Read The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky Online

Authors: Colin Wilson

Tags: #Occultism, #Psychology, #Body; Mind & Spirit, #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #Mysticism

The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky

BOOK: The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky

By the same author:

ALEISTER CROWLEY: The Nature of the Beast

G.I. GURDJIEFF: The War Against Sleep

C.G. JUNG: Lord of the Underworld

RUDOLF STEINER: The Man and his Vision

The Strange Life of P.D. OUSPENSKY



An Imprint of

For Richard Foreman

The Aquarian Press

An Imprint of HarperCollins

77-85 Fulham Palace Road,

Hammersmith, London W6 8JB

Published by The Antiquarian Press 1993

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Colin Wilson asserts the moral right to

be identified as the author of this work

A catalogue record for this book

is available from the British Library

ISBN 1 85538 079 X

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Printed in Great Britain by

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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be

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in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,

photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior

permission of the publishers.




The Dreamer

The Romantic Realist

The Master

Creating 'Man Number Four'


There is no System'

What Went Wrong?



A few hours before setting out for America in 1987, I casually picked up
A New Model of the Universe
, which happened to be lying by the bed because I had been duplicating the chapter on Time for a friend. I began to read 'Experimental Mysticism', and realized suddenly that this was the single most important chapter in all Ouspensky's work, and that what he was saying fitted closely with my own conclusions on the 'relationality' of consciousness, as outlined in the final chapter of my
Beyond the Occult
, which I had just finished. Oddly enough, I had read 'Experimental Mysticism' before - the chapter was heavily marked in pencil - yet, until that day, had never grasped its full significance. I duplicated it, took it with me to America, and used it as the basis of a number of lectures from New York to Los Angeles. On my return home I hastened to add sections on Ouspensky and 'Experimental Mysticism' to
Beyond the Occult

All this led me back to
Tertium Organum
, and to the recognition that even if he had never met Gurdjieff, Ouspensky would have been one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century. This had, in fact, been the thesis of a book called
Ouspensky: The Unsung Genius
by J.H. Reyner. I had felt, at the time, that Reyner was pitching Ouspensky's claims too high; now I found myself feeling that, if anything, he had pitched them too low. Hence my own attempt in this book to stake Ouspensky's claim as an individual thinker and man of genius.


I WISH to thank Messrs Routledge and Kegan Paul for their permission to quote from the works of Ouspensky. Dr James Rentoul has drawn my attention to some interesting aspects of Ouspensky's work, as has Chloë Daly, of Laguna Beach, California.

I have dedicated this book to Richard Foreman - another student of the Work - in acknowledgement of the stimulus I received from his immense library while staying in his flat in New York.

CW, January 1992


The Dreamer

In the last years of his life, Ouspensky struck acquaintances as a sad and disappointed man; he drank too much, and spent a great deal of time brooding nostalgically about the good old days in Tsarist Russia. It was not entirely Slavic melancholy. He told J.G. Bennett in a letter that nothing could be found by intellectual processes, and that 'there is only one hope: that we should find the way to work with the higher emotional centre'. To this he added the sad comment: 'And we do not know how this is to be done.'

The disappointment may also have been due to a sense of creative unfulfilment. At the age of 20, he had made his reputation with a book called
The Fourth Dimension
. By the time he reached his mid-thirties - in 1913 - Ouspensky was one of the most promising young intellectuals in Russia, a fine novelist and writer of short stories, and the author of a brilliant and profound volume of philosophy called
Tertium Organum
. In fact when it was published in America after the First World War, it made him famous. His third book,
A New Model Of The Universe
, was even finer, and guarantees him a place as one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. Ouspensky should have gone on to have become as well-known in the West as contemporaries like Berdyaev, Merejkovsky and Bunin. Instead, he descended into a self-chosen obscurity, preferring to regard himself as a teacher of 'the Work', the 'System' of his great contemporary George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. The latter achieved a considerable degree of celebrity in America during the 1930s. And Ouspensky, as far as he was known at all, was regarded simply as Gurdjieff's chief disciple - although, in fact, they had gone their separate ways soon after the First World War, and Ouspensky even forbade his pupils to mention Gurdjieff's name. Ouspensky must have known that he was one of the most remarkable minds of the century - that he was no more a 'disciple' of Gurdjieff than, say, Coleridge was a disciple of Wordsworth, or Pushkin of Byron. No doubt he would have dismissed the whole question as an absurdity - fame, after all, is little more than a delusion - yet there is something in all of us that wishes to leave behind a name for posterity. And Ouspensky virtually renounced his own name and fame to become an anonymous teacher. Even those who revered him regarded him as a mouthpiece of Gurdjieff's ideas.

When he returned to England from New York in 1947, his former pupil Kenneth Walker was shocked by the change in him: '. . . he appeared to me to be a man who had lost all of his former enthusiasm and drive.' What was even more shocking was that Ouspensky had apparently lost faith in the System to which he had devoted his whole life. 'There is no System,' he replied in answer to a question. And so the sick man dragged himself on without faith for another nine months. His disciple Rodney Collin wrote: 'In Ouspensky's last months one saw how he accepted being old, sick, ugly, helpless, in pain, misunderstood . . .' And when, after a final talk to a small group of disciples, he died at dawn on 2 October, 1947, at the age of 69, Rodney Collin locked himself in Ouspensky's room for a week without food.

What had gone wrong? In fact,
anything gone wrong, or had Ouspensky brought his life's work to a kind of genuine fulfilment? To answer that question, we must go back to the beginning . . .

Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky was born in Moscow on 5 March, 1878, the son of an officer in the Survey Service and a talented artist. Since in Russia one was either a peasant or a gentleman, Ouspensky was emphatically a gentleman. As his maternal grandparents were also members of the 'intelligentsia,' he grew up among writers, artists and thinkers.

In a more stable society, he would undoubtedly have gone on to become one of the most important philosophers of his time andended as a 'grand old man' whose name would have ranked with contemporaries like Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw and Thomas Mann.

Unfortunately, Holy Russia was one of the most unstable societies in the world. At the time of Ouspensky's birth, liberals were clamouring for a constitution. Organizations with titles like 'Land and Liberty' and 'The Will of the People' talked openly about revolution, and were persecuted by the police. Just after Ouspensky's third birthday, Tsar Alexander II was blown up by a bomb made of nitro-glycerine enclosed in glass. His successor, Alexander III, made a bizarre and heroic attempt to prevent Russia from advancing into the twentieth century by inaugurating a regime of repression, but died of exhaustion after a mere 13 years' rule. His successor, Nicholas II, 'the last of the Tsars', did his best to give the liberals the constitution they wanted, but it was too late: Russia was already living in the shadow of the immense tragedy that would engulf Europe and wipe out the Tsar's own family. In 1918, the year the Tsar and Tsarina were murdered at Ekaterinburg, Ouspensky set out on the journey that would take him into exile. The years of security were over and, at the age of 39, he had to start all over again.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the young Ouspensky came to share the 'spirit of the age,' and became imbued with a feverish romanticism; before he was seven, he was reading Turgenev's
Sportsman's Sketches
and Lermontov's
Hero of Our Time
, the latter a Byronic work by a poet who was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Both had been regarded as revolutionary works at the time of their publication and had earned their authors a period in prison.

Ouspensky's later description of memories of childhood - some dating from the age of two - indicate that, like the young Proust, he experienced life with an almost hallucinatory intensity. He spoke of the river near a town called Zvenigorod, with its smell of tar, its old monastery, and its hills covered with forests, and recalled the illuminations at the coronation of Tsar Alexander III, when he was three. Yet he also experienced a curious sense of the fundamental unreality of this world around him. He later told his pupils how, at the age of six, he had visited a place near Moscow (perhaps Zvenigorod) and thought that it was not as he remembered it from four years earlier. Then he realized that he had
been there before, and that his 'memory' of it must have been a dream.

He also told Kenneth Walker about the occasion when his mother took him to his first school. In a long corridor, when his mother admitted she was lost, Ouspensky told her that there was a passage further down, and that at the end of it there were two steps, and a window through which they would see the headmaster's garden, with lilies growing in it. The door of the headmaster's study was nearby. He proved to be correct, although he had never been in the building before. This sense of the mystery and ambiguity of time continued to haunt his childhood; between the ages of six and eleven, he kept having experiences of
déjà vu
- 'I have been here before.' He and his young sister - to whom he was very close - shared an ability to foretell the immediate future: they would sit at the nursery window and predict - accurately - what would happen in the street. They never spoke to the adults about this, convinced that they wouldn't understand anyway.

Nevertheless, Ouspensky was fortunate in his parents. Through his mother he came to love poetry and the visual arts. But his father was also a keen amateur mathematician, who was fascinated by the then-fashionable subject of the fourth dimension, and by the age of 12, Ouspensky was as interested in science as in literature and art. The Latin master who caught him reading a physics textbook in class confiscated it, and his fellow pupils murmured mockingly that Ouspensky read physics. From the autobiographical novel
The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin -
started when he was in his mid-twenties - we gather that he had a particular dislike of this master, a German, and that he was generally a rebellious pupil.
is, in fact, our main source of information about Ouspensky's childhood and teens. It is a novel about 'Eternal Recurrence,' in which the hero, on the verge of committing suicide because he has lost the girl he loves, goes to see a magician, who offers to allow him to live the past few years over again. But it makes no difference; he makes all the same mistakes, loses the girl again, and once more goes to see the magician, to ask to be allowed to live his life over again . . .

How can we be sure that
is autobiographical? Because Ouspensky admitted that the girl, Zinaida, was a real person, and we know that certain other events in the novel also happened to him - for example, that he was expelled from school for a silly practical joke, that his mother died within two years of his expulsion, and that he went to Paris. His portrait of the rebellious young Osokin is also close to what Ouspensky tells us about himself elsewhere. Like Osokin, Ouspensky was a boarder at the Second Moscow Gymnasium; like Osokin, he found the place stifling and squalid. 'I often want to smash my head against the wall from sheer boredom.' His neglect of his studies led the headmaster to order him to stay behind after school one day. Osokin finds that the caretaker has forgotten to lock him in. He walks along the corridor, adorns a bust of Julius Caesar with a pair of blue spectacles, and writes on the wall underneath it 'Welcome your Excellency' - his Excellency being a school inspector who was expected later in the day. The next day he is expelled.

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