From Groundhog Days – Intercourse on Time
By Melina Costello & David Arthur Walters
October 8, 2003
Dear Madame Melina
In response to your letter of 1 October, I must say that McTaggart’s ideas in The Unreality of Timeseem to have greater respect among respectable people than Ouspensky’s ideas on similar subjects, probably because of their respective credentials and lifestyles. We shall probably find more books by and about Ouspensky than by and about McTaggart in a large library – the ratio is 18 to12 at my five-million volume university library. But we do not find Ouspensky mentioned in leading philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias. We do find some thinkers listed whose inclusion gives us cause to wonder what editorial method is being used to draw the dividing lines between philosophy, religion, and cracked pottery. At least one prestigious philosophical encyclopedia includes Luther as a great philosopher – as you know, Luther explained confusing metaphysical issues not with a fine intellectual system or sophisticated discourse, but with direct references to “God’s mysteries.” Of course we shall find Hegel in all the references, despite the fact that many philosophers denounced his work as the raving of a madman. McTaggart, who was a idiosyncratic Hegelian, wrote a few books about Hegel.
I do not think the exclusion of Ouspensky is due to “Western prejudice,” for several histories of Russian philosophy written by bona-fide Russians exclude him while dwelling on Russians with extraordinary views and attitudes; for instance my favorite, Nicholas Berdyaev. Ouspensky is apparently a Russian outcast both in life and after life. The form of his spiritual quest is apparently outmoded although it enjoyed a revival during the Sixties, particularly among pot smokers and acid droppers – Ouspensky might have liked Timothy Leary and would have experimented with LSD-25.
Of course both Ouspensky and McTaggart were mystics – Ouspensky’s mysticism was more dramatic and romantic than McTaggart’s academic version, and he is far better known among the aging New Age crowd. McTaggart was born in 1866, Ouspensky in 1878. Both saw the scientific-industrial revolution moving full steam ahead, as well as the revolutionary reactions to that movement including the Russian revolutions and the Great War. Intellectuals all over Europe in those days were getting sick and tired of the mechanical rationalism of scientism and industrial materialism. Growing skepticism turned to romance, mysticism, symbolism, spiritualism – spiritualism fully bloomed during and after the Great War as survivors tried to contact the millions killed in the orgy of mutual mass murder. Scientific thought was also breaking out of its static mold into dynamic and organic forms – the principles of relativity and uncertainly would revolutionize science. Flights of imagination were launched by schemers such as H.G. Wells, who was a biologist and teacher by training, a disciple of “Darwin’s bulldog” – T.H. Huxley. Wells like Ouspensky was impressed by the Englishman C.H. Hinton’s Scientific Romances, which led Wells to write his science-fiction novel about a time machine. And Hinton’s writing on the fourth dimension and eternal recurrence was the point of departure for Ouspensky’s experiments and effusions on same. Another writer by the name of F.A. Abbott (Flatland) helped popularize dimensional thinking. Indeed, the Fourth Dimension was quite the rage in imaginative circles for quite some time.
Ouspensky, as you know, was raised in Moody Russia. He lost his father – a surveyor and mathematician fascinated by the fourth dimension – at a very young age. He was a precocious child, reading popular novels at age six. He was greatly influenced by his mother; she painted and she loved French and Russian literature, hence young Ouspensky developed an artistic inclination. He also had an anarchistic bent. He hated school, quitting it at fourteen, then self-educated himself, auditing a few university lectures at Moscow University and at other European universities – he never obtained a degree – Gurdjieff would later convince him of the importance of school discipline. He was an outsider by temperament, rebellious, romantic, restless, and fascinated by unorthodox ideas, unable or unwilling to hold down a steady job. He experienced the 1905 Russian first-hand while deeply depressed and living in grinding poverty. His dear little sister was arrested for belonging to a leftist organization – she died in prison in 1908. Ouspensky hated communist revolution; however, as an occasional journalist, he had to be a leftist since that was the only game in town. It was in 1905 that he drafted his romantic novel about eternal recurrence or repeated lives, an occult concept which, if applied to him at the time, would have meant eternal damnation. He traveled to the Caucasus, Europe, and the Middle East in search of the miraculous escape from the tedious routines of normal life – that life was really an abnormal state of stupefied dreaming in comparison to the normal supernatural state of lucidity.
McTaggart grew up in Merry England. He lost his father at the age of four. He was deeply attached to his mother; she was largely permissive, hence he developed an anarchic streak. He was an odd child, already a philosophically inclined intellectual around the age of six or seven. As a young boy he was expelled from school for refuting the Apostle’s Creed and for denouncing the existence of God – in his maturity, his mysticism did not require a personal god. The boy liked to walk crab-like with his back against a wall or a fence – his village peers called him “loony.” McTaggart however pursued his studies and went on to Cambridge. His beloved mother emigrated to New Zealand in 1890. He visited her there, stopping off in India and Australia. He settled down to his own family life at Cambridge, where he taught philosophy to the likes of Russell, Broad, Moore and Whitehead. He turned on his protégé Russell when Russell became an activist during the war – he probably cost Russell his job.
When we turn to the texts written by Ouspensky and McTaggart, Ouspensky’s are more appealing to the average reader; again, McTaggart’s work is aridly academic. Ouspensky was a teacher too, but to a lay audience. His non-fiction is novel-like and hails back to the days when poetry was philosophy and psychology was the quest for self-discovery. McTaggart, doctor of philosophy, law and literature, had an arid style. His fundamental concepts are on no sturdier ground than Ouspensky’s, but his reasoning seems more precise, cogent and organized. McTaggart’s technical discussion of the unreality of time is difficult reading; the reader must concentrate and go over the material several times, and once the subject is understood the reader will think McTaggart could have said as much and done so more clearly in a few paragraphs. On the other hand, his articles in plain English on human immortality and pre-existence can be easily digested by the average adult reader, especially if she believes she has been here before and will continue hereafter; even if not, she will still learn some interesting philosophical points. In any case, one might receive the impression from his professional style that McTaggart is the real McCoy while Ouspensky is a fakir. Yet at bottom they are both talking nonsense although there is some truth to be gleaned from nonsense. At least that is my opinion.
After setting aside metaphysics, what passes for nonfiction in the ‘soft’ human sciences is really fiction that can easily be exposed as mythical malarkey by anyone who takes the time to think clearly for herself. But the student of society will usually not get very far in society by repudiating its overwhelming conventions: it is convenient to purchase the appearance of propriety if one wants to have a profitable practice. Yet Ouspensky dropped out, did his own thing, and got into the occult – he had a sour-grapes attitude about conventional education and its degrees. McTaggart abided by the conventions and firmly secured his official position in life and in legitimate philosophy textbooks. Ouspensky, however, is not a failure but an unusual example of unconventional success – many people take a liking to romantic rebels in all fields.
I notice that I have a few things in common with Ouspensky and McTaggart. I lost my mother at a very young age and not my father, yet I always felt spiritually close to my mother in her absence. My father was theosophically and artistically inclined – a poet – and I picked up my love of literature from him. I was brought up during my earliest years in a rather permissive foster home – I had the run of the town and developed an anarchistic streak. I was always an outcast, an oddball, although I had a few friends. I was not interested in philosophy but loved literature and was reading Dickens and Dumas at age six. I hated school and any other group activity but I loved to study. I took up metaphysical subjects, the reading of Russian literature, and experimenting with mind-altering substances as a week-end hippie and part-time psychic in the Sixties. Then I ‘copped out’, went to work for the Man, gradually saying no to everything except coffee and radical thinking. Nowadays I gravitate more to the respectable idealist type like McTaggart. I prefer French literature and German philosophy. Anti-intellectualism is running rampant lately, and my sympathies are usually with the underdog. Ouspensky is largely ignored although well known, while McTaggart has a few fans who know him as an academic mystic. I am not a McTaggart fan, yet. That being said, I will soon consider his professional crazy ideas, on mysticism and time.
Your Faithful Groundhog