The Prieuré at Fontainebleau

Gurdjieff International Review

Taking the Life Cure in Gurdjieff's School

by Maud Hoffman

[A friend of Mabel Collins, author of the Theosophical classic Light on the Path, Maud Hoffman shared a fashionable Harley Street house in London with doctors Maurice Nicoll and James C. Young before moving to Fontainebleau. Her enthusiastic and vividly observed glimpse of daily conditions at the Prieuré was first published in The New York Times, February 10, 1924.]

An Intimate Description of the Russian's Institute in France,
Whose Aim is the All-Round, Harmonious Development of Man

During this last Summer the inhabitants of Fontainebleau and Avon, in France, and the Summer visitors at the hotels flocked to the old Prieuré des Basses Loges to see the Saturday evening demonstrations of the work done there by the pupils of the Gurdjieff Institute. The demonstrations are given in a large aerodrome, erected by the pupils, which comfortably accommodates more than sixty pupils and several hundred visitors. The stage is large enough for forty people to take part in the exercises at the same time, and a large space covered with Persian carpets, remains free in the centre.

The pupils sit around this square space on goatskins and cushions in the Oriental fashion. The interior of this study house has been decorated with color, drawing, stenciling and designs. The whole of the extensive canvas ceiling—and every buttress, beam and space is covered. The colors are rich and vivid, as are the windows. All the work of painting and designing has been done by the pupils themselves.

The demonstrations are unique in their presentation. They consist of movements which include the sacred gymnastics of the esoteric schools, the religious ceremonies of the antique Orient and the ritual movements of monks and dervishes—besides the folk dances of many a remote community.

The movements are not only bewildering in their complexity, and amazing in the precision of their execution, but rich in diversity, harmonious in rhythm, and exceedingly beautiful in the gracefulness of the postures, which are quite unknown to Europe. To the accompaniment of mystical and inspiring music, handed down from remote antiquity, the sacred dances are executed with deeply religious dignity, which is profoundly impressive.

Philosophy of the Movement.

You may or may not know about the philosophy which lies at the back of all the activities of this unique community. The American papers have called them the "Forest Philosophers" and you listen carefully to catch any of the teaching. But the nearest that you get to philosophy for many days is to make the acquaintance of a good-natured, but not well-pointed, fox terrier, with a large body and a small head, named 'Philos'. You venture to ask if there are any lectures or classes. Quietly you are told, without further comment, that there are none. After this you think a while and observe the people around you. They are all English and Americans. Where then are the Russians—that little band of people whom Gurdjieff led safely out of Russia when the revolution broke out?

Later you find that everything that is done in this place of work has a meaning. You work hard—not for the sake of the work—but for the sake of what the work evokes in you, for the sake of activity, for the purpose of making efforts, and for the purpose of self-observation. You soon begin to suspect that this place may be an outer court of one of those old mystery schools about which you have read, over the portals of which were always the words "Know Thyself."

The Gurdjieff system aims at an all-round and harmonious development of man. It is a place where everyone can be an artist or an artisan, and the material with which he works are his own mental, emotional and instinctive energies. As most of the energy in modern life flows into mental activity, much physical activity is needed, and many acute emotional conflicts are required to divert this energy into instinctive and emotional channels.

The claim made by the Gurdjieff Institute is that, by the reactionary effect of harmonious movements on the psyche, man may hope to progress to that balanced development which has been arrested by the cramping of an unnatural and mechanical civilization.

But the process toward a balanced development of being is not confined to gymnastics and dancing. Every kind of manual labor, within doors and out-of-doors, is performed by the students, both men and women doing all kinds of work. Combined with the physical work are difficult mental exercises: and the emotions are kept active by the natural reactions in each person to an environment and conditions that are in many ways the reversal of most of their fixed ideas and habits.

Irregularity a Principle.

If you wish to visit the Gurdjieff Institute, you would, on leaving Fontainebleau Station, turn down the hill to the right toward Avon and old Prieuré des Basses Loges instead of to the left toward Fontainebleau and the Palace. At the foot of the hill at the crossroads on the right hand corner is the gatehouse of the old Prieuré, now known as the Gurdjieff Institute, and Château du Prieuré. You will see the little door in the wall and you will know it is the door you are seeking, because over the bell on the right are the words "Sonnez-fort." [Ring loudly].

It will be well if you take the advice and ring loudly and long. Your arrival may correspond with that phase of the life within which does not provide an attendant at the gate. Unlike other communities the gate-keeper is not a fixed and invariable post. Had you arrived any time between the end of last August and the middle of October your ring would have been instantly answered. During that period the gates had keepers, both the front gate and the back gate at the end of the far garden, six minutes walk from the chateau. Before that time there was no gate-keeper, since that time there has been no gate-keeper.

In the meaning attached to this irregularity, which arises at the very entrance to the Gurdjieff Institute, lies a crucial principle of the enterprise. It is a place where habits are changed, fixed ideas are broken up, mechanical routines do not exist, and adaptability to ever-changing forms and modes of life is practiced. So "sonnez-fort" and wait. Some one passing within may open for you. It is really the "kitchen boy's" duty. There is a different kitchen boy each day and it is the most onerous job in the place. He may not be able to drop what he is doing at once. Presently he will appear with a large apron tied round him—possibly not a clean apron. He may be anybody, the editor of a London paper, a Harley Street specialist, a court musician or a Russian lawyer. England, America, Russia, France, Poland, Georgia, Armenia and several other nations are represented here.

To some one of these you will state your business. If you are a Summer visitor wanting to see the demonstration you will be asked to come on Saturday evening at nine o'clock. But if you have come all the way from America solely for the purpose of living at the institute you probably are expected and you will be admitted at once into the courtyard with its fountain and duck pond and the old chateau standing there close to the gate. As you cross the courtyard, and as you enter the house, you will have a feeling that, at any rate, there will be esthetic satisfaction here, for you see at a glance that the house is an excellent example of the smaller type of French chateau.

You probably have already heard that it was formerly a hunting lodge belonging to Mme. de Maintenon, before that there is the tradition of a Carmelite monastery. More recently it was the property of Dreyfus, who gave it to his advocate, Labori, in payment for his defense in the famous trial. For several years past it has had the fate of so many historic mansions and has been let as a Summer residence to wealthy Americans.

You are left to wait in the first salon, one of three which is furnished in the Empire period, and you go at once to the window, where there is a lovely view of the terrace and the extensive lawns beyond, with their fountain surrounded by beds of flowering plants and great forest trees, for the whole of the estate of forty acres is a part of the forest. Beyond the lawns is a long alley of formal lime trees, leading to a round bathing pool in a basin of stone. From here short paths lead to the top of a little knoll where you can sit and view the grounds and the chateau on one side and the meadows on the other.

During the warm days of July and August the piano was brought out of doors and we practiced our gymnastics and dances in the shelter of the lime tree alley. From ten to eleven—from three to four—from nine to any hour in the night.

Pay According to Means.

Presently some one takes you up to the "Ritz" corridor, so named because of its beautiful furnishings, or in the beautiful "Monks" corridor above, so named for its cloister like appearance. In the Ritz the rooms are luxurious, while in the Monks' corridor they are comfortable and quaint. All pay according to means. Those who are rich must pay very well indeed, for there are many among the pupils who cannot pay at all.

Round about midday there is a meal. At noon, if you have risen at six, at one if at seven, at half-past eleven if you have risen at five. You have probably arrived in time for this meal. If your room is in the Monks' corridor you take a hasty glance round at the red brick floor, the old French chintzes on the walls and furniture, and the heavenly forest garden without, before you hurry down to the dining room. This is a beautifully proportioned room with red hangings and fine old paintings. Three windows overlook the grounds and a door leads on to the terrace.

If the day is warm you can have your bread and soup on the terrace, or in the dining room, or you can take it to your room, or to the garden or the pantry—where or how you like. The food is nourishing and sufficient, but useless conventions of service and elaboration of dishes, food and courses are absent. You receive your food from the hands of the cook in the kitchen, and after you have eaten it, you wash your plate and cup, and there is an end of it. In the matter of food there is an opportunity to "change habit."

As you are a visitor your soup has been brought to you, but you decide to fend for yourself for the pudding or fruit, and make your way through the pantry to the kitchen. Seated at the kitchen table, with his hat on and an overcoat, is Mr. Gurdjieff. He is having his dinner—one dish only, and coffee, surrounded by the noise and bustle of the kitchen. It is crowded with people, among them the Russians, whose dining room is on the other side of the kitchen, past the dairy, to what was probably the servants' hall.

Work and Effort: Nothing Easy.

When you enter, Mr. Gurdjieff greets you and makes you welcome, with a smile that has both sweetness and spirit-quality. You get a first impression of a nature of great kindness and sensitiveness. Later you learn that in him is combined strength and delicacy, simplicity and subtlety. That he is more awake than any one you have ever known.

Your first evening in the study house is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Here from nine o'clock to twelve, to one, perhaps to two o'clock the work goes on. When the obligatory exercises begin you receive a shock. You find yourself sitting up, leaning forward and receiving impacts from that moving mass of energy on the stage. The obligatory exercises contain every movement which is later worked up and used in the various special groups and dances. After the first hour of exercises—when the blood is tingling in every accustomed and unaccustomed cell of their bodies—the pupils rest on the goat-skins and this is the moment chosen for the most difficult kind of mental concentration.

The key words of the Gurdjieff Institute are "work" and "effort." Nothing is made easy in this place. Always the task is a little beyond your strength—you must make an effort; the supply of work material runs short, you must invent—make effort; the time is curtailed—hasten! make effort; you have reached the limit of your strength and are exhausted—then is the moment to make effort—and tap the higher energies and the source of Will.

Those who are intellectually powerful and physically and emotionally weak cannot be considered successful. Their structures are topheavy. The Saints found only incomplete illumination by means of an over-developed emotionality on the path of devotion. Exquisite movements alone, or physical strength alone, cannot give knowledge or perfect being. At the Gurdjieff Institute an attempt can be made to fill in deficiencies, correct heredity and habit and to balance knowledge and being. Incidentally and as a by-product of these efforts you renew your energies and your youth and make yourself more efficient for life.

Copyright © 1924 The New York Times
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Revision: November 1, 2003