Gurdjieff International Review

Introduction to the Writings of Henri Thomasson

By His Students in Rome and Milan

To speak of Henri Thomasson is to speak of someone who sought tirelessly throughout his whole life to put in practice the ideas transmitted by G.I. Gurdjieff to the western world.

His first contact with the Work occurred in Paris, long ago in 1947, where he participated in a small “group” led by Mme Henriette Lannes, who later introduced him to Mme de Salzmann and Gurdjieff. Henriette Lannes, together with Mme de Salzmann, would become the guide of this indefatigable seeker. Henri Thomasson

Although he had not had an easy life—a fact he would often deny—he used every occasion life afforded him as an instrument of observation, in order to unmask that part of himself which he defined as “the Impostor.”

Over time, thanks to his thirst for knowledge, complete self—abnegation, and true respect for what is Real, he became a reference point for the other people who shared his search. Gifted with a refined intellect, he conveyed to others the need to study the ideas of the Work, not stopping at a superficial analysis of them, but probing deeper with ever more penetrating reflections, never sparing oneself, never being satisfied yet never allowing this search to become a sterile intellectual endeavor.

He urged the people who worked with him to observe impartially, without analyzing or rationalizing, and only then would he ask them to compare what they had experienced and proven with what they knew in order to engender a more Real understanding in themselves, and not become, as he would often say, “stupid saints.”

An attentive reading of his books will easily show that they were not written to give personal explanations of the ideas of the Work, but are a testimony to direct experience. They show us how the Work transforms a person’s being, his vision of himself and of the world around him. In the journals kept during the last phase of his life, a time accompanied by unabated illness, every sentence, every phrase acquires a deeper meaning and is transformed to pure Poetry in his last book.

Readers may still glimpse in his writings a quality which became evident during a Work exchange with him. Through the clarity of his thought, through the perception of an emotion which penetrated and embraced us, his words became the means to contact the higher levels in ourselves. We crossed the threshold from the known into the unknowable, which words cannot explain.

Through his presence, through the serenity and calm his gestures expressed, we tasted the true hope of becoming, without ever losing touch with what we actually were at that moment, our Nothingness. In moments of desperation, when everything seemed impossible, comforting words were never denied. How often did we hear him repeat, “After all, this Work is easy. Just relax,” with the smile of one who knows that the easiest things are indeed the most difficult.

To those who lost themselves in flights of fancy or indulged in vainglory, he was equally generous in verbal beatings of such intensity you were thankful to be perched on a chair so as not to sink into the floor.

As one of the leaders of the Lyon group, he was charged by Henriette Lannes to found new groups in Italy, first in Turin, and then in Milan and Rome, while continuing his work with the Lyon group. A growing number of people soon gathered around him and his wife Michèle, a transmitter of the movements, in order to deepen their understanding of the Work, recognizing over time, through special exercises and concrete experiences, the vastness that this teaching allows us to glimpse. All this was carried on by Henri Thomasson, who loved art in all its forms, with a subtle sense of humor in a context of serene joy where moments of deep seriousness alternated with moments of gaiety.

It is extraordinary to perceive how all the people who had direct contact with Gurdjieff, even if only for a brief time as in the case of Henri Thomasson, bear an “indelible” sign, within themselves and their manifestation, and it is thanks to these men and women that this Work may help many people throughout the world in their search.

The Writings of Henri Thomasson

Throughout his long years in the Gurdjieff work, Henri Thomasson kept a journal. This journal comprises four volumes:

I. Batailles pour le present: Journal d’une experience 1947–1967 (1974),
II. Les Chemins Contraires (1981),
III. A La Source du Vivant (1988),
IV. Bagliori dell’Anima (1992).

His published works include a memoir of his childhood and early youth, Ce Que Le Temps Epargne (1983), a book of parables and other collected writings, Il Pellegrinaggio (1980) and a volume of poetry, Umbria Terra Di Magie (1995).

The first volume of his diary is his best-known work, thanks to the English translation by Rina Hands published in the as The Pursuit of the Present by Avebury Press (1980), with a limited US edition issued by Two Rivers Press (1980), both now long out of print. It was subsequently published in Spanish and Italian translations. A new edition in Portuguese is forthcoming in Brazil, along with new English and Spanish editions in Canada and Venezuela. Volumes II and III exist only in privately printed editions. Volume IV was published only in Italian by L’Ottava. The interest that his writings has awakened in Europe and the New World reveals the force of Thomasson’s thought and the appeal of his work to a group of seekers at large.

Covering a period from his first encounter with the Work in Paris in 1947, throughout his experiences as a pupil of Mme Henriette Lannes, his maturity as a leader of Gurdjieff groups in Lyon and Turin and founder of the Italian groups of Rome and Milan, the journals of Henri Thomasson present a many-faceted document of an individual’s attempt to integrate Gurdjieff’s teachings into the daily practice of living over a period of four decades, in various phases of the Work and in growing degrees of responsibility. Unlike other Work-related memoirs, the power of this journal does not lie in anecdote or historical reconstructions pertaining to a particular group, time period, or teacher. Except for the first volume, his journal contains few, if any, explanations of Gurdjieff’s ideas. Rather it offers a subjective, on-going verification of those ideas in everyday life carried out through self-observation and rigorous self-interrogation concerning the phenomena observed. In this it is unique, but this is only one of the many dimensions of this journal.

A New Language

In the prefaces to the journals, Henri Thomasson repeatedly emphasizes the particular intent which informed his efforts, which was not so much the recording of ideas or events, but the attempt to transmit a certain quality of impression through the written word. The journal, along with his other writings, constitutes an experiment in language, an exploration to the limits of verbal expression. Early on in the first volume, The Pursuit of the Present, Thomasson admits that writing about the Work is a daring endeavor and puzzles over several issues he must address in doing so, regarding choice of language and reader reception. Gurdjieff’s Work is both a science and an art, therefore in writing about it, Thomasson argues, a language must be sought that may express both the precision and clarity required by the former, while conveying the taste of emotions, impressions, sensations, a task inclining more to the sphere of poetry and art. He concludes that Gurdjieff’s teachings cannot be “explained” in a rational language that satisfies only the reader’s intellectual curiosity for information.

Indeed, he asks, why and for whom is he writing? In Volume III, he notes, “All that is said or written about this Teaching is often absorbed by the personality which uses it for its own aggrandizement. Thus it is denatured, deflected from its goal.1 Only the slow achievement of what he calls an “interior transparence” will assist both writer and reader in avoiding this trap. A further problem is that his language must be comprehensible to the reader, yet:

To use only the ordinary content of words to define the teaching is to risk misrepresenting it. Ordinary language in effect calls up in man’s mind a representation of the thing spoken of, producing what he calls ‘understanding.’ The creation of an image represented or even only felt, joined to the elements already registered in the memory, will provoke a satisfying sensation, leading automatically to a new image attached in its turn to pre-existing material.2

In order to avoid, insofar as it is possible, engendering such automatic responses in the reader, a new language must be found, an exact yet poetic language “stripped of all current trappings.”3 But, he asks:

How can this ‘poetic language,’ which alone can explain Gurdjieff’s teaching, be acquired and who, other than those for whom it has become their whole life, will be able to make use of it?

Perhaps what is needed is to push away the sound of words so as to experience the sensation of their content; to refuse the heady scent of ideas, though agreeing to be penetrated by them; and pitilessly to snatch off the lying mask behind which life is unfolding but which sticks so closely that the skin may be torn off with it.4

How to free words from the manipulation of that part of oneself he defined as “The Impostor?” to which he dedicated an essay in Il Pellegrinaggio. Such a process requires clear-eyed and often painful self-scrutiny.

Yet, despite the many difficulties encountered in this attempt, the act of transmitting the Work through language may find unexpected assistance when a wider and more finely nuanced knowledge becomes available in the effort of seeking it, and higher, heretofore hidden faculties become accessible.

Another surprising and unaccustomed intelligence sometimes comes to me and throws a hitherto inexperienced light on all problems. Unexpected relationships establish themselves between things, and I see, know and can speak with a new interpretation of events.5

Thomasson’s quest for a new language continues throughout the four volumes of the journal which are progressively addressed to the intuitive faculties of the reader rather than the intellectual faculties, as the journal’s aim increasingly becomes the recording of “the modulations of life passing through me.” Even the journal’s form adapts itself to this need: brief jottings, meditations, snatches of poetry, parables, and haiku-like one-liners often shot through with an astringent gleams of humor.

Me, my only baggage.6

A musician by predilection who favored Debussy, a self-confessed romantic who frequented artistic circles in his youth, Thomasson was a person for whom poetic expression came naturally and as the journal evolved he allowed this aspect of himself fuller manifestation. Yet he warns the reader in the preface to the second volume.

But the pleasure of writing, witnessing a thought or emotion arise, come alive, and develop is not an end in itself. The aim must never be lost from view. This is why the material of impressions and reflections recorded here has been limited, in so far as it is possible, to elements which may serve a relentlessly pursued quest.7

Poetry and parable became his preferred medium in the last volume, Bagliori dell’ Anima, where he states in the foreword:

I have tried to clothe inexpressible impressions in a poetic mist so that they will be sensed intuitively rather than understood, and to leave an empty space around the words so that the quickening of interior levels may take place there.”8

Moreover, the use of imaginative language, symbol, metaphor is necessary, not as a decorative or illustrative element of his discourse , rather, they are, he emphasizes, “the thing itself.”9

The Alchemy of the Present and the Secret Life of Things

How to express the mysterious relationship which links us to the sensible world of things around us? Why do we remember so vividly our impressions of objects and entities inhabiting our world in childhood? This is another of the themes developed in Thomasson’s journal, which is closely connected to Gurdjieff’s ideas concerning impressions. On this topic, in The Pursuit of the Present, Thomasson writes:

Man is receiving impressions from the world which surrounds him all the time. They are seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted—or may also be of a more subtle kind. An impression is a certain form of energy which enters into man by means of his sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. This energy charges him up and so becomes a form of nourishment. Everything in the world a man lives in is impressions: it is from them that he receives the greater part of the energy he needs. Impressions are life itself—they are all that is inscribed on the memories of the centers, all a man says, sees, does, or hears. Everything is registered in these memories but he can only remain in contact with a part of each recording. If he did not receive impressions of any kind life would not exist for him.

Impressions may be considered as influences, either of food or of memory. Memory is nothing but the part of one’s impressions one can go back to. It is very little in comparison with the whole mass of impressions that a man continually receives.

Impressions are addressed to different parts of man, and they may either skim over the surface or cut into him more deeply.10

According to Gurdjieff, all our impressions are there, inscribed in the rolls of memory of our three centers. Normally we do not have access to all this material, yet says Thomasson, those impressions of moments authentically experienced “cut more deeply,” and may be resurrected in us with all their force and undying freshness through a mysterious alchemy of the present. The description of such moments becomes a growing concern in his journal and other writings from the second volume, Les Chemins Contraires, where he writes:

A trap opens. The thread of my thoughts breaks off, and without transition I find myself with the taste of years past: a world of intensity, sharpness where moments cast in bronze seem fixed forever.

Sometimes I am bathed by the fresh taste of a morning, sometimes the shadow of leaves softly rustling rushes over me, fills me entirely. At other times the sound of a church bell, the rhythm of an anvil, the smell of the earth—the present is replaced by another dimension equally vivid and present in the Now though it vanished long ago.

Time suddenly merciful unrolls for me like a film where nothing has been forgotten—odors, colors, sounds, gestures, emotions, events. A resurrected past before which the dream-like present of today, powerless, is effaced.11

How may those impressions which arise from a realm beyond language be expressed in a written form? This is a task to which he applied himself in the later volumes of the journal, and particularly in his memoir, Ce Que Le Temps Epargne.

In this book, he records the perceptions and sensations of his childhood in the rural village Martigny, his transition to adulthood with its new influences, his encounter with the Work. He presents his development as a human being not as a narrative of important events in the outer world, but as a series of impressions interacting with an inner dimension of self to which he had access in childhood, then lost in adolescence, and eventually rediscovered through the work. In Gurdjieff’s terminology, we might call this dimension essence.

In this privileged state of awareness that graced moments of his childhood, he felt “life as global impression able to nourish all my levels of perception.”12 The sensation of his body in the darkness, the presence of beloved persons and toys, the sound of a church bell tolling the hours in the pure air of his country village all left an indelible imprint and taste upon a dimension of the self where contact with his environment seemed more immediate and real:

The space which separated me from the objects and things around us became filled with an immaterial substance made of the joy I felt in their presence and of what they themselves brought me, as if their soul expanded in me. I was both tied to and separated from the things around me by a density which forbade me to seize them as objects, but allowed me to appropriate instantly that which they concealed. All this evoked in me a series of states bound up with the hidden nature of things. After many years, these states have remained intact.13

Further on he writes, “I need but quit the surface, open a door, light the torch of the Present to cross the threshold into the other world.”14

In his celebration of the hidden power of things we may hear echoes of the literary research which involved Proust, Bachelard, and Francis Ponge. Yet Thomasson’s aim is not merely aesthetic or literary, it is not solely to describe such states in elegant language, but rather to direct the reader towards his or her own inner being from which such sensations may spring. In the preface to Bagliori dell’ Anima he plainly states that his aim is to create in the reader “a sensation similar to my own.”

The quality of this sensation is often evoked in his writings as a bright flash of eternity in the moment or as:

Permanence of Life!

Of a Life enclosed in life, in which it is given to us to participate briefly yet in which in a few points scattered here and there along the pitiless course of Time—we are allowed to experience supreme eternity.

~ • ~

The authors can be contacted at:

1 A La Source du Vivant, p. 46.
2 The Pursuit of the Present, p. 16.
3 Ibid., p. 16.
4 Ibid., pp. 17–18.
5 Ibid., p. 87.
6 Bagliori dell’Anima, p.60.
7 Les Chemins Contraires, p.15.
8 Bagliori dell’ Anima, p.10.
9 Ibid., p.10.
10 The Pursuit of the Present, pp. 45–46.
11 Les Chemins Contraires, p. 46.
12 Ce Que Le Temps Epargne, p. 82.
13 Ibid., p. 21.
14 Ibid., p. 128.

Copyright © 2007 The Estate of Henri Thomasson
This webpage © 2007 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Revision: November 29, 2007