Jeanne de Salzmann

Gurdjieff International Review

Threads of Time

Recollections of Jeanne de Salzmann

by Peter Brook

[In this excerpt from his autobiography, Threads of Time, Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998, pp. 108–111, Peter Brook—who had attended Jane Heap’s group for more than a decade—offers a succinct and vivid cameo of Jeanne de Salzmann who was close to Gurdjieff for thirty years. Brook’s narrative begins with the death of Jane Heap in 1964.]

Early one morning, time stopped. I picked up the phone, then turned to Natasha [Parry] to tell her that Jane Heap had died. The powerful magnet at the center of every activity was gone. “What were her last words?” we asked, only to realize at once the absurdity of the question, because the whole of a teacher’s life work is her only statement. There was grief, there was emptiness and a useless scramble to fill the void. But the pain of deprivation needed to be cherished and respected, and only after mourning was allowed its time and place could new lines of life emerge with their own determination.

“You will see,” said a friend when I first met Madame de Salzmann, “she is like a fan, which gradually opens until more and more is revealed.” After Jane’s death, Natasha and I went frequently to Paris, where Gurdjieff’s work was being maintained with increasing intensity by Madame de Salzmann, who had been close to Gurdjieff since she had met him in the Caucasus during the First World War. Through her own unremitting struggle, she had gained the capacity to transmit to others a unique quality of experience, and I now made a vow to myself always to be available whenever the opportunity arose to be near her.

I would like to be able to draw a portrait with words of this remarkable person, but I know how inadequate this will be. In my work with actors, I have learned that impersonation only succeeds if it can capture the rigid areas in which a personality is imprisoned. Someone whose life flows freely has none of the rigidities on which imitations or even descriptions can comfortably hang.

Madame de Salzmann had achieved this freedom through a life devoted to the service of that unknown source of finer energy that can only become manifest when the human organism is completely open—open in body, feeling, and thought. When this condition is reached, the individuality does not vanish; it is illuminated in every aspect and can play its true role, which is to bend and adapt to every changing need.

Madame de Salzmann would always rise graciously to welcome a visitor. She would sit upright, still and contained, and would respond with laughter or seriousness, finding precisely the words and the idiom that corresponded to the age and understanding of the listener. Her speaking was not for herself, she was never carried away by her own memories or her ideas; out of an awareness of what was needed, out of listening to the other person’s state, she would speak directly to the person so as to evoke a meaning or encourage an action to arise. She was always present, as close as the need demanded—yet in this closeness she was never to be grasped. No one could hold her, and she held on to no one.

There are many reasons for describing a human being as “remarkable”; for Gurdjieff the essential quality of a remarkable man or woman was the capacity to watch equally over “the lamb and the wolf” in his or her care. To cherish the tenderness of the one and the ferocity of the other, to give to each its place, is only possible if there is a special kind of presence that reconciles, unites, and holds them both in balance. Often Madame de Salzmann would describe how at her first meeting with Gurdjieff, she had immediately recognized this remarkableness in him. From then on she had stayed by his side, working with him through a multitude of forms of teaching and conditions of life, watching over both the wolf and lamb.

At Gurdjieff’s death, Madame de Salzmann found herself virtually alone, inheriting the gigantic and volcanic output that Gurdjieff had left behind. All over the world there were groups of students left rudderless, in a state of confusion that seemed destined to splinter, distort, and degrade the material that they had been given. There were unpublished writings, a bewildering quantity of musical compositions, an even greater number of dances, movements, and exercises that she herself had taught and of which she had the truest living memory. Recognizing that uniting all these strands was now her unavoidable role, she devoted all her energy to this task, traveling indefatigably between Europe and America. I would meet her often and was always fascinated by the same observation. Wherever she went, she seemed always in the same place, her stability unaffected by outer change.

One day, I asked Madame de Salzmann a question that gnawed at me constantly, for it was connected to all my major decisions in life. On the surface, all seemed balanced and harmonious, and I certainly had no right to complain. But, deep down, nothing could quench a sense of meaninglessness, both in my own activities and in the world around me—yet to solve this by breaking away or dropping out seemed arrogant and futile. It was a personal version of the ancient dilemma of determining what belongs to Caesar and what truly belongs to that “something else.” “I have an inner search that I cherish and respect but also a work in life for which I am grateful and cannot despise. Both seem valuable, but in different ways,” I said. “What can help me to assess how much I should legitimately give to each, so as to maintain a balance?” She looked at me for a moment, then answered quite simply, “Come back at nine o’clock tonight.” When I returned, to my bewilderment it was not to resume our conversation but to find myself included with others in a session that she guided, leading step by step to a complete silence.

I had expected something to be said that would clarify my question; only as time went by did I see how precise and practical her seemingly indirect answer had been. It was the answer of direct experience. It became clear that it is the quality of silent wakefulness, informing and uniting the organism from moment to moment, that gives meaning to each choice and to every action. On an ordinary level of awareness, all choices will suffer from one’s lack of true vision, and as I had so often painfully experienced, we torture ourselves with decisions that in fact we are in no position to take. The purer the inner state, the clearer the vision. That evening she led us step by step to taste what that state might be and how in it contradictions can be resolved and priorities become real. In a cruder state, all arguments are valid because all choices are the same. The enigma is how to discover what can lead us to another, deeper, truer state. I still believed that somehow or other I could fabricate this state for myself, and I had to face the awkward truth that even this natural desire can become the greatest of obstacles; even the sincerest of wishes can block that special opening toward which all aspiration tends. Effort only has a place if it leads to a mystery called noneffort, and then if for a short instant one’s perception is transformed, this is an act of grace. Although grace cannot be attained, it may sometimes be granted. One has to let go of the leaf to which one is clinging, but it takes no more than another leaf to blow by for one to drop again into the usual state of confusion.

Copyright © 1998 Peter Brook
Photo by permission Gurdjieff Institute (Paris)
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2000 Issue, Vol. III (2)
Revision: April 1, 2000