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Fourth Way Perspectives

Interview With James Moore

Active in the work since 1956, James Moore has written the definitive Gurdjieff biography, Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth. He lives in London where he leads several groups.

Telos: A biography of Gurdjieff is something of an heroic task, certainly a rash task. Can you say just why you took it on?

JM: I felt compelled to. In 1975 Madame de Salzmann told us in London: 'The time has now come to meet the confused, inaccurate and sometimes hostile ideas about the Work...the Work has to emerge, appear in the world in a certain way.' Already she and Peter Brook and Michael Currer-Briggs were wrestling, against tremendous odds, to set up the film Meetings With Remarkable Men, but this would only present the young Gurdjieff. Secretly, I began to wonder — half aghast at my own temerity — if I could one day contribute something. So, in a sense, the long, long fuse for this biography was lit by Madame de Salzmann's unexpected challenge.

Telos: But had the writing no personal dimension for you?

JM: Well, yes. At risk of sounding pretentious, it is connected with the parable of the talents in the Gospels. I don't particularly want to speak about it.

Telos: Aside from biography's classic difficulties, did you run into any special technical obstacles?

JM: Perhaps you have in mind Work secrecy and a historicism? Well, despite Michel de Salzmann's generous blessing, given when I spoke with him in Paris on 12 March 1988, several key witnesses 'took the Fifth'. The moral right of someone like Lise Tracol [Mr. Gurdjieff's young pupil and housekeeper during his last years in Paris] to maintain silence is unassailable but don't imagine it helps the biographer. Vital unpublished texts I also found embargoed. I knew their scope. I knew who 'owned' them. I knew their vibrancy—Tchekov Tchekovitch's account of Mr. Gurdjieff's 1924 accident is absolutely electrifying. But I simply could not lay lands on them. Piquantly enough, immediately my book was published, three or four Work eminences who had withheld specific stuff wrote me pained but controlled letters pointing out material omissions from my text!

Telos: We well recognize this secrecy but what do you mean by 'a historicism'?

JM: My first teacher, Kenneth Walker, was a professor, a highly cultured man. Yet he said in Venture with Ideas that Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol, 'near the Persian frontier of Russia'. For literally decades this geographical solecism reappeared on the cover of Meetings with Remarkable Men. Could no one distinguish Persia from Turkey? Could no one look at a map?

Telos: Does it really matter?

JM: Not a fig, from the standpoint of our inner work. A teaching which elevates Here and Now to its highest potency is supra-historical; the perennial Gurdjieff will remain an enigma, at right-angles to history ... However, if you are simply struggling to write a 'good householder' biography, it matters tremendously that in 1930 your subject infuriatingly burnt his passports, memoranda, certificates and correspondence. It matters tremendously that, day after day, you find yourself mining a literature strewn with intentional and unintentional inexactitudes.

The Unknown Sculptor 'M'

Telos: What about historical surprises? Did you turn up anything revolutionary?

JM: Revolutionary is an apt word. I vividly remember the instant in Kensington Reference Library when the unknown sculptor 'M' suddenly swam into focus as Sergei Dmitrievich Merkurov. The fact that Gurdjieff's own cousin, the very pupil who introduced Ouspensky, later took Lenin's death mask forges an almost preposterous link between Ashiata Shiemash and Lentrohamsanin. Perhaps Russian archives hold other unconsidered gems of Gurdjieffian history. Even KGB files are now relatively accessible and I am attempting proxy searches on Merkurov and on Dr. Alexandre Salmanoff, who was first Lenin's physician then Gurdjieff's. There's probably an entire new book here if I could raise a sympathetic publisher . . . and if I had the time.

Telos: Yes, Heropass is the enemy. Just how long did the Gurdjieff biography take?

JM: Research: effectively all my adult life. Actual writing: nearly four years. I began the first chapter 'The Arousing of Thought' in May 1987 and completed the last chapter 'Au Revoir, tout le Monde' in October 1990. Then came the notes, chronology, etc. I enjoyed a brief sabbatical in the fall of 1988, when I took Mme de Salzmann's last film Danses Sacrées to the Katherine Mansfield Centennial Conference in New Zealand—but that is another story.

Telos: Tell us a bit about the book's reception. You gloomily predicted that some critics would accuse you of lése majesté and others of sycophancy. Was this pessimism borne out?

JM: Oh yes, if you want to win friends and influence people don't write a biography of Gurdjieff. A British editor named Nicolas Albery, in his acidic review 'Gurdjieff—a hagiography', accused me of 'Bending over backwards to make every explanation possible for his guru's outrageous behaviour, except the obvious one: a rogue is a rogue is a rogue'—by virtually the same post came a manuscript copy of Jeffrey P. Zaleski's highly positive notice for Parabola. But this latter piece was killed, spiked, never published. Why? According to Jeffrey because the protective hand of The Gurdjieff Foundation hovering over Parabola wields the blue pencil of censorship. The relevant Work editors—we all know their names—evidently considered my portrait of Gurdjieff unforgivably 'iconoclastic'! I am tempted to give them Mr. Albery's fax number so that they can argue it out with him.

Telos: Gurdjieff warned us that everything only lasts for a finite time. Do you yourself suppose your book will 'live' ?

JM: Yes and no. Lucy, Lady Pentland—despite my blunders apropos Lord Pentland, which incidentally I have set to rights in the paperback—has generously predicted it will become an 'authorized standard source'. Personally however I should be astonished if it were not leap-frogged factually by A.D. 2000. Russian sources may throw up undreamed of surprises. The Ushe Narzunov mystery may be resolved. In any case, many primary memoirs seem already in the pipeline: Tchekov Tchekovich, Dr. Conge, Dushke Howarth, Lord Pentland—perhaps even something from Mme de Salzmann... So, as the definitive history, my book may soon be on 'skid row'. Yet as mythopoesis it could perhaps have a longer shelf-life assuming passages like Gurdjieff's imagined deathbed reverie retain their 'shimmer'. Nor will things like my Gurdjieff-Soloviev hypothesis date so fast.

Textual Exploration: The Gurdjieff-Soloviev Equation

Telos: This Gurdjieff-Soloviev equation is intriguing. How did you come to it?

JM: It's just my personal hypothesis reached by textual comparison and intuition. But interesting, isn't it, that Gurdjieff in Meetings brings Soloviev with him like an alter ego across the rope bridge and into the Sarmoung Monastery—whereas Peter Brook and Mme de Salzmann persuade their wild camel to jump the starter's gun and 'terminate' Soloviev with 'extreme prejudice'.

Telos: So would it follow that Gurdjieff, like Soloviev, was an alcoholic—as Oscar Ichazo suggests?

JM: Did Gurdjieff ever drink too much in youth? Far too much? I daresay he did occasionally. He was a man, not the Little Lord Fauntleroy of Brook's film of Meetings. 'If you go on a spree go the whole hog including the postage.' But anything remotely resembling alcoholism? No! No! No! My Soloviev parallelism should not be extrapolated mechanistically. Gurdjieff's self-eviscerating confession in the Prologue to the Life is Only Real Then, When "I Am" does not mention abuse of alcohol.... Well, Gurdjieff will never lack calumniators to multiply ignoble accusations; that is part of the inevitable play of forces. He foresaw it, even courted it.

Telos: Well, now that the book is behind you, how do you see the bigger picture of Gurdjieff today?

The Big Picture

JM: A difficult question! In 'situating' Gurdjieff one actually situates one's self. I suppose Pierre Schaeffer's ironic predictions are variously coming true, aren't they—Gurdjieff as scarecrow, old fossil, Pope, philosopher. So the bigger picture is kaleidoscopic and not without some very positive facets. ... But what a down-market picture frame!—all that New Age spiritual candy-floss; all that indulgent wiseacring about 'The Fourth Way'; all that endlessly salable mish-mash of recycled tradition; and, nowadays, all those tone-deaf sociological papers. Gurdjieff is surely not that. He is something far more elemental.

Telos: Is there any particular presentation of Gurdjieff which makes your blood boil?

JM:How did you guess? Each time I hear him called 'charlatan' negative emotion surges. The literati who libel Gurdjieff, themselves glisten with fraudulence; their critique has no hinterland; occasionally they cannot even spell his name. He 'had their number' of course—only read his introduction to Meetings. Nevertheless it hurts that some promising youngsters first encounter 'Gurdjieff' only in spiteful caricature.... So how shall we, his 'grandsons', intelligently answer his call: 'I need soldiers who will fight for me and the New World'? I stress the word intelligently.