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  • “The Language of Behavior”: Gurdjieff and the Emergence of Modernist Autobiography
  • Cecily Swanson (bio)

Russian-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff was a controversial and intriguing figure when he arrived in New York in January of 1924.1 A year before, he had caused an uproar when Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis under his care at Le Prieuré, his spiritual retreat near Fontainebleau. Gurdjieff capitalized on this attention, sending his appointed proselytizer, A. R. Orage—former editor of the influential London literary journal, The New Age—to New York a few months ahead of his own arrival to drum up interest. Orage’s introductory talks ensured captivated crowds at Gurdjieff’s mystical dance performances at Carnegie Hall and Lesley Hall. Newspapers reported celebrity sightings at these “cult” events at which “Psychic Secrets of the Ancient East” were divulged: Theodore Dreiser, Rebecca West, Gloria Swanson, and John O’Hara Cosgrave were counted among the notable attendees.2 Soon, Gurdjieff’s transatlantic following of writers and artists had grown to include Jean Toomer, Frank Lloyd Wright, P. L. Travers, Michael Arlen, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson, Waldo Frank, Gorham Munson, Lincoln Kirstein, Zona Gale, Muriel Draper, Mable Dodge Luhan, Kathryn Hulme, Solita Solano, Dorothy Petersen, Aaron Douglas, Carl Zigrosser, and Israel Solon.

Throughout the 1920s and early 30s, the press was a swirl of gossip about the Svengali of modernist bohemia. Gurdjieff had killed Mansfield. He could shape-shift, read minds, and give women orgasms with his eyes. His Middle Eastern cooking was incomparable, as was his stockpile of vintage Armagnac. His dances outshone the Ballets Russes. He was, as Janet Flanner [End Page 695] wrote in the New Yorker, “one of the most mysterious, eccentric, and discussed modern mystics.”3 For all this, Gurdjieff is now little more than a footnote in modernist criticism. A few works consider his impact on Mansfield, Toomer, and Orage, but many of these are hagiographies by fellow travelers.4 Other critics who mention Gurdjieff tend to agree that he had a deleterious effect on literature—a principal justification for ignoring him.

This article argues that modernism’s Gurdjieff craze in fact played a surprising role in the development of an overlooked canon of popular autobiographies: Muriel Draper’s memoir, Music at Midnight (1929); Margaret Anderson’s memoir, My Thirty Years’ War (1930); and Kathryn Hulme’s autobiographical novel, We Lived As Children (1938).5 Draper was already recognized as a socialite and activist but rose to literary acclaim after the publication of her memoir. Anderson, best known for her work as the editor of The Little Review, would go on to write two more autobiographies, each garnering critical interest. Hulme was unknown before the publication of We Lived as Children, a bestseller that launched her career as an extremely successful writer.

Situating these American women writers and their texts within the Gurdjieffian movement requires rethinking what counts as a modernist experiment in life-writing. The autobiographical works by Draper, Anderson, and Hulme impressed their first readers with their chattiness, informality, and transparency—qualities that today do not seem to demonstrate modernist experimentation, but were heralded as breakthroughs in their own era. Yet the difficulty of recognizing these memoirs’ innovation does not alone explain their obscurity. While they offer winsome access to social scenes and daily life—what Anderson called modernism’s “mise-en-scéne”—they are surprisingly silent about the inner lives of their writers.6 That silence suggests another central reason that they are ignored in contemporary accounts of the characteristic moves of the modernist memoir.

What is not yet well understood is how the Gurdjieffian writing exercises inspired a distinct mode of modernist autobiography: one that rejected introspection in favor of the subject’s careful study of her social environment. I situate Gurdjieffianism in relationship to the behaviorist psychology of John B. Watson, whose ideas Orage taught to Gurdjieffian novitiates, and whom Gurdjieff met in 1931. Like Watson in his lectures on Behaviorism (1925), both Gurdjieff and Orage taught their students to ignore the hidden depths of human psychology, focusing instead on observable habits and especially attending to oral conversation as factual bases for reporting about bodily mechanisms and social conditions. But unlike Watson, who...


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