Jane Heap

Gurdjieff International Review

Jane Heap

As Remembered by Some of Those She Taught

by A. L. Staveley

Jane Heap left no lectures, no books, only the notes she wrote down for herself. Her legacy was a living one, passed through her pupils. Her teaching touched one’s feeling as well as thought. She had an exceptionally brilliant mind and a dazzling gift for exact formulation. She was an artist in words as well as materials of all kinds. The precision with which an idea was presented, the fact that it appeared as a picture rather than as verbal thought, was a little shock and entered a pupil as an unforgettable impression. For example, she could say of a man, “He is still tripping over his umbilical cord”—a phrase which said more than pages of psychologizing about over-devotion to a parent.

Jane told us, her pupils, that when she met the teaching in the person of Mr. Gurdjieff she turned her back on her old life, locked the studio on Long Island and painted no more. It was so, but nevertheless, hers was still the eye of an artist in all she did. And because she could see the design in all things she made us see it too. What she was interested in was Man—man as he is and Man as he could be—to, as she said many times, “the aching of the heart and the sickness of the stomach.” Sometimes to “the sickness of the heart and the aching of the stomach.” Her interest was real, never theoretical or lost in the realm of ideas.

She reminded us often that the whole of the planet has been explored from the bottom of the sea to the peaks of the highest mountains, from the equatorial jungles to the frozen arctic, from deep under the earth to above the atmosphere. Only one terra incognita is left—man himself. Ourselves we do not know and our ignorance is all the more impenetrable because of the phantasies and illusions we have about ourselves.

Those of us who worked with Jane Heap during the war years, listening week after week to readings from Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, then still in mimeographed form, often to the accompaniment of anti-aircraft guns firing or bombs falling, were certainly one-pointed in our determination to meet the author with as little delay as possible.

Jane was a magnificent raconteur and knew just how to conjure up before one’s dazzled eyes tales of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in the Forest of Fontainebleau. We knew them all—all those favored beings able to share the great days of the Prieuré in the 1920s before Mr. Gurdjieff had the motor accident that changed his whole way of teaching. We worked with them in imagination at Movements in the Study Hall, listened with bated breath to the ideas, first-hand, toiled in the kitchen or garden in the way since described in books about those days, shared the meals on feast as well as ordinary days, took part in the clashes between this one and that one. Most memorable of all, perhaps because so closely shared, were the gales of cleansing laughter that swept us as we were so skillfully led to contemplate the fundamental absurdity of the human condition as revealed by what went on at the Prieuré. Man as he is—man as we are. In the mysterious way of which Jane was such a master, somehow we were always led to see and sense that the joke was on oneself, not another. Oneself, not personally, but humanly oneself. The pushy lady, the pompous man, the earnestness out of proportion, the self-importance, pretentiousness, stupidity—all those manifestations that are a part of undeveloped man in his (our) ludicrous efforts to pretend to a completion that cannot be had for free but must be earned.

Among the many qualities unique to her, Jane had the power to evoke with the words she used, a living portrait of anyone she wished you to see—really to share the experience, the heart, the core and kernel of that someone. Like the true artist she was, she worked with any and all materials, putting her finger infallibly on the qualities or limitations of each. No one, for instance, called up by the magic of her words was ever dull in the run-of-the-mill, everyday sense of dullness, but somehow invested with a classic, unique quality of dullness that forever set that one apart from all others and could never be boring. Which is exactly how it is since each human being is unique. Just as each snowflake in a glacier a mile thick is, though constructed to the same template, identical with no other, so it is with human beings. There are no duplicates. On the one hand, she made you see, even experience, the innate absurdity of man as he is; on the other, with a sure touch, she showed you how worthy of respect is the divine plan for Man, is Man himself. How we are—how we could be—obverse sides of one coin, each necessary, each helping one to understand the other.

If Jane could (and she did) make us see those others clearly, how much more skillfully she enabled us to perceive with our inner eye Mr. Gurdjieff himself. We knew him before ever we met him. Not just how he looked, though that came through too, but how he was. All unbeknownst to ourselves we had been prepared in a very practical way to meet him. How to ask the questions we really wished to know the answers to so as to, as she said, “economize his time” instead of drooling on and on about some notion that was ill-conceived, as was a regrettable tendency in many who came to inquire about his Work. How to recognize and come to terms with one’s innate cowardice so that a certain fearlessness became possible. How to respond without hesitation to a request or suggestion after the manner of Beelzebub himself who, in such cases, agreed to do what was requested of him “without thinking much about it.” How to listen with alertness. How to rely on common sense when in doubt. How to avoid certain irrelevancies, inside and outside of oneself, such as one’s habitual reactions that so often prevent one from hearing what is really being said.

Jane seldom if ever said, “Go here—go there. Do this—do that.” Her method of transmitting the teaching was to create learning situations, and from these you learned. Or did not learn, as the case might be. It was not possible for anyone to remain on the sidelines for long just discussing ideas. You found yourself very much a part of the situations she created and of course many people found this unacceptable. There was a big turnover in her groups and those of us who finally travelled to Paris together in 1946 were the remnants of many groups.

We were the first of the groups to visit Paris who, during the Second World War, had been studying—and practicing—Mr. Gurdjieff’s ideas, and he welcomed us. On the journey Jane warned us, “If he asks you something, don’t tell him, ‘Jane said …’ because whatever you say I said, I didn’t!” Thus she underlined that in the presence of Mr. Gurdjieff we were—and she wished us to be—on our own, free, not derived. However, she also told us, “Whatever happens, whatever he says to you, I endorse you.” This was a reassurance we certainly needed after some of the stories we had heard. It was as if she had been a mother obliged to bring up her children in exile. Now she was bringing them to present them to their father and, indeed, that was how we were received. As I have reported elsewhere, he told us after our first meal with him, “Do not be afraid any more. You are at home here. I am your new father.” This had a profound effect on me but even at the time I felt what he was saying was for Jane and not for us—as if he told her, “Your work is acceptable.”

Copyright © 1988 Two Rivers Press
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Featured: Spring 2000 Issue, Vol. III (2)
Revision: October 1, 2000