G. I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

Gurdjieff Observed

by Roger Lipsey

There is a primary literature by and about Gurdjieff, easily found by anyone who asks who he was and what he thought. More difficult to find, there is also an unexpectedly rich secondary literature written for the most part by his pupils.1 If the reader encounters in Gurdjieff’s own writings and in P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous a virtually canonical presentation of the master’s life and ideas, he or she will find in this secondary literature something more like a composite journal in many voices. Some of these voices are exceptionally warm and poignant—for example, Katherine Mansfield’s in 1922, Kathryn Hulme’s recalling Gurdjieff in the 1930s—while others are marked with the high seriousness and middling clumsiness of the apprentice. Dr. Kenneth Walker, a British physician who encountered Gurdjieff in the late 1940s, speaks with the clarity of a well-trained mind of this man who helped him press against the limits of mind alone. René Zuber, a filmmaker of quiet wit and an immense capacity for wonder, evokes the Gurdjieff he knew. With consummate storytelling art, Fritz Peters recalls Gurdjieff’s cunning and deeply affectionate approach to children. These are only some of the voices to which we might listen. Within this less familiar secondary literature, there emerges a primary image of Gurdjieff as a teacher and as a man, and of the demanding conditions he created daily for his pupils.

Admittedly, to be a pupil is a humble thing; it involves a declaration of need, a deliberate willingness to “hear and obey,” as the old Islamic phrase puts it. Yet many of these pupils of Gurdjieff were—and are—men and women of independent accomplishment. What one hears in them is not the constraint of the permanent pupil but the recognition of children, now adult, for their spiritual father. Gurdjieff taught “the examined life” in its full Socratic sense, and those who studied with him did not neglect to turn their growing powers of examination upon their teacher. Gurdjieff, the observer, was observed—from his first appearance as a teacher in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1912 to his last days in Paris, October, 1949.

Who was he? One answer that emerges in the composite journal of his pupils is: an expensive saint. Kathryn Hulme, author of The Nun’s Story (1956), was one of a small group of women who worked with Gurdjieff in Paris in the 1930s. She recalls that one day he told them of a worldly problem that confronted him:

We were aware how often his seemingly jocose remarks lifted suddenly to another level of understanding and listened attentively to his tale of a brand new car he might be able to get with no down payment whatsoever—a deal so unique that he thought he should have some help to see it through. He asked if any of us had a special saint to whom he might burn a candle, looking first to Miss Gordon, our senior, for a suggestion. She named a saint noted for granting requests, but the master shook his head. He knew all about that one. “No,” he said, “it must be a saint who would be indulgent for one of us.” One of us in the Work … his eyes searched our blank faces, then he shrugged.

“If you cannot suggest such a one,” he said, “I could just as well take my own saint—Saint George. But he is a very expensive saint. He is not interested in money, or in merchandise like candles. He wishes suffering for merchandise, an inner-world thing. He is interested only when I make something for my inner world; he always knows. But … such suffering is expensive.”2

The image as he develops it may be St. George, but it is most certainly George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who at all stages of his life as a teacher asked much of his pupils and taught them how to make inner-world offerings.

He was an expensive saint who came from a great distance. In his autobiography, Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963), he evoked the remote places in now distant times where he went in search of an utterly persuasive and practical knowledge “of all and everything.” Here and there, in the humble secondary literature, one finds further hints of impressions he received in a now lost religious landscape that shaped his sense of what is right and normal among human beings. The witness is again Kathryn Hulme, the moment New Year’s Eve, 1936:

He was sitting on his divan and nodded as we filed past him and found places around the Christmas tree. He seemed rested.… He asked Canary [in later years, Gurdjieff customarily gave special names to his pupils] to put out all the lights and to plug in the contact that lit the tree. We sat in silence for several minutes. Then Gurdjieff said: “This I like. Such tree makes you quiet, peaceful inside. It is like sitting before an open fire. Coziness.”

The mirror over the mantel reflected the tree’s colored lights. Wendy whispered, “I see two trees …” and started our master talking about reflected light, a chapter out of his unknown past.

“It would be better if it was candlelight,” he said. “Candlelight blends better; electricity does not blend. But the most beautiful light I know, is the light I saw many times in Persia. They make a clay cup, fill it with mutton fat, put twist of cotton in, and this they burn for holiday, fete, wedding. This light burns longer than any other kind of light—even for two days one such small cup will burn. And such light—the most beautiful for blending. For Mohammedan fete, once I saw a whole house lit by such lights … such brightness you cannot imagine, it was like day. You have seen Bengal lights? This I speak about was even more bright. For man, it is the best light for reading …” A note of nostalgia for the Near East came into his voice. “In Persia, they even arrange rooms for such light. Once I saw one I can never forget. They hang mirrors everywhere, even floors and ceilings have mirrors—then around, in special places to make decoration, they put such clay cups with mutton fat, and when you see—it makes the head spin. Wherever you look, you see lights, endless, thousands. You cannot imagine how it was. Only, one must see—and when you see you would never imagine that such a beautiful sight comes from such small idiot thing as this clay cup of mutton fat.…”

“One other thing about such lights,” he went on, “is most original. When they make them with frozen fat, this they put together in layers, each layer with a special perfume, with separations between layers so that when they burn—first you smell, then the room fills with one perfume; after half an hour with another, and then another—all planned exact! Such knowledge they had before … such candles they made consciously and everybody had them. Such was life then! Now … they make them automatically …”

A sadness settled over our spirit after he had spoken, as so often happened when he made a glowing picture of how man once was—simple, unspoiled, aware of his soul and its needs.3

A Composite Portrait

Given the riches of his nature, evident even in this simple evocation of memories, it remains surprising that Gurdjieff was not famous in his lifetime. Today, some fifty years after his death, he occupies an honorable but marginal position in the history of twentieth-century culture as commonly conceived. True, in his lifetime he experienced from time to time “fifteen minutes of fame”—the theatrical presentations of Sacred Dances which he staged in Paris and a number of American cities in 1923–24 attracted attention, his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau-Avon in the 1920s led to journalists’ investigations of those whom they were pleased to call “the forest philosophers”—but in general he conducted his life and work privately, and actively discouraged the unreliable scrutiny of journalists and all others who create reputations. René Zuber witnessed one of these episodes of “active discouragement” in the 1940s at Gurdjieff’s apartment, 6 rue des Colonels Renards, a few steps from Avenue Carnot which mounts, lamp-post by lamp-post, to the Place de l’Étoile:

… journalists. He always kept them at bay and would not allow them to cross his door.

One day I was present when the following scene took place. Two young men had had the nerve to force their way in and, presenting their press cards, declared that they were on the editorial staff of a well-known newspaper. Someone went to announce them to Mr. Gurdjieff but, before they had even had time to take three steps into the hall, he appeared in person and chased them out as if they were vermin.

That he braved the power of the press on every occasion is one thing. But on top of that, when his pupils went to the trouble of bringing a world-famous personality to him, expecting such an encounter to result in some kind of mutual recognition at least, more often than not things would turn out contrary to their wishes. After a fairly good start the important holder of the Légion d’Honneur would suddenly feel himself in a situation which no longer tallied with his idea of himself. He would get out of his depth and go to pieces.…

If good-natured souls like myself could not bear such a sight—never mind! One does not become adult without undergoing such trials.4

Like Diogenes in ancient Greece, Gurdjieff dwelt at the margin by choice. In a century when intellectuals have prized difficulty—difficult texts like Ulysses, difficult theories like deconstruction, difficult technologies of all description—Gurdjieff was still too difficult, perhaps because he presented not just an intellectual but a moral and existential difficulty: he asks us who we are, he founds his insistent interrogation on ideas and insights which are in part discontinuous with Western culture, and he is impolite. This rupture in both substance and style—he disdained what he called “bon ton” culture—was threatening. Hence Gurdjieff’s historic role in the evolution of twentieth-century culture and his enduring influence have not yet been assessed in the vague, but nonetheless real public forum where such matters are ultimately decided. He may in time be perceived as one of the primary vehicles for the integration of Eastern and Western spirituality in a century when this was one of the principal, although well-hidden, needs. The fruits of the integration he achieved and the relation of his accomplishments to other efforts in the same domain remain to be seen. Mercilessly critical and mocking, like Diogenes of old, he nonetheless arrived at our doorstep with extraordinary gifts.

Gurdjieff was unlike other men. Those who recorded their impressions of his person have left a strikingly consistent composite document. The late Henri Tracol, one of the foremost exponents of the Gurdjieff teaching and a man with a keen sense for the well-chosen word, remembered:

… his massive presence, the serene power, at once formidable and reassuring, which emanated from his whole being—his bearing, his gestures, his manner. I can still hear his voice resounding in me, arousing echoes that are ever fresh and new. Above all, I find myself standing before him, his eyes in mine, confronting the exacting benevolence of his gaze. Exacting, yes, and at times fiery and merciless. He seemed to guess the best as well as the worst in us and, being an expert in such matters, he smiled. That smile was ironic and compassionate, but quite without indulgence. Nothing escaped him. We felt him always ready to act without pity toward the oppressors of our own selves which, without knowing it, we were. This can be truly called: love.5

This reflection dates to 1967. It refers unmistakably to the same man about whom Tracol wrote in 1943 a few memorably descriptive words in answer to his comrade, Luc Dietrich. Dietrich is today remembered in France for his novel of 1944, L’Apprentissage de la ville, in which the disconcerting common sense of Gurdjieff can be found secretly dispersed among various characters. Dietrich practiced the original custom of presenting his friends with small notebooks in which he had written one or two carefully phrased questions. He expected, indeed demanded, equally careful answers. “What defines,” he asked Tracol via one such notebook, “a proper attitude toward Mr. Gurdjieff? What should a pupil’s attitude be?” Tracol responded:

Never forget what one is seeking from him. Never lose sight of the fact that he is the master, but also a man. And keep a tight rein on all subjective reactions toward him. Always be on the qui vive. Never let oneself be caught in the traps he sets for one. Know how to open oneself to him without self-abandon. Know how to exact from him the Word.6

The range of experience in Gurdjieff’s company was, obviously, very great: from vigilance to avoid the traps he laid to a religious dimension evoked by Tracol’s reference to “the Word.”

Another witness, P. L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, spontaneously used some of the same words to evoke the man she first met in 1938:

He was a serene, massive man who looked at one with a long, contemplative, all-knowing glance. I felt myself in a presence. He had a certain quality that one might call mythological. Later, when I came to be his student, I always felt the same way: He was a man whom you recognized but you didn’t know what you were recognizing…. When we were in Gurdjieff’s presence, we felt his energy infused in us. He could deliver this to anyone in the room. He had something very high and not within our ordinary comprehension.7

“Who was he?” echoed René Zuber in his brief but touching book about Gurdjieff. And he continued:

I feel sure that many of those who approached him, if not all, were tempted to ask him this question; but such was his prestige, such was his power, that they never dared to ask him outright.

Some people were simply curious, others had an inner thirst and had been told that here was a spring at which this thirst could be quenched. The shock of the encounter, however, always exceeded the expectation and some preferred to run away rather than undergo an experience that might well force them to put in question all their accepted ideas.

When I knew him, in 1943, he was no longer young.… He had both the majesty of an old man and the agility of a fencer capable of delivering a lightning thrust; no matter how unpredictable his changes of mood, however surprising his manifestations, his impressive calm never deserted him.

“He looks like Bodhidharma,” Philippe Lavastine had told me before taking me to see him, “because he has the sternness of an awakener of conscience, and because of his large moustaches.”8

Gurdjieff considered the capacity to play consciously the roles imposed by daily life to be a key to inner freedom, and he himself set the example with the fluency of a consummate actor. He almost never revealed himself to his pupils in all simplicity. Nonetheless, certain among them could recall such moments. Georgette Leblanc, author of My Life with Maurice Maeterlinck, provides an arresting account:

Great emotion. When I arrived at his apartment, he opened the door himself…. The light coming from the little salon shone on him brightly. Instead of concealing himself, he abruptly stepped back and leaned against the wall. For the first time, he allowed me to see what he really was … as if he had suddenly stripped away the masks behind which it is his duty to hide. His face was imprinted with a charity that embraced the entire world. Standing rigidly before him, I saw him with all my strength and I experienced a gratitude so deep, so painful, that he felt the need to quiet me. With an unforgettable look, he uttered: “God helps me.”9

But it is time to abandon this attempt to ask Gurdjieff to sit for his portrait. We should look, instead, at reports of Gurdjieff in action, working with his pupils, responding to their questions, creating circumstances.

Gurdjieff’s Places

A preliminary word about the settings where all of this occurred would be useful, since they changed very much from the early years in Russia to the middle and late years in Paris. Gurdjieff in Russia is the focus of Ouspensky’s brilliant book, previously mentioned, and appears vividly, as well, in Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff, joint memoir of the composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife, Olga. As Gurdjieff moved with a handful of pupils from revolutionary Russia southward to Black Sea villages, Tiflis (now Tbilisi), and ultimately Constantinople, Ouspensky and the de Hartmanns remain the best observers, although others—C. E. Bechhofer for Georgia, J. G. Bennett for Turkey—add insight. This entire period of forced emigration from a collapsing center of culture to an uncertain haven was one of improvisation against high odds, of forming and dissolving conditions for the study of his teaching as the civil and political situation permitted. “On the ocean,” he told his pupils at this time, “even during great storms, there are quiet areas where there is no turbulence at all. And so it is during revolutions.”10 At one point, high in the Caucasus mountains, he must have felt that he and his little band of followers had reached such a zone of relative calm: “Now I am at peace,” he said. “We do not have to deal with men anymore, just wild animals.”11

Gurdjieff moved westward from Constantinople to Berlin in 1920, from which he tried without success to lease the spacious building at Hellerau where Emile Jaques-Dalcroze had established his institute for the study of music and dance, closed soon after the beginning of the Great War. But the brief German period of Gurdjieff’s search for a home for his work, perhaps a year in all, has left little apparent trace—a memorably spirited photograph with hat and cane in the sunlight in Dresden, a short and none too friendly chapter on Germany in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, few recorded memories from pupils who saw this period through with him.12

He moved on with his followers to Paris, briefly explored the possibility of founding a center in England, then definitively settled on Paris and its region as the Western home for his work. In 1922, he obtained a long-term lease on the Château du Prieuré at Fontainebleau-Avon, where he founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. From 1922 through the early 1930s, the Prieuré represented an expansive time and place where one can meet Gurdjieff very fully through the writings of his pupils. And then there were the later years in Paris, when Gurdjieff lived in a modest apartment, received pupils and visitors over sumptuous Middle Eastern meals he himself prepared, and transmitted his teaching with great intensity. Apart from the war years, which he spent in Paris seeing his French pupils virtually without interruption, he made frequent trips to New York, where groups of people had been studying his teaching since 1924.

These were Gurdjieff’s places, to which should be added the Café de la Paix, where he had the custom of writing in the privacy of a public place, and of meeting pupils and family members. And then there were pleasant cities across France—Vichy, Cannes, and others—to which he and an entourage of pupils, family members, and occasionally children would caravan by car. These were excursions of Homeric dimension, richly attested by his traveling companions.

At the Prieuré

Concerning the life of the Prieuré and the multiple activities of its director, we might first consult two sharply contrasting sources: the published journals of a sturdy lifelong pupil, the Englishman C. S. Nott, and the quietly jubilant letters of Katherine Mansfield. The prospectus of the Institute, a rare document very much of its period, describes “a training establishment” at which “applied arts and crafts, agriculture, horticulture, market-gardening” and “duliotherapy,” as well as rhythmic dances and other activities and studies, supported an intensive work of self-study and self-development. The term “duliotherapy” at once attracts notice. Our informant in this regard is A. R. Orage, the celebrated English editor and publisher who abandoned a career at the center of London literary life to study with Gurdjieff at the Institute. Nott recorded this fragment of a conversation with Orage:

My first weeks at the Prieuré were weeks of real suffering. I was told to dig, and as I had had no real exercise for years I suffered so much physically that I would go back to my room, a sort of cell, and literally cry with fatigue. No one, not even Gurdjieff, came near me. I asked myself, “Is this what I have given up my whole life for? At least I had something then. Now what have I?” When I was in the very depths of despair, feeling that I could go on no longer, I vowed to make extra effort, and just then something changed in me. Soon, I began to enjoy the hard labor, and a week later Gurdjieff came to me and said, “Now, Orage, I think you dig enough. Let us go to café and drink coffee.” From that moment things began to change. This was my first initiation. The former things had passed away.13

This was duliotherapy: Gurdjieff’s invitation to those who came to him to meet their bodies as such, to break through the emotional and intellectual rigidities they had involuntarily brought with them, by hard labor—not forever but for long enough, and not for its own sake. Even toughened workmen like Nott, for whom physical labor was nothing new, discovered the challenges of duliotherapy. “Having already experienced almost every kind of physical toil and discomfort,” he wrote,

as soldier, sailor, farmer, laborer, I considered that the Prieuré had nothing to teach me in this respect. But it did not take more than two or three weeks for me to begin to see that I still had much to learn; to realize that I did not know how to do physical work—as a man and not a machine. I had been told to “chop” stones, and with four girls I spent ten days breaking limestone rock into small pieces the size of a nut. It was a contrast to working in the shady walks of the forest with the men; in the hot sun it became monotonous, dull, and wearisome, and my feelings began to revolt. I worked spasmodically and nervously. Gurdjieff came along one day, with the doctor, Stjoernval. “Why you work so nervously?” he asked. “It’s a result of the war,” I said. “No!” he replied. “I think you always like this. Watch Gertrude, see how she works. All your attention goes in watching the clock, listening for the dinner bell.” The next day Dr. Stjoernval said to me, “You know, Mr. Gurdjieff says we should learn to work like men, not like ordinary laborers. Like men, not like machines. Try to save your energy while you are chopping stones. You waste much energy in resenting what you are doing. Make a list of thirty or forty words in a foreign language and memorize them while you are working; at the same time try to sense your body and notice what you are doing.…”

Soon, by making the effort to do this simple exercise, a change in my attitude to the monotonous labor began to take place. Some of the energy that I had been wasting in resentment was used productively for myself. The work even became satisfying. Some days later Gurdjieff again passed and glanced at me. The next day I was given another job.14

The story is simple, the result simple: a point of departure for “work on oneself,” not its culmination. “When you know how to do one thing well,” Gurdjieff told his pupils, “you can do everything”—and he started with simple challenges.

Katherine Mansfield’s letters reveal another point of view on the same phenomena and take us, as well, into the zone of women’s work at the Prieuré. Friend and literary protégé of Orage, Mansfield was admitted to the Institute in October 1922, at a very early stage of its existence. She was suffering from severe tuberculosis, and Gurdjieff must have known that her time was limited—she died at the Prieuré in early January of the following year—but she joined the life as much as she could, as much as Gurdjieff would permit her. Her letters to her husband from those months are small classics of observation and sensibility; they are her last, unforgettable short story. “I decided to ask Mr. Gurdjieff if he would let me stay for a time,” she wrote:

“Here” is a very beautiful old château in glorious grounds. It was a Carmelite monastery, then one of Madame de Maintenon’s “seats.” Now, it is modernized inside—I mean, chauffage centrale, electric light, and so on. But it’s a most wonderful old place in an amazingly lovely park. About 40 people—chiefly Russians—are here working, at every possible kind of thing. I mean, outdoor work, looking after animals, gardening, indoor work, music, dancing—it seems a bit of everything. Here the philosophy of the “system” takes second place. Practice is first. You simply have to wake up instead of talking about it, in fact. You have to learn to do all the things you say you want to do.15

Some days later she continued her chronicle from a more experienced perspective. No longer considering herself an outsider looking in, she had recognized some “we” to which she sensed she belonged:

I spend all the sunny time in the garden. Visit the carpenters, the trench diggers. (We are digging for a Turkish Bath—not to discover one, but to lay the pipes.) The soil is very nice here, like sand, with small whitey pink pebbles in it. Then there are the sheep to inspect and the new pigs that have long golden hair—very mystical pigs. A mass of cosmic rabbits and hens—and goats are on the way, likewise horses and mules to ride and drive. The Institute is not really started yet for another fortnight. A dancing hall is being built and the house is still being organized. But it has started really. If all this were to end in smoke tomorrow I should have had the very great wonderful adventure of my life. I’ve learnt more in a week than in years là-bas. As to habits. My wretched sense of order, for instance, which rode me like a witch. It did not take long to cure that.

Mr. Gurdjieff likes me to go into the kitchen in the late afternoon and “watch.” I have a chair in the corner. It’s a large kitchen with 6 helpers. Madame Ostrovsky, the head [Gurdjieff’s wife], walks about like a queen exactly. She wears an old raincoat. Nina, a big girl in a black apron—lovely, too—pounds things in mortars. The second cook chops at the table, bangs the saucepans, sings; another runs in and out with plates and pots, a man in the scullery cleans pots—the dog barks and lies on the floor, worrying a hearthbrush. A little girl comes in with a bouquet of leaves for Olga Ivanovna. Mr. Gurdjieff strides in, takes up a handful of shredded cabbage and eats it … there are at least 20 pots on the stove. And it’s so full of life and humor and ease that one wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s just the same all through—ease after rigidity expresses it more than anything I know.16

Meanwhile, in the forest and gardens, the men and able-bodied women—and some children—were continuing their efforts. J. G. Bennett, an Englishman who met Gurdjieff in Turkey, studied briefly at the Prieuré, and resumed his connection with Gurdjieff after World War II, tells a story that has achieved legendary status among people who prize “tales of Gurdjieff,” these contemporary teaching stories. He remembers:

I went to the stone quarry, where the mercilessly hard limestone of Fontainebleau Forest was being quarried to build the Russian bath. A burly young man named Tcheckhov Tchekhovitch was in charge of this work. The second day I was on this task a very large block of limestone broke away. Tchekhovitch said it was just what Gurdjieff wanted to make the lintel of the Russian bath. It was far too heavy for us to remove, and we tried to break it up with stone chisels and crowbars. After two hours, during which we had made no impression on the stone, Gurdjieff suddenly appeared in his town clothes. I learned later that he had just come from Paris, having been up all night. He did not say a word, but stood on the edge of the pit and watched us. We went on hacking away at the stone. Abruptly, he took off his coat and jumping into the pit, took a hammer and chisel from one of the Russian workers. He looked closely at the rock, placed the chisel carefully and tapped three or four times. He walked half round it, and after a careful examination tapped again. I am sure he had not struck the rock more than a dozen times when a huge flake, weighing perhaps a hundred pounds, cracked off and fell away. He repeated the operation three or four times and behold, a slab remained less than half the size of the original. He said: “Lift.” We put out all our strength and the rock came up, and we carried it over to the bath.

It was a telling exhibition of skill that has remained in my memory as vividly as when I saw it. But this is only half the story. More than 25 years later I was sitting beside Gurdjieff at a meal in his flat in Paris, and Tchekhovitch, now grey and almost bald, was standing facing us. Gurdjieff was talking about Ju-jitsu, and saying that he had learned a far more advanced art in Central Asia than that of the Japanese. It was called Fiz-lez-Lou, and he had thought of introducing it in Europe and was looking for someone to train as an instructor. As Tchekhovitch had been in his youth a champion wrestler, he had been the natural candidate. He then spoke to Tchekhovitch, and said: “Do you remember at the Prieuré when we were making the Russian bath, how you tried to break the rock for the door frame and could not? I watched you then, and saw that you did not know how to look. I could see just where the rock would crack, but you could not see even when I showed you. So I gave up the idea of teaching Fiz-lez-Lou in Europe.”

Tchekhovitch, who adored Gurdjieff as if he were a divine incarnation, stood motionless and said: “Yes Georgy Ivanitch; I remember.” Then tears began to roll down his cheek.17

Katherine Mansfield’s experience continued to be much different; she was there to rest, to learn, with God’s help to recover. Gurdjieff advised her to spend a great deal of time in the cowshed, where the rich odor of the livestock could soothe her lungs. To further this unusual therapy, he had a gallery built there, and it was decorated by his friend and pupil, Alexandre de Salzmann, a well-known stage designer from the Dalcroze Institute whose portrait as Père Sogol was obliquely drawn by René Daumal years later in his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue (1952).18 Katherine Mansfield wrote:

There is a small steep staircase to a little railed-off gallery above the cows. On the little gallery are divans covered with Persian carpets.… The whitewashed walls and ceiling have been decorated most exquisitely in what looks like a Persian pattern of yellow, red, and blue by Mr. Salzmann. Flowers, little birds, butterflies and a spreading tree with animals on the branches, even a hippopotamus … —a little masterpiece. And all so gay, so simple.… There I go every day.… On Sunday afternoon when I was in the stable [Mr. Gurdjieff] came up to rest, too, and talked to me a little. First about cows and then about the monkey he has bought which is to be trained to clean the cows. Then he suddenly asked me how I was and said I looked better. “Now,” he said, “you have two doctors you must obey. Doctor Stable and Doctor New Milk. Not to think, not to write.… Rest. Rest. Live in your body again.”19

Strangely, Katherine did not record that the faces of the animals in de Salzmann’s decorative scheme bore a more than accidental resemblance to various pupils of the Institute.

Just as Gurdjieff was there for Katherine Mansfield—it seems doubtful that he climbed into her gallery just to rest, and his project of training a monkey as a stable boy seems cunningly designed to entertain his famous guest—so Gurdjieff was there at the right moment for many other pupils of the Institute. Stories abound, none more remarkable than an experience of Fritz Peters at the time he was discharging the solemn duty of serving as Gurdjieff’s personal aide. Fritz was a boy of eleven or twelve at the time:

[Mr. Gurdjieff] had a distinguished visitor that day—A. R. Orage—a man who was well-known to all of us, and accepted as an accredited teacher of Gurdjieffian theory. After luncheon that day, the two of them retired to Gurdjieff’s room, and I was summoned to deliver the usual coffee. Orage’s stature was such that we all treated him with great respect. There was no doubt of his intelligence, his dedication, his integrity. In addition, he was a warm, compassionate man for whom I had great personal affection.

When I reached the doorway of Gurdjieff’s room with my tray of coffee and brandy, I hesitated, appalled at the violent sounds of furious screaming—Gurdjieff’s voice—from within. I knocked and, receiving no reply, entered. Gurdjieff was standing by his bed in a state of what seemed to me to be completely uncontrolled fury. He was raging at Orage, who stood impassively, and very pale, framed in one of the windows. I had to walk between them to set the tray on the table. I did so, feeling flayed by the fury of Gurdjieff’s voice, and then retreated, attempting to make myself invisible. When I reached the door, I could not resist looking at both of them: Orage, a tall man, seemed withered and crumpled as he sagged in the window, and Gurdjieff, actually not very tall, looked immense—a complete embodiment of rage. Although the raging was in English I was unable to listen to the words—the flow of anger was too enormous. Suddenly, in the space of an instant, Gurdjieff’s voice stopped, his whole personality changed, he gave me a broad smile—looking incredibly peaceful and inwardly quiet—motioned me to leave, and then resumed his tirade with undiminished force. This happened so quickly that I do not believe Mr. Orage even noticed the break in the rhythm.

When I had first heard the sound of Mr. Gurdjieff’s voice from outside the room I had been horrified.… Now, leaving the room, my feelings were completely reversed. I was still appalled by the fury I had seen in Gurdjieff; terrified by it. In a sense, I was even more terrified when I left the room because I realized that it was not only not “uncontrollable” but actually under great control and completely conscious on his part. I still felt sorry for Mr. Orage.20

Sacred Dances and a Musical Collaboration

The field workers, the farmers, the kitchen workers, the older children, even frail Katherine, set aside their diurnal roles in the evening, when they joined together to study Sacred Dances and Movements, some of which Gurdjieff had learned in temples and religious brotherhoods and at village festivals across the Near East and central Asia, many others of which were his own compositions. These sessions occurred at first in one of the Prieuré salons, but soon in a much better adapted structure known to all of our informants by its English name, the Study House. Those who search for this building on the Prieuré grounds today will not find it—it has long since disappeared—but descriptions of this rich expression of Gurdjieff’s sense of beauty and place exist in the secondary literature. C. S. Nott first saw it in 1924:

The Study House had been built … from a disused hangar … in the form of a Dervish tekke. Walls and floor were of earth. Inside, over the entrance, was a small gallery with a seat, and hung round the gallery was a collection of stringed instruments and drums from the Near and Far East; while on the walls were several diplomas or certificates in Eastern characters, which had at various times been given to Gurdjieff. The floor of the Study House was covered with carpets from Persia, Afghanistan, and other Eastern countries, and carpets hung on the walls. Inside on the right of the entrance was a box with hangings, Gurdjieff’s own seat. Round the walls of the House were raised seats for spectators, separated from the open space by a painted wooden fence. At the far end was a raised platform of earth, covered with linoleum, for Movements; and in front a small fountain. The windows were stained and painted in a pleasing harmony of colors; while scattered about on the walls, in a script somewhat like Persian or Turkish, were aphorisms or sayings. The atmosphere was that of a holy place.21

Gurdjieff was the least sentimental of men, but he was not immune to a deep nostalgia, as we have already noticed in his account of Persian clay lamps. In 1932, shortly before he left the Prieuré, he drove there from Paris with Kathryn Hulme and her companion Wendy, and ushered them into the Study House, still fully furnished but no longer in use. Kathryn Hulme wrote:

I remembered, like a yesterday’s experience, how Wendy had clapped her hands and cried, “Oh how beautiful, Mr. Gurdjieff!” when he had led us into the Persian-carpeted enclosure—a large hall out of The Thousand and One Nights with painted windows, divans and fountain before a stage at the far end … and how he had looked at her in the colored gloom with a peculiar expression and had said, “You feel?”

Despite the stagy furnishing there had been a holy feeling about it which came over us after the first moments.22

It was here that Gurdjieff and his pupils prepared the demonstration of Sacred Dances given at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées at the end of 1923, and the comparable programs offered in New York, Boston, and elsewhere in the winter of 1924. There are many testimonies to the character and force of Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dances or Movements, none more direct than the sequence of Movements, directed by Jeanne de Salzmann, which appears at the end of the Peter Brook film, Meetings with Remarkable Men, released in 1978. Katherine Mansfield’s testimony, dating to autumn 1922, is brief but, as always, original and felt. “Every evening,” she wrote,

about fifty people meet in the salon and there is music and they are working at present at a tremendous ancient Assyrian group Dance. I have no words with which to describe it.… I must say the dancing here has given me quite a different approach to writing. I mean some of the very ancient Oriental dances. There is one which takes about 7 minutes and it contains the whole life of woman—but everything! Nothing is left out. It taught me, it gave me more of woman’s life than any book or poem. There was even room for Flaubert’s Coeur simple in it, and for Princess Marya.… Mysterious.23

Throughout Gurdjieff’s years in the West, and in the fifty years since his death, the Movements have retained a central place among the disciplines offered those who approach his teaching. His very last years, when he composed an extensive new series of Movements, were as fertile as the much earlier years in Essentuki and Tiflis, where he put much emphasis on this aspect. An anecdote from post-war Paris evokes his joy, even as an old man, in this form of work on oneself. The speaker is Annie-Lou Staveley, a British pupil who taught in the United States until her death in 1996:

I remember a hot summer day. The Movements class, in which I had not participated, had been particularly strenuous. Afterwards we gathered at the apartment. Two of the American girls called “the calves” were late and Mr. Gurdjieff was displeased. Thunder was written on his brow. Everyone quailed. “Where is … ?” he asked. Another calf anxiously explained that they had raced to their hotel to take a shower after the Movements class. They were very hot. The clouds dispersed. “Ah!” he said in a tone of immense satisfaction, smiling. “Sweat!” He stretched the word out to its uttermost limits.24

Music was an integral part of the life around Gurdjieff. If the Prieuré in the 1920s was in many respects his court—the place where he ruled unquestioned yet generously—then Thomas de Hartmann was his Kapellmeister in those privileged years. De Hartmann was an exquisitely trained composer, a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, who studied conducting in Munich, where he joined the avant-garde circle of the painter Wassily Kandinsky before World War I. Returning to Russia when war broke out, he and his wife met Gurdjieff in St. Petersburg, followed him out of the revolutionary zone—often under very trying conditions—and remained with him until 1929.

The musical collaboration between Gurdjieff and de Hartmann, focused in the mid-1920s, produced a body of music for Movements and for concert performance that has only recently been released, in part, for general distribution.25 This music—various, often immensely impressive—has been engagingly discussed by the composer Laurence Rosenthal.26 C. S. Nott witnessed the collaboration between Gurdjieff and de Hartmann during rehearsals in the Study House:

The music was played by Hartmann on an ancient upright piano, which under his touch produced magic music. When Gurdjieff wanted a new piece he would pick it out on the piano with one finger, supplementing the notes by whistling. Then Hartmann would begin the melody and by degrees fill in the harmony, Gurdjieff standing over him until it was as he wished. He would give Hartmann no respite until he got it as it should be. Only a first-rate musician like Hartmann could have produced such music, and he, on at least one occasion, found the situation so impossible when Gurdjieff was going for him that he got up from the piano and left the Study House.27

De Hartmann himself was both witness and participant, for example in the following passage from his book, which refers to rehearsals in Constantinople but evokes the collaboration as it continued to unfold at the Prieuré. A new Movement is being developed by Gurdjieff working with his pupils, while de Hartmann is at the piano:

He gave me the tempo of the exercise and a melody he himself had written on paper, from which I was expected to improvise the music on the spot. But then he gave me also a separately written upper voice, which was meant to sound as if played on sonorous little bells. It was now impossible to play everything with two hands, so he told Madame de Salzmann to play the lower part and me the upper part. I struggled feverishly to get it all down on paper and we began to play.…

The main melody was now in my left hand with the added voice above it. He told Madame de Salzmann to double the main melody one sixth lower with her right hand, and play the rhythm with her left. It was amazing how the accompaniment, the little high voice, and the two main voices a sixth apart, blended together like parts of a single machine.

Soon after that Mr. Gurdjieff brought me another piece of paper, with an unusual combination of flats in the key signature.28

In his later years Gurdjieff had the custom of playing an old-fashioned harmonium, a small keyboard instrument with a hand-operated bellows. One of his listeners at 6 rue des Colonels Renards in the post-war years was Dorothy Caruso, widow of the great operatic tenor. “No matter how late,” she recalled,

each night in the salon after dinner Gurdjieff took his little accordion-piano on his knee and, while his left hand worked the bellows, his right hand made music in minor chords and haunting single notes.

But one night in his aromatic store-room he played for five of us, alone, a different kind of music, although whether the difference lay in its sorrowful harmonies or in the way he played I do not know. I only know that no music had ever been so sad. Before it ended I put my head on the table and wept.

“What has happened to me?” I said. “When I came into this room I was happy. And then that music—and now I am happy again.”

“I play objective music to make cry,” Gurdjieff said. “There are many kinds such music—some to make laugh, or to love or to hate. This the beginning of music—sacred music, two, three thousand years old. Your church music comes from such but they don’t realize. They have forgotten. This is temple music—very ancient.”

Once when he played I thought the music sounded like a prayer—it seemed to supplicate. And then I thought, “It is only my imagination and emotion,” and I tried not to feel what I was feeling. But when he had finished, instead of smiling and tapping the top of the instrument with his hand, he sat quite still and his eyes stood motionless, as if he were looking at us through his thoughts. Then he said, “It’s a prayer,” and left us.29

Among Children

There was a children’s subculture at the Prieuré, linked to the dominant adult culture but with rites and perspectives of its own. Fritz Peters is our best guide to this subculture, although many others witnessed Gurdjieff’s gestures toward children as the years passed and recorded their impressions. Peters wrote of his young life at the Prieuré:

One of the pleasures and challenges of “concierge duty” was a competition among all the children—this duty was almost exclusively the work of the children—to be sufficiently alert on this job to have the gates, through which the automobiles had to pass, opened in time for Mr. Gurdjieff to drive through them without having to stop his car and blow the horn as a signal to the gatekeeper.

One difficulty with this was that the entrance to the Prieuré was at the foot of a long hill which descended from the railway station; the streetcar to Samois also passed directly in front of the gate where the highway made a wide turn in the direction of Samois, away from the Prieuré. Frequently the noise of the tramway obscured the sound of cars coming down the hill, and interfered with our game. Also, once Mr. Gurdjieff became aware of the competition, he would usually coast down the hill so that we would not be aided by the sound of the motor.

It was mostly thanks to Philos, the dog, who often followed me around during Mr. Gurdjieff’s absences, that I was usually able to get the gates opened in time for him to sail through them, a big smile on his face. By watching Philos, whose ears would prick up at the sound of any passing car, but who would jump to his feet at the sound of Mr. Gurdjieff’s car, I was almost always successful.

Amused by this game of ours, Mr. Gurdjieff once asked me how it was that I was able to, practically unfailingly, have the gates open in time, and I told him about Philos. He laughed and then said that this was a very good example of cooperation. “Show that man have much to learn, and can learn from many unexpected places. Even dog can help. Man very weak, need help all time.”30

With children, Gurdjieff had the art of compressing lessons into short, original scenarios that attracted their minds and set them working and questioning. Late in his life, for example, during an excursion with his pupils, the company was about to rise from dinner and pass to another room for coffee. “Before he went,” writes Elizabeth Bennett, one of the most fearless and affectionate witnesses to Gurdjieff’s ways,

he held up his half-eaten segment of melon and said who could clean this so that it could be painted—tomorrow he wished to paint this skin and give it as a present to a friend—who would prepare it for him? Paul said he would, and Mr. G. said Eve could help him and if they did it properly he could have 1,000 francs. When we left the dining room Eve and Paul were sitting at the table still, with their heads together over the melon skin.

[After a time] Paul came back with his melon skin and showed it to Mr. G. They bent over it together, very solemn, and then G. said no, it wasn’t quite good enough; nothing yellow should remain. Paul went solemnly off to fetch a razor blade and Mr. G., watching him go, laughed and said, “See now what education he have.” Until now he knew nothing, he only knew how to eat and shit, “never he work with this,” tapping his forehead, “now this his first labeur.” When Paul came back again after an interval, the skin was perfect: Mr. G. folded it and put it in his pocket and gave the 1,000 francs—“not forget sister.”31

Money was the focus of another ingenious scenario in these late years, which occurred at the Wellington Hotel, in New York, where Gurdjieff spent part of the winter of 1948. The speaker is Dr. William Welch, the American physician who attended Gurdjieff in his final illness, a man of deep skepticism matched by warmth:

[Gurdjieff] used to say that the only people who interested him were children under five and grownups over fifty-five. Before five, people were not yet wholly spoiled, and after fifty-five, their egotism was less active. As the latter were eligible in his salon for hot coffee and treatment as honored guests, it was sometimes difficult for the oldsters, more especially the more sensitive women, to decide whether to count themselves in or out of the charmed circle.

I remember one test he put to all the children at his feet, and there were often twenty or thirty in the throng jammed into the drawing room at the Wellington. He offered them their choice of one crisp ten-dollar bill from a batch in a bread basket, or eight coins from another basket piled high with old-fashioned silver dollars.

The exquisite inner calculations among the shrewder children was intense. My own daughter, who chose the silver dollars … did so, she said quite simply, because she knew she could never bring herself to spend them, as she might a bill, and she would thus have a permanent memento of the strange man her parents were so attached to, and with whom she felt a curious rapport and warmth, mixed with notions of mystery and magic.32

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Gurdjieff was known in the quartiers he frequented as “Monsieur Bonbon.” This too reflects his relations with children—and with some adults. Kathryn Hulme remembered an occasion when she and her friends joined him at a café:

We sat with him until his waiter brought his bill. To a generous tip he added, from his pocket, a handful of small wrapped candies which the gray-headed waiter gathered up with a pleased expression.

“Like a small boy,” Gurdjieff said as the waiter went off. “Always I take bonbons in my pocket, chiefly for children. They call me Monsieur Bonbon. Even here in café by such name I am known. So I must give, always. They expect …” A sound of deep inner mirth escaped him as he repeated the name by which the innocents identified him. “Monsieur Bonbon!”33

With some of his pupils in Paris during the Occupation, he returned to this theme with a good deal more emphasis:

“You know, I always have candy in my pocket and when I see a child, I give it some. With the child there is always someone, its father, its mother, or an aunt. Without fail they always say the same thing to the child: ‘What do you say?’ And little by little the child begins to say thank you automatically to everyone and no longer feels anything. This is not just idiotic, it is a crime!

“When a child wishes to say thank you, I understand him. I understand his language. And it’s this language I love. For no other reason than to hear it, for no other reason than to see this truthful impulse, I distribute five kilos of candy every day—for which I pay 410 francs the kilo.”34

But all, of course, was not “bonbons” in Gurdjieff’s relations with children: he was warm, but he was challenging. Once he turned to the father of his close pupil, Olga de Hartmann, who had been raised with every advantage of wealth and position:

“You see, father, what you make me do? You never shouted at your daughter, so she has not had this experience, and all sorts of impressions are necessary for people. So now I am obliged to do it in your place.”35


“One thing you must know, Krokodeel,” Gurdjieff said to Kathryn Hulme (whom he addressed in lavishly accented English as “Crocodile”):

“Nervousness has a momentum. The mind cannot stop nervousness, it must go on until the momentum finishes. It is important that you remember this.…”

“You must know,” he continued, “a most important thing about Man. Man cannot stay long in one subjective state. The subjective state depends from a thousand things. You can never know the subjective state of another. It is typicality of man that no two such states are ever the same; they are like thumbprints, each different. When you see her,” he indicated Wendy at another table, “in some subjective state, you must not try to understand what causes it. Even she cannot know. If, for example, she is angry with you, you say—She is not mad with me, her state is mad with me. Never reply with your interior. Never have revenge associations.”36

This is the classic moment with Gurdjieff, the moment when he provides an insight and converts it into a challenging exercise for daily life or for times of private meditation. Exercises were the coin of his realm: he had innumerable exercises to offer, some certainly ancient and rooted in traditions he had encountered, others improvised to meet a specific present circumstance. The pupil was to accept them, to work with them, and to report the results. These reports were the coin of the pupils’ realm. Depending on the substance of the reports and the attitude—even quite secret and camouflaged—with which they were offered, Gurdjieff was able to redirect the pupil’s efforts, confirm discoveries, provide a further exercise, or when necessary shock the pupil into new recognitions.

Through the later 1930s, the years of the Occupation, and the post-war period, when English and American pupils were able to return, Gurdjieff’s table was the scene of exchange between master and pupil. René Zuber captured the atmosphere in recalling his first serious encounter with Gurdjieff:

His table, at the end of a meal, when a great silence fell to make way for the questions of his pupils, resembled the mat in a judo club. The master, his head shaven like that of a samurai, waited calmly without moving. The “Monsieur, may I ask you a question?” that broke the silence was something of a ritual, comparable with the salutation of two judokas bowing deeply to each other. At that moment the respect that filled the room reached its peak.

I knew what it was to be beyond good and evil, beyond fear, the first time I asked Mr. Gurdjieff a question. I said to him: “Monsieur, in order to search for truth one has to run the risk of making mistakes. Now, I am afraid of making mistakes, so I remain sitting at my window and I see no reason why it should ever end.…”

I had put this question into words because Philippe, who was sitting on my left, had nudged me and whispered: “Go on! Now’s your chance!”, because Mr. Gurdjieff had granted me an “oï, oï,” of approval; because all eyes were turned towards me, and I found myself suddenly confronted by infinite space, just as I imagine an astronaut, in a state of weightlessness, would if he opened the door of his capsule. In the split second of silence that followed I felt all the familiar currents of life flowing into me again with such force that I would not even have heard Mr. Gurdjieff’s answer had it been other than it was.

This answer rolled over me, into me, like an avalanche. I heard a voice as though through a fog, coming from the mountain, affirming that yes, it was indeed so, I was not good for much—a good-for-nothing, “a piece of live meat,” “a shit.” “In my own country,” Gurdjieff went on, “you even pay people to get rid of it.” I could not be relied upon. I might have a checkbook in my pocket, but my signature was worthless. However, if I wished, it could all change. Later on, perhaps at the end of the war, my signature would be worth something.

To my insidious question: “Monsieur, who are you, then? Are you a true master or a false one? I never board a ship without being perfectly sure of the length of the journey and the identity of the captain”—to this question he gave me no answer.

He had thrown me back onto myself. “And you, who are you, then?”—with such force that I shall never forget it.

It was a master stroke.37

“If I wished, it could all change.” By what means, Mr. Gurdjieff? By work on oneself. But what is that, Mr. Gurdjieff? The answer to this question moves our inquiry into an increasingly private realm, as Dr. Walker makes clear:

Beneath the daily routine of Rue des Colonels Rénards there ran an unobtrusive current of purpose, a current which would every now and then break through to the surface and reveal itself. This was particularly likely to happen when two or three of us were invited to take coffee with Mr. Gurdjieff in his own private room. This sanctum was situated in the heart of his flat and it was actually the store-room. The walls of this room were traversed by tiers and tiers of wooden shelves all over-laden with every conceivable form of grocery: innumerable tins, packets of sweets, boxes of confectionery, bags of flour, oatmeal, currants, raisins and sugar, bottles of brandy and vodka.… At a small table, pressed up against a rampart of shelves mounting up to the ceiling, sits Gurdjieff.… Madame de Salzmann is seated at his side ready to interpret for us difficult passages in his mixture of French, English, and Russian, whilst the rest of us sit around him on small canvas-topped stools or upturned grocery boxes.…

The conversation was always of a very private nature. “This that I tell you,” he would say, “is for you alone and it must not be discussed with other people. I ask you to do this and then later, when you come next time to Paris, you can report to me what you find.” He would then outline some psychological or physiological exercise and would give us very precise instructions how this exercise was to be carried out. While imparting these instructions he would speak with the exactitude of an old and experienced physician prescribing treatment to his patients, choosing his words very carefully and talking in grave and convincing tones. At such times his words fell on our ears with immense weight for they seemed to be backed, not only by his own wisdom, but by the authority of a long line of unseen and unknown teachers.… For me, at any rate, Gurdjieff represented the last and the only visible link in an immensely long chain of teachers stretching back into a distant and misty past. How strange that the message should have reached me in such surroundings, amid bags of sugar and bottles of spices, packets of raisins and canned meats. But … it is well known that wisdom is to be found more often in the world’s by-ways than in its lecture halls.38

Kathryn Hulme displays no less reticence than the doctor when she approaches the central question of receiving exercises from Gurdjieff. “It is not … within my competence,” she writes,

to describe the Gurdjieff exercises for beginners. I believe that anyone who has struggled to shut off the mechanically racing mind through a sleepless night, or who has tried to pray for even half a minute without having associations drag one’s attention away, has had a taste, however small, of the kind of self-discipline into which he initiated us. It was a basic “spiritual exercise” aimed to help us build inner energy.

His final admonitions had touched me deeply.… “Be simple like a monk,” he had said, “a monk given a task. You do this exercise with faith, not with knowing …” he had touched his forehead, “but with sure-ing …” his expressive hand had dropped to his solar plexus. “Not knowing … but sure-ing. Not with the mind but with the feeling.”39

But while certain instructions remained secret, much of what he offered at his table or in the quiet of the provisions room had the character of inspired common sense—that is, an open secret. “Often we wondered,” writes Kathryn Hulme,

why he insisted on truths we believed we had heard before, or on ways of conduct we thought we had always followed … until we pondered his advice and realized we had done the exact opposite all our lives.

“When you do a thing,” he said once, “do it with the whole self. One thing at a time. Now I sit here and I eat. For me nothing exists in the world except this food, this table. I eat with the whole attention. So you must do—in everything. When you write a letter, do not at the same time think what will be the cost of laundering that shirt; when you compute laundering cost, do not think about the letter you must write. Everything has its time. To be able to do one thing at a time … this is a property of Man, not man in quotation marks.”40

Gurdjieff had—and retains to this day—a reputation for assaulting his pupils, for delivering massive psychological shocks in order to free them from their illusions and automatisms. But very much depended on who was the pupil. As René Zuber recounts his first exchange with Gurdjieff, we witness a confident young man more than able to withstand the shock of Gurdjieff’s assault, and ultimately grateful for this rude beginning. As Dorothy Caruso recounts her private exchanges with Gurdjieff, we see quite another quality: gentleness in front of the human person:

Once he had spoken to me about my great aim. “I haven’t any aim,” I said; “what should my aim be?” He said, “Do you want to perish like a dog?” I answered, “Of course not.” He didn’t explain, he simply repeated what he had said before: “Remember your ‘I.’” …

I sat beside him on a bench.… At last I said, “May I tell you something, Mr. Gurdjieff? I wish I had met you twenty years ago. Today it’s too late. I realize now that I am nothing, and it’s the loneliest feeling in the world.”

He turned and looked at me. “Ah,” he said, “you are no longer blind. Your eyes now open—you begin to see.”41

For Mme Caruso, this acknowledgment was not the end of her relationship with Gurdjieff but more like the true beginning. She had an exercise from Gurdjieff, and he reminded her of it. The lonely feelings that she discovered were only a temporary passage in the larger voyage she had undertaken. For Gurdjieff, exercises were the realm of repetition. “Repeat, repeat, repeat,” he himself repeated:

“Not once will you do them,” he said, “not one hundred times will you do them … but one thousand and one times you will do, and then perhaps something will happen. Now it is imagination, but sooner or later it will be fact, because your animal is law-able.”42

“There He Was Before Us …”

Henri Tracol remembers:

There he was before us, and beneath his gaze each of us tried to awaken. What did he expect of us? No doubt, that there sound within us something like an echo of what he himself sought. There he was before us, a living example of the seeker each person is destined to be. Through his presence, through his insistence—sometimes silent, sometimes accompanied with words—he attempted to evoke in us what he himself experienced as a necessity, as an inner urgency.43

Toward what, finally, did this hurricane of a man lead his pupils? He explained to a gathering in the early days in Russia that a man cannot explore just one world at a time; he must explore both a higher and a lower world simultaneously. Somewhat obscure at this distance, the concept nonetheless evokes the dual focus that is at the heart of Gurdjieff’s teaching: a search to discover the deep resources of unshakeable intelligence and conscience within the individual, and a search to bring those discoveries to bear in daily life in ways that are vivifying, surprising, and sustained. If you work for your life, he taught, you also work for your death; last things take care of themselves when we take care of first things. He taught a new mode of entry into life, not a way of sheltering. This is evident in his advice to Kathryn Hulme as she contemplated a three-month trip to her native America:

“You are out of one chair and have not yet the data for sitting in another chair. All that you will do in America will seem like a pouring from the empty into the void … all meetings with people and so forth. Later, when you have the data, you will go back and do the same thing and then it will mean something.”44


  1. A bibliography that cites numerous first-hand accounts of meetings with Gurdjieff is J. Walter Driscoll and the Gurdjieff Foundation of California, Gurdjieff: an Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1985. For most of the items cited in these notes, complete publishing information can be found in the Driscoll bibliography.
  2. Kathryn Hulme, Undiscovered Country: A Spiritual Adventure, Boston: Little Brown, 1966, pp. 95–96.
  3. Ibid., pp. 131–33.
  4. René Zuber, Who Are You, Monsieur Gurdjieff?, trans. Jenny Koralek, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980; new ed., London: Arkana, 1990, p. 5. Originally published as Qui êtes-vous, Monsieur Gurdjieff?, Paris, 1977.
  5. Henri Tracol, The Taste for Things That Are True, Rockport Mass.: Element, 1994, p. 108 (partially retranslated from the original French).
  6. Ibid., p. 124 (partially retranslated).
  7. Margaret Croyden, “Getting in Touch with Gurdjieff,” The New York Times Magazine, July 29, 1979, p. 30.
  8. Zuber, op. cit., p. 2.
  9. Georgette Leblanc, La Machine à courage: souvenirs, Paris: J. B. Janin, 1947, p. 207.
  10. Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff, Definitive Edition, ed. T. C. Daly and T. A. G. Daly, New York: Penguin Books, 1992, p. 87.
  11. Ibid., pp. 95–96.
  12. James Moore, Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth, Longmead, UK: Element, 1991, pp. 154–58, provides the most recent exploration of this period.
  13. C. S. Nott, Teachings of Gurdjieff: The Journal of a Pupil, New York: Weiser, 1962, 1978, pp. 27–28.
  14. Ibid., pp. 48–49.
  15. Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield's Letters to John Middleton Murry 1913–1922, ed. John Middleton Murry,, New York: Knopf, 1951, p. 675.
  16. Ibid., p. 680.
  17. J.G. Bennett, Witness: The Autobiography of J.G. Bennett, Rev. ed., Tucson, Arizona; Omen, 1974, pp. 108–09.
  18. René Daumal, Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing trans. Roger Shattuck, London: Vincent Stuart, 1959; Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1975.
  19. Mansfield, op. cit., pp. 692, 695.
  20. Fritz Peters, Boyhood with Gurdjieff, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964, pp. 30–31.
  21. Nott, op. cit., p. 46.
  22. Hulme, op. cit., p. 69.
  23. Mansfield, op. cit., pp. 684–85.
  24. A. L. Staveley, Memories of Gurdjieff, Aurora, Oregon: Two Rivers Press, 1978, pp. 73.
  25. The Music of Gurdjieff / de Hartmann, Triangle Records, 1989. In this set of CDs, de Hartmann is at the piano. Another recording of interest is on the Valois label, performed by Alain Kremski. The music for solo piano is being issued in four printed volumes and four pairs of CDs by Schott / Wergo, the German music publishers.
  26. See Laurence Rosenthal, “The Sound of Gurdjieff,” Parabola, Vol. XI (3), 1985, pp. 86–89; Gurdjieff International Review, Vol. II (4), July 1999, pp. 12–14.
  27. Nott, op. cit., p. 62.
  28. De Hartmann, op. cit., p. 155–56.
  29. Dorothy Caruso, A Personal History, New York: Hermitage House, 1952, pp. 178–179, cited in Margaret Anderson, The Unknowable Gurdjieff, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962; New York: Weiser, 1970, pp. 183–84.
  30. Peters, op. cit., p. 93.
  31. J.G. Bennett and Elizabeth Bennett, Idiots in Paris, Gloucestershire: Coombe Springs Press, 1980, p. 9–10.
  32. William J. Welch, What Happened in Between?, New York: Braziller, 1972, p. 128.
  33. Hulme, op. cit., p. 77.
  34. “Gurdjieff: Textes et témoignages inédits,” Question de, No. 50, second edition, enlarged, Paris, 1989, “Échanges, deuxième soirée,” p. 90.
  35. De Hartmann, op. cit., p. 237.
  36. Hulme, op. cit., p. 108.
  37. Zuber, op. cit., pp. 9–10.
  38. Kenneth Walker, Venture with Ideas, London: Jonathan Cape, 1951; New York: Weiser, 1972, p. 168–171.
  39. Hulme, op. cit., p. 90.
  40. Ibid., p. 91.
  41. Caruso, op. cit., pp. 182, 184–185, Anderson, pp. 187, 189.
  42. Hulme, op. cit., p. 107.
  43. Tracol, op. cit., p. 95 (retranslated from the original).
  44. Hulme, op. cit., p. 107.

~ • ~

This essay was previously published in Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching, New York: Continuum, 1996.

Copyright © 1996, 1999 Roger Lipsey
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 1999 Issue, Vol. III (1)
Revision: October 1, 1999