Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dance
First published in Katherine Mansfield: In From the Margin edited by Roger Robinson Louisiana State University Press, 1994
The facts are singular enough: Katherine Mansfield, a young woman who could scarcely walk or breathe, absorbed in sacred dances that lie on the very cusp of human possibility. Some ideal of inner conciliation—neighbourly to the dancers’ purpose there— seems to have visited Katherine almost precociously. At twenty, she had written, “To weave the intricate tapestry of one’s own life, it is well to take a thread from many harmonious skeins—and to realise that there must be harmony.” i The tapestry she had achieved in the ensuing years had been a brave one: on a warp of suffering she had imposed a woof of literary success. Slowly, implacably, her body but not her spirit of search had failed her, and in her final extremity she arrived at a resolution: “Risk! Risk anything!” 2 So determined, she entered the gates of the Château du Preiuré, at Fontainbleau-Avon, on Tuesday, October 17, 1922, and there, at George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, she lived out her last, intense three months. There, on January 9, 1923, she died.
Katherine Mansfield and Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dance. Copyright © James Moore 1994, 2006. www.Gurdjieff-Biblography.com
No one imagines that Mansfield’s fundamental significance lies outside her oeuvre, her individuality, and her life’s full spectrum of personal relationships; no one would claim some mystical apotheosis at Fontainebleau that overrode all that. But it is equally disproportionate and ignoble to strike the entire Gurdjieff entry from the Mansfield balance sheet, or to situate it within a beauty-and-the-beast fable, now so patently debilitated. To dismiss the consistently positive tone of all her letters from the institute, and not least her admission that, “I’ve learned more in a week than in years làbas,” would be as much a dereliction of scholarship as a failure of intuition. 3 Who was Gurdjieff? What did he teach, and how did his regime impinge on Mansfield? Gurdjieff was fifty-six when he first met Katherine Mansfield. He had been born in 1866 in Alexandropol, on the Russian side of the Russo-Turkish frontier, his father a Cappadocian Greek carpenter and bardic poet, and his mother an illiterate Armenian. The experiences and special education to which he was exposed imbued him— transfixed him–with “an ‘irrepressible striving’ to understand clearly the precise significance, in general, of the life process on earth of all the outward forms of breathing creatures and, in particular, of the aim of human life in the light of this interpretation.” 4 In unremitting pursuit of that question, he dedicated over twenty years, from 1887 to 1911, to a search for traditional knowledge, concentrated most heavily in Central Asia. His work as a teacher, begun in Moscow in 1912, was disrupted by the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Tirelessly ingenious, he succeeded in extricating his nucleus of Russian pupils by way of Yssentuki [Essentuki], Tbilisi, Constantinople, Sophia, Belgrade, Budapest, Berlin, Hellerau, and Paris. With a sense of new beginnings and high hopes, he settled at the Prieuré in October, 1922, and there upon the urgings of A. R. Orage, soon received the stricken Mansfield. Although her motives were doubtless ambivalent, her spiritual aspiration seems transcendent. “I want to be all that I am capable of becoming,” she had written, “so that I may be . . . a child of the sun.” 5 Considering the progressive course her pulmonary tuberculosis had taken from 1911, 6 her metaphor seems linked to her ambitious hope of metempsychosis with a presentment of death. Certainly, long before she met Gurdjieff or even heard of him, she was steeped in the book Cosmic Anatomy, listed as being by “M. B. Oxon.,” with its dangerously facile affirmation “To...