Baa, Baa, Black Sheep Have You Any Wool?

Three notable biographies from the Gurdjieff Work

I TEACH HOW TO COOK (…but not what to cook): A Story of John Godolphin Bennett
Ben Bennett. Self-published, 2023. 254 pp. $39.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper

RODNEY COLLIN: a man who wished to do something with his life
Terje Tonne. Karnack Press, 2023. 394 pp. $29.99 paper

MAURICE NICOLL: Forgotten Teacher of the Fourth Way
Gary Lachman. Inner Traditions, 2024. 464 pp. $35 hardcover 

The Gurdjieff teaching continues to produce books—memoirs, biographies, guidebooks, indexes, and more—at an exhilarating pace. Here are three recent biographies of prominent figures of that teaching that Parabola has not covered previously.

Two of the books are the first full-length biographies of their subjects, both seminal figures in a teaching introduced in 1914. One, I Teach How to Cook (…but not what to cook), is the first major life (other than his autobiography, Witness) of Gurdjieff’s controversial student John Godolphin Bennett [JGB henceforth]— written by Bennett’s younger son, Ben [BenB]. The other, Rodney Collin: a man who wished to do something with his life, is similarly the first full-length study of a provocative teacher of the Gurdjieff “Work,” along with a penetrating analysis of his thought, written by Terje Tonne, a veteran leader of the Gurdjieff teaching based in Oslo.

The third title, Maurice Nicoll: Forgotten Teacher of the Fourth Way, is the third life of this heir-apparent to Jung who turned instead to Gurdjieff. It is, however, the first life of Nicoll that can’t be classified as hagiography. Quite the opposite; while its author, Gary Lachman, who spent time in the Gurdjieff teaching, displays respect for his subject, he also questions him deeply and offers shocking revelations.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Ben Bennett’s blood ties to his subject, he appears to have taken extraordinary care to present a well-documented biography that is sympathetic yet critical, admiring yet acknowledging JGB’s weaknesses, mostly interpersonal and moral, in a narrative that draws on Witness but also on “independently verifiable sources,” on “personal letters and notes,” and on his own observations over twenty-two years—and which captivates the reader.

How could it not? The life of JGB (1897-1974) was one of the more extraordinary of the last century. He was a diplomat, a warrior, an industrialist, a scientist and inventor who was close to a rarefied array of individuals including Arab royalty, British PMs, explorer Alexandra David-Neel (BenB includes a previously unpublished exchange between JGB and David-Neel), and others. Most know him, however, as a prominent student of G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, one marred in some eyes for his willingness to incorporate new influences into what Gurdjieff taught, most notably his exploration in the mid-1950s of Subud, a spiritual movement from Indonesia that employs the latihan, an inner exercise that involves sensing and submitting to the Will of God.

And yet as BenB reports, it was during his involvement with Subud that JGB underwent a two-week “purgatorial” experience that transformed him in ways that his earlier efforts had not, revealing to him his immense egoism and “consuming self-will.” His conscience was on fire. “At night,” JGB later wrote about the experience, “I could not sleep for remorse and self-loathing.” After this ordeal, BenB reports, his father was “a changed man…happier, more ready to laugh, joke and draw enjoyment from simple family pleasures.” It was during this time, moreover, the last twenty-five or so years of JGB’s life, that he wrote much of his masterwork, the Dramatic Universe series, and taught many grateful seekers.

Unlike Ben Bennett, who knew his subject intimately, Terje Tonne never met Rodney Collin, who fell to his death in 1956 at age 47 from a church steeple in Peru. So his book is necessarily less personal than BenB’s; but Tonne, author of a previous Work book (The Gurdjieff Puzzle Now), instead invests his study with a tremendous positive energy by way of a wholehearted embrace of Collin, his life, and his ideas. It’s difficult to imagine a more rewarding way to approach this exceptional man whose brief life was filled, at least by some accounts, with remarkable events that Collin and others considered miraculous.

Tonne divides his book into two. The first half he devotes to narrative biography, with a solid portion of the material deriving from an unpublished book by Collin, known as Last Remembrance of a Magician. The second half of the book is an incisive consideration of Collin’s “Celestial Theories,” focusing on his masterwork, The Theory of Celestial Influence, a groundbreaking study of humanity’s place and purpose in the cosmos, and of universal laws, as understood from an esoteric perspective bolstered by contemporary science; he also ponders other important Collin works such as The Theory of Eternal Life.

The biography is absorbing, with the material from Last Remembrance providing steady shocks. For instance, there is a description of Collin’s trip to visit Mme. Ouspensky, wife of his beloved teacher P.D. Ouspensky, at a Work center in New Jersey, during which Collin’s psyche and body seemed to have been subsumed by Ouspensky’s (“…he became aware of a change within. It began with the inclination to move and make gestures that Ouspensky had made…At the same time there began to enter his mind thoughts and plans about the future, which were O’s thoughts and plans.) This bizarre occurrence doubled down years later, as described by his sister-in-law Joyce Collin Smith: “Then slowly Rodney’s face began to change in shape and type…the face of the man cross-legged in the chair was the square, heavy-jawed, bespectacled visage of Piotr Damianovitch Ouspensky.”

Collin converted to Roman Catholicism in 1955, a year before he died. At the same time, likely influenced by the immense charity work of the Church, he began to emphasize the need for service to others and opened a medical clinic outside Mexico City. “Collin’s conversion to Roman Catholicism created distrust in some circles of orthodox followers of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff,” writes Tonne. “They believed that he had lost his way.” Tonne adds that Collin “believed that the esoteric parts of all religions were connected…and had found the greatest reserve of esoteric truth in Roman Catholicism.”

Both Ben Bennett and Torje Tonne write from an insider’s perspective. Gary Lachman adopts a more journalistic approach to his biography of Maurice Nicoll, albeit one informed by his several years in the Gurdjieff Work in New York City. Lachman has written biographies of a number of important spiritual teachers, including Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, Carl Jung, and P.D. Ouspensky, and his expertise at the form is in evidence throughout.

Like J.G. Bennett, Maurice Nicoll met Gurdjieff in the early 1920s and never looked back. If he had, he’d have noted his own rapid rise to famed psychoanalyst, with a lucrative practice on London’s Harley Street and, more impressively, a reputation as heir apparent to Carl Jung. All that changed after he met Gurdjieff; within a month of that meeting, he’d sold off his practice and made plans to move to Gurdjieff’s Institute outside Paris. Two years later he returned to England, where he started groups that heard talks by him that later were compiled into the massive and influential Commentaries. Today Nicoll is looked upon fondly by many and is thought of as a smiling, portly fellow, a kind of jolly Santa to Ouspensky’s dour Krampus. 

But there was another Maurice Nicoll, a secret Nicoll, who has remained hidden from public view until the publication of Lachman’s book, and it is the revelation of this Nicoll that will garner much attention. Much of the new information in this book arises from more than one-thousand pages of secret diaries kept by Nicoll that have only during the past decade been discovered and annotated, but not yet published. In sum, the diaries reveal that along with his passionate interests in the Gurdjieff teaching and Christianity, Nicoll harbored three secret interests. All deviate from or add to what Gurdjieff taught, and at least two, according to Lachman, reveal Nicoll’s shadow side. First, there is the detectable influence within the diaries of several non-Work thinkers, including Jung and Swedenborg. Then there is an intense interest in dreams and dream analysis detailed in extensive dream diaries—despite Gurdjieff expressing little interest in dreams. But the most sensational interest was Nicoll’s obsession with sex, in his case apparently exclusively masturbation, and pursued not for pleasure but for meaning, a kind of lifelong tantric pursuit that brought shame but also, evidently, understanding. 

Does it matter that Nicoll pursued visionary solo sex, that Collin converted to Roman Catholicism, that Bennett practiced Subud? Lachman argues well that, for a full comprehension of Nicoll the man, it does matter. That makes sense and the argument can be extended to Bennett and Collin. No one can be wholly understood except by acknowledging all of their sides, including the shadow and the sufferings it can bring (in Nicoll’s case there was, according to Lachman, “a savage self-division”). Indeed, it may be that accepting those sufferings helped bring Nicoll to wisdom.

For those interested not in these men per se but in the understanding they accumulated, however, a wisdom distilled into their writings, perhaps their transgressions matter not at all. Bennett’s Dramatic Universe, Collin’s The Theory of Celestial Influence, Nicoll’s Commentaries and books on the Gospels—they stand on their own. They are no less for their creators’ particularities than, say, Beethoven’s Ninth is for that composer’s ill tempers. Rather, from all evidence, the deviations from orthodox practice by each man were acts committed to further their search, which led in turn to admirable lives of service to others. To answer the question in the title of this piece then, yes, Bennett, Collin, and Nicoll do have plenty of wool to offer.

Is there a lesson to be drawn from these three biographies? All three men, although dedicated to one teaching, the Gurdjieff Work, were driven by their hunger for understanding to search beyond that teaching, and to break rules in doing so, even while attempting to remain loyal to that primary teaching. Each did what he felt necessary to fulfill his aim. Perhaps to each we may apply Tonne’s subtitle—a man who wished to do something with his life. And we may further note that Gurdjieff himself displayed a similar intensity of purpose, as did, arguably, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and other great teachers of humankind. ◆

Jeff Zaleski is editor and publisher of Parabola.

This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2024 issue of Parabola, REALITY. You can find the full issue on our online store.

By Jeff Zaleski

Jeff Zaleski is editor and publisher of Parabola.