But there were other cafés, nearer home, at which many of the people whom I knew were to be found, and one of these was the Café de Flore in the Boulevard St Germain. This café has since become famous as a haunt of M Sartre and other notable persons, and has, I believe, raised its prices to meet its interesting situation, but a generation ago it was inexpensive and seldom crowded, it was small and comfortable, the patron was hospitable, and the orchestra of three players, led by a young violinist who had considerable talent, had so large a repertoire that it never, I think, failed to play any customer’s request; Fauré’s Elégie, Tchaikovsky’s Chant sans Paroles, selections from Traviata, Padilla’s Ça c’est Paris, or Beethoven’s Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens, in one evening one might hear all these and many other things. And since I went so often to this café I do not know why, one autumn evening, I went instead to Deux Magots and went there by myself. This café, though it was attractive in many ways and had long been famous, was more expensive and somehow more formal than the Café de Flore. The past was already a little oppressive there; at that time one might still be served by a waiter who had served Wilde during his last decaying days at the Hôtel des Beaux-Arts. But the terraces of the Deux Magots were spacious, and the eastern one overlooked the Place St Germain and the grey stones of the church’s western façade; and the glass screens and glowing braziers made it possible, even in autumn or winter, to avoid the café’s interior, which was rather too pompous and rather too frowned down upon by the two grotesques themselves. It was on this eastern terrace that I encountered, for the first and only time, the curious elderly gentlemen whom, since I never heard his name, I must call Monsieur X. This encounter was certainly one of the strangest of my life, and will be difficult to set convincingly on record.
I was sitting near one of the braziers, and its warmth was grateful since the chill of October was in the air, though the evening was fine. Beyond the lights of the café, the church was vague in a blue darkness punctured by the lamps of taxis and bicycles. There were few people in the café, but presently I was aware that someone had taken the table next to mine. Perhaps it was because I was reading that I was in fact aware of him only after this new customer had installed himself and ordered a coffee. That is to say, I did not see him arrive; it was simply that, when I looked up, he was there. Yet it seemed to me afterwards that, just as his departure was extraordinarily complete and final, so his arrival must have had about it something of the same quality of completeness, of happening, as it were, all at once; one notices that there are certain rare people whose movements, whose coming and goings, are of this order.
I suppose I knew by sight most of the habitués of that quarter, and particularly of that café terrace, for although I was seldom a customer there, I passed it more than once a day on my way to my lodging. But I had never seen this man before. Once I had noticed him, however, there was something about him which made me look at him again. He sat, for one thing, with peculiar stillness, and the expression of his eyes had a quality which I could not define. He was perhaps sixty and almost wholly bald, with a large grey moustache which hid his mouth. His body was thickset, but not fleshy, and he wore good but roughish clothes which, while they were highly individual, still were not exactly remarkable. Doubtless he became aware that I had done more than merely note his arrival, and was watching him over the top of my book, for it was not long before he leaned forward and addressed me; which, a moment afterwards, I realized that I had somehow known he would do. He spoke fluent French with a foreign accent; perhaps it belonged to some other part of Europe, perhaps to some country further east; I was unable to tell. His manner was pleasantly friendly, and we talked for a few moments of those trivialities which strangers know to be nothing more, but use as a means of adjustment, and as an opportunity to find a real topic of conversation. Yet I had the odd idea that it was only I who needed to make this adjustment, and that Monsieur X himself was a person who “knew where he was” with another person without such preliminaries.
He was telling me that he was a retired naval officer; and then he was telling me that he was now “a professional fortune-teller.” I imagine that my reactions to this rather unlikely information were not altogether positive. I did not believe that Monsieur X was a retired naval officer and perhaps (I now think) I was not meant to; and I rather warily suspected that, if indeed he was now a professional fortune-teller, I was being approached as a client; doubtless he made a practice of going the rounds of the cafés and telling people a great deal of nonsense for a fee. This suspicion somehow seemed to spoil the peace of the autumn evening, and certainly to preclude any further conversation with a person who had promised to be interesting; for I had no money to spend on having my fortune told, and not much inclination to have it told in any case.
But I had hardly had time to become aware of my disappointment and go through the motions of returning to my book, before Monsieur X began to say that he did not wish me to think that he regarded me as a client, not at least in any commercial sense, though he was quite prepared to tell me something about myself, provided that I was prepared to listen. “You are a student,” he said, “and although you earn a little money as well as pursuing your studies, you have nothing to spare for what I am sure you would call frivolities.” No doubt it did not require unusual deductive powers to guess, from my age, my clothes, the not quite finished but quite cold coffee in from of me (my excuse for ordering no more when the waiter looked in my direction), that I was a student and poor, while many poor students eked out their allowances by earning a few francs here or there. Yet at the time this assessment of my situation seemed to me as remarkable as Sherlock Holmes’s deductions always did to Dr Watson. And meanwhile, without more ado, the fortune-teller had begun his fortune-telling.
In one sense it was a strange rigmarole; in another it was stranger, yet no rigmarole at all. Monsieur X spoke in an assured, considering kind of way, as if, with those unusual eyes, he was already “seeing”, somewhere or other, the things he was telling me. This was no affair of reading my palm or of holding in his own hand or to his forehead some object belonging to me, such as I believe to be the “psychometric” practice of “mediums.” The curious eyes regarded me, and yet in another sense they did not regard me; that is, it was not my outward appearance they were regarding, but as it were some other and less tangible aspect of myself, an aspect of which I was unaware. What Monsieur X said was a rigmarole in so far as it was interspersed with a certain amount of jargon about starry influences, zodiacal signs, “numerological” references, and remarks like, “You should always wear something navy blue.” These snatches of professional patter seemed out of place, however; they did not ring true, and I was a shade irritated by them. When he used them, there was something of the play-actor about the person beside me (he was now sitting at my table), and I had the impression that he did not believe in them himself. It may be that he was amusing himself at my expense, or at that of humanity and its foolishness in general. It may be that he used this mumbo-jumbo as a kind of bait, thinking that in its absence I should not swallow other things he wished to say to me. It may even be that Monsieur X wanted to observe whether I should take this play-acting for the truth or reject it.
Of one thing I am now quite sure: Monsieur X was no more a “professional fortune-teller” than he was a retired naval officer. He was, however, a fortune-teller; that is to say, he was able to speak of things which would happen to me in the future, and also of things which had already happened to me in the past; he had some unusual knowledge and understanding which transcended the ordinary limits of time; he had, I suppose, what is sometimes called “second sight.” When he spoke of things which had already happened in the past I could of course test them there and then by memory. When he spoke of things which were to happen in the future no such test was possible. Yet perhaps we also have memory of the future, though we are not normally aware that we have, and it may have been upon my own unconscious memories of what was then my future that this unusual man was able to draw in some way which is beyond our ordinary understanding. Whatever were his powers, the fact remains that much of what he prognosticated that evening has “come true” during the intervening quarter of a century, and can in turn be tested now by memory of the past.
Thus, with the passage of time, I have been increasingly astonished by Monsieur X’s abilities, though I still cannot explain them, at least in any terms which would satisfy a logical way of thinking. There is a certain useful scepticism in us which, at the time of my single meeting with Monsieur X, added itself, as it were, to my slight irritation with his play-actor’s jargon, and set a query-mark before all his statements about the future. But that future’s passage into the past has perforce removed the query-marks; I cannot now doubt that in 1928 Monsieur X clearly foretold many things which were going to happen to me, and have now happened. Thus I can come to no conclusion but that certain people exist who are in some way free of time as we normally count it, and that Monsieur X was one of them, that he was able, so to say, to enter a dimension beyond the four dimensions of length, breadth, height and time itself, which we habitually acknowledge, and thence to look down upon my life-time and see it as clearly as we, from our point of view within time, see length, breadth and height.
Presently, however, his attitude changed. Not only did he set aside completely all his actor’s tricks, he ceased as well to “tell my fortune”, to speak of the past and the future or (except finally) specifically of me. It was as if the curtain-raiser was over, and had not been of any great importance in any case, except perhaps to whet the audience’s appetite for the serious business of the evening. Nor was this serious business in the least spectacular in the sense in which the “fortune-telling” had been spectacular at moments. What Monsieur X treated me to was a philosophical and metaphysical discourse, a great deal of which I did not understand and have regrettably forgotten. I remember the rather odd “atmosphere” of what he was saying rather than any specific remarks he made; I remember the impression he now gave me of being a person who thought and felt quite differently from anyone else I knew, so that he himself seemed to be quite a different kind of person from the one I had first noticed a quarter of an hour or so earlier, and to whom I had since been talking. It was a curious effect, to which I can only suggest this parallel: Sometimes, when you first go to a town which is new to you and there register an impression of (say) a particular street, and when you remain in this town so that it is no longer new to you, but familiar, your first impression of the particular street imperceptibly changes; other impressions overlay the first, and the emphases fall differently also; what at first seemed an important feature of the street becomes unimportant, while other features of it become the important ones and remain so; until one day you are astonished to remember what your first impression was, and to realize that you can recall it only with difficulty, can only with difficulty make yourself think: That street, when I first saw it, seemed to me quite different from what it now seems.
Something of this kind happened with Monsieur X and my impressions of him. When I had been listening to him for about an hour, I could only with difficulty recall the first impression he had made upon me; which was perhaps because, with longer acquaintance, I had somehow “corrected” that first impression. Nothing now remained of the charlatanism of which I had earlier suspected Monsieur X. I had forgotten that he had claimed to be a naval officer, and that I had found this hard to believe, and I had forgotten the astrological and numerological jargon with which he had interlarded what had appeared to be his professional patter. Yet the curious thing is that I believe that, had he now begun to speak of astrology or Pythagoras, I should no longer have been irritated or sceptical. He would have spoken of these things in a different way. He had changed, and was now making upon me a far deeper and more serious impression; even his face seemed to have altered. Yet was it he who had changed? Perhaps it was I who had changed under his influence; perhaps I was listening to him now with a deeper and more serious aspect of my own nature.
However that may be, I was aware of what, for want of better words, I have called an odd atmosphere. But that odd atmosphere I am quite at a loss to define, unless by negatives. It was not “hypnotic”, it was not illusory or glamorous, and least of all was it “dream-like.” Whatever the effect he was having upon me, Monsieur X was certainly not sending me asleep; indeed, if I can find anything positive to say, it is that he was waking me up. I did not become so absorbed in what he was saying that I was oblivious of my surroundings; on the contrary, I was unusually aware, not only of the Monsieur X himself and of his words, but of the hooting taxis, the other people on the café terrace, the glowing braziers with the blue darkness beyond them; all was unusually perceptible. And at the same time I was unusually aware of myself and of the mental and emotional processes set going within me by what Monsieur X was saying. This was, in fact, a very strange and unforgettable experience.
But what was Monsieur X saying? As I have said, I can remember only in very general terms; I can remember the tendency of the words rather than the words. He was saying, then, that there are two worlds, two realities, which we inhabit, or may inhabit if we wish, the outward world of forms and the inward world of ideas, and that these are not separate worlds, as those who misunderstand Plato and often call themselves idealists seem to imply, but interpenetrative worlds. He was saying, however, that the inward world is largely closed to us, though this, hardly aware of its existence as we are, we may fail to realize, just as we may fail to realize that this inward world can be opened to us if we seek the right means to that end. He was saying that man inhabits this inward world much as an embryo inhabits the womb, and that in the majority of cases this embryo man miscarries and never comes to birth. But he was also saying that it is possible for the embryo to grow and to be born, to grow up and to become adult; and that, if this were to happen, so that a person came to be a freeman of the inward world, able to live and work there as adult men live and work in the outward world, he would inherit the reality which is potentially his proper psychological place. Then much in his outward world, and in the life he leads in it, would be changed; such a person would no longer be life’s slave; freedom in the inward world would endow him with freedom in the outward world.
Finally Monsieur X was saying, with a certain severity, and as if with an authority which was nothing to do with the disparity of our ages, that I must seek to know and understand these things, that I must not allow myself to become content with outward life alone, and so seek nothing more than the fulfillment of ambition, the securing of a livelihood and an approved position among my fellow men. He was saying that there is much more in life than living. This must be done to the full, but not as an end in itself, only as a beginning of the discovery, not beyond death, but within life, of “the next world”, the inward reality. Much of this, at the age of eighteen, I found bewildering, and Monsieur X certainly understood that I did, for he went on to say that there was in one sense no hurry when one was young, “so long as one never forgot that one must die”, and that therefore time is always short.
Presently he stopped talking and was silent for some time. Then, having paid his bill, he rose and said, “All this means that you must try to find out who you are,” and added, “not here, but there.” With this curious remark, which I take to have referred to the two worlds of which he had spoken, he walked away from the café and was lost among the people on the pavement; was lost, it seemed to me, surprisingly quickly and thoroughly. At one moment he was there, at the next he was gone. It was now that I tried to remember his arrival on the terrace and realized that I could not; and the extraordinary feeling invaded me that perhaps he had never been there with me at all.
That of course was nonsense; but it was perhaps a way of expressing the next idea which came to me: that while he was with me I could have answered the question, Who was Monsieur X? That is to say, I had known the answer in a way which has little to do with names or professions or those other means we uncertainly use in order to identify and explain people. But once he had left me, I knew the answer no longer. Perhaps I should have to wait a great many years before I should know it again. And in this connexion I believe that this strange man was very subtle in the way he went to work, giving me at the outset that display of “fortune-telling”, first recalling things which had already happened and could not be contested, then foretelling much that excited my curiosity. He must have known very well that, every time something which he had prognosticated came to pass in the years ahead, I should remember him, and try to remember the much more important things he had said after the fortune-telling was over; he must have known very well that this in turn would make me try to answer the question who he was, and that trying to answer this question would be a way of trying to find out who I am; who I am, that is, “not here, but there.” For it was undoubtedly “there” that, in the most real of senses, all that matters of this curious encounter took place. The point is one which some will understand and some will not. I shall not attempt to explain it further, except to say that we are mistaken if we believe that we always live on the same level of consciousness.
~ • ~
This essay is taken from A Gallery of Mirrors: Memories of Childhood, Boyhood and Early Youth by Richard Heron Ward, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1956, pp. 205–214. Mr. Ward’s book documents eighteen remarkable persons who greatly influenced his early life.
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