The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin is one of the oddest books ever written. If you know the author at all it will probably be as the student and promoter of the work of G.I. Gurdjieff, the famous (or infamous) 20th-century Greek-Armenian mystic and philosopher, himself responsible for another contender for the title of “one of the oddest books ever written,” Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. The difference is that while I’d recommend Ouspensky’s book as an engaging read, I wouldn’t recommend Gurdjieff’s book to anyone who doesn’t have some direct involvement with the teaching. Beelzebub’s Tales is almost impossible to decipher: complex, convoluted, long-winded and deliberately obscure, with sentences that go on forever, meant to make the reader work while hiding its meaning behind elaborate allegories and absurd made-up words of unpronounceable length. As Gurdjieff himself said of the book, “I bury the bone so deep that the dogs have to scratch for it."
Ouspensky’s book is easier to read but just as peculiar in its own way. It’s written in the present tense and is probably autobiographical. The peculiarity lies in the set-up. A young man’s at the end of his tether. He’s waiting for a letter from his fiancée, who’s in the Crimea, but none arrives. She’d wanted him to go with her but he’s poor, and too proud to allow his poverty to be seen. Then he hears that she’s planning to marry someone else. Now he’s in despair and vows to kill himself. He’s already complained about the failure of his life, wishing it could’ve been different. He thinks back to certain decisions he made in the past, in his childhood, seeing them as the cause of his current dilemma.
In his desperation he goes to see a magician and asks for help. Could he send him back to that earlier time so that he could live his life again, but with the knowledge he now possesses? The magician says he can, but that it would make no difference. He’d do all the same things again. Nevertheless he agrees to send him back.
Osokin is sent back to the exact moment he made his first mistake and, in his confusion, makes the mistake all over again. The book is the tale of him growing up, an adult in a child’s body, and the litany of ill-considered acts which he repeats exactly as he had before. There’s a mechanistic quality to all of this. Despite his previous knowledge he can’t stop himself. There’s a strange kind of objectivity as he muses on the events after they happen. He’s never able to intervene to stop them at the appropriate time. He vows over and over to do things differently the next time, but he never does. Eventually he begins to forget that he was ever sent back and is left only with the residue of a feeling, a deja vu of half-remembered events from a previous life he can no longer fully recall.
It’s this that makes the book so compelling. There’s an atmosphere of the remembrance of past lives that’s strangely familiar, a sense of feeling older than your years and of growing younger with age, of echoes in time and uncanny sensations of deja vu and precognition. At the same time it’s also the story of someone growing up in pre-revolutionary Russia. We observe his life inside the boarding school as a child and then the military academy as he begins to grow up. There are conflicts with the adult world, then a burgeoning love affair that’s summarily ended. The tales of young love are particularly affecting. The book does a wonderful job of conjuring the emotions of the lovers in their innocence and purity. We sense Ouspensky’s sensitivity and insight as his character pronounces his philosophy of love: “The truth is that it all belongs to women, and only a woman has the right to decide.”
Eventually, inevitably, the book circles back to the beginning. There are no spoilers here. We always knew where this would end. The joy is in the telling of the tale, in the rich invocation of a life lived as it had to be. In this sense, it’s an ordinary story: unique in the way that everyone’s lives are unique, universal in the sense that we are all subject to the same forces. The book ends with philosophy. It was written before Ouspensky had met Gurdjieff, but it’s hard not to see the magician as a pre-configuration of his future teacher. The philosophy they discuss is in anticipation of Gurdjieff’s system, which Ouspensky would later espouse in books such as In Search of the Miraculous and The Fourth Way. It’s a call to consciousness, to awakening from the dream in which we’re all ensnared in order to reach our higher purpose, to become fully conscious beings in a mechanized world.
The obvious parallel is with Groundhog Day, the hit 1993 film starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell; and indeed Harold Ramis, the director, acknowledged the similarity in the preface to the Lindisfarne Books' 2004 edition of the novel. Both works are an attempt to grapple with the idea of eternity and the need for personal responsibility in the face of an ever-repeating pattern of time. Groundhog Day is endlessly watchable, I find, despite the fact you already know the ending. The same is true for The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin.
The philosophy behind the book is Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence, summarised in the following words in his book, The Gay Science:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’
In Nietzsche’s case it represents a form of philosophical speculation. What would you make of your life if you thought that this is how it would be: if every moment had to be lived again and again, every embarrassment, rejection, confusion, love, loss, every joy, had to be endured in the exact sequence as you’re experiencing it now? Would it bring you to despair, or would you learn to savor each moment as inescapable perfection, finding a deeper awareness of the wholeness of life in its complexity, paying complete attention to every moment as it passes?
John Kaag, in his book Hiking with Nietzsche, summarizes it this way:
Nietzsche suggests that the affirmation of the eternal return is possible only if one is willing and able to become well-adjusted to life and to oneself… The specter of infinite monotony was for Nietzsche the abiding impetus to assume absolute responsibility: if one’s choices are to be replayed endlessly, they’d better be the ‘right’ ones.
In Ouspensky’s book, the circularity of time leads to a paradox. His future is also his past. When he looks back to his previous life, he’s also looking forward to a life that he’s yet to live. He can’t change things because his future is already determined. It already lies in his past.
There are parallels with Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Einstein said, “The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” His theory gives rise to the idea that all time is already present in something known as “the block universe.” Time’s a dimension, much like the dimensions of space, and all time is already in existence in spacetime, as a set of coordinates embedded within it. It’s only our consciousness of time that seems to make it move in a given direction. This idea is known as “eternalism.” Eternalism means that everything is absolutely fixed and unchangeable.
I found out this idea is called ‘Eternalism’... It’s the idea... that if this is a solid universe then we exist in that universe as fourth dimensional entities. I imagine it as a bit like a spacetime centipede; it would have a lot of arms and a lot of legs and its tail would be emerging from between our mother’s legs, it would have its origins in genetic fluids; its far end would be cremated dust and it would be perhaps, what 70-80 years long. And this centipede-like life form is a little filament that is embedded in this huge, eternally unmoving, unchanging mass of spacetime. It is just our consciousness moving along these centipede-like lines and experiencing each moment as if it was in a sequence, whereas in fact it’s like a strip of film that, all of those little moments... they’re not moving, they’re not changing – you can keep that strip of film for 100 years and those pictures will not have changed, they will not have moved… Now that would mean that in that huge block of spacetime, every moment that has ever existed or will ever exist are all existing conterminously, at the same time. Including all of those moments that made up our lives and the lives of everybody that we knew and the one thing that we can definitely say about those lives is that we were alive during them.
'Imagine it as a big glass football’, Moore suggests—where past and future are endlessly, immutably fixed, and where human lives are ‘like tiny filaments, embedded in that gigantic vast egg’. He gestures around him at the rubbish-strewn path, his patriarch’s beard waving in the wind. ‘What it’s saying is, everything is eternal… Every person, every dog turd, every flattened beer can—there’s usually some hypodermics and condoms and a couple of ripped-open handbags along here as well—nothing is lost. No person, no speck or molecule is lost. No event. It’s all there for ever. And if everywhere is eternal, then even the most benighted slum neighbourhood is the eternal city, isn’t it? William Blake’s eternal fourfold city. All of these damned and deprived areas, they are Jerusalem, and everybody in them is an eternal being, worthy of respect.’
If every person is, in Moore’s world-view, “an eternal being, worthy of respect,” and every moment and every object within it exists forever, then this would radically alter our view of ourselves and of our relationship to the world. Our purpose then would be to observe, to be the consciousness within it, to live every moment as fully, as respectfully as we can, on the understanding that time can never be erased, and that everything is being written into the annals of eternity. This is the opposite of how we judge time at present, where we often hide our mistakes in the past, and shrug off responsibility for them by conveniently forgetting. If all time is eternal then we’re eternally responsible for it and there will be no forgetting in the end.
Whether any of this is objectively true is a matter of debate. There are a number of theories that refute it. Einstein came up with his ideas by conducting what he called “thought experiments.” What if time was relative? What if the speed of light was the only constant? What if you drop a ball on a train travelling at the speed of light? The ball would fall vertically in the carriage, but in a curve to the outside observer. It’s an act of the imagination which has consequences in how we understand the world. It’s the same with theories of eternal recurrence and the block universe. Merely imagining them is enough to alter our perception about how we should act in the world.
This is why The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin is such a great book. Just reading it is enough to make you see things in a different way. Osokin is given a choice at the end: whether to continue to live with his new knowledge, or set about changing his relationship to it by undertaking training with the magician? The book doesn’t answer that question. It leaves you with a number of questions of your own.
—Follow Chris Stone on X: @ChrisJamesStone