Gurdjieff International Review

Meetings with Remarkable Men

by G. I. Gurdjieff

A Conversation on the book by Professor Roy Finch of Sarah Lawrence College, Lord Pentland, and Lawrence Morris

Roy Finch: We are discussing today a book which has been read for more than thirty years by people in different parts of the world, but is only now being published for the first time in English. This book is entitled Meetings with Remarkable Men, and it is by one of the most fascinating and remarkable men of our century, G. I. Gurdjieff.

The general public has heard little of Gurdjieff—perhaps has not even heard his name, but his ideas and teachings have had a profound influence. He was born in 1877 in the Armenian city of Alexandropol, near the Turkish-Russian border. His life was spent in Asia, Russia, and France, although he traveled everywhere. He visited the United States several times. He died in 1949.

To discuss this long-awaited book, we have with us two men who have had a long familiarity with these ideas: Lord Pentland, who is connected with a New York engineering firm, and Lawrence Morris, a former foreign service officer in Washington. I wonder, Lord Pentland, if you would begin the discussion by telling us what the nature of this book is? Could you describe it to us?

Lord Pentland: By birth Gurdjieff was a Greek from Asia Minor. In his youth, about which nothing is known except what he himself wrote down in this book, he engaged himself on this series of journeys into the remotest regions of central Asia, where so many of the most ancient civilizations have had their source. In later years he lived chiefly in Paris, where he had immense influence as a teacher and writer about the ideas which he found there in Asia and which he had put together into a system intelligible to the West. It is a system of knowledge about man, and man’s search for a real understanding of his situation on this planet. This is his second book, published fourteen years after his first. The form of the book, as Gurdjieff says in the Introduction, is from questions which were frequently put to him about his own personal life and these travels that he made, and particularly the question, What remarkable men have you met?” To this, the book responds in a series of stories, each bearing as its title the name of one of the men he knew, and whose influence had left its mark on his whole life.

Gurdjieff calls them all remarkable, not because they are well-known people—quite the contrary, by ordinary standards they are average, with the average failings, and none of them has ever been heard of before or since. But they had the remarkable human quality, in their various walks of life, of not being satisfied with the answers that are handed out. They called themselves the community of Truth Seekers. Gurdjieff was the most remarkable of them all—an extraordinary man, as anybody who has read his first book will agree. These stories are all told very simply, with an oriental sort of feeling, which, if it’s not an absurd comparison, takes one back to Omar Khayyam or the Arabian Nights. In a way, you could say this book is about Everyman’s search.

Finch: This is a man who strikes one as almost a legendary or mythical kind of figure. It’s very hard to get a sense of factuality about this. You said that this is the only information that we have about his early life—that is, what is given in this book. I wonder whether you would call this an autobiography, Mr. Morris?

Lawrence Morris: It is, first of all, an autobiography—an autobiography in form, and a very human autobiography in the stories it tells. You find Gurdjieff, in fact, as a young man, before the great journeys of discovery that took him into central Asia, engaged in all sorts of exploits—from diving for coins thrown from the decks of ships at Constantinople to working as a boot-black in Rome. He was already traveling in search of knowledge, and he was completely unembarrassed by how he earned the necessary cash. In Meetings with Remarkable Men he is still unembarrassed, and it is this freedom from concern that gives the book its ring of inner truth. I found something very touching in the simplicity with which he speaks of his terror at walking across a narrow, swinging bridge without any handrails at all, over a gorge in the mountains of Turkestan, so deep that looking down into it was like looking down from the top of the Eiffel Tower—only more so. Still, in spite of what I’ve just said, it would be almost true to say that the important part of this autobiography lies between the lines. There is something baffling here. In reading you feel, in spite of finding all the complexities and absurdities that make up life at home, that somehow you have entered into a different world. After a while you say, “Where am I? What makes it seem so different?” And you begin to notice that all the familiar values you are used to applying to men and events are absent from this book. For our Western civilization is preoccupied with techniques for exercising power, both over our physical environment and over other human beings, and its values express these external concerns.

For Gurdjieff the only purpose in life that made sense was to explore, not central Asia but man’s possibilities for self-development. By that he didn’t mean some ethereal flower of the spirit. For him, physical activity and feeling and mind all had to develop simultaneously before, in any of us, there would be something substantial enough to contribute to this essential aim. This aim was the object of his own passionate search, a life-long search, and the subject of his teachings.

Much of this the reader may realize only some time after he lays the book aside. As Gurdjieff says in the Introduction, he has become adroit in concealing his serious thoughts under an enticing outer form.

Finch: Certainly it is true that people who come on this book without any previous acquaintance with this man, or with his previous book, are going to be startled by the Arabian Nights’ atmosphere of the book, and are going to wonder, as you say, what is this strange new world that we are coming into here. They may find that this world is rather impenetrable—it may seem to them that it is going to be impossible to understand anything at all about the book. Perhaps they will sense this element of strangeness and of different values; but I wonder if one of the reasons for this isn’t the fact that the book doesn’t talk about these ideas as if they were the private invention of Gurdjieff himself. In other words he isn’t presenting his own philosophical system or developing a set of original thoughts of his own—in that sense he is not like so many of our supremely individualistic thinkers, but there is rather a different flavor here, as if he is uncovering something which has a kind of universal character which exists independently of him, and which he had, somehow, stumbled upon.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the passionate quality of this search—the fact that this man persists—keeps looking—keeps traveling, as it were. One has to regard it, I suppose, on that level, as a kind of a spiritual pilgrimage as well as a factual account.

Morris: I am very glad that this aspect of the book has come up, because it is really essential. Now, you used the expression “stumbled upon.” I think it’s very seldom that what you can think of as laws—laws of nature, laws of man—are stumbled upon unless there has been a great deal of attention in that direction. You’ll remember that the history of science shows men preoccupied for a long time with a question before they come to—not an invention, but a discovery. This book itself bears witness to the fact that it is not accidental that Gurdjieff stumbled upon any knowledge. He began when he was still a boy, finding himself baffled by events which he saw in his own life. He went to his teachers and they couldn’t explain what had happened. He went to the library and read everything he could get his hands on. He still found questions to which the orthodox teaching of the world gave him no answer. He began to travel; he began to hunt for people who also had given thought. We find him going into the Near East—going into Egypt, going into central Asia, and moving progressively from his friends and first teachers to older men—to questioning the ancient religions, and finally feeling that there had at one time been a body of knowledge which was lost, but of which there were echoes in legends and ancient myths.

Finch: You are suggesting that in very, very ancient legends and myths there may be some truths which the modern world tends to overlook in its concern for the latest scientific discoveries. Gurdjieff felt this himself very strongly. As I recall, at one place in the book he says this in so many words; he speaks of the enormous significance buried in ancient legends—going back to the Sumerians, and so on. Now, in what way does this interest of his differ from the modern interest in mythology, where this is seen as a kind of psychological repository of interesting ideas which the ancient world had to express in this poetic form because they were not able to put it in the terms of modern science?

Pentland: Here you raise an enormously interesting question. Let’s face it: this book is listed by the publishers as “occult,” and that’s a word that will put a lot of people off. I think we’ve got to ask ourselves, what is occult—what is beyond one’s understanding? What is it that modern culture, even with the great importance and interest it gives to myth and ancient knowledge, is missing?

I think it means that there are a great many things which we pay lip-service to in modern culture, which in actual fact we evade.

Morris: May I take up what you were saying in answer to Professor Finch’s question about where the difference lies between Gurdjieff’s interest in ancient legends and the current and very common interest—everybody talks about ancient myths and everybody reads them. And yet, you feel very quickly when you come into the atmosphere of Gurdjieff’s handling of them that here is something different. I was wondering, as you were talking, how, in a short form, we might express that difference. It seems to me that Gurdjieff was looking in these myths for the expression, in poetic form if you wish, of certain laws which hold for all men and which correspond to something beyond man. If these myths express a law, no matter how factually fantastic they are, they must contain a permanent truth. If you will compare the psychologist’s use of myths, you find that everything that exists in psychology is, for him, true in his peculiar sense—that is, it is psychologically true—which is something less than the truth Gurdjieff was looking for.

In Meetings with Remarkable Men, we see Gurdjieff first coming to his point of view in the chapter about his father who, he says, exerted the strongest influence on his life of any human being. The picture we are given of his father is a very moving one. This man seems almost to have come out of some very early world. He is so simple, so natural, so human. Not only is this so in his own life; he is also a great depository of legend and myth which had come down under the shadow of Mount Ararat (where Gurdjieff lived as a little boy) from the days of the Sumerians—and, undoubtedly, from back before that. You remember, Gurdjieff tells in one amusing episode of how he lay all one night on a pile of shavings in his father’s carpenter shop listening to a discussion between his father and the dean of the school there—who was also his first teacher—about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which had come down from Sumerian times. He heard it repeated so often that by the end of that night he knew it by heart. Many years later Gurdjieff came across a book in which he discovered that some of the early tablets had been discovered and translated, and he found this section of the Epic almost exactly as he had heard his father recite it. And yet it had come down to his father through an oral tradition, not written tradition. It had been buried over three thousand years and had come out almost without change.

Finch: Are you inclined to accept this story without skepticism as being literally true? Is it possible that Gurdjieff, who is a very complicated man, is simply pulling our leg a little by telling us that the story told to him by his father was the identical story found on the tablet, so the old tradition proved to he that accurate?

Morris: Of course, that thought went through my mind when I read the book. I have no way of proving that that isn’t the explanation, but there is one thing which tells me that he is not pulling my leg at this point, and that is the character of his father. There is in the tone, in everything he says about his father, a note of truth.

Finch: This raises the question that Lord Pentland made about the occult nature of the book. I’m sure all of us feel that it is much more than that—that somehow the book has a much wider significance. I want to bring out what it is that distinguishes it from many, many apparently similar books. Obviously this book is much more than that, and this man is a lot more than that. I’d like to hear from you gentlemen just what more there is in this book.

Pentland: One is tempted to quote from the book itself, but I don’t think that is why it is important—not for any one particular passage. In a way, everything that the book says has been said before. But what has not been done before is the book as a whole—the complete organic picture of man’s possible growth, particularly man’s emotional growth. A new way of living for the sake of understanding life. I think many more people will be refreshed and entertained by reading the book than will get all the author intended. Unless, perhaps, an echo of this new way of living life—not for what one gets out of it, but for the sake of life itself. Every moment—every little thing—becomes a possible turning point and then when accident intervenes, it often serves a higher purpose. What Gurdjieff himself said was that for ordinary people whose faith in accepted ideas has been shaken, this book contains constructive material for building a new world. That is a large statement. The burden of finding out whether it’s true or not depends upon the reader.

Morris: I think the idea of common sense is also one that we ought not to pass without saying something about it. For Gurdjieff something was common sense only when it made sense to all the different elements in a man—to the mind, the feelings, and also to the body, and unless it was common to all those things, it wasn’t common sense. Just think, for instance, how often in life we do something because our mind tells us this is the sensible thing to do, and in doing it we find that we violate our feelings. Gurdjieff never lets one fall into that kind of wasteful error. You can’t put the feelings aside—in fact, they are the basis of common sense. It has to grow out of them. And yet, in our modern civilization, we regard the feelings as, somehow, secondary citizens. We say, oh well, they are subjective, they are ephemeral, they are changeable, they don’t matter: the thing that matters is the intellect, and what can be measured and weighed, etc. This has been true for some three hundred years—that we give a lesser reality to the emotions on the ground that they are subjective.

Pentland: It also has to be mentioned that the book has a great importance to those who knew Gurdjieff, but only through his first book, Beelzebub. Many young people, for instance, have been excited by Gurdjieff’s merciless criticisms of modern civilization, and I think they’ll find this book a mellowing, as well as an enlightening experience.

Finch: In Gurdjieff’s book, remarkable men are remarkable because of their spiritual qualities, not because they are powerful or notorious in the limelight.

Pentland: Yes, one could say that, but that would be narrowing it too much and removing it too much, in an ideal sense, from the practical. Each one of them is remarkable in a different sense, first of all. He points out how one of them taught himself to love work. He taught himself never to be lazy—that any effort, whatever kind, is work. And then in the very next chapter he speaks of Yelov who came to the conclusion that as his thoughts worked both day and night, he might as well make them do something useful, so he learned a lot of languages with them. He said that learning a language wouldn’t do him any harm and someday it might be useful.

Finch: What you are saying is that these men were able to do things—quite remarkable things such as not being lazy, learning languages, and not working always for a reward, and so on, and even acquiring quite technical abilities. But I think there is even something more than that, too.…

Pentland: Certainly, what makes them all remarkable is what you call the spiritual sense.…

Morris: You were not using the word “spiritual” in the sense that a spiritual man is often thought of today, as a somehow ineffectual, nice person, who doesn’t do anything wrong, but who doesn’t accomplish anything either.

Finch: I should perhaps say, more wholly human—more fully developed as a human being.

Pentland: Yes, and they were remarkable for different reasons and also for the same reason; for different reasons on a practical plane, and for the same reason on what you might call a higher plane.

Finch: What do you mean by “higher plane?”

Pentland: I mean by that, not that they reached anything higher, but that their search was maintained. That as they came to one difficulty after another, as they became more disillusioned, it only served not to make them tired or tedious, but to awaken a new interest—to reveal to them, so to speak, a new peak which is to be climbed. This, I think, comes nearer to what Gurdjieff meant by “remarkable.”

Morris: You notice, too, that in their lives they could not be thought of as conventionally spiritual people—they had all the weaknesses, all the traits of ordinary human beings. They came to a dissatisfaction with all the standard answers and the determination to do whatever they could to try to find a truer understanding of life and a development of themselves. What I wish to stress is that this is not some little special group but that these are the experiences of Everyman.

Finch: I think there is another thing that probably needs to be said: we’ve been talking about the book and we’ve said what it contains, and we’ve said a few things about Gurdjieff himself. Now, I’m sure many of our listeners will be wondering what these teachings are.

Morris: If Gurdjieff is teaching in this book, it’s in the same way—through life, through the situations that are created where people see something—he doesn’t tell them what it is.

Finch: That is, he refuses to play the role of someone who delivers the answers.

Pentland: Perhaps he knew too much to waste time playing that role. If he teaches, he speaks to a part of us which is not normally expressing itself. And he speaks as a question mark.

Finch: I noticed in that connection one of these extraordinary common-sense remarks to the effect that it is a hundred times easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for anyone to give to another the understanding formed in him about anything whatsoever.

Pentland: And yet everybody goes on trying to communicate. How do you explain that?

Finch: The book says something about that. It makes the point that was made many thousand years ago that what we are communicates more than merely what we say. The book says we communicate more through our being than through our minds. This may be one of the great things that Gurdjieff was trying to bring out. Certainly, this great distinction between knowledge and understanding that we’ve talked about here is one of the common-sense things that everybody knows and forgets. There is another one in the book which I think is very impressive that we ought to mention. When he was talking about the civil war in Russia, he was talking about how he and his friends passed through all this carnage and chaos, and were not molested. That is, by either side, with the Red Army and the White Army fighting each other; they not only survived in the midst of all this, but people also helped them. When he explains how this happened—why they were not just shot down by one side or the other, he says that in that civil war madness there was an instinct in human beings for distinguishing good from evil in an objective sense. This was not completely lacking even under these terrible circumstances of this civil war. The recognition of this deep capacity of people to distinguish good from evil in an objective sense—not in some kind of private, personal attitude—but in some deep way, seems to be another one of the great common-sense thoughts in this book. I wonder if we could say a word about that.

Morris: You might say that the effort to enable all men to go down through the layers of acquired opinions, second-hand notions of all the things one has been taught in school and acquired from newspapers, from books and from society—to go down through all of those layers to find deeply buried, but still alive, something objective and good, is the purpose of Gurdjieff’s teachings.

Finch: This is also identified by him with the word “conscience”—not a very popular word, perhaps, today, but there is a passage where he says not to do what people around us consider good or bad, but to act in life as our own conscience tells us. And then he says that the untrammeled conscience will always know more than all the books and teachers put together.

Pentland: Certainly I wouldn’t want to explain what Gurdjieff meant by “conscience,” and I think explaining it would miss the point, because conscience is an individual thing—something that each man has to seek and find for himself against all the conventions and suggestions which are reaching him all the time. What is it? In any case, I think what is understandable is Gurdjieff’s idea that it is only by a sort of friction between this inward part—this most inner of the inward parts—and the automatic reactions and manifestations which a man is making, that he becomes aware of his own life and the possible sense of his own living.

Finch: Yes; yet I think that for the person who may have heard of Gurdjieff and has a picture in his mind of somebody who was perhaps half charlatan, half unscrupulous rug-dealer or something like this, I think it is important to note that this book stresses that Gurdjieff himself lived by a standard of objective standards in a way, I think you will agree, that is altogether different from the way most people think of conscience. This is a side of him that will come as an important discovery to many people.

Pentland: It’s a side that he didn’t advertise. I suppose this is what is meant by common sense. I suppose it was necessary for the very large aims he had that he should appear mostly in disguise. If there are hints of his never departing from a certain discipline which he laid upon himself—a certain conscience, as you put it—they will only be seen by someone like yourself who is looking for them, who is taking the book more in the way that it is intended to be taken.

Finch: There is one question that I have been wanting to ask all through this discussion, and that is why this book had to wait thirty years to be published in English, and I think almost as long to be published in any other language?

Pentland: It’s answered for us in the translator’s note to the book. It was felt that this book could not be withheld from increasing numbers of people in all countries who have become interested in Mr. Gurdjieff—in his teachings—and who have wanted to know what can be known about his personal life.

Morris: This book is not only a logical but a necessary sequel to his first book. You will remember that in the first book he states his purpose there. He said that his purpose was to destroy mercilessly in the minds of his readers all the views and opinions and associations about everything that had been rooted in readers’ minds by centuries of custom. In other words, he was putting everything in question—leaving nothing untouched, unsuspected, untested. But, in that same section, he mentioned that in his second book he would offer some of the material for the construction of a new life, and show its soundness. Since the first book had quite a wide circulation, there are, scattered around the world, many people who now feel the need for this second step.

Finch: This book was read aloud by some people who had the manuscript over some period of time. I’m curious to know if there was some special advantage to reading this aloud as against reading this silently to yourself.

Morris: This is part of a very ancient tradition. You have undoubtedly noticed, in the first book, that there is a certain style of repetition, due to the fact that it was originally conceived in this oral tradition. I think the reason why this was read aloud is we are all conditioned in our modern civilization—we read constantly. And a certain automatic mechanism of reading has been established by habit in us. We are not in the habit of listening to ideas of this kind. There is the possibility when we do so that ideas are not deflected by so many acquired prejudices and automatic associations. Perhaps also it may take us back to the state of childhood, where we have been told in the New Testament we must find our way, if we are to find the Truth.

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Featured: Fall 2000 Issue, Vol. IV (1)
Revision: October 1, 2000