacked something necessary to do it."
The following day the two met again at Phillipoff's. After a few coffees, Uspenskii, obviously smitten by Anna's beauty and independence of mind, came right to the point: "You are attracted by the purpose of our questby the road that we want to travel. And a little by me, too, perhaps? ... I don't think that among your other friends you have anyone as interesting as I am."
Seeing that these words made no impression, he declared outright: "I came across your orbit like a comet."
Finally, he tried another tack with Anna, saying: "Now, suppose you tell me of any curious experiences you have had."
"Have you ever heard of Nicholas Evreinoff, the theatrical producer and writer," asked Anna Ilinishna.
Yes, he told her, he had seen his portrait in the papers. "Romantic face," he said, "like a Florentine poet of the sixteenth century."
Anna Ilinishna admitted she had an affair with Evreinoff.
Unable to control himself, Uspenskii shouted: "How can you do such things!"
Seeing her face, he quickly caught himself and added: "But I am gladit shows you are not `a lady.'"
Anna protested, indignant.
"I don't mean in that sense," said Uspenskii, foot-in-mouth, backtracking quickly. He meant, he said, that she was a human being before she was a lady, "because you aren't afraid of things that Society would disapprove of, or what people may think of you."
However arrogant Uspenskii appeared to Anna, she was attracted by what she saw as his "almost boyish enthusiasm and gentle, poetic radiance." The two continued to meet at Phillipoff's every day at noon and, later on, in the evening as well. One day, as the two were walking along Nevsky Prospekt, they came to the Liteiny and were to pass by Uspenskii's apartment. He invited Anna inside. She hesitated.
"I thought it might give you pleasure to see some of my books," he said. "I went to your house to hear you play, now you should come to mine to look at books!"
True, Anna had invited him to her home to hear her play. She had studied piano under the St. Petersburg Conservatoire's two best professors, one of them the celebrated woman pianist Barinova. Anna Ilinishna had a keen feeling for the essence of music and enjoyed sharing it.
She knew Uspenskii's invitation wasn't at all the same thing. Moreover, it was risky socially, as young unmarried women did not frequent men's apartments. Still, she agreed.
Uspenskii's "apartment," she found, was one very small room. Its furniture consisted of a bed, chair and table, and a large bookshelf crammed with books in Russian, French, and English. On the table was the final draft of a novel, Kinemadrama (later to be retitled The Strange Life Of Ivan Osokin). There was also the unfinished manuscript of another of his books, The Devil.
Their relationship deepening, Uspenskii and Anna sat hour after hour in coffeehouses, like Phillipoff's, or at bohemian clubs like the Stray Dog, situated nearby in a dark cellar. They were often joined by others of the Petersburg intelligentsia. The well-known writer Volinsky was often present, as was Charkovsky, a bridge engineer, who rivaled Uspenskii in his knowledge of mystic literature. The two could talk for hours on the meaning of the various tarot cards or Charkovsky's current passion, a circular device created by Raymond Lully, a thirteenth-century Catalan mystic and teacher, which organized and related forms of knowledge. They all sat drinking cup after cup of à la Varsovienne, a very strong coffee. Or, because of the prohibition, teacups full of bootleg vodka cut with pineapple juice.
As often as not, Uspenskii usually held court, the words pouring forth like an avalanche, as he talked about ancient texts such as the Vedas and the Zend Avesta, or perhaps compared, say, the different esoteric schools, relating a historical survey before asking a series of rhetorical questions that he would answer himself.
When the small hours of the morning arrived, the group wandered along the canals such as the Moika, where, at number 12, the poet Pushkin once lived. They ambled along the quays and past the smart hotels like the Europe or the recently built Astoria, past the massive granite pillars of St. Isaac's Cathedral with its golden dome, past the Maryinski and Alexandrinski theaters, and along the old streets of St. Petersburg. With the coming of spring, Petersburg's lustrous "white nights" began to appear. It was a time when darkness never fell, and the group ambled amid shimmering images of Petersburg's pale yellow buildings, its palaces and bridges and famous sphinxes, all the while discussing, talking, arguing, the words still pouring from Uspenskii. With the approach of dawn the group, ever-shrinking, went on to have buns and tea, perhaps more coffee, at the Nikolaevski Station on Znamenski Square.
With Anna, Uspenskii felt like he was about eighteen. In her he saw what he admired in himself"a driving force and a will to seek and find." For Anna, he came to have two faces. One was the outer face characterized by what she called his "arrogance of erudition." Behind this face was another, she said, "more radiant, countenance filled with a youthful happiness which perhaps no one but myself ever witnessed."
Often their conversations focused on Uspenskii's search and travels. He told her about the esoteric Schools of Builders evidenced by the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame; of the pyramids of Egypt where he said he felt everything "as extraordinarily real, as though I was suddenly transferred into another world, which to my own astonishment I seemed to know very well ... [where this distant past] ceased to be past, appeared in everything, surrounded me, became the present." He spoke of standing before the glance of the Sphinx, that which saw life in terms of centuries and millenniums, and feeling all at once, in that moment, "that I did not exist, that there was no I." He told her about Ceylon and the Buddha with the sapphire eyes which, like the Sphinx, spoke "of another life, of another consciousness, which is higher than man's consciousness," and about the Taj Mahal, where he said he had "the sensation of being in two worlds at once ... and came to feel that here "before me and all around me was the soul of the Empress Mumtaz-i-Mahal," the divine feminine for whom the immense mausoleum had been built. But of all the subjects, it was always to Uspenskii's chief interest, time's fourth dimension, that the discussion returned. For Uspenskii, it was the Idea of ideas; so much so that his friends called him "Uspenskii Fourth Dimension." At the age of twenty he had even published a book, The Fourth Dimension.
The fourth dimension for him was not simply an intellectual idea, however. He had had many experiences of it, most notably perhaps in 1908. He was on a ship in the Sea of Marmara on a rainy winter day standing by the railing watching the waves. The sky was grey and the sea the color of lead, touched with a glint of silver. The waves would crest, their white foam running up to the ship from afar, rear up as though hurling their crests on the deck, and then with a roar throw themselves under the ship.
"I was watching the play of waves with the ship," he said, "and feeling the waves drawing me to themselves. It was not the desire to jump down which one feels in the mountains, but something infinitely more subtle. The waves were drawing my soul to themselves. Suddenly I felt it going to them. It was only a moment, maybe less than a moment. But I entered the waves and, with them, with a roar, attacked the ship. And at that moment I became all. The wavesthey were myself. The violet mountains in the distancethey were myself. The windit was myself. The clouds, hurrying from the north, the rainwere myself. The huge ship, rolling indomitably forwardwas myself. I felt that huge iron body as my body, all its movements, waverings, rollings and shudderings, the fire, the pressure of steam, the engineall this was inside me."
Winter 1913. St. Petersburg. Within a year or so of his meeting Anna Ilinishna, Uspenskii began thinking of a second journey to the East. Perhaps this time to Australia. Unable to conceive of finding his teacher there, he told Anna he had dropped the idea.
"But why don't you go to India, then?" she prompted, adding, "And when you come back you can tell me all about what you find there."
Perhaps fearing Evreinoff had returned to Anna's thoughts or she had become bored with him, Uspenskii wondered why she seemed to want him to go.
Her final examination at the Conservatoire, Anna explained, was in the spring. "If I spend all my time at Phillipoff's like this," she said, "I shall never get on with my work."
Uspenskii finally came to a decision "to start on a long journey with the idea of searching for those schools or for the people who may show me the way."
Since 1905 Uspenskii had made his living as a translator and journalist and had no trouble convincing three newspapers for which he freelanced to finance his trip in return for articles. In London, drawing on his theosophical contacts, he met A. R. Orage, the much respected editor of the New Age, a literary and political weekly magazine. Besides theosophy, the two men may have talked about another mutual interest, Nietzsche and his concept of the superman.
After London, Uspenskii slowly made his way to Ceylon and later to Madras, India, where he spent six weeks at Adyar, the Theosophical Society's headquarters. He traveled about India visiting places such as Benares, Bombay, Agra, and Delhi. He made contact with a number of schools, but they were, he said, "either of a frankly religious nature, or of a half-religious character, but definitely devotional in tone." The sentimental moral philosophy, the shades of asceticism and spiritualism which permeated such schools, had no appeal for him. Others promised a great deal but demanded, from the beginning, a complete surrender. These interested him somewhat. However ...
"Speaking sincerely with myself," admitted Uspenskii, "I could not say that I was able to do this [surrender]. The price seemed too high. As I put it to myself: If I paid with my own self for what I might learn, I should have lost the object for the sake of which I wished to know."
November 1914. St. Petersburg. Anna Kamenskaia, editor of the Russian Theosophical Society's journal Vestnik Teosofii, or Theosophical Herald, urges readers to regard the war as a cosmic event of great occult importance which would produce a cleansing that would forge a new spiritual union between the religious East and the scientific West which would be mediated by Russian spirituality.
November 1914. Moscow. Returning from his long journey, thirty-seven-year-old Pyotr Demianovich Uspenskii once again finds himself in the offices of a Moscow newspaper editing material for a forthcoming issue. A notice in a rival newspaper he is half-reading suddenly connects with his thoughts of the East. His attention, formerly diffuse and thin, now fully focused on the notice, on the screen of his mind are imprinted the wordsThe Struggle of the Magicians.
* * *
December 1914. St. Petersburg-Petrograd. Once again Uspenskii now finds himself back at Phillipoff's talking with Anna.
"Why on earth did I ever go to India?" he asks Anna. "I found nothing there that I have not read before in books, or heard rumored in some way ... nothing new, nothing."
Traveling in India a growing conviction arose in him. Perhaps the teacher for whom he is searching will be found not in the East but in Russia, perhaps even St. Petersburg.
"I have a feeling in my bones," he says. "This is not an exotic city but there must be someone here of the kind I am seeking."
February and March 1915. Petrograd. Uspenskii prepares his novel Kinemadrama for publication and also gives two public lecturesIn Search of the Miraculous and The Problems of Deathat Alexandroski Hall of the town Duma, or Parliament. The lectures arouse considerable interest with each attended by more than a thousand people.
The Theosophical Society's journal Vestnik Teosofii reports:
P. D. Uspenskii's lectures attracted a huge audience, but they evoked perplexity. The lecturer promised in the program to talk about India. In fact he talked only about disillusionment in seeking the miraculous and about his understanding of occultism at variance with its understanding by Theosophists and the Theosophical Society. With indignation he said that the Theosophists selected ethics and philosophy, not occultism, as their field of effort, and that ethics and philosophy are unnecessary to the Society and unrelated to occultism. Mr. Uspenskii also accused the Theosophical Society of arrogance and sectarianism.
April 24, 1915. Armenia. The Turks begin the massacre of over one-and-one-half million Armenians.
April 1915. Moscow. Uspenskii's Petersburg lectures a success, he now brings his lecture series to Moscow. After one lecture, he meets Vladimir Pohl, a composer, and Sergei Dmitrievich Mercourov, a sculptor. Very soon they tell him about a group to which they belong which engages in various occult investigations and experiments. It is led by a Caucasian Greek, they say. It turns out this very same Greek is the "Hindu" who has written The Struggle of the Magicians.
Uspenskii shows no interest, believing occult phenomena to be "a mixture of superstition, self-suggestion, and defective thinking." About meeting this Greek who poses as a Hindu, he is, at best, dubious. Only persistent efforts by Mercourov finally cause him to relent.
The meeting is quickly arranged.
The meeting's venue certainly does nothing to allay Uspenskii's doubts. He is directed neither to a meeting place of the intelligentsia nor to a café of the rich and powerful. Instead, he finds himself opening the door to a small and noisy businessmen's café on a busy Moscow side street. Entering the crowded cafe and seeing the man awaiting him, Uspenskii's concern could only have increased.
No two men could be more opposite in appearance. Uspenskii's skin is light, almost albino, in coloring. Of medium height and squarely built, he sees through a thick pince-nez and speaks and acts in the manner of the intelligentsia. Admirers describe him as having the face of an emperor. In look and action "Uspenskii" gives no doubt as to who he is.
The Caucasian Greek awaiting him at the small café table stares at Uspenskii as he approaches. The man's eyes are dark, intense, piercing. Uspenskii has the dual impression of the eyes having a quality of both emptiness and presence. The impression he creates is "strange" in some way Uspenskii cannot define. The man is swarthy, short, and very powerfully built. Beneath the long nose is a heavy black mustache. He appears to be of an oriental type. In his mind's eye, Uspenskii sees the man in a white burnoose or a gilded turban. The words "Indian raja" or "Arab sheik" enter his mind. Yet the man is dressed like a common merchant. He wears a black overcoat with a velvet collar and a black bowler hat.
Greetings are exchanged. Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff is the name given. Uspenskii, who speaks in the faultless Russian of the intelligentsia, finds the Russian this Gurdjieff speaks not only incorrect but, given its strong Caucasian accent, coarse. Such an accent is hardly associated with philosophical and spiritual discussions.
Still, always a polite and considerate man, Uspenskii draws up a chair. He almost immediately experiences an uneasy feeling. This Gurdjieff fellow seems "disguised" in some way, and poorly at that. Uspenskii finds himself embarrassed. This man is not what he pretends to be, yet Uspenskii has the odd feeling he has to speak and act as though he is not aware of it.
As with the ballet notice in the newspaper, Gurdjieff has created for Uspenskii a kind of `double-impression,' one that interests but also irritates and alarms him. No doubt Uspenskii tries not to show his true inner state. And so, unwittingly, he receives a second double-impression, consisting of both his outward expression and his inner feeling.
And so from the outset, with only the giving of his name and perhaps a few words, Gurdjieff begins to act on Uspenskii. That is, Uspenskii is put in the position of seeing one thing yet having to appear as if he does not see it. The contradiction divides Uspenskii. It jams his mind, stops his thoughts, takes him out of his "Uspenskii," and throws him into uncertainty. For a man who prides himself on the power of his intellect, his control and command over himself and others, Uspenskii's position is not only unfamiliar but decidedly uncomfortable.
Though Uspenskii could not know it, Gurdjieff has followed his newspaper accounts of his journey and its aims. He had also directed his pupils to read Uspenskii's books. In this way, he had told his pupils, Uspenskii's level of understanding could be determined and thus it could be known what he would be able to discover.
Although he had found nothing, Uspenskii was no ordinary seeker. He knows a secret: that most people live only to die, that ordinary life is a meaningless charade. This, together with his gift of intellect and thirst for the truth, had enabled him to see through and free himself from the hypnotisms of conventional society. He had entered into subtle domains of esoteric knowledge, and he was capable not only of capturing, holding, and directing the attention of others, but of bending the will of others to his own. He has experienced the change in the sensation of "I," of time and the "long body" of man, he has been tested by "voices." He has experienced the terror and joy of life's infinity, its unity. He knows of the need to become self-conscious, to expand the space-sense. It is true that many of these experiences came from his experiments with drugs, but of this he will say, "Narcotics cannot give a man anything he has not already got.... All they can do, in certain cases, is to reveal that which is already in a man's soul." He has had the personal power and self-confidence to lecture in Russia's most cosmopolitan cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, and hold the attention of thousands of people. Compared to the average man, Uspenskii is, in his own right, a magician.
This meeting in a noisy Moscow merchant's café then is no ordinary meeting. Rather, it is a meeting between two magicians. And as with all such meetings the issue is: whose magic is greater?
Uspenskii is so put off balance by his initial contact with Gurdjieff, he admits he does not remember how their talk began. If Gurdjieff conducts this meeting as he does others, then he will have begun with questions such as: "Why do you come to me?.... What is your secret intolerance?.... Is your life so unbearable?"
If so, Uspenskii's reply would likely be how he later expressed what he felt at this period of his life. "Ordinary life forces one to swallow customary forms of lying and living in lying," he had said. "I am looking for a way to escape, a new or forgotten road. And it cannot in character be devotional. It must be more rational."
What Uspenskii does remember is that Gurdjieff speaks to him of his Work. Uspenskii's interest is psychology and Gurdjieff explains that while the character of his Work is chiefly psychological, chemistry plays a large role. What Gurdjieff means by `chemistry' Uspenskii is not certain so he associates, telling Gurdjieff about a school in India that studied the chemistry of the human body, altering a man's moral or psychological nature by the introduction or removal of substances.
But this `chemistry' is not Gurdjieff's.
Uspenskii's material on the subject is slight. Instead of exposing his ignorance, he introduces into the discussion the subject of magic and narcotics.
Gurdjieff answers his questions but doesn't let Uspenskii off the hook. He brings him back to the idea of chemistry saying, "To do this [to know possibilities in advance], a great knowledge of the human machine and of this special chemistry is necessary."
Which of the two has the greatest understanding, which is the magician and which the adept, quickly becomes clear.
Despite the heavy, coarse accent, Uspenskii is deeply impressed with Gurdjieff's manner of speaking. In his answers, Gurdjieff is careful, precise, economical. More important: Uspenskii finds some of Gurdjieff's points of view not only newbut unlike any he's ever heard.
At the end of their talk, Gurdjieff invites him to come back to his house to meet some of his pupils. They take a carriage toward the outlying district of Sokolniki. On the way Gurdjieff gives him to understand he lives in an expensive apartment and that among his pupils are a number of well-known professors and artists. When the carriage draws up in front of a municipal school, and Gurdjieff motions him to get out, Uspenskii must have been surprised. Where is the expensive apartment? Gurdjieff leads him up to the top floor of the school. The `apartment' turns out to be a large empty flat that costs perhaps no more than ten pounds a month. As for his pupils, Uspenskii finds them nice and decent, but they belong to a layer of Moscow society known as the "poor intelligentsia." Uspenskii cannot understand: why is Gurdjieff so obviously creating in hint such doubts about who he, Gurdjieff, is?
A student begins to read aloud a story called "Glimpses of Truth." At the outset the story mentions the newspaper notice for the ballet scenario The Struggle of the Magicians. For the third time, like a leitmotif of what their relationship will be, the ballet's title is introduced to Uspenskii.
All the while the piece is read, Gurdjieff sits on the sofa, one leg crossed beneath him, smoking, and drinking black coffee from a tumbler. Now and then he looks at Uspenskii. His movements, Uspenskii notices, have a kind of "feline grace and assurance." The impression slowly forms in him of Gurdjieff being someone quite rare. Uspenskii finds the literary quality of "Glimpses of Truth" unexceptional but still it makes an impression on him.
At the evening's end he goes to leave but suddenly the thought flashes into his mind that he must arrange to see Gurdjieff "at once, without delay." Otherwise, he might lose all contact with him.
And so the next day and every day thereafter for the entire week, Uspenskii and Gurdjieff meet and talk at the same noisy Moscow café. What Uspenskii finds especially impressive is Gurdjieff's command of psychology, an area Uspenskii takes to be his specialty. "I saw without hesitation," says Uspenskii, "that in the domain which I knew better than any other and in which I was really able to distinguish the old from the new, the known from the unknown, Gurdjieff knew more than all European science taken as a whole."
At one point, Uspenskii introduces the subject of esoteric schools. There are no general schools, only special ones, Gurdjieff tells him. Every teacher has his specialty and all the students must study it. Uspenskii wants to know in what way Gurdjieff studied. He is told of the Seekers After Truth.
Uspenskii asks about their whereabouts.
Some are dead, some are working and "some," declares Gurdjieff, "have gone into seclusion."
Seclusion. The word's inner ring has monastic reverberations. Uspenskii reacts. He experiences "a strange and uncomfortable feeling."
During one of their talks, Gurdjieff tells Uspenskii that he might learn a great deal if he knew how to read. For Uspenskiijournalist, translator, and authorthe remark must have been a great shock.
"If you understood everything you have written in your own book, what is it called?"Gurdjieff makes something altogether impossible out of the words Tertium Organum"I should come and bow down to you and beg you to teach me."
Gurdjieff tells Uspenskii of the necessity to work on oneself in a group. Uspenskii raises the question of secrecy. "I do not know," he says, "whether you exact a promise from your pupils to keep secret what they learn from you, but I could give no such promise ... before everything else, I am a writer, and I desire to be absolutely free to decide for myself what I shall write and what I shall not write."
"One must not talk too much," Gurdjieff tells him. "There are things which are said only for disciples."
"I could accept such a condition only temporarily," answers Uspenskii. He goes on to speak of a group engaged in various scientific experiments who "made it a condition that no one would have the right to speak of or describe any experiment unless he was able to carry it out himself. Until he was able to repeat the experiment himself he had to keep silent."
"There could be no better formulation," says Gurdjieff, "and if you will keep such a rule this question will never arise between us."
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