Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ouspensky's burden

'The Strange Life of P.D. Ouspensky' is the title of Colin Wilson's brief, sometimes a tad breathless, account of the life of the Russian philosopher and esotericist. It is, however, a graceful and thoughtful portrait of a complex man, who became tragically entangled with the equally strange Gurdjieff. It was not a happy match and Wilson sets off to explore why.

At heart, Wilson pins the mismatch on Gurdjieff reinforcing, at a critical moment, Ouspensky's pessimism, suggesting to him that the possibilities of human development were so circumscribed by man's machine like nature that the possibilities of human evolution were remote, difficult and the practices towards them rigorous and communal.

Yet Ouspensky had already come to the threshold of illumination, prior to his meeting Gurdjieff and what he needed was assurrance of their validity and a better containing framework that would allow for their deeper reception and development. Ouspensky's world was graced and its grace needed reinforcement, not denial. Equally Ouspensky was essentially a romantic individual, not by nature a joiner of groups, or naturally the propagator of another man's ideas, indeed he responds best to Gurdjieff when Gurdjieff treats him as if he were different, a man apart. But this was rare.

It is also apparent that Gurdjieff himself was 'working it out'. He did not stand within a specific tradition that he had been initiated into and assumed (contrary to his assertions otherwise). He was weaving, with undoubted intution, intelligence and skill, an approach, drawing on multiple sources. This Ouspensky, I suspect, creatively misread to create an intellectual system (as was his want and need) that Gurdjieff himself recognised, but not as something already established, simply being revealed, but as something being made.

They needed each other but could not abide with each other. They remind us that it is a complex thing to find the right teacher at the right time and have the courage to recognise when it may be time to move on.

A traditionalist critic would point to this and say, 'See, see, what happens, when you deviate from a tradition, in both its exoteric and esoteric components, you end up sowing error, become unhappy and confused.'

There is an element of truth in this - both 'systems' feel like they require a deeper grounding in the exoterically ordinary - of service, compassion and the devotional - but we can also see them as brave experiments after psychological and spiritual development that open out onto possible dialogue with modernity, most especially science. Perhaps they too needed to realize that what the future requires of us is no longer gurus and disciples but co-creators of experimented truths.Not that this would impress the traditionalist given the future, for them, is a forlorn inversion of a romanticised past!

Finally, it appears that Ouspensky broke through to a new serenity in his last months - not least perhaps by surrendering the binding thought that there was a 'system' and moving forward by remembering his illumined moments of grace, that the world is, in truth, gift, not prize.

 

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