John Robert Colombo discourses on P.D. Ouspensky’s Magnum Opus
P. D. Ouspensky 1878- 1947
Last evening I sat down in the most comfortable armchair in our house in Toronto and read in its entirety the text of “In Search of the Miraculous.” I did it in thirty-five minutes. It was not my first reading of P.D. Ouspensky’s text, nor will it be the last time I expect to read this work, yet it took me only a 1,200 seconds.
It is true I once took a course in speed-reading, but this time I was not using the techniques that I had learned at those sessions. (Indeed, my speed-reading instructor once said, “Speed-reading is good for general reading, but not for “the four P’s” – poems, plays, pornography, printer’s proofs … and I might add philosophical texts.) Nor did I skim or scan the text. I read every word with comprehension. I recommend the practice and the experience to one and all.
You will be forgiven if you have already decided that I am out of my mind! Indeed, how could anyone read with comprehension and with recall every page of Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous”? After all, the tome is 390 pages long, with 570 words per page, a total of 222,300 words. I am referring to the edition that is titled and subtitled “In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching” which appeared on the list of Harcourt, Brace and Company of New York in 1949. This is the first edition.
It was a remarkable text then and it is a remarkable text now. Of course it is impossible for even a graduate speed-reader to embrace its contents in thirty-five minutes. Thirty-five hours might be a better estimate of the time it would take to absorb what the author had to say, and only then after repeated readings.
It was ten years after the tome was first published that I read it for the first time. A woman who was very knowledgeable about the Work privately suggest that I not boast of having read it at so young an age. She added, “The Table of Hydrogens is really very detailed and difficult, you know.” The same applies to all the book’s eighteen chapters, not just to Chapter IX which describes the indeed-difficult Table of Hydrogens.
“In Search of the Miraculous” was not Ouspensky’s first choice of titles for this magnum opus, which appeared two years following his death – the same year as death came to the remarkable man who is identified throughout the text as “G.” – George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. The author planned to give it the title “Fragments of an Unknown Teaching.” That may be a truly descriptive series of words, but it is one that is less saleable than the present one. Instead, “Fragments,” etc., became the volume’s subtitle.
There was always the feeling that had the book appeared as “Fragments of an Unknown Teaching,” it might now be confused with another book by another author – “Fragments of a Faith Forgotten” written in 1900 by the Theosophist and writer G.R.S. Mead. Ouspensky knew about Mead’s book, for he had enjoyed an early association with the Theosophical Society, so that some confusion might have followed.
Ouspensky’s preferred title for his work was “Man and the World in Which He Lives – Fragments of an Unknown Teaching.” He was preparing that work for publication in 1912-1934 while he was working on another of his big books, “A New Model of the Universe,” which was first published in 1931 and revised in 1935; the standard edition is the one issued by Harcourt, Harcourt, Brace and Company in New York in 1950. The earliest known title for “New Model” is “The Wisdom of the Gods.”
In a footnote to “New Model of the Universe,” dated 1912-1934, he states that a new book is “being prepared for publication.” At the same time we also learn from the same source that the author was working on the notion of “different time in different cosmoses … which will be the subject of another book.” He was revising the English version of a novel with the working title “The Wheel of Fortune.” That one had originally been published in St. Petersburg in 1915 as “Kinemadrama.” It eventually appeared in English as “The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin.” So it might have had three titles.
Could anyone actually read “In Search of the Miraculous” in thirty-five minutes? That is an obvious impossibility. When I make the claim that I did, I failed to explain that the text that I succeeded in reading so rapidly was Chapter IX of “A New Model of the Universe” which is coincidentally titled “In Search of the Miraculous.” The book’s chapter runs from page 305 to page 342, so it is only 37 pages long, easily read in a little more than half an hour, especially as it about as is far from being technical in orientation as possible. In fact, it highlights the writerly side – indeed, the literary side – of Ouspensky’s otherwise austere temperament.
Readers of “A New Model of the Universe” may or may not recall that Chapter IX is composed of six literary sketches – “feuilletons” in French – which evoke six aspects of “the miraculous.” The sketches are both subjective in emotion and objective in the sense that their subjects are appreciated and evaluated in the contest of what might be called “the real history of the world” instead of what we know as “the history of crime.”
The first sketch evokes the magnificence of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and explores the claim made for it is that, just as modern science has conquered space, esoteric science “has conquered time.” It has done so for “it knows methods of transferring its ideas intact and of establishing communications between schools through hundreds and thousands of years.”
Egypt and the Pyramids are described in the second sketch. It discusses the construction of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau and leaves the reader with the following thought: “In reality the pyramids contain a great enigma.” One of the enigmas is anti-evolutionary in nature. On this basis alone we should conclude the existence of civilized beings prior to ourselves; hence we ourselves are not “the descendants of a monkey.”
Sketch number three is devoted to the Sphinx about which “nothing is known.” The author writes, “The Sphinx is indisputably one of the most remarkable, if not the most remarkable, of the world’s works of art. I know nothing that I would be possible to put side by side with it. It belongs indeed to quite another art than the art we know. Beings such as ourselves could not create a Sphinx.”
“The Buddha with the Sapphire Eyes” is the title of the fourth sketch. Ouspensky’s account of it – his meditation on the reclining figure – has made it among occultists and esotericists the most famous of Ceylon’s giant statues. It is located just outside the Sri Lanka capital of Colombo, and there is a photograph of it reproduced in the Commemorative Issue of “The Bridge,” a journal published by The Study Society, London, in 1977. But the author offers a verbal portrait worth a thousand pictures. This Buddha speaks to us “of a real existence, of another life, and of the existence of men who know something of that life and can transmit it to us by the magic of art.”
The fifth sketch is titled “The Soul of the Empress Mumtaz-i-Mahal” and it paints a rosy and pastel image of the Taj Mahal, a scene that never seems to cloy or lose its fascination. The Taj is a tomb, a burial site, but it is not a gravesite. Here Ouspensky develops a theory that moves into dimensions beyond the fourth, infinity being the fifth: “The soul and the future life are one and the same.”
“The Mevlevi Dervishes” is the sixth and last sketch. In Constantinople he was invited to a tekke at Pera where he had the opportunity to observe the dervishes whirl about like the planets in the heavens. He witnessed the ceremony on at least two occasions at an interval of one dozen years. He concluded that events move more quickly than do the dervishes for all their speed. For instance, in the interval, Russia itself had ceased to exist. Events that had occurred to him during those twelve years had imparted some knowledge to him. “And now I knew more about them. I knew a part of their secret. I know how they did it. I knew in what the mental work connected with the whirling consisted. Not the details of course, because only a man who takes part in the ceremonies or exercises can know the details. But I knew the principle.”
On that note this chapter ends. These synopses of Ouspensky’s sketches are meant to offer the reader a sense of the poetic side of the author’s temperament. It was Colin Wilson’s argument that the world lost a great metaphysician in P.D. Ouspensky when he met G.I. Gurdjieff. Whether this is true or not, all is not lost. We have Ouspensky’s heart and soul in the chapter “In Search of the Miraculous,” and his body and mind in the book “In Search of the Miraculous.”
Perhaps you will agree with me that this is not bad for thirty-five minutes of reading!
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist with a special interest in mysteries. His current work is devoted to preserving the hitherto unknown short mystery fiction written by Sax Rohmer, the English author who created the arch-villain preposterous, Dr. Fu Manchu. All this is explained on his website: < http://www.colombo.ca >
Notice of conferences, books, reviews or events of interest to the practitioner or scholar of Gurdjieff’s teaching may be sent to: Sophia Wellbeloved email@example.com