Gurdjieff International Review
he entire life of Michel Conge (1912–1984) unfolded under the sign of inner work, work for and with others.
In my confident youth dawned love for those who suffer. But to become a “physician for the body and the soul,” to “understand,” I had to be swept off as if by a cyclone, tossed about, hit, and emerge broken or awakened... The world of spirituality opened out and I was dazzled... The war was the essential agent used by “That” which had been mysteriously at work in me.
As soon as I got back to Paris in 1942, I hunted round to find people inspired by the same ideal as mine. Closed doors everywhere I went. I continued to work on my own and it was only much later that someone said to me, “Why don't you go and see René Daumal? He, I think, could answer your questions.” Without hesitating a second, I asked for an appointment. I arrived, knowing nothing of him nor that he was a member of a group, not even knowing as I rang the doorbell what precise question I was going to ask him. But straightaway he asked me, “What are you looking for?” And, in answer, I found a single word: “the Truth.” That was the password. The way was open before me.”
And that way—thanks to Madame de Salzmann—led to Mr. Gurdjieff, whom Michel Conge immediately recognized as an authentic, exceptional master, as reflected in accounts of their meetings at rue des Colonels Renard and during road trips like the one to Vichy. It also seems that Mr. Gurdjieff immediately saw in Michel Conge a remarkable pupil, often putting him through severe tests while at the same time transmitting priceless treasures to him.
Soon after Mr. Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, with the approval of Madame de Salzmann, Michel Conge began to form his own groups. Pursuing this “task on the scale of life itself,” he became truly one of those “all-rights-possessing-brethren who attain the ableness consciously to direct the functioning of his own psyche—to the state of knowing how to convince to perfection one hundred other beings.” At the end of his all too short life, his groups already included more than two hundred pupils in Paris, Vichy, Clermont-Ferrand, Reims, and Strasbourg, with groups also in Israel and Brazil (São Paulo) which continue to remain in contact with the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris.
The moment came when he gave up the practice of medicine in order to devote himself entirely to the Work.
Recalling Mr. Gurdjieff’s great liking for the city of Vichy, Dr. and Mrs. Conge searched for a house in the surrounding countryside. In 1963, they acquired an old farmhouse with an immense barn and extensive acreage.
It was there, at Le Lesiau, that many French and foreign pupils gathered on certain Sundays or for summer sessions. Le Lesiau became a memorable setting that marked us for a lifetime. To guide us toward becoming fully responsible beings, Michel Conge prepared each day of work with great care, assigning each person a specific task and setting the example by the tasks he gave himself.
Dr. Conge’s pupils remember:
“I still ask myself how he could motivate me after a week of professional work to get in the car on Saturday night, drive 350 kilometers, spend a short night in a Vichy hotel, and then, on Sunday, help to dig the foundation of a new building in rocky soil. After a full, tiring, but rich day I was back on the road in traffic jams to reach Paris after midnight. And yet I went.”
“Like all true masters, he taught in a thousand and one ways, not only by words, and we often marveled to see the economy and efficiency with which he educated us. His presence had the power to awaken us, to reawaken us.”
“We were all under his vigilant gaze. A vigilance that revealed the truth of what one is. Vigilance at the same time benevolent and demanding, and in keeping with each person’s need. His objectivity allowed him to be very severe with certain of us and very tolerant with others. We tended to flee his vigilance because it revealed our actual state, with its doses of hypocrisy, lying, and cheating.”
“At the age of twenty, I didn’t altogether realize that I was under the gaze and in the presence of a remarkable man. I received the strange impression of a constant demand and at the same time felt myself to be heard, protected, accepted, loved.”
“I keep alive in myself that benevolent, watchful gaze which completely embraced what is best in me and what is worst. In that way he deposited in us the foundation of a true love for oneself that can only be assimilated with the passage of time.”
“When he spoke, it was never just words. He was completely there, surprising in his vividness and simplicity. He lived on a different level than us but took pains to reach us. There was a kind of love in the relationship with him that I had never before encountered: a deep interest in our possibility and a complete lack of interest in our stories.”
“In all circumstances he had the art of arousing and ordering a vibrant, energetic, demanding atmosphere, in which seriousness and laughter kept company. When there was more energy in the room than we could possibly absorb, with his keen sense of humor he would invite laughter that relaxed the atmosphere and allowed us to renew our efforts. He would say: “Here we laugh seriously.” And also: “Beware of groups where no one laughs—and would add sotto voce—and also of groups where people laugh.”
At a certain period, when he was already stricken by Parkinson’s disease, he improvised on a little organ—he who had no knowledge of solfege, harmony, or composition and had never learned to play a musical instrument. In that way he offered himself, he said, as an instrument to a higher world, which “made use of my hands, my head, and my heart to appear.” His music was recorded, transcribed, and made available in the circle of his pupils on three CDs.
He would say to those of his pupils whom he encouraged to live the experience of musical improvisation that, whether or not they were accomplished in that domain,
If I serve the inner Master, then his MUSIC, not my own, will speak, and his accent is always recognizable, not always bearable.
The voice of the master or his steward can be recognized by its weight, its effect, its action, its timbre, by that nostalgia for the World we Wish, which we then feel to be so close and yet so irremediably separate.
One of his pupils to whom he had given the task of improvising recalls:
“Useless to describe the two weeks of anguish I lived through—a timid young man, unsure of myself and lacking the least trace of musical talent. But something pushed me to overcome what seemed impossible—‘something’ that has perhaps allowed me to be still here after so many years.”
In the same period he created an extended symbolic tale—a veritable saga—called “Kretek the Musician,” which he narrated in several episodes on Sunday evenings at Le Lesiau with musical interludes of his own composition. Then some of us were invited to do the same: to invent and recite a tale interspersed with original musical interludes. That forced us to dig deep in ourselves...
During summer sessions and Sunday evenings at Le Lesiau, we had to be ready to invent a certain kind of role play. The commission could also be, as one person put it, “to compose one or two theater pieces, if possible humorous, based on study of traits of character to be selected from a list: authoritarian – talkative – mendacious – naïve or credulous – careless – susceptible – super-lucid seer.” They had scarcely arrived one Saturday evening when a couple was asked to improvise, at once, the roles of Dr. and Mrs. Conge. “What a catastrophe! What turmoil! All the same, we had to say and do something...”
“For a celebration of January 13th at Le Lesiau,” as someone recalls, “the plan was to screen films about our activities: work on the roof, in the vineyard, in the fields pulling out briar, etc. We were happy to be able to quietly relax while watching these records of time past but—horrors!—every time the film began, it started burning. Nothing to be done! Dr. Conge decided that instead of being passive spectators, we ourselves would become the actors. ‘Volunteers please come forward!’ What ensued was an outstanding, totally improvised spectacle. I still regret that I didn’t dare expose myself by playing the role I had in the film.”
During days of work, at lunch some time was devoted to language lessons (English, Spanish, German, Turkish, Portuguese) so as to avoid idle conversation and actively engage our thought rather than give free rein to dreams and associations.
As one of the participants recounts, “Dr. Conge also incited us to search out for ourselves our ‘chief feature’ and, for that, to recount our childhood memories. Many of us couldn’t remember a thing... To encourage our retrieval of impressions, he proposed that we help ourselves by looking at old photographs taken at the time. From Sunday to Sunday he accompanied us in this inner search by indicating what he perceived to be our chief feature, the feature of our being that has colored all of our behaviors from the beginning or very nearly.”
Michel Conge transmitted to us and gave life to the rules of ‘the ceremony of toasts’ practiced years ago at rue des Colonels Renard, now adapted to the present. Rigorous and precise, he emphasized that “the rules were there to make us act as if we are.” Rules about drinks, servers, the ‘Director of toasts,’ with the requirement to be able to improvise a toast in the moment... He said:
Making a toast is a new form of work, not at all a pastime or amusement. Which doesn’t mean that we must never tell a cheerful story. It is as if we were opening a path. In fact, it has already been opened by Mr. Gurdjieff, but it is up to us to rediscover it.
He recounted his apprenticeship at rue des Colonels Renard:
My debut as Director of toasts was most revealing. I had prepared for it, just in case and starting long before, and I carried on my person at all times a notebook with the full list of idiots and what had to be said at each toast, as well as an up to date, carefully tended inventory of who—French, English, American—corresponded to each category of idiot. As after the Liberation there was a continual parade of new faces, this was no small matter. I couldn’t manage to remember everything. Therefore, on the evening he abruptly asked me to play this role, I was extremely uneasy. I was nearly certain that I would make mistakes and thought that if I could refer to my notebook that would arrange things nicely. But it was out of the question to cheat, I knew he would mercilessly wipe up the floor with me, and in any case, I wasn’t willing to betray. A simple idea occurred to me. I conspicuously took out my notebook, opened to the needed page, very calmly placed it not in front of me but between Mr. Gurdjieff and myself, and launched into my duty. I rarely needed to scan my list but did so two or three times without a request from Mr. Gurdjieff for anything to be said again.
Another time he played a marvelous trick. The meal was nearly over when he said to me with ill humor: “Director, we thirsty, make toast, quick.” There was so much force in his voice that I felt I couldn’t lose a second. He held out his glass with his hand wrapped around it. But I always kept an eye on his glass and knew that it was empty. Therefore, instead of announcing the next toast, I simply said to him: “No, Monsieur, that’s impossible!” “What! Such insolence! Never see such thing!” and I felt that a long string of insults was on its way. But I didn’t give him time for that and added: “Impossible, Monsieur, your glass is empty.” “Ah! Good, good.” He uncovered it and we exchanged a complicit look while I filled his glass with Armagnac.
Work with ideas, one of the pillars of his transmission, occupied an important place in the activities of his groups. Michel Conge worked on the understanding that can develop along two lines: ‘knowledge’ and ‘being.’ He cared enormously that the two lines advance together, in parallel, mutually supportive.
Do you understand what is to be gained for our work by entering the world of these ideas? Because these ideas are leaven. These ideas, the true ideas, coming from on high, are actually a yeast. They bring to this growth that can’t quite get under way—I am tempted to speak in biological terms—they bring it enzymes, that is, the substances indispensable for something to grow, to develop. A man cut off from any transmission of ideas might very well make great efforts on his being, but the result would be negligible. And for a man who turned only to the ideas and made no effort to work on himself, the result would be also completely insignificant.
He understood how to create conditions that helped his pupils find their way toward a new capacity for thought, for “sound being-mentation,” in Mr. Gurdjieff’s words. For example, he would choose to work on ideas at the end of a day of tiring physical activity.
“To expose our work in the presence of Dr. Conge was a real adventure every time,” one of us recalls. “He measured, weighed every word. He often allowed us at length to sort things out on our own without intervening, and his silent, attentive presence made us feel all the more responsible. And when we were beginning to flounder, he came to our aid with clear thought and new points of view. It is thanks to this sustained work that my thought awakened, and more than once in moments of difficulty in the Work I have been able to think clearly and resume. Dr. Conge gave me a taste for thought, the taste of a cosmic dimension, a higher vision of my experiences and states of the moment.”
If we recall, as Mr. Gurdjieff often did, the Oriental comparison of man to an equipage, one might say that Dr. Conge effectively began working with ‘the coachman,’ the intellect. Working with him, we had to become well acquainted with notions such as hydrogens, intervals, the Law of Three, etc. With a kindly smile, he didn’t hesitate to respond to what he called “questions of vocabulary” and welcomed observations from those who already had a precise knowledge of terms. He considered that “for exact study, exact language is needed,” as Mr. Gurdjieff puts it in Views from the Real World.
Over the years we explored a wide spectrum of Mr. Gurdjieff’s ideas, particularly those discussed in In Search of the Miraculous but also deepening our understanding of certain aspects on the basis of themes for study set for one or two weeks, even for an entire year, such as “the art of living,” “the objective ideas of the Great Knowledge,” “how to initiate oneself.” Michel Conge also formed groups for the study of religions and traditions, which periodically shared their findings. He used to say to us:
I heard Mr. Gurdjieff state one day, and so I repeat to you: have all the essential ideas of the Work present in your minds, they will save you when necessary.
The ultimate aim of this work on the ideas is to come to thought of another nature—for example, through symbols—and to learn how to reach ideas inaccessible to reason. Michel Conge left a sign of that possibility: in his “notes taken after a night ... in which an opening took place toward a much finer world of thought.” He left us a legacy an exceptional interpretation of the Enneagram (privately published). This text, together with many other notes from exchanges, remains as a witness to his unique understanding of certain aspects of the Laws of Creation.
One can’t speak of Michel Conge without speaking of his wife Gilles, who accompanied him faithfully throughout his teaching activities. She was a member of the groups at rue des Colonels Renard, taught Movements, and also had her own group. She continued practicing medicine while looking after the needs of their daughter. She represented a solid and stable resource alongside her husband, who overflowed with activity. She supported and accompanied him throughout his arduously difficult illness with an attitude that bore witness to the quality of their union. She passed away two years after he did.
Gilles and Michel Conge
As the years passed, Parkinson’s disease imposed its relentless deterioration. Little by little, Michel Conge entered a state of extreme dependency that required the help of several of us together in his home, for his trips to Le Lesiau which continued, and for his participation in the groups. At the end of his life, an interpreter was needed to translate the few words he murmured with difficulty. He was profoundly weak but fully present.
In the words of some of those present at that time:
“In a free moment at Le Lesiau, I was with him when he had an episode of trembling. Naïvely I said to him: ‘Doctor, what a shame that you have this illness!’ He immediately responded: ‘No! It’s a gift from heaven!’—meeting my amazement with a warm smile as he moved away.”
“During his illness, answering a question related to Gurdjieff, Michel Conge said: ‘Teachers are always alive, on a higher level.’ I remember the shock of these simple words. It seemed that he had a continuing contact with his teacher Gurdjieff. For us, it was a preparation for his impending departure. And he continued to use the special situation of his illness as a unique tool to help us see ourselves.”
Such were his last direct teachings, but what was deposited in us still continues its action. There also remains an impressive number of transcripts and texts that have not yet seen the light of day.
Through his life of work, Michel Conge was a faithful heir of Mr. Gurdjieff. The diversity of the means he used shows what a living tradition can be, a “creative tradition” without imitation or repetition, which preserves its own originality.
Still today, we can make our own words pronounced by his close friend Henri Tracol at the burial of Michel Conge in Montparnasse Cemetery: “Each of us, very simply, can bring to mind that grave smile full of love, that quiet questioning in our exchanges, that look which was both a call and a call to remember, the bearer of a fraternal demand, the guarantee of his own faithfulness to the word that had been given.” □
All italicized quotations are those of Michel Conge. Photos are from private collections.
 G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963) New York: E. p. Dutton & Co., p. 53.
 Michel Conge, Life: Real Life Behind Appearances (2017) Carrières-sous-Poissy, France: Societé d’Étude des Traditions (SET), pp. 116–117.
 Ibid., p. 137.
 Michel Conge, Inner Octaves (2007) Toronto: Dolmen Meadow Editions, pp. 181–211.
 Words of Henri Tracol spoken in homage to Michel Conge.
 G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (2006) NY: Jeremy p. Tarcher / Penguin, p. 337.
 Notes from an unpublished manuscript.
 Michel Conge, Inner Octaves (2007) Toronto: Dolmen Meadow Editions, p. 39.
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Featured: Fall 2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (2)
Revision: January 1, 2021