Katherine Mansfield’s Russian Healers

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    Katherine Mansfield, Chaucer Mansions flat, Queen's Club Gardens, West Kensington, London, England, 1913 Reference Number: 1/4-059876-F Katherine Mansfield seated at a table in the Chaucer Mansions flat, Queen's Club Gardens, West Kensington, London, England, in 1913. Photograph taken by Ida Baker.

    During the last two years of her life, Katherine Mansfield, ailing with tuber-culosis, was attracted to her Russian ‘healers’ in Paris – a doctor, Ivan Man-oukhin (1882-1958), and a spiritual teacher, George Gurdjieff (1866-1949) mostly through her love for Russians in general and for Anton Chekhov,in particular. In Mansfield criticism, the two men are often lumped together to the point where Manoukhin is referred to as another ‘mystic,’ or even a quack. With the help of the unpublished Manoukhin papers that reside in the Bakhmeteff Archive at Columbia University, and numerous memoirs written by Gurdjieff’s disciples, this article throws more light on the two very different personalities who were so essential to her.

    Ivan Manoukhin became an accomplished medical expert in Russia long before the new Soviet government allowed him to go abroad in 1921. As a young man he had studied in the elite Petersburg Academy of Military Medicine and was awarded a prestigious dissertation prize, but his full rec-ognition came after his treatment of Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), a prom-inent Russian writer who had suffered from tuberculosis since his early years. In 1913, while in Italy, Gorky accepted highly experimental treat-ment from Manoukhin, then doing further research at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. This treatment was based on Manoukhin’s study of the effects of applying a low dose of X-ray radiation to the spleen of monkeys and guinea pigs infected with human TB. Manoukhin claimed that all animals were cured as a result. The same year Manoukhin’s own wife, Tatiana, also developed tuberculosis, and he treated her simultaneously with Gorky.

    In his autobiography Manoukhin recorded that by the time he saw Gorky, other doctors considered his illness virtually hopeless. Manoukhin’s treat-ment appeared to be very successful. Gorky lived for twenty-three more years, and while the official reason for his demise in 1936 was ‘heart dis-ease,’ given that it was the peak of the Stalin purges, the death most likely was not entirely of natural causes. (Manoukhin’s wife, meanwhile, lived to be seventy-seven.) Consequently, Manoukhin not only gained fame but also developed a close friendship with the writer, who would make sure the Manoukhins were allowed to go abroad in 1921. Before they escaped hungry and war-torn Russia, Manoukhin got a chance to meet H. G. Wells, who was visiting Moscow and Petrograd in 1920. Wells described his dis-covery of Manoukhin in Russia in the Shadows, published a year later. His son Gip, who had accompanied Wells to Russia, made sure Manoukhin’s abstracts were published in Cambridge in 1921.

    In September of 1921, while in Switzerland, Mansfield was visited by Mrs. Wells and her two sons, and it was most likely from Gip (not her Russian friend, Samuel Koteliansky, as is assumed by most Mansfield scholars), that she first heard about Manoukhin. By then Manoukhin was already in Paris and had published a piece in The Lancet detailing his treatment. In it he claimed that he had cured eight thousand cases of tuberculosis in Russia. Upon arriving to Paris Manoukhin discovered that his ‘valuable samples’ had been improperly handled and were therefore worthless. Without them, so was his presentation to a group of prominent French lung specialists who showed much scepticism about his stated results. One doctor whom Manoukhin did impress was Louis Donat, a physician at a community tu-berculosis clinic in the 13th Arrondissement of Paris. Donat suggested to Manoukhin that they should open a private practice together, and Manouk-hin, not seeing any better options, agreed.

    At the time Mansfield was seeking Manoukhin’s help, he and Donat had just opened a clinic in Paris at the Trocadero. Despite his earlier stint at the Pasteur Institute, Manoukhin was largely French-less and clueless, as well as very deflated, having lived through the horrors of the 1917 Revolu-tion and civil war. Donat, whom Manoukhin gradually came to detest, was therefore in charge of all commercial aspects of their enterprise. While on February 1, 1922, Mansfield stated to her husband, John Middleton Murry, that during her first visit she had seen nothing but respect and coopera-tion between the two men, she soon got a clear sense of the actual discord between them: ‘I wish I knew what was happening to Manoukhin. The atmosphere of that clinique is terrible. Yesterday he simply would not and did not speak to his partner. He was so agitated that he could not speak French at all.’ She still liked Manoukhin, though, and was appalled that he was ‘simply not known’outside of Russia. She was delighted that, through him, she got to meet Ivan Bunin and Alexander Kuprin, famous Russian writ-ers, now in emigration. ‘To think one can speak with somebody who really knew Tchekhov’, she wrote to Koteliansky. And she was also thrilled when they all spoke Russian: ‘When I hear it spoken it makes me think of course always of Tchekhov’. It helped her faith in Manoukhin that Chekhov was not just a Russian writer or a fellow TB sufferer but also a Russian doctor.

    Manoukhin wrote in his autobiography that he was ‘deeply saddened’ to read Mansfield’s diaries, where she talked about her experience at his clinic:

    [S]he complained there about the high prices we charged … In that first year, when she came to us, I had no idea whether Donat was charging too much or not (he kept assuring me that it was similar to the average Paris price for services of this kind) and, to be honest, at first I stayed away from all these financial matters, especially because, legally, according to the contract I signed, I could have not changed anything anyway. I only managed to convince him to allow the impoverished Russian émigrés to get my treatment for free.

    That was Manoukhin’s only reference to Mansfield there; he did not say anything about her condition or whether it was wrong for her to continue the treatment in London in the summer of 1922, as opposed to staying in Paris. He was, however, very much against her going to Gurdjieff’s ‘Insti-tute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ in the autumn of 1922, and wrote about his opposition to Gurdjieff. James Moore accuses Manoukhin in Gurdjieff and Mansfield of acting in a purely mercantile fashion: ‘Her commissions went straight into Manoukhin’s pocket.’ But Manoukhin ob-viously had good reasons to think that it would irrevocably harm her and give her false hope. Mansfield also knew that Chekhov would have not approved of her decision either, and her letters and diary entries from the autumn of 1922 reveal her constant inner argument with him. She ulti-mately convinced herself that Chekhov had simply given up towards the end, choosing to die instead of continuing to fight, while she still wanted to live. ‘Risk! Risk anything!’ she wrote in her diary on October 14. ‘True, Tchekhov didn’t. Yes, but Tchekhov died.’

    One of Gurdjieff’s disciples aptly described his teachings as ‘a doctrine that combined a system of human psychology and physiology handed down from the most ancient traditions, with certain little-known facts of contemporary science.’Gurdjieff, who came from the ethnically mixed Caucasus region of the vast Russian empire, skillfully wove the many Eastern and Western mys-tical strands popular at the turn of the century into one narrative that aimed at achieving a higher state of consciousness. To this he added practical yet ‘sacred’ exercises and dances, as well as constant labor. He called his brand of spirituality ‘The Fourth Way,’ or ‘The Work.’ And yet for Mansfield, Gur-djieff’s – or, rather, his entire commune’s – mystique had again much more to do with Chekhov than with any particular system of esoteric beliefs. Since Manoukhin had failed to produce the hoped-for miracle, Mansfield’s conver-sations with her friend and recent convert to ‘The Fourth Way,’ A. R. Orage, probably impressed her precisely because there were so many other Russians in Fontainebleau – and not just any Russians.

    To begin with, she was told that Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper, herself would soon join Gurdjieff. While still under Manoukhin’s care, Mans-field had written in her journal: ‘I want to adopt a Russian baby, call him Anton, and bring him up as mine, with K[oteliansky] for a godfa-ther, and Mme. Tchekhov for a godmother. Such is my dream.’ But even without Madame Chekhov, there were still others who, to a fertile mind, would appear to be some kind of deliberate Chekhovian incarnations. There was, for example, ‘Mr Ivanov’ who milked cows and lit lanterns – a namesake, of course, of one of Chekhov’s famous dramatic protagonists. Another young Russian helper was named, like the famous character in Chekhov’s Seagull, ‘Nina.’ And then there was a man by the name of Tchekhovitch, which sounds like a variation of Chekhov’s name (it can be loosely translated as ‘son of Chekhov’).

    Tchekhovitch, whose family was Polish, grew up in Russia and met Gur-djieff after the Revolution, in Constantinople. In his 1950s memoirs, Gur-djieff: A Master in Life, Tchekhovitch wrote that Mansfield would come to see him and his companions perform ritual dances. They did not know who she was, yet she had such a capacity to ‘fill … the air with her subtle and sympathetic presence’ that they were happy to have her around. The two became friendly. She was very pleased that he called her by the Rus-sian nickname Katya; and even though he obviously had a first name too, Tcheslaw, she preferred to always call him by his Chekhov-like last name.

    There was also another Olga among Gurdjieff’s associates: Olga Ivanovna Lazovich Hinzenberg, or ‘Olgivanna’, as she was more often referred to. She was a Serbian from Montenegro but lived in Georgia and Russia prior to coming to France. In 1931, Olgivanna, by then Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright, likewise recorded her memories of Mansfield which were published in The Bookman. Her piece is somewhat skewed because her main purpose there was defending Gurdjieff’s reputation (which by 1931 was indeed seriously tarnished) yet it also gives us invaluable personal glimpses of Mansfield, especially when it came to Mansfield’s loneliness, to her wanting Olgivan-na to be always near her, and, above all, to Mansfield’s everlasting fascina-tion with all things Russian. While assigned to a dining room with other non-Russians, Mansfield, according to Olgivanna, ‘had expressed her deep wish to eat in the Russian dining-room … but, to her disappointment, she never did.’

    Fritz Peters, who joined the Gurdjieff Institute as a teenager, suggested in Boyhood with Gurdjieff that among the Russians at the Institute some were followers yet many others just hanger-ons, grateful to have a bed and a roof over their heads. But whether they were true disciples probably did not matter to Mansfield one bit; it was the Russian vibe she forever associ-ated with Chekhov that she wanted to experience by joining them in their daily routines. And while she liked all the Russian incarnations of Chekhov around her, it was of course still the man himself she really wished to com-mune with, knowing all too well that Chekhov would have just rolled his eyes at the whole notion of her being with Gurdjieff …