Gurdjieff International Review


By Carl Zigrosser

One of the most interesting developments of modern times in the realm of philosophic ideas is the system expounded by M. Gurdjieff, with which many Americans have become familiar through the work of Mr. A. R. Orage. The following article by Mr. Zigrosser makes no attempt to explain the Gurdjieff philosophy, but gives a vivid picture of a visit to the Gurdjieff Institute, at Fontainebleau, and a personal sketch of its head.

The New Republic Editors

When I visited the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainebleau for the first time, one gray and showery June Sunday morning, I was taken out into the garden to meet Mr. Gurdjieff, who was strolling there with an old Russian friend. As they approached me, Mr. Gurdjieff was walking with a slow, firm step, his hands behind his back: I saw a man of medium height but powerful build, swarthy complexion and piercing black eyes. He was dressed in almost shabby clothes, a rusty black overcoat, and a slouch hat, all of which he wore with indifference to ordinary standards of fashion. He thus presented a deceptively undistinguished appearance. In contrast, I remember how impressive he looked in oriental clothes, in an old painting by Mr. Salzman which I saw later. I also have another, and still more vivid impression of Mr. Gurdjieff sitting cross-legged in his Turkish bath and wrapped in an enormous white towel, which set off the swarthiness of his face. Carl Zigrosser, 1924

When we came near, he opened the conversation by saying, “I smell American.” I had been prepared for this sort of greeting by the reports of previous visitors, so I was not as startled as I might have been. He went on to explain in his curious English: “You no take bath here last night; I smell American smell.” After some conversation he asked if I could drink. When I replied that I hoped I could, he invited me to sit beside him at dinner—a place which I learned later was reserved for those who drank. He laughed and added that he liked three kinds of people; those who could drink, those who could tell stories—and the third he would tell me about some other time. A few minutes later, he left us and went to his room.

While waiting for dinner I explored the grounds with Mr. de Hartmann, a brilliant musician who has been associated with Mr. Gurdjieff for many years. The Chateau and the grounds had the lovely, quiet charm of old French country places. This one had been left practically unchanged since the seventeenth century, when Madame Maintenon, among others, is supposed to have lived in it, and when it was remodelled with royal funds. The house consisted of a central building with a wing on either side, and a rambling addition containing the kitchen, stable, and former servants’ quarters. The main building—called “the Ritz” by those at the Institute—faced a sloping lawn, laid out with gravel paths and a fountain, and said to have been designed by Le Nôtre.

Mr. de Hartmann and I came back in time for dinner, which was served to about six or seven older members of the community in the main dining room. The meal was much like those that I later discovered were served on feast-days or other special occasions, beginning with platters of hors d’œuvres, potato and other mixed salads, smoked fish, onion tops and other herbs, eaten by hand, such as mint, fennel, parsley, tarragon, and exotic plants that have no English names. These herbs were always on the table at the Institute. The soup was followed by Russian meat cakes, and a rhubarb compote. At other times, kasha or the Armenian madzoon was served as dessert. Occasionally a whole sheep’s head was cooked as a delicacy, and served by Mr. Gurdjieff to his guests with smiling reflections on the foolishness of a civilization which allowed him to buy such a morsel for a couple of francs. Some kind of spirits, either Vieux Marc or Armagnac, was usually passed around. There was a ritual for the drinking of this brandy: seven rounds were served, each with a toast, to which everyone was expected to drain his glass. The toasts seldom varied from the following order: (1) To the health of all idiots; (2) To the ordinary idiot; (3) To the candidate for idiocy; (4) To the superidiot; (5) To the archidiot; (6) To the hopeless idiot; (7) To the compassionate idiot.

I once asked him why he always toasted idiots, why he did not invoke a benevolent power in his toasts, such as Beëlzebub, for instance. He answered that he sometimes did, but that he never could venture—and here his tone assumed the greatest reverence—to drink to Beëlzebub himself. “To the tip of his tail, yes, or his hoofs, or his horns, maybe—but never to the great being himself.” And he showed me the chair that Beëlzebub always sat in when he visited him, pointing out that there was room for him to curl up his tail comfortably, and so on.

As we rose from the table, Mr. Gurdjieff asked me whether I was full “like American man or like donkey.” When I answered, “Like donkey,” he replied: “Much better to be full like donkey than like American man. Americans have weak stomachs. European man ruined by his head, American man ruined by his stomach.” Then we went up to his room for coffee and a liqueur.

Toward evening I was invited to go to Paris with Mr. Gurdjieff. He, Mr. de Hartmann, Mr. Salzman, and I, got into his car and we were off, Mr. Gurdjieff at the wheel. He took a special route to show me the beauties of the forest of Fontainebleau, and talked of the many lovely sights in France that the tourist in the railroad train can never see.

On reaching Paris we stopped off at the Café de la Paix for brandy and coffee, while Mr. Gurdjieff worked on the manuscript of his book, Beëlzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, on which he has been busy for the past four years. He did much of his writing, or revising, in some crowded café, “his office” as he called it. And certainly the Café de le Paix, with the stream of passers-by on the Boulevard, should be crowded enough for anyone. Mr. Gurdjieff once remarked that he preferred to work thus, because the pageant of idiots under his eyes gave him a more detached view of the human race, and so put him more in the frame of mind of a visitor, like Beëlzebub, from another planet.

We sat at the Café de la Paix for some time, until Mr. Gurdjieff suggested that we go to his apartment. He had at first intended to visit a restaurant where he sometimes went to eat crayfish imported live from Russia, of which he was very fond. But he decided that he did not deserve to go there that night: he had not done enough work during the day and did not feel that he could indulge himself. So, at about ten o’clock, we went to his own place, an ordinary furnished apartment in the seventeenth arrondissement. When Mr. Gurdjieff was comfortably stretched out on the bed, we had our evening meal, oriental and simple. There were slices of cold meat and smoked fish, chunks of bread, handfuls of green herbs and onion tops, all eaten with the fingers without plates, and the whole washed down with brandy and coffee. I shall never forget the picture of Mr. Gurdjieff reclining on the bed, as only an easterner can, a glimpse of his hairy chest showing through his open shirt, his frame shaking with laughter at some story told by Mr. Salzman. It struck me then what a Rabelaisian gusto for life (among many other things) the man had—a gusto for life in its essence, undiluted by the affectations of culture. At the table, his quick movements and gleaming smile expressed a huge relish for plain food. He had an oriental love of story-telling, the racier the stories the better. Even his English speech had an oriental simplicity that gave a deceptive impression of naEFvetE9. Then, like the forest philosophers of India, he had little use for books and the external aids for learning. It is interesting to notice that even in revising his own book, he often had someone read it aloud to him, for his grasp of it was better through his ears than through his eyes. With us in the West, the eye has become almost our only means of absorbing ideas.

Looking back on my meetings with Gurdjieff, I feel that it is important to distinguish between Gurdjieff the man, with a certain life history, and Gurdjieff the exponent of a certain philosophy of life. If one places too much emphasis on Gurdjieff the man, responding, pleasantly or otherwise, to his rich, incalculable personality, but making no attempt to divine his ideas, one misses practically everything of value in the contact. Primarily Gurdjieff is a man, with a childhood and maturity behind him, crowded with associations and impressions, which, according to his own deterministic philosophy, are shaping his present behaviour; he too has his prejudices and mistakes. But he is also expounding certain ideas, obtained from God knows where, a certain standard of values, certain attitudes to life, and a certain technique for meeting it, which I, among others, have found extremely interesting and, as far as I have been able to try them out, sound. These abstract conceptions are expressed in terms that are provided by his past experiences, and are more or less unintelligible to a person of my past. In his company I always had to make an effort to assimilate his language—both his speech and his actions—extract the pure ideas from it, and translate them into terms of my own experience. If I merely reacted to his personality, I would be missing a unique opportunity, and he would laugh at me and put me down as one of the “idiots.” In such matters he is quite ruthless. He makes use of people when he needs them, but always under conditions that will allow them to derive a benefit for themselves if they make the effort. It is only the opportunity that he offers them; if they do not choose to grasp it, he laughs at them and uses them anyway. But if he is convinced of the seriousness of their efforts, he can be untiring, patient, and most ingenious in providing opportunities.

From what I saw of him, Mr. Gurdjieff’s personal conduct can best be understood if one thinks of him as an artist in life. As an artist, he works not only through words, and music, and dances, but directly on human beliefs. His energies at that time were concentrated largely on writing and music, and he was apparently gay, or depressed, or tired, largely according as his day’s task had gone well or ill. In matters of food, and shelter, and a sense of responsibility for the well-being of dependents, he is much like a patriarch of old; and he is treated as such by these dependents. But he is not explicitly a teacher, nor a prophet. He has none of the airs of saintliness, which so often make for hypocrisy in teachers and confusion in their pupils. Realizing that it is impossible to impart experience, he does not teach his philosophy. He believes, with the self-made man, that there is no royal road to understanding; what he himself acquired and could only acquire by effort, others must also acquire by effort. If they do not make the effort, so much the worse for them. He aims merely to induce this effort in others, to spur them on to further self-exertions.

It is natural, therefore, that he sets a high value on purposiveness: the quantity and direction of conscious human effort. I remember once hearing a saying of his, which ran something like this: “The difference between an ordinary man and a conscious man is in the persistence of their aims. There are some people who maintain an aim for a week, or a month, or a year. They are relatively ephemeral, like insects. There are some whose major purpose animates them during their lifetime: they have attained human stature. Then there are the rare few whose aim is so intense and all-embracing as to endure beyond the human span. These are immortal.”

Mr. Gurdjieff often undertakes the role of a destroying angel, and this is, I think, an important part of his work. His destructive force is aimed chiefly at breaking down old associations, verbal and otherwise—the tyranny of our unconscious impressions. He plays the part of an irritant or friction producer, to shock and challenge those about him into consciousness. In doing this, he plays many roles, parts which in the eyes of most of us may often seem not only capricious but foolish.

Besides a number of week-ends at the Chateau, I spent several days during the week working at the Institute. The atmosphere at the place was quite different then from that of Saturday and Sunday. The relaxation of the feast day was over, and work was the order of the day. Many of the older members, such as the Salzmans and the de Hartmanns, were engaged in special tasks, and were not seen by the manual workers, whom I joined. The work, besides that in the house and the kitchen garden, consisted mainly of making roads, clearing the forest, and breaking up stone for road metal. The work was arduous and the hours long, but whatever one did was purely voluntary. It was this knowledge that I did not have to do a stroke of work unless I wanted to that made what I did so valuable to me. When my muscles ached and my body asked, “Why are you doing this?” I could answer with peculiar poignancy, “I am doing this for consciousness.” The manual work lasted from eight until twelve, from one until four, and from four-thirty until seven. The meals were served either out-of-doors or in a dingy room in the former servants’ quarters. The menu was about as follows: for breakfast, coffee and toast without butter; for lunch a huge bowl of vegetable soup with meat in it, plenty of greens, and sometimes a cooked vegetable or macaroni, with large chunks of bread; for tea, bread and tea; for supper, much the same as for lunch. But cooking was not a fine art at the Institute. Food was given its proportionate place in the scheme of things by being served in simple courses in quantities sufficient to sustain existence. Elaborate meals were reserved for special occasions.

One of the most interesting experiences at the Institute was the bath every Saturday night. The bathhouse was built into a hillside, to retain its heat. All through the afternoon, Mr. Gurdjieff’s brother, Dmitri Ivanovitch, was busy stoking up the fires, to make sure of plenty of hot water and steam. The bath-house consisted of three rooms: a cooling chamber with couches and benches to rest on; a large circular room, moderately hot, with benches and showers to soap oneself and wash; and then a small room for extremely hot temperatures. In the cooling chamber were frescoes by Salzman, some of them faded by the steam. Saturday night was always a special occasion at the Institute. The women took their bath at five o’clock. When they had finished, and everybody had eaten a light supper, all adjourned to the study-house for coffee, some time between eight and nine o’clock. There everyone sat about while a chapter from Mr. Gurdjieff’s book was read aloud or—as happened the first time I was there—Mr. de Hartmann played the organ. Then, when Mr. Gurdjieff gave the signal, men and boys went to the bathhouse. The bath was the regular Russian steam bath, accompanied with much joking and storytelling; but sometimes Mr. Gurdjieff’s most valuable remarks came out in the course of this apparently casual conversation. He used to call upon each newcomer to tell two or three stories as a payment for his bath.

The study-house, on the lawn, was a wide, irregularly shaped octagon—or rather a pentagon with three of its corners blunted to make additional sides—with a slightly arched roof. The ceiling was lined with a canopy, painted in bright colours, many of which, alas! had faded in that damp climate. The electric lights were hooded with shades of oriental design. The windows, running in an unbroken line along six sides, were painted with Persian and Hindu designs. On the balcony above the entrance was a collection of exotic musical instruments. On the canopy were painted, amongst the designs, a number of proverbs and sayings, of which the following is characteristic: “Happy is he who has no soul; happy is he who has a soul; terrible is it for him who has a soul germinating in him.”

Still another side of Mr. Gurdjieff is revealed in his music, a music whose quality is so different from what one would associate with his outward appearance, that it was hard at first to believe that it had come from him. For, from this extraordinary man with the Rabelaisian exterior issues music that is spiritual in the fullest sense of that much abused word. For me, this music was an important clue in estimating the range of his character, for it reveals depths of tenderness and sensitiveness that were seldom visible during my brief stay with him. This music seems to fall into two chief groups: pieces that are strongly oriental in tone, and others that are similar to early church music, and which, I was told, Mr. Gurdjieff had composed for the prayers and invocations in his book, under the general title of Temple Music. It is said that he plans to compose a body of music which will express the same meaning, in the world of emotions, that he is expressing for the mind in his book, making the two complementary to each other. Few of the pieces take more than five minutes to play. I have been told that these short pieces are studies for subsequent choral and orchestral compositions. During my visit, they were played by Mr. de Hartmann, sometimes on the piano, and sometimes on the harmonium—a small house organ. Occasionally Mr. Gurdjieff played a tiny organ, specially designed to be held on the lap, while Mr. de Hartmann accompanied him on the piano. On this instrument one plays the keyboard with one hand and manipulates the bellows with the other.

The pieces themselves have definite musical form, both in the development of the theme and in the harmonic structure. The harmonies are simple but inevitable; some pieces are polyphonic.1 The rhythms are often subtle and complex, and contribute greatly to the total effect of the music. As Mr. Gurdjieff composes a piece, he plays it over and over to Mr. de Hartmann, emphasizing now the melody, and now the rhythm or harmonic structure, until Mr. de Hartmann has it firmly fixed in his memory and can transcribe it to paper at his leisure.

The most unusual thing about this music, however, was its effect on me when I heard it, different from that of almost any other music I had ever listened to. I can only explain this by describing the effect of both upon myself. Usually music prompts me to day-dreams and lovely fancies; it carries me outside myself into an unreal world of images and undischarged muscular stimulations, with an indirect stirring of the emotions. But this music did not carry me out of myself at all: it centred its effect upon my very essence, it appealed directly to my emotions. It sang as if it had a message for me alone in the world—yet others have told me since that they had had precisely the same feeling. It aroused in me at will the feelings of joy, pity, sorrow, fear, struggle, and above all an exquisite yet terrible yearning. What I heard during those few hours made almost all other music seem tame and haphazard.

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1 I have since heard a number of pieces in which the harmony was complex and in which dissonance was used in an extraordinarily effective way.

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This essay was first published in The New Republic, New York: Vol. LIX (757), June 5, 1929, pp. 66–69.

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