THE VIDEO CALLED “GURDJIEFF”
The Video called “Gurdjieff”
A Review by John Robert Colombo
The Paris-based Institute G.I. Gurdjieff authorized the production of a video in DVD format titled, simply, “Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.” It is described as the first video in a projected series of three disks under the general title “Les Chercheurs de Vérité / The Seekers of Truth.” It comes in a tastefully designed, purple-and-black “jewel box.” Its narration may be heard in five languages: French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian. It is recorded in both PAL and NTSC version, one version on each side of the single disk, so in this way it is something of an anomaly among single-sided DVDs. However, it is not new; it was copyright 2005. The running time is 72 minutes.
The cover copy reads as follows: “‘The Seekers of Truth’ is a series of three films dedicated to the work of G.I. Gurdjieff. This first film shows his unending search, from early years in the Caucasus to his last days in Paris, accompanied by those who later on carried on his Teaching.” The web address is given: The copy that I have bears two lines in small type. They read as follows: “Edition Privée / For Private Distribution Only.” For this reason, I suppose, I should append here the following “Spoiler Warning” to this blog:
“The producers of this DVD may not wish you to view this video, at least at the present time, unless you are a member of a working group. Indeed, they may not wish you to read a review of this video on a blog like the present one. So it is possible you may not wish to read any further.”
I have the video on loan. It did not come from anyone in Canada or France. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to view it. It is a work of quality but not a very demanding one. Despite any individual reservations, I see no reason why a video like this one – especially this one – should be limited in distribution. Indeed, it should be released commercially, and I have not a single doubt that in the future it will be sold through regular channels, perhaps sooner rather than later, so that people like me, who have a curiosity about the Work, may benefit from it. After all, it was a Canadian author who first said, “Build it and they will come.” I wonder how long will be take to come?
The video is sensitive and unsensational. It tells the quite-familiar odyssey of a child of the Caucasus who grows into a man with a mission to travel to remote places in Central Asia, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of other “seeker of truth,” on a quest to find a connection with the wisdom of the past that resides in ancient monasteries or that lies in the heart of man. After that man finds much of what he is seeking, he appears in Moscow, then Tiflis, then Constantinople, then Fontainebleau-on-Avon, then New York, Philadelphia, Boston, then Paris, etc. He leaves behind followers who value his teachings, writings, musical compositions, dance movements, as well as rich memories in the hearts of his followers. In a sense the video covers some of the same ground as Peter Brook’s Meetings with Remarkable Men but in a documentary rather than a dramatic mode.
There is a skillfully constructed narration with two voices: a kindly voiced narrator who speaks for Gurdjieff and the disembodied voice of an unidentified narrator. Gurdjieff’s words are the familiar ones from his memoirs. The visual element is handled deftly. Here are vintage stills, early film clips (some tinted for the occasion, one or two animated), along with generous glimpses of the rhythmical and demanding movements demonstrated on different occasions. Some of the stills and many of the film clips are new to me. Accompanying the narration and the visuals are plangent piano compositions and at one point the voices of a choir are heard.
What follow are some of the features of the video that struck me as effective or interesting. Much attention is paid to Gurdjieff’s father who instilled in his young son “aspirations towards high ideals.” Greek, Russian, and Armenian influences are specifically mentioned. Also noted is the influence of the Dean of the school he attended, and the priesthood and the medical profession are identified as possible careers for the young man, the two being closer to one career at the time than they are today. Instead, he sets out in search of “forgotten knowledge” in Tiflis, Syria, Jerusalem, and Egypt. He meets with “Professor Skridlov” and “Prince Lubovedsky” and they investigate ancient monuments to determine the intention of their builders. Gurdjieff envisions himself devoting the rest of his life to determining “the deep meaning of being and the aim of life.” The three men form the nucleus of the Brotherood of the Seekers of Truth. At Constantinople and elsewhere they study brotherhoods which practise “rituals going back to the creation of Christianity.”
Gurdjieff says he has visited Mecca and Medina but found no answers there, yet in Bokhara he found Islam’s “concentrated doctrines.” Associating with “men of the highest culture,” he determines that “the science of hypnotism” leads him to realize that man has “three types of associations”: thought, feeling, and motor instinct. Eventually the group of Seekers disbands. Some members give up, some are wounded, some have died. Yet he at least finds in Central Asia a “universal brotherhood whose members were united in God’s truth.” He realizes deeply that “all is one” because the same laws pervade all of creation, the structure of which manifests the divine nature.
To support himself he enters the world of business, specifically fisheries and oil wells and he deals in carpets and antiques. Then in 1912 he liquidates his business interests and takes up residence in Moscow where he begins to lecture and teach. As for his teaching, some time is devoted to drawing parallels between the state of man today and the coachman, the horse, and the carriage, specifically the absence of a “permanent I.”
Philosopher and writer P.D. Ouspensky is mentioned at this point and so are future followers, Dr. Leonid Stjoernval and Thomas de Hartmann. This sequence takes place against the backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, creating a sense of the intense importance of the teaching as society around them is disintegrating. A group that includes the above men and their families follows Gurdjieff to the Caucasus to sit out the revolution. Here he creates conditions that generate friction to work against man’s automatic manifestations. In Tiflis in 1919, the group finds relative calm and sets up an institute dedicated “to “work on oneself.” Its motto is “To Know To Be To Understand.” Alexandre de Salzmann, the painter, husband of dancer Jeanne de Salzmann, work with him on the ballet “The Struggle of the Magicians.” Conditions force them to liquidate their investments and with about thirty people they remove themselves to Constantinople, where they observe the parallels between their movements and the Mevlevi dervish dances, a common feature being mental exercises.
Ultimately Gurdjieff finds France congenial and in 1922 he acquires the Prieuré at Fontainebleau-sur-Avon where his old Russian followers work alongside new English disciples led there by Ouspensky and the editor A.R. Orage. This relatively stable period is explored in some detail, specifically from the vantage-point of manual labour. “The value of work lies not in quantity but quality.” Katharine Mansfield is mentioned and the one aim “to be able to be” free from identification. Lectures, movements, celebrations, all of these take place in the airplane hanger that is shown being erected to serve as the Study House. “The secret is simple: to do things like a man.” Among other things, it requires man to work with all three centres. Self-observation and self-remembering are mentioned, and the stop exercise is illustrated (by stopping the accompanying music, albeit for a second or two): a neat touch.
The reactions of journalists to life and work at the Prieuré are contrasted with the inner work that is underway. Gurdjieff’s mother and sister and other family members join him and take up residence at the nearby Paradou. The movements are exhibited on the Champs-Elysées. The troupe of forty-six members sails for New York City and arrives penniless. Luckily Orage has prepared for their arrival. The movements are demonstrated in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Work on oneself is emphasized. “We must always start with ourselves.” Inwardly man is one; outwardly man is an actor.
Gurdjieff’s near-fatal automobile accident and the Great Depression will signal the end of the summer of the Prieuré. Yet the work continues. After convalescence, he moves from practice to theory and in 1925 begins to write “Beelzebub’s Tales,” sometimes in the Café de la Paix. In the meantime, scenes are shown of numerous children who have their own vegetable garden and animals to tend. Within months his wife and then his mother die. “The most beautiful roses have thorns.” He collaborates with de Hartmann on three hundred musical compositions over a period of three years. There are regular trips to the United States throughout the 1930s. He begins to work with a circle of American and other women in Paris.
By the late 1930s he leads a Paris circle that includes Madame de Salzmann, Henri Tracol, Henriette Lannes, René Daumal, and Luc Dietrich. They meet at his apartment on rue des Colonels-Renard. Throughout the German occupation of Paris, movements are held at the Salle Playel. their work accounting for moments of sanity during turbulent and tragic times. After the war, clips show him writing at Child’s restaurant in New York. He is shown as a trencherman, handlebar moustache and all, eating with gusto, “with all my attention.” There is a last motor trip in the summer of 1949 to view the cave paintings at Lascaux, evidence of early life. He dies knowing “Beelzebub’s Tales” will soon be published. “Then I will go far away where I will be able to rest.”
The production credits scroll by swiftly. The director is Jean-Claude Lubtchansky, the Paris chief and also a recognized documentary film-maker. The names of perhaps two dozen men and women are given; I recognized a number of them, notably those of Michel de Salzmann, Tom Daly, Peter Brook, and James Moore.
Taste and tact are characteristic of the video. Since it was not conceived to break new ground, it is perhaps a mistake to be critical of it on that account. It is a fine if limited tribute that keeps this side of hagiography. How it quite accomplishes that, I am not quite sure. But it does display a surety of step, a balance, which is a little too … balanced, perhaps … for the film biography of a man who could exhibit a fierce temper and used words like “mercilessly” and “uncompromising.”
I understand that there will be three videos, maybe four. Part One focuses on G.I.G. The subject of Part Two will be Mr. G.’s followers. Part Three will review the Work internationally. In the planning stage, it seems, is Part Four, which will distill the essences of the mind, heart, and body of these three videos and render them accessible to the general public.
If the present video is so traditional in approach and such a responsible presentation of the teachings, why is its distribution limited? I am able to entertain four reasons for the “restricted” label. Here they are.
The first reason is that as long as the distribution is limited, copies may be sold at higher prices than if there is general distribution. The fact that it is not widely available becomes its USF (unique selling feature). The profits from the sales will then be earmarked towards the costs of production of Part II and Part III. Once the costs have been recovered, the videos may go into general distribution. I am not impressed with this argument, as more revenue will be generated through general sale than through private distribution.
The second reason is that secrecy generates interest. People (like myself) may take the video more seriously if it is passed from hand to hand rather than displayed on the shelves of the local video outlet. There is some truth to this, but restriction does “preach to the converted.” It also raises false hopes that something new will be said.
The third reason is “membership premium value.” The leadership of every group knows that the group needs to reserve something of value for its members. Otherwise, why join a group? Perhaps the video is regarded as one of the “perks” of membership. Freemasonry faces this problem today, as it wishes to acquire new and younger members, but secrecy and anonymous charitable giving have little appeal to the younger generation of potential members. Perhaps the Institute faces a similar problem.
The fourth reason is excess caution, exquisite circumspection. I have been hearing for the last forty years that the Institute has for more than half a century been squatting on its treasures – preserving its treasures might be a more understanding way to express it – so that a sense of hesitancy has now become a hereditary factor, like rickets.
Yet times are changing, though the nature of man remains constant. There is a Traditionalist saying that at the time of the Prophet – an age of faith – it was necessary to observe ninety per cent of the law, whereas in our day and age – parlous times indeed – it is required that only ten per cent of the law be observed.
John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the “Master Gatherer”
for his curiosity and his ability to find and comment on little-known aspects of Canadian social and cultural life. He is the host of the six-part television series “Unexplained Canada” shown on the SPACE Channel. The National Film Board of Canada released two short animated films based on his poems. He is currently working on an expanded edition of his earlier book called “Walt Whitman’s Canada.”