Gurdjieff International Review

Henri Tracol

H

enri Tracol (1909–1997) was born in Paris. He was the nephew of the art historian, essayist, and philosopher Élie Faure, and great-grandson of the renowned geographer, anthropologist, and orientalist Élisée Reclus.

After graduating from the Lycée Henri IV[1] school in Paris, Tracol was a journalist and film critic for the periodical Vu,[2] where he worked for four years. During the 1930s, he went to Spain to photograph the Spanish Civil War for the Havas news agency.

At the end of the Second World War in 1945, Tracol photographed the Liberation of Paris for the newspaper Magnum. He went on to produce a large number of photographic and ethnographic reports in South America for the Musée de l’Homme (The Museum of Man).

In 1938, Tracol met Jeanne de Salzmann who prepared him to meet Mr. Gurdjieff in 1941. Along with a group of French pupils, including René Daumal and Luc Dietrich, he stayed with Gurdjieff until 1949, the year of Gurdjieff’s death.

Tracol soon became one of the leaders of the French groups alongside Mme. de Salzmann and assisted her with her international responsibilities. He also participated in the translation of Gurdjieff’s written works.

Through his unique and insightful approach to Gurdjieff’s teaching as it related to the mainstream of traditional thought and philosophy, Tracol trained and influenced a considerable number of pupils in France and abroad. His keen mind led him to encourage others to undertake in-depth studies, not only of Mr. Gurdjieff’s ideas, but of the knowledge of the great world traditions.

Albert Demade

T

his is not biography, but rather acknowledgment of an intimate debt and a plunge into the mystery of a relationship with a being of whose real nature, even now, I know nothing. Similarly, I cannot search for the trace of what he deposited in me without trying to connect again with the secret ground in which those seeds were sown.

A first meeting with Henri Tracol, July 1976 in Paris, in his apartment on rue Lalo. The impression of a man who listens to the tale of my past experiences and search with benevolent attention and a certain detachment. During our exchange, a pair of pigeons sits on the window ledge and stays for a moment as if they are familiar with the place and the person who lives here. Henri Tracol evokes the story of Milarepa, the ordeal of building and rebuilding the tower. I will need time to understand the extent to which that endless task is in the image of our own relationship with an inner reality that always needs to be renewed. Just as I will only understand much later how close Henri and his wife Nano are as a couple to Marpa and his wife, like two sides of the same coin: demand without compromise and unconditional benevolence.

Henri opens the door to a new group which I can join when activities resume in September. It soon offers a new contact with the man who now sits in front of us, from whom we receive an intense, contained look and, as well, the teaching in terms surprising to someone already accustomed to the vocabulary of Fragments, and who thinks he understands. Here, there is no “identification,” “self-remembering,” “food of impressions,” “essence,” “personality,” but language close to the experience of each person, language always reinvented. The language is precise, the images evoked create shocks. He describes the inner exile in which we live, our situation as cheaters, the fact of being overwhelmed from above and from below, of finding ourselves again and again lost. And above all, Henri initiates us, little by little, into a great mystery which completely confounds our vision of the Work. “It is not I who work; a work is done in me, of which most of the time I am unaware.” And the complement: “I do not do it, but it won’t be done without me.” In this way he invites us to give up all of our pretensions and to begin to listen for a secret, as yet undiscovered life.

The following year, the first experience of a summer work session. It is during the hottest weather in Provence, to the sound of chirring cicadas, that Henri Tracol invites us to take part in a week at his house in a village near Gordes, with a view toward the silent majesty of the Lubéron mountain chain. From the first day, we can feel that his authority reigns in this place, and he announces in a solemn voice: “Here there is only one absolute rule: afternoon siesta.” Baffled by this mixture of gravity and humor, we begin to intuit that the real rule of life must be the object of an intimate search subject to constant questioning. There is no time to idle: we erect stone walls for new buildings (woodworking shop, weaving studio, library), we take part in different crafts, in Movements. Demands are made on us the entire day.

And then there are the meals in the narrow dining room, where we are nourished above all by Henri’s words. At times it is as if the ceiling opens to the celestial vault—such is the power of his thought to guide us toward a sense of contact with the immensity of the universe and toward the breadth of vision offered those who become sensitive to its mystery. For some moments, those who receive the word of the master of ceremonies melt into the infinity of a world charged with grandeur and meaning.

Another order also presides over these shared meals. Nano is present beside Henri and constantly attentive to him, as though she is afraid he won’t eat properly and, with a quiet “let him eat,” she protects him from questions until he has had dessert. At other moments, when a false seriousness begins to weigh down the atmosphere in the room, she cracks a joke that unfailingly provokes everyone’s laughter and brings a half-smile to Henri’s face. No one misses the tenderness that unites these two beings, and this too is a silent teaching.

Every morning we climb a hill to watch the sunrise. On the way back, Henri walks with an energetic step, seemingly determined to preserve from conventional attitudes the experience we have just lived. Similarly, after each sitting when this man—who in my eyes is old—gets up, how light and lively his movement is.

Each of us had a privileged relationship with Henri—no doubt that is the most precious thing—and we hesitate to share it. To share without betrayal is impossible, yet necessary here in an effort to come closer to what really occurred at the heart of these gatherings.

Start by trying to formulate the essential: without ever speaking of it in our private conversations, Henri revealed the being which exists in me; he gave me the taste of it.

How did he do that? I can only testify to what he avoided doing.

Each time he gave a task, it was striking how uninterested he was in success or failure. We had the impression of being measured, of being weighed, but with neither encouragement nor judgment on his part. Yet at the moment he proposed the task, we felt how intimately concerned we would be by the experience he was inviting us to live, and felt that he was addressing something in us which he respected more than we did. In this way, he opened for us a path of progressive discovery of a mysterious identity which could only grow when we freed ourselves of all kinds of considerations for our little selves. Considerations that he went out of his way never to nourish in us.

Each private conversation with Henri imprinted itself deeply in my memory, to the point that even the precise image of the locations where they took place seems to be fixed forever in memory.

One meeting in particular left a trace that is still very alive in me. In a large, rather dark room in his apartment on avenue Paul Doumer, seated behind an austere desk, Henri invites me to assume a responsibility which, I feel, will engage me more than any other. He asks me to think about it and take my time before giving him my answer. Which I do, realizing in particular that a large part of “my time” would belong less and less to me. I also understand that this is the price to pay so that the adventure might continue, this adventure of the quest for a reality beyond appearances, this shift of center of gravity toward the inner life, which at this very moment I feel as both near and ungraspable. And, of course, I respond positively to the demand.

If I draw particular attention to these circumstances, it is because without any commentary, without any explanation about the meaning of the proposed commitment, Henri left me entirely free in my response and demonstrated a confidence—which I was unable to have myself—in the being-in-gestation in me. That confidence, never expressed in words, proved to be deeply contagious. And for the first time in my life, I was in front of the possibility of a relatively conscious decision.

It must be said here that if we all called him Henri, this was never a sign of familiarity. We recognized that his presence belonged to another level of humanity than ours. Yet in the use of his first name, there was something like a recognition that we belonged to one and the same family. To the point that when our respect for him created an artificial distance between us, an expression of suffering sometimes passed over his face.

Another impression that remains particularly poignant: the quality of his presence in front of the group during the last years of his life. Speaking very little, he seemed to obey only a silent inner order, a contained life which manifested itself in few words, returning always to the same proposal: “Do not conclude.” And at that moment we found that our heads were prisoner to definitive commentaries about what was in the process of being lived. Becoming aware of this sometimes opened a space that allowed us to realize that a silent life was at work behind the commentaries, and we developed a taste for living in that space.

When his injunction “Priority to experience” would resonate, the possibility was offered at that moment to enter into contact with an experience in progress, to open to its echo in all the cells of our organism and to be sensitive to the possibility of pursuing this contact for some precious moments.

And last, mercilessly sweeping away all our pretensions, the question always received as a shock: “Who says ‘I’?”

Kantara Bonacina

I

n May 1974, I joined the last group formed by Henri Tracol in Paris. I was in a state of deep joy, convinced that I had finally found the Way I had longed for with all my heart. I was twenty-nine years old, and my inner world had finally opened to a wide horizon. I went from discovery to discovery with enthusiasm and limitless trust and gratitude to Henri Tracol. I experienced a respect for him and a feeling I had never known before.

As soon as he was seated in front of us, very straight in a supple attitude devoid of tension, which endowed him with natural nobility, we felt, forcefully, the emanation of his presence. His attentive look rested on each of us with a mixture of contained authority and benevolent demand which made escape impossible. Whether we wanted to or not, he made us venture into the perilous exercise of speaking, which often put us in an indescribable emotional state. We barely recognized the sound of our own voices, but we drew our courage from the certainty that we would be understood and accepted just as we were.

We felt ourselves loved in our being, and, at times when his response reached our most intimate defenses, we could only be grateful. Henri Tracol had the power to give us back to ourselves. We felt that in the very fiber of our being.

I still vividly recall a crisis which he resolved in an unexpected way.

I had been part of the groups which had met at his apartment for less than a year, and the brave enthusiasm of the first months had given way to a state of acute discomfort which I felt was completely unhabitual, abnormal, even troubling. Certain experiences had revealed unknown aspects of myself, and I was overcome by a feeling of impotence and inadequacy which tormented me day and night. I came to this conclusion: “something” had been taken away from me. What, I didn’t know, but I was no longer the same.

The force which had been there at the beginning seemed to have vanished. And above all, during my vacation, I had discovered my absolute inability to find my own nourishment when there was no one to guide me. In short, I felt lost, I had the impression that I no longer existed.

I spoke to someone close to me about my difficulties, and, in the absence of Henri Tracol who, like every year at that time, had accompanied Madame de Salzmann to America, I spoke of my state in a group meeting led by Michel Peterfalvi in Henri’s absence. What he said left me perplexed, and I made another attempt the following week when Henri had returned, hoping this time to receive from him a response more in keeping with my expectation.

I was so upset that his words barely reached through my inner cacophony. And once again, disappointment! His answer didn’t “fit” what I wanted to hear. “I have obviously expressed myself badly,” I thought, and the next day I sent him a letter. The following week, I waited feverishly at the end of the group for him to give me a moment of private conversation, as had been the case on other occasions.

He came up to me and said simply, “To be continued.” He added, “I say ‘to be continued,’ because this crisis is an important moment.” Then he turned on his heels and rejoined my comrades with whom he needed to speak.

I was surprised by those few words, and surprised at my own astonishment. Yet his words lashed me like a whip. I woke up with a start: what exactly did I want, and why was this moment “important?” I felt more and more lost. I thought about my situation for the rest of the evening and the next few days, trying to see it clearly.

Then I discovered that I didn’t write that letter to Henri in order to take a step back from my “crisis,” as I had believed, but because, without knowing it, I had wanted to unburden myself and place the burden on him. I had made a little package, nicely tied up with string, and had put it in his hands. I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore, he would take care of it. And, above all, he would reassure me. But, after opening the package, he had returned it to me with those simple words, “To be continued.” And I found that I was again alone with myself.

Curiously, I was grateful to him, and for the first time I had an extraordinary feeling: Henri Tracol had given me back to myself. I didn’t know the way toward myself, but he did.

I understood only little by little the meaning of the painful experience I had lived through, by which I had glimpsed the real nature of work on oneself and of the effort that corresponds to it. This was preparation for the long and difficult Journey toward the Unknown. But Henri Tracol would be there to guide us, my comrades and myself.

Didier Mouturat

W

hat to say? What not to say?” These words of Henri Tracol resonate when I try to give some account of what I received from him. He left his mark in secret zones to which I do not have access, and I can say nothing about that without running the risk of betraying precisely through what I believe I understand. What one receives of an objective nature from a being recognized as belonging to another level remains an enigma. Of course, it passes through the filter of our subjectivity, but when asked to declare some part of it, one feels the obligation to protect as well as possible the purity of a treasure not intended for us personally. One becomes aware of the danger of spoiling it, recognizes that words are powerless and that only an act of presence could bear witness.

To explore memories of the help we have received is to limit ourselves to what rises above the waterline, leaving in the unknown depths of the ocean of memory the reality of what that encounter has made of us. Attaching ourselves to a memory detaches us from the traces that the experience left in us, which are so difficult to perceive and decipher.

What to say, what not to say to myself and others? The question awakens uncertainty. It invites me now to resume my exploration of the inner orientation to which Henri Tracol invited us at every moment through his presence, which remained for us the passageway for a mysterious energy which he understood how to receive from its source.

I don’t really know what a master is, but from the very first seconds of encountering him, before he had said the least word, I instinctively recognized as a given that he would be my master. The true nature of a master is to put us in question simply by his presence, and of course, by putting us in question, he puts us to the test. A sensibility that has remained intact deep within us recognizes that in his presence an unknown perspective opens that fills us with hope but also with uneasiness. The master opens to us a world to which we wish to have access, but by opening this world to us he challenges what we have lived until then: our values, our habits, our certainties.

No doubt, I wasn’t ready for this upheaval more than forty years ago, and if today I better recognize its necessity, of course I still resist it. Resistance appears, it is inevitable. Without it, the real encounter would be unlikely to take place. Friction between yes and no is born of that, and if I accept, however little, to endure the state of discomfort to which this friction subjects me, a new energy sometimes appears as the basis for new hope.

To recognize the master in Henri Tracol is to recognize the quality that separates me from him and, lacking that quality, I cannot correspond to the promise of being which he offered us. In front of him, the evidence of my poverty imposed itself at the same time that there opened the hope of a presence, the emergence of a life both new and very ancient, familiar and unknown. In front of him I felt as defenseless as a child, weighted down by the vanity of my habitual patterns of thought. And when he obliged me to speak, my discomfort in being unable to say anything was immediately remedied by the certainty of having been heard more fully than I could hear myself. He would listen and recognize in each of us the state of our questioning while paying no mind to what we clung to: the conception we had, our way of formulating. He took interest in what our questions concealed, of which we did not even suspect the existence. He revealed nothing of what he heard and saw, but the force of attention that he devoted to us hid within itself the essence of his teaching. The answer in his words had less impact than the contagion of his state. I was again and again astonished by the fact that I could remember quite well the words of everyone else in the group, but not his. Apparently, his words acted in me, although the one in me who remained at the surface was unable to make anything of them to satisfy its wish to understand.

From the great gentleness of his face there radiated great firmness. Every meeting with him triggered a secret war in me. How to accept to become little by little a field of battle? It appeared more and more clearly that the one in me who found it difficult to encounter the master was the one who felt seen, exposed in his little arrangements with himself to keep the illusion of control and mastery. That one felt threatened and protected himself so as to keep intact all the means by which, through habits and long practice, he had managed to assert himself in front of others and before himself.

A teaching is only genuinely transmitted through the experience of its incarnation. Whenever Henri Tracol came into a room, all of our resistances melted away in an instant as we instinctively recognized the evidence and radiance of a magnetic presence.

Pierre Vaigot

I

met Henri Tracol for the first time in the spring of 1974, at Gordes, during one of those weekends in the house, twice each month, which brought together groups from the south of France.

I had left Paris not long before to live in Montpellier and to be close to the Cévennes Mountains where I had met Michel Z. through a Parisian friend at whose home I had discovered Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous. A meal at his home had given me the opportunity to meet two older members of the group at Gordes, though I didn’t fully realize who they were. Then an appointment with Henri Tracol was suggested.

I remember the process of preparation that came over me for this interview; the prospect “worked on me,” to take up an expression dear to Henri, and I felt the wish to be as simple and as sincere as possible.

The interview took place at 9:00 on a Sunday morning. I especially remember Henri’s benevolence, his listening and the trust in him that I very quickly experienced, which made possible the sincerity for which I had hoped. I recounted experiences both recent and from the past which seemed to me to correspond to the exploration of awakening that had opened between us.

“These are small things, but ...” he answered. Then he asked questions about my studies, travels in India I had mentioned, what I had sought and found there, about my life. I was still quite young, just 25 years old. He said a few words to me, not many, about possibilities ahead for discovery. And suddenly he asked if I could stay. I remember that I didn’t at all expect that, I had anticipated leaving after meeting him and certainly not to participate so quickly. I had come “to have a look!” And to this day I have the taste of how obvious it was that I would stay. I answered “yes” in the most natural way, while vaguely realizing that to refuse the offer was impossible. “Good,” he said, and added: “You will have to catch a moving train!”

He rose, showed me to the garden, and introduced me to someone who was building a stairway in a space at the entrance to the house leading to the Movements Hall. It was Michel Peterfalvi, with whom I suddenly found myself calculating the number of steps needed in relation to the steepness of the stairway.

Later there was a meal, accompanied by an abundant food of impressions which left a deep mark in me and initiated an adventure which still continues several decades later.

I would like to conclude with several examples of the “koans,” so precious and mysterious, which frequently recurred when Henri spoke, and nourished us well beyond what we could understand of them:

I am worked...

It is there, and it’s as if it wasn’t there...

I do not do it, but it cannot be done without me...

A wish to be brought me to birth...

Who am I? ...

A question for one’s whole life...

To be continued...

~ • ~

Much of Henri Tracol’s biographical information comes from the Center of Study and Research for the Knowledge of Man (CERCH) in Gordes, France which was founded by Tracol in 1964. The Center continues its work in connection with the Gurdjieff Institute of Paris.

Albert Demade, Kantara Bonacina, Didier Mouturat, and Pierre Vaigot were pupils of Henri Tracol and are still striving to be faithful to his teaching.


[1] The Lycée Henri-IV is a public secondary school located in Paris and is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious and demanding sixth-form colleges (lycées) in France.

[2] Vu was a weekly French pictorial magazine, created and directed by Lucien Vogel, which was published from March 21, 1928 to May 29, 1940; it ran for just over 600 issues.

 

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Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: October 1, 2019