Gurdjieff International Review
enri Tracol (1909–1997) was born in Paris. He was the nephew of the art historian, essayist, and philosopher Élie Faure, and great-grandson of the renowned geographer, anthropologist, and orientalist Élisée Reclus.
After graduating from the Lycée Henri IV school in Paris, Tracol was a journalist and film critic for the periodical Vu, where he worked for four years. During the 1930s, he went to Spain to photograph the Spanish Civil War for the Havas news agency.
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, Tracol photographed the Liberation of Paris for the newspaper Magnum. He went on to produce a large number of photographic and ethnographic reports in South America for the Musée de l’Homme (The Museum of Man).
In 1938, Tracol met Jeanne de Salzmann who prepared him to meet Mr. Gurdjieff in 1941. Along with a group of French pupils, including René Daumal and Luc Dietrich, he stayed with Gurdjieff until 1949, the year of Gurdjieff’s death.
Tracol soon became one of the leaders of the French groups alongside Mme. de Salzmann and assisted her with her international responsibilities. He also participated in the translation of Gurdjieff’s written works.
Through his unique and insightful approach to Gurdjieff’s teaching as it related to the mainstream of traditional thought and philosophy, Tracol trained and influenced a considerable number of pupils in France and abroad. His keen mind led him to encourage others to undertake in-depth studies, not only of Mr. Gurdjieff’s ideas, but of the knowledge of the great world traditions.
his is not biography, but rather acknowledgment of an intimate debt and a plunge into the mystery of a relationship with a being of whose real nature, even now, I know nothing. Similarly, I cannot search for the trace of what he deposited in me without trying to connect again with the secret ground in which those seeds were sown.
A first meeting with Henri Tracol, July 1976 in Paris, in his apartment on rue Lalo. The impression of a man who listens to the tale of my past experiences and search with benevolent attention and a certain detachment. During our exchange, a pair of pigeons sits on the window ledge and stays for a moment as if they are familiar with the place and the person who lives here. Henri Tracol evokes the story of Milarepa, the ordeal of building and rebuilding the tower. I will need time to understand the extent to which that endless task is in the image of our own relationship with an inner reality that always needs to be renewed. Just as I will only understand much later how close Henri and his wife Nano are as a couple to Marpa and his wife, like two sides of the same coin: demand without compromise and unconditional benevolence.
Henri opens the door to a new group which I can join when activities resume in September. It soon offers a new contact with the man who now sits in front of us, from whom we receive an intense, contained look and, as well, the teaching in terms surprising to someone already accustomed to the vocabulary of Fragments, and who thinks he understands. Here, there is no “identification,” “self-remembering,” “food of impressions,” “essence,” “personality,” but language close to the experience of each person, language always reinvented. The language is precise, the images evoked create shocks. He describes the inner exile in which we live, our situation as cheaters, the fact of being overwhelmed from above and from below, of finding ourselves again and again lost. And above all, Henri initiates us, little by little, into a great mystery which completely confounds our vision of the Work. “It is not I who work; a work is done in me, of which most of the time I am unaware.” And the complement: “I do not do it, but it won’t be done without me.” In this way he invites us to give up all of our pretensions and to begin to listen for a secret, as yet undiscovered life.
The following year, the first experience of a summer work session. It is during the hottest weather in Provence, to the sound of chirring cicadas, that Henri Tracol invites us to take part in a week at his house in a village near Gordes, with a view toward the silent majesty of the Lubéron mountain chain. From the first day, we can feel that his authority reigns in this place, and he announces in a solemn voice: “Here there is only one absolute rule: afternoon siesta.” Baffled by this mixture of gravity and humor, we begin to intuit that the real rule of life must be the object of an intimate search subject to constant questioning. There is no time to idle: we erect stone walls for new buildings (woodworking shop, weaving studio, library), we take part in different crafts, in Movements. Demands are made on us the entire day.
And then there are the meals in the narrow dining room, where we are nourished above all by Henri’s words. At times it is as if the ceiling opens to the celestial vault—such is the power of his thought to guide us toward a sense of contact with the immensity of the universe and toward the breadth of vision offered those who become sensitive to its mystery. For some moments, those who receive the word of the master of ceremonies melt into the infinity of a world charged with grandeur and meaning.
Another order also presides over these shared meals. Nano is present beside Henri and constantly attentive to him, as though she is afraid he won’t eat properly and, with a quiet “let him eat,” she protects him from questions until he has had dessert. At other moments, when a false seriousness begins to weigh down the atmosphere in the room, she cracks a joke that unfailingly provokes everyone’s laughter and brings a half-smile to Henri’s face. No one misses the tenderness that unites these two beings, and this too is a silent teaching.
Every morning we climb a hill to watch the sunrise. On the way back, Henri walks with an energetic step, seemingly determined to preserve from conventional attitudes the experience we have just lived. Similarly, after each sitting when this man—who in my eyes is old—gets up, how light and lively his movement is.
Each of us had a privileged relationship with Henri—no doubt that is the most precious thing—and we hesitate to share it. To share without betrayal is impossible, yet necessary here in an effort to come closer to what really occurred at the heart of these gatherings.
Start by trying to formulate the essential: without ever speaking of it in our private conversations, Henri revealed the being which exists in me; he gave me the taste of it.
How did he do that? I can only testify to what he avoided doing.
Each time he gave a task, it was striking how uninterested he was in success or failure. We had the impression of being measured, of being weighed, but with neither encouragement nor judgment on his part. Yet at the moment he proposed the task, we felt how intimately concerned we would be by the experience he was inviting us to live, and felt that he was addressing something in us which he respected more than we did. In this way, he opened for us a path of progressive discovery of a mysterious identity which could only grow when we freed ourselves of all kinds of considerations for our little selves. Considerations that he went out of his way never to nourish in us.
Each private conversation with Henri imprinted itself deeply in my memory, to the point that even the precise image of the locations where they took place seems to be fixed forever in memory.
One meeting in particular left a trace that is still very alive in me. In a large, rather dark room in his apartment on avenue Paul Doumer, seated behind an austere desk, Henri invites me to assume a responsibility which, I feel, will engage me more than any other. He asks me to think about it and take my time before giving him my answer. Which I do, realizing in particular that a large part of “my time” would belong less and less to me. I also understand that this is the price to pay so that the adventure might continue, this adventure of the quest for a reality beyond appearances, this shift of center of gravity toward the inner life, which at this very moment I feel as both near and ungraspable. And, of course, I respond positively to the demand.
If I draw particular attention to these circumstances, it is because without any commentary, without any explanation about the meaning of the proposed commitment, Henri left me entirely free in my response and demonstrated a confidence—which I was unable to have myself—in the being-in-gestation in me. That confidence, never expressed in words, proved to be deeply contagious. And for the first time in my life, I was in front of the possibility of a relatively conscious decision.
It must be said here that if we all called him Henri, this was never a sign of familiarity. We recognized that his presence belonged to another level of humanity than ours. Yet in the use of his first name, there was something like a recognition that we belonged to one and the same family. To the point that when our respect for him created an artificial distance between us, an expression of suffering sometimes passed over his face.
Another impression that remains particularly poignant: the quality of his presence in front of the group during the last years of his life. Speaking very little, he seemed to obey only a silent inner order, a contained life which manifested itself in few words, returning always to the same proposal: “Do not conclude.” And at that moment we found that our heads were prisoner to definitive commentaries about what was in the process of being lived. Becoming aware of this sometimes opened a space that allowed us to realize that a silent life was at work behind the commentaries, and we developed a taste for living in that space.
When his injunction “Priority to experience” would resonate, the possibility was offered at that moment to enter into contact with an experience in progress, to open to its echo in all the cells of our organism and to be sensitive to the possibility of pursuing this contact for some precious moments.
And last, mercilessly sweeping away all our pretensions, the question always received as a shock: “Who says ‘I’?”
n May 1974, I joined the last group formed by Henri Tracol in Paris. I was in a state of deep joy, convinced that I had finally found the Way I had longed for with all my heart. I was twenty-nine years old, and my inner world had finally opened to a wide horizon. I went from discovery to discovery with enthusiasm and limitless trust and gratitude to Henri Tracol. I experienced a respect for him and a feeling I had never known before.
As soon as he was seated in front of us, very straight in a supple attitude devoid of tension, which endowed him with natural nobility, we felt, forcefully, the emanation of his presence. His attentive look rested on each of us with a mixture of contained authority and benevolent demand which made escape impossible. Whether we wanted to or not, he made us venture into the perilous exercise of speaking, which often put us in an indescribable emotional state. We barely recognized the sound of our own voices, but we drew our courage from the certainty that we would be understood and accepted just as we were.