Fieldwork in Religion, Vol 11, No 1 (2016)

Issues in Accessing a Gurdjieffian Tradition: Lessons from a Study of Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953)

John Willmett, Steven J. Sutcliffe
Issued Date: 7 Nov 2016


The first named author has experienced ambiguous responses when he has approached persons associated with groups taught by, or in the lineage of Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953). As is well-known, Nicoll participated in Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man near Paris in 1922-3, thereafter studied with P. D. Ouspensky in London and Surrey, and subsequently taught his own groups from around 1931, producing at least two publicly known successors in Beryl Pogson and Ronald Oldham. In this paper we discuss a series of personal enquiries, some of which involve named public figures previously associated with the 'Work', and others who are not publicly identified. Responses (where received) have typically been noncommital. We reflect on problems in attempting to research, as academics, participants in a tradition which fights shy of academic enquiry despite its creative influence in fields such as psychology, literature and new forms of 'spirituality'. By locating our case within the discussion on problems in studying 'secret' (Urban, von Stuckrad) or 'hidden' (Sutcliffe) traditions, we explore possible reasons for this ambivalent reception, ranging from principled rebuff to the provision of a 'test' of the motives of the enquirer. At the same time, other scholar-practitioners have recently put unpublished Gurdjieffian texts into the public realm: for example, Maurice Nicoll’s writings have been brought back into print and his archive at Yale University has been publically available for some time. In light of these conflicting data between guarding access on the one hand and freely disseminating information on the other, we reflect on issues in accessing Nicollian and Gurdjieffian traditions and address the tension we detect between a movement preserving its integrity, assimilating to the post-1960s ‘new spirituality’ culture, or simply dying out.

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DOI: 10.1558/firn.31888


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