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BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF

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CHAPTER 1

I met and talked to Georges Gurdjieff for the first time in 1924, on a Saturday afternoon in June, at the Chateau du Prieure in Fontainebleau-Avon, France. Although the reasons for my being there were not very clear in my mind -- I was eleven at the time -- my memory of that meeting is still brilliantly clear.

It was a bright, sunny day. Gurdjieff was sitting by a small marble-topped table, shaded by a striped umbrella, with his back to the chateau proper, facing a large expanse of formal lawns and flower beds. I had to sit on the terrace of the chateau, behind him, for some time before I was summoned to his side for an interview. I had, actually, seen him once before, in New York the previous winter, but I did not feel that I had "met" him. My only memory of that prior time was that I had been frightened of him: partly because of the way he looked at -- or through -- me, and partly because of his reputation. I had been told that he was at least a "prophet" -- at most, something very close to the "second coming of Christ."

Meeting any version of a "Christ" is an event, and this meeting was not one to which I looked forward. Facing the presence not only did not appeal to me -- I dreaded it.

The actual meeting did not measure up to my fears. "Messiah" or not, he seemed to me a simple, straightforward man. He was not surrounded by any halo, and while his English was heavily accented, he spoke far more simply than the Bible had led me to expect. He made a vague gesture in my direction, told me to sit down, called for coffee, and then asked me why I was there. I was relieved to find that he seemed to be an ordinary human being, but I was troubled by the question. I felt sure that I was supposed to give him an important answer; that I should have some excellent reason. Having none, I told him the truth: That I was there because I had been brought there.

He then asked me why I wanted to be there, to study at his school. Once more I was only able to answer that it was all beyond my control -- I had not been consulted, I had been, as it were, transported to that place. I remember my strong impulse to lie to him, and my equally strong feeling that I could not lie to him. I felt sure that he knew the truth in advance. The only question that I answered less than honestly was when he asked me if I wanted to stay there and to study with him. I said that I did, which was not essentially true. I said it because I knew that it was expected of me. It seems to me, now, that any child would have answered as I did. Whatever the Prieure might represent to adults (and the literal name of the school was "The Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man"), I felt that I was experiencing the equivalent of being interviewed by the principal of a high school. Children went to school, and I subscribed to the general agreement that no child would tell his teacher-to=be that he did not want to go to school. The only thing that surprised me was that I was asked the question.

Gurdjieff then asked me two more questions:

1. What do you think life is?

and

2. What do you want to know?

I answered the first question by saying: "I think life is something that is handed to you on a silver platter, and it is up to you (me) to do something with it." This answer touched off a long discussion about the phrase "on a silver platter," including a reference by Gurdjieff to the head of John the Baptist. I retreated -- it felt like a retreat -- and modified the phrase to the effect that life was a "gift," and this seemed to please him.

The second question (What do you want to know?) was simpler to answer. My words were: "I want to know everything."

Gurdjieff replied immediately: "You cannot know everything. Everything about what?"

I said: "Everything about man," and then added: "In English I think it is called psychology or maybe philosophy."

He sighed then, and after a short silence said: "You can stay. But your answer makes life difficult for me. I am the only one who teaches what you ask. You make more work for me."

Since my childish aims were to conform and to please, I was disconcerted by his answer. The last thing I wanted to do was to make life more difficult for anyone -- it seemed to me that it was difficult enough already. I said nothing in reply to this, and he went on to tell me that in addition to learning "everything" I would also have the opportunity to study lesser subjects, such as languages, mathematics, various sciences, and so forth. He also said that I would find that his was not the usual school: "Can learn many things here that other schools not teach." He then patted my shoulder benevolently.

I use the word "benevolently" because the gesture was of great importance to me at the time. I longed for approval from some higher authority. To receive such "approval" from this man who was considered by other adults to be a "prophet," "seer," and/or a "messiah" -- and approval in such a simple, friendly gesture -- was unexpected and heartwarming. I beamed.

His manner changed abruptly. He struck the table with one fist, looked at me with great intensity, and said: "Can you promise to do something for me?"

His voice and the look he had given me were frightening and also exciting. I felt both cornered and challenged. I answered him with one word, a firm "Yes."

He gestured towards the expanse of lawns before us: "You see this grass?"

"Yes."

"I give you work. You must cut this grass, with machine, every week."

I looked at the lawns, the grass spreading before us into what appeared to me infinity. It was, without any doubt, a prospect of more work in one week than I had ever contemplated in my life. Again, I said "Yes."

He struck the table with his fist for a second time. "You must promise on your God." His voice was deadly serious. "You must promise that you will do this thing no matter what happens."

I looked at him, questioning, respectful, and with considerable awe. No lawn -- not even these (there were four of them) -- had ever seemed important to me before. "I promise," I said earnestly.

"Not just promise," he reiterated. "Must promise you will do no matter what happens, no matter who try stop you. Many things can happen in life."

For a moment his words conjured up visions of terrifying arguments over the mowing of these lawns. I foresaw great emotional dramas taking place in the future on account of these lawns and of myself. Once again, I promised. I was as serious as he was then. I would have died, if necessary, in the act of mowing the lawns.

My feeling of dedication was obvious, and he seemed satisfied. He told me to begin work on Monday, and then dismissed me. I don't think I realized it at the time -- that is, the sensation was new to me -- but I left him with the feeling that I had fallen in love; whether with the man, the lawns, or myself, did not matter. My chest was expanded far beyond its normal capacity. I, a child, an unimportant cog in the world which belonged to adults, had been asked to perform something that was apparently vital.

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