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Maurice Nicoll: Forgotten Teacher of the Fourth Way


This is the Introduction to my book, Maurice Nicoll: Forgotten Teacher of the Fourth Way, which will be released in the US later this month and in the UK in July.


Essence and Shadow

         

On November 4, 1922, Maurice Nicoll, the prestigious Harley Street physician, author and, until only recently, British lieutenant of the psychologist C.G. Jung – second only to Sigmund Freud in fame - arrived at the Prieuré des Basses Loges, in the forest of Fontainebleau, just outside of Paris. With him was his young wife, his infant daughter, her nanny, and two goats. His sister-in-law had gone ahead to help prepare the way; the goats were brought along to provide milk for the child. The thirty-six year old Nicoll had sold his successful London practice and borrowed against the inheritance he expected from his father, the eminent journalist and political thinker William Robertson Nicoll, in order to secure a place for the family at the newly opened Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, a center offering a unique educational experience. This had only recently been established at the Prieuré – after misfires in Berlin and London - by the redoubtable G.I. Gurdjieff, a mysterious teacher of esoteric knowledge and uncertain origin – was he Greek, Armenian, Russian? -  who had emerged from the chaos of a collapsed Russia, bringing a message like nothing Nicoll had encountered before. It was stark, unsentimental, at times brutal. But according to Nicoll, it was what he needed.





For years Nicoll had been searching for a doctrine that could satisfy the conflicting demands of his head and heart, his body and soul, his scientific intellect and his religious faith, his sexuality and spirituality, a tussle not unfamiliar to many. Jung had taken him some way along that path, but as Nicoll explained in a kind of “Dear Carl” letter, when he told his mentor that his allegiance had shifted, he needed someone to force him there.

The man into whose hands he was placing himself and his family would do just that. Nicoll had met him only briefly – if sitting in a tense silent room for an uncomfortable time because none of those present had the courage to ask the guru a question could constitute a meeting. But it was enough for the still impressionable doctor to feel he had been in the presence of power. He was, and he would feel it soon enough.

         




Nicoll observed the sign at the entrance to the Institute, “Sonnez fort” – “Ring loudly” -  and did. Not long after, as “kitchen boy,” the doctor who as a child had sat in on conversations between his father and eminent men like Winston Churchill and Lord Asquith, in an atmosphere of literature and politics – and whom Jung hoped would champion him in England - was washing hundreds of greasy dishes in cold water without soap. This, after waking up before dawn to light the burners for the Prieuré’s kitchen, where his wife slaved over huge cauldrons of soup, prepared for the institute’s other inmates, while her sister cleaned the toilets. (The nanny it seemed had the best of it.)





Nicoll was not alone in having given up a comfortable, congenial life for what seemed to be a workcamp overseen by a mad Levantine foreman. When his friend A. R. Orage, suave editor of The New Age, a journal of ideas that included Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells among its contributors, turned up at the Prieuré, he was given a shovel and told to dig. He did until his back ached and he was in tears; he was also forbidden to smoke, which nearly killed him. Nicoll himself was forbidden to read. It was quite a jump from the world Nicoll had known before. It is safe to say, I think, that it was the most meaningful time in his life. In the years to come Nicoll would try to reproduce it on more than one occasion.

         




Nicoll had got to Fontainebleau by way of another Russian export, the writer and journalist P.D. Ouspensky, who had abandoned his own career to follow Gurdjieff, after a long and unsuccessful “search for the miraculous” in the East. In 1921, by what must certainly have seemed a miracle, Ouspensky had been rescued from a Turkish White Russian refugee camp by an unlikely saviour. This was Lady Rothemere, wife of a London newspaper baron and reader of his book Tertium Organum, an exhilarating work of speculative metaphysics that had become a surprise bestseller. She wanted to talk to Ouspensky and, as money was no object, had him brought to London. Ouspensky had spent the past few years in Russia under Gurdjieff’s tutelage, but by the time the floodtide of revolution and civil war had deposited him and his erstwhile teacher in Constantinople – soon to be renamed Istanbul - they had gone their separate ways. Yet, the Byzantine psychohistory of the “Fourth Way” - as the system transmitted by Gurdjieff to Ouspensky is called – is nothing if not complicated, and the relationship between the two very different men was never as clear cut as it may have seemed. Although separated from Gurdjieff, Ouspensky taught his ideas, in London and New York, until his death in 1947, following a series of final lectures in which he repudiated the system itself.




In late 1921 Nicoll attended a lecture by Ouspensky – delivered in a clipped, fractured English – at the Quest Society in London’s Kensington Town Hall. There he heard for the first time that he, and everyone else in the room, was “asleep,” was only a “machine,” that he was living mechanically, and that he possessed  no stable, single, unified “I,” as Gurdjieff’s austere doctrine insisted. Nicoll was, we could say, electrified. Not everyone was happy about these grim tidings, which seemed to offer small prospect to, as Ouspensky told them, “awaken.” But Nicoll knew he had come across a knowledge unlike any he had ever suspected. He was so excited by what he heard, he rushed home to his wife, still recovering from her recent pregnancy, and told her all about it, forgetting about the baby. He insisted she hear Ouspensky too. She did, and became as fervent an apostle as her husband. For the next three decades, both husband and wife became students and then teachers of “the Work,” a name for the practical side of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s demanding system.





Some of the fruits of those labours are the five volumes of Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, a collection of the weekly talks Nicoll prepared for his groups, starting in 1941 and continuing until his death in 1953. Nicoll’s Commentaries have garnered some significant readers, among them the economist E.F. Schumacher, the philosopher Jacob Needleman, and the comedian John Cleese.[i] These, along with Nicoll’s short exegeses on the esoteric meaning of the Gospels, The New Man and the unfinished The Mark, present his particular approach to the body of ideas and practices he learned from his years with his teachers in the Work. Another work, started early in his career but only published much later, Living Time, is Nicoll’s attempt to understand the mysteries of time and its relation to eternity, an obsession of Ouspensky’s. One of its readers was the author J.B. Priestley, who counted Nicoll and Ouspensky among those who, like himself, were “time-haunted men.”

*

To people familiar with the Fourth Way, Nicoll presents a rather more mellow approach to what is often a very serious business. He is not the unpredictable, startling “crazy guru” that Gurdjieff is often depicted as being – although how much of this was “acting” on Gurdjieff’s part is, as always with that remarkable man, unclear. He was also not the dry logician, the stern taskmaster of the Work, the “Iron Man,” that Ouspensky, initially a gentle, poetic soul, became after his years with Gurdjieff.[ii] Nor was he a flamboyant esoteric mover and shaker in the style of Ouspensky’s other long term student, J. G. Bennett, who took the Work in some rather messianic directions.[iii] Nor was he like his friend Kenneth Walker, who did not set up shop as a teacher of the Work, but who produced excellent introductions to its ideas.[iv] Nicoll did not present himself in any public way as a follower of the Work; he did not, as Walker and Bennett did, produce accounts of his time with Gurdjieff or Ouspensky. He kept to the background and word about his work travelled by way of mouth; we can say that he was one of those whom I have called  “secret teachers”.




The persona he showed to those who did come to him – the face, as Jung would say, that he presented to the world – was that of a convivial, congenial, country doctor or preacher, someone you could sit with at a pub in a way you couldn’t with Gurdjieff or Ouspensky and which was something people often did. There was a soft, gentle side to Nicoll, who liked laughter and song, and who played guitar and apparently had a good voice. He was fond of practical jokes, and more than once told his followers that “serious things can only be understood through laughable things,” and that the secret to “transforming situations” was to “receive them with humour, and comment on them with wit,” something Nicoll displayed often.[v] He liked to drink – an occupational hazard with some in the Work – to eat, to dance, and to play.



If Gurdjieff’s teaching strategy was to “shock,” and Ouspensky’s to raise his students’ awareness by sheer mental effort, Nicoll was more likely to coax his pupils into understanding, to make a serious joke, wink and ask if they had “caught” the message he was trying to get across. And something else a reader of the Commentaries will find is that Nicoll gradually introduces ideas and themes that come from outside the system, something that, as far as I understand, is verboten among purists.






Yet a reader of the Commentaries who knows that Nicoll started out as a follower of Jung, and who also knows Jung’s ideas, will find some of them thinly veiled and in close contact with ideas that are echt Ouspensky or Gurdjieff. What may not be as easily recognisable is that Nicoll also introduces themes and ideas originating in the eighteenth century Swedish scientist and spiritual savant Emanuel Swedenborg. As an author of books on Jung, Swedenborg, and Ouspensky, when reading the Commentaries, I was surprised to find notions about “the shadow” and “synchronicity,” but also about “love,” “wisdom,” “understanding,” and other Swedenborgian themes turning up in them.[vi] As a “time-haunted man” Nicoll was fascinated with the kinds of “meaningful coincidences” that Jung called “synchronicities” and which often involve a kind of precognition. And although Gurdjieff and Ouspensky frowned on the study of dreams – something Ouspensky himself had written about extensively – throughout much of his life Nicoll kept a dream diary, in which the hand of Jung and Swedenborg, another deep reader of dreams, can be found.



Adding Jung and Swedenborg, as well as other ideas coming from the Hermetic and Gnostic traditions, to his teaching of the Work, may have put Nicoll beyond the “genuine” Gurdjieffian pale. As the title to this book suggests, Nicoll has in some ways been side lined by the “purist” strain of the Gurdjieffean tradition. There is even a story that, although she commended the Commentaries for presenting Gurdjieff’s ideas accurately, Jeanne de Salzmann, for many years following Gurdjieff’s death the main carrier of his teaching, said that Nicoll’s way was not the way the Work would carry on. Certainly during my own time in the Work, in New York and Los Angeles in the 1980s, some years ago indeed, Nicoll’s books were read, but were not considered mandatory for the course.




Diluting the system with outside teachings may have decided this. It may have been Nicoll’s emphasis on Christian themes, picking up on Gurdjieff’s remark that the Work could be thought of as “Esoteric Christianity.” Ouspensky himself poured over multiple translations of the Gospels in order to decipher their hidden meaning, the secret knowledge transmitted through them. It was Ouspensky’s belief that the Gospels were written by men with such knowledge and for the specific purpose of “waking up” those who could grasp it, producing the change in consciousness that Nicoll called metanoia, a Greek word meaning “change of mind,” but a change much greater than what we usually mean by that deceptively simple phrase. These men were agents of what Ouspensky called “the inner circle of humanity,” awakened men – and one assumes women - who aided mankind – or at least some of us – in its evolution.



Or what may have exiled Nicoll to the half-life of a Fourth Way fellow traveller was the fact that, unlike Bennett, Walker, and others, he did not go to Gurdjieff following the death of Ouspensky in 1947; Gurdjieff himself would die two years later. He declined the possibility of revisiting the master, deciding that he had already learned all that he could from him. To the true believers, such a statement is a bald impossibility; one could always learn from the master, and to think that one could not was proof positive that one very much needed to do precisely that…

*



Books about Nicoll have addressed some of these issues and have presented an idea of what being a student of his was like. They have shown what it was like to live in the atmosphere of a Work environment, like those created at Tyeponds – the name of the first Work community established by Nicoll – and other places. When he started teaching the system in 1931, Nicoll soon gathered a loyal group, many of whom more or less lived with him in the “special conditions” that Nicoll, trying to recreate his experience at Gurdjieff’s institute, created for them.






These books, by Beryl Pogson and Samuel Copley, are essential to any understanding of Nicoll and his work, and it is curious that both books present themselves as “portraits,” Pogson’s Maurice Nicoll: A Portrait and Copley’s Portrait of a Vertical Man.

A portrait aims at capturing the essence of its subject, and “essence” is a central Fourth Way term. In the system it is seen as what is truly one’s own, what we are born with, our true self, not like our “personality,” which, like Jung’s “persona,” is a face we acquire in dealing with the world.  “Essence,” Nicoll told his students, comes down from the stars – an idea not entirely in line with strict Fourth Way teaching. He also believed it is what we will bring back to them.

It is understandable that such close and devoted followers of Nicoll as Pogson and Copley would present their teacher in the best light, even if such illumination at times reaches a hagiographic glow that casts hardly any shadow – an important Jungian term. It is no mystery that their portraits are not of the “warts and all” variety. These sort are usually left to critics of the subject, and often enough descend into caricature, or even character assassination, gaining in effect what they lose in objectivity.


The other type of biographical book, one that is sympathetic but critical, is the kind I am aiming at here, and which I believe I have managed to produce, with some success, in the cases of Jung, Ouspensky, Swedenborg, and other figures in the history of western esotericism. I do not go out of my way to discover my subjects’ feet of clay – often enough they are obvious - but neither do I ignore any skeletons that may be stored in their closets. In some cases this has earned me the enmity of some true believers; at least some reviews of my books suggest as much. Others have appreciated a fresh, unbuttoned look at flesh and blood complex human beings who are too often presented as infallible gods.




As a figure in the history of modern western esotericism, Nicoll deserves attention. After all, how many people had Jung, Gurdjieff, and Ouspensky for teachers? And as a figure in the history of the Fourth Way, he is, as far as I know, unique in bringing together what he learned from these remarkable men, and combining it in subtle ways with the teachings of Swedenborg which more and more occupied Nicoll in his last years. This would be sufficient to warrant a new study. But something else has come to light – an apt phrase in this context – that adds a whole new dimension to any understanding of Nicoll.


In Jung’s psychology the part of the psyche that most often adds a new dimension to one’s and others’ experience of oneself is, once again, the shadow. This is a kind of “dark essence,” a hidden self that we do not show others, or often even ourselves, but which nevertheless exists and which we must integrate in order to mature. In the case of Nicoll, it seems that this shadow is precisely what has come to light.




In 2017, a PhD candidate at Edinburgh University, John Willmett,  researching the life of Nicoll, came upon a collection of papers that were in the possession of Camilla Copley, Samuel Copley’s daughter. Among the papers were typescripts, manuscripts, notes, bills, and other mundane items. But what were also found were several exercise books that contained a diary Nicoll had kept over the years. These contained accounts of his dreams (mentioned earlier), thoughts, reports of everyday events, random musings, stream of consciousness gibberish, but also what appear to be odd “conversations” he conducted with an “inner voice,” as well as some sort of visionary experiences.


This would be enough to make the diaries interesting. But what these diaries also tell us is that for several years Nicoll had engaged in what seems to have been a kind of mystical autoerotic practice, producing what an unkind critic might call the kind of visions “one has with one hand.” That at least is the conclusion reached by another researcher, interested in Nicoll, Jeffrey Adams, who annotated Willmett’s transcription of Nicoll’s diaries. Making this knowledge public may seem like an invitation to derision and may work to undermine whatever reputation Nicoll has. A teacher of an esoteric doctrine has a difficult enough time to begin with maintaining a good reputation, without any scandal.  The sort of thing the diaries reveal could overshadow Nicoll’s many positive achievements. “Everyman should be allowed to have his own private life,” Nicoll once told his long-time friend and fellow follower of the Fourth Way, Kenneth Walker.[vii] In light of this, Nicoll’s spirit, wherever it may be, may look askance at the liberties being taken with his. Nevertheless Nicoll’s remaining family have approved making the material available to researchers.




There is a long tradition, in the East and West, of a kind of mystical sexuality, a sacred eroticism, which employs the powers of sexual arousal for visionary purposes. Ouspensky wrote about the transformation of consciousness induced by sex.[viii] Gurdjieff taught that “it is a very big thing when the sex center works with its own energy” – there will be more about these “centers” further on.[ix] Jung had a soror mystica, a “mystical mistress,” and, according to the research of Marsha Keith Schuchard, Swedenborg practised a kind of “sacred sexuality” aimed at maintaining the “perpetual potency” needed to induce visionary states.[x]  So Nicoll is not alone in his pursuit of a eroto-mystical muse, although one may ask why he pursued her, as it were, in a closet.


Having read  the 1000+ pages of Willmett’s transcription, a file of which Jeffrey Adams kindly sent to me, I commend him on his perseverance. It shows his commitment to the significance of his find. He is of the opinion that Nicoll’s diaries are of as much importance for an  understanding of his life and work as the fabled Red Book is for an understanding of Jung.


This may be so. Other readers and scholars will have to decide. I can say here that Nicoll’s diaries are not as accessible as Jung’s record of his “descent into the unconscious.” Where Jung writes a dream narrative, and, in essence, tells a story complete with images, Nicoll’s jottings are more often than not fragmentary, disjointed, at times indecipherable because of his use of a private code. His dream record is frequently interrupted by his interpretation of the dream, and with references to other dreams, all in a kind of shorthand. There are long, “purple” poetic and evocatory passages. He also at times descends into sheer verbal gobbledygook, with long spurts of punning and alliteration, not infrequently of an obscene or even scatological nature, that tried my patience more than once.


Of course Nicoll wasn’t writing for publication and so he can’t be blamed for giving the readers of these diaries a hard time. Most writers write rubbish that they forget to throw away; according to their critics, that includes some of their books.  But one can ask what prompted Nicoll to devote time to such ramblings.


Mixed in with his dreams are Nicoll’s reflections on his family, his father, his colleagues, his teachers, his work, his students, and other similar concerns, and what he has to say about them is not always polite. But a great deal of the diaries is devoted to Nicoll’s preoccupation, one could even say obsession, with sex, and with the psychological, spiritual, and existential issues surrounding it. Nicoll went so far as to say that if it wasn’t for the Work, he most likely would have devoted his life to sex. He may have been exaggerating, but he is certainly concerned with it in these diaries.





Needless to say that this is not the impression one gets from the two portraits of Nicoll that have come down to us. I don’t think sex in any way turns up in either of them, certainly not in Beryl Pogson’s understandably hagiographic memoir, which treats Nicoll with nothing but the utmost respect and propriety. (She was, after all, asked by his widow to write it, shortly before her own death.) And it should also be apparent that none of Nicoll’s sexual ideas entered his teaching or, as far as I can tell, involved any of his students.


Copley’s portrait is slightly less sanitised than Pogson’s, but given that the diaries were in his daughter’s possession, one can only assume they were previously in his, and that they had come into his keeping after Nicoll’s death. Did Copley read them? If he did, there is no sign of it in his book. Or is there?


This is no criticism of Copley, if indeed he did know of the diaries; conceivably they could have sat in a box untouched for years. But now that they have come to light, one can’t help but ask how they affect our picture of Nicoll, our new portrait of this “vertical” man? Vertical, for Nicoll, had a special meaning; it pointed to the eternal dimension of our being, rather than the horizontal dimension of what J.B. Priestley called “tick tock” time. Entering that dimension and staying there –  feeling his “time-body” - was Nicoll’s aim. The diaries give us an idea of how well he achieved it.




They also show us a man deeply troubled by what seems a savage self-division, between his desire for the life of the spirit, the “second birth” promised by the esoteric message of the Gospels, and his natural, fleshly drives, inhibited by his upbringing and by what seems some obscure reticence in his own psyche. They also show us how psychologically and emotionally demanding being the son of a famous father is, and the toll this took on Nicoll’s sense of self-esteem and his self-image, his picture of himself. The joyful, cheerful, convivial Nicoll, who was always up for gaiety and laughter, had a shadow side that was full of self-doubt, very low on self-esteem, eager for acceptance, uncertain of the value of his work, and burdened with the presence of what he called, in a remarkable document of that name, “unclean thoughts.” These were the erotic fantasies, often of a crude, raw, ‘transgressive’ nature, full of desire for the ‘forbidden,’ that Nicoll had entertained since his childhood, and which he may have transmuted, through some inner alchemical operation, into the elements of a mystical illumination. This document strikes me as one of the most important things Nicoll wrote. Unfortunately, as was the case with many of his projects, he did not complete it. 




The diaries also show us a man who had difficulty bringing himself to work, who’d rather talk than write, who had at different times to subject himself to a strict discipline, who had problems with drink, with food, with his temper, and all the other faults and foibles that make us human. When your target is the superhuman, these stains and blemishes of the soul stand out in stark relief. When you spend much time contemplating the light, your shadow grows behind you. What follows is a look at this vertical man, Maurice Nicoll, and at the depths and other dimensions that open up as we explore the shape of his time-body; that is, his life.


[ii] This is the subject of my book In Search of P.D. Ouspensky (Wheaton, Ill: Quest Books, 2006).

[iii] J.G. Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[iv] Kenneth Walker Venture With Ideas (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972) and A Study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973).

[v] Beryl Pogson Maurice Nicoll: A Portrait (New York: Fourth Way Books, 1987) p. 24.

[vi] I point this out in my article “Maurice Nicoll: Working Against Time,” Quest Spring 2018 pp. 24-28 https://www.theosophical.org/publications/quest-magazine/4456-maurice-nicoll-working-against-time

 

[vii] Kenneth Walker Venture With Ideas (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972) p. 70.

[viii] P.D. Ouspensky A New Model of the Universe (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969) pp. 451-476.

[ix] P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949) p. 55.

[x] Marsha Keith Schuchard Why Mrs. Blake Cried (London: Century, 2006).

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2 Comments


Anticipation.

A sweet torture.

Eleven days of fast regarding your last. Aware it was there, but life wouldn't let me drink.

Came across an abandoned synapse in a luncheonette but my shape shifting amoeba needed another cell.

A Big Issue with enticing cover, but empty pockets.

Until now.

And having 'read' [ there has to be a better word for your unique technique that goes beyond the two dimensions] I concluded that maybe we all have a cross to bear and a box to unlock .

And what kind of trade off is this, whereby you do all the work by late night anglepoise and I just pick up a copy and walk away murmuring ' Interesting..' ?

Glad you…

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How fascinating! Bless Nicoll’s family for giving their approval.

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