BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
What was "the Prieure," which was the name most of us used, or "The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man?"
At the age of 11, I understood it to be simply some kind of special school, directed, as I have said, by a man who was considered by many people to be a visionary, a new prophet, a great philosopher. Gurdjieff himself once defined it as a place where he was attempting, among other things, to create a small world that would reproduce the conditions of the larger, outside world; the main purpose in creating such conditions being to prepare the students for future human, or life, experience. It was not, in other words, a school devoted to ordinary education which, generally, consists in the acquisition of various faculties such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. One of the simpler things that he was attempting to teach was a preparation for life itself.
It may be necessary to point out here, especially for the benefit of people who have had some contact with Gurdjieffian theory, that I am describing the "Institute" as I saw and understood it as a boy. I am not attempting to define its purpose or meaning for individuals who were interested in, or attracted to, Gurdjieff because of his philosophy. To me, it was simply another school -- different from any school I had known, to be sure -- and the essential difference was that most of the "students" were adults. With the exception of my brother and myself, all the other children were either relatives -- nieces, nephews, etc., of Mr. Gurdjieff -- or his natural children. There were not many children in all: I can only remember a total of ten.
The routine of the school, for everyone except the smallest children, was the same. The day began with a breakfast of coffee and dry toast at six o'clock. From seven o'clock on, each individual worked at whatever task was assigned to him. The performance of these tasks was only interrupted during the day by meals: dinner at noon (usually, soup, meat, salad, and some kind of sweet pudding); tea at four in the afternoon; a simple supper at seven in the evening. After supper, at 8:30, there were gymnastics, or dances, in what was called the "study-house." This routine was standard for six days a week, except that on Saturday afternoons the women went to the Turkish bath; early Saturday evenings there were "demonstrations" of the dances in the study-house by the more competent performers, for the other students and for guests who frequently came to visit for weekends; after the demonstrations, the men went to the Turkish bath, and when the bath was over, there was a "feast" or special meal. The children did not participate in these late meals as diners -- only as waiters or kitchen help. Sunday was a day of rest.
The tasks assigned to the students were invariably concerned with the actual functioning of the school: gardening, cooking, house-cleaning, taking care of animals, milking, making butter; and these tasks were almost always group activities. As I learned later, the group work was considered to be of real importance: Different personalities, working together, produced subjective, human conflicts; human conflicts produced friction; friction revealed characteristics which, if observed, could reveal "self." One of the many aims of the school was "to see yourself as others saw you;" to see oneself, as it were, from a distance; to be able to criticize that self objectively; but, at first, simply to see it. An exercise that was intended to be performed all the time, during whatever physical activity, was called "self-observation" or "opposing I to it" -- "I" being the (potential consciousness, "it" the body, the instrument.
At the beginning, and before I understood any of these theories or exercises, my task and, in a sense, my world, was completely centred on cutting the grass, for my lawns -- as I came to call them -- became considerably more vital than I could have anticipated.
The day after my "interview" with him, Mr. Gurdjieff left for Paris. We have been given to understand that it was customary for him to spend two days a week in Paris, usually accompanied by his secretary, Madam de Hartmann, and sometimes others. This time, which was unusual, he went alone.
As I remember, it was not until sometime on Monday afternoon -- Mr. Gurdjieff had left Sunday evening -- that the rumour that he had been in an automobile accident filtered down to the children at the school. We heard first that he had been killed, then that he had been seriously injured and was not expected to live. A formal announcement was made by someone in authority Monday evening. He was not dead, but he was seriously injured and near death in a hospital.
It is difficult to describe the impact of such an announcement. The very existence of the "institute" depended entirely on Gurdjieff's presence. It was he who assigned work to every individual -- and up to that moment he had supervised, personally, every detail of the running of the school. Now, the imminent possibility of his death brought everything to a standstill. It was only thanks to the initiative of a few of the older students, most of whom had come with him from Russia, that we continued to eat regularly.
While I did not know what was going to happen to me, personally, the one thing that was still vivid in my mind was the fact that he had told me that I was to mow the lawns "no matter what happened." IT was a relief to me to have something concrete to do; a definite job that he had assigned to me. It was also the first time that I had any feeling that he was, perhaps, extraordinary. It was he who had said "no matter what happens," and his accident had happened. His injunction became that much stronger. I was convinced that he had known beforehand that "something" was going to happen, although not necessarily an automobile accident.
I as not the only one who felt that his accident was, in a sense, foreordained. The fact that he had gone to Paris alone (I was told it was the first time he had done so) was sufficient proof for most of the students. My reaction, in any event, was that it had become absolutely essential to mow the grass; I was convinced that his life, at least in part, might depend on my dedication to the task he had given me.
These feelings of mine assumed special importance when, a few days later, Mr. Gurdjieff was brought back to the Prieure, to his room which overlooked "my" lawns, and we were told that he was in a coma and was being kept alive on oxygen. Doctors came and went at intervals; tanks of oxygen were delivered and removed; a hushed atmosphere descended over the place -- it was as if we were all involved in permanent, silent prayer for him.
It was not until a day or so after his return that I was told -- probably by Madame de Hartmann -- that the noise of the lawn-mower would have to stop. The decision I was forced to make then was a momentous one for me. Much as I respected Madame de Hartmann, I could not forget the force with which he had made me promise to do my job. We were standing at the edge of the lawn, directly beneath the windows of his room, when I had to give her my answer. I did not reflect for very long, as I recall, and I refused, with all the force in me. I was then told that his life might actually depend on my decision, and I still refused. What surprises me now is that I was not categorically forbidden to continue, or even forcibly restrained. The only explanation that I can find for this is that his power over his pupils was such that no single individual was willing to take the responsibility of totally denying my version of what he had told me. In any case, I was not restrained; I was simply forbidden to cut the grass. I continued to cut it.
This rejection of authority, of anything less than the highest authority, was deadly serious, and I think the only thing that sustained me in it was that I was reasonably convinced that the noise of a lawn-mower would not kill anyone; also, less logically, I did feel, at the time, that his life might -- inexplicably -- depend on my performance of the task he had given me. These reasons, however, were no defence against the feelings of the other students (there were about 150 people there at the time, most of them adults) who were at least equally convinced that the noise I continued to make every day could be deadly.
The conflict continued for several weeks, and each day when "no change" in his condition was reported, it became more difficult for me to begin. I can remember having to grit my teeth and overcome my own fear of what I might be doing every morning. My resolve was alternately strengthened and weakened by the attitude of the other students. I was ostracized, excluded from every other activity; no one would sit at the same table with me at meals -- if I went to a table where others were sitting, they would leave the table when I sat down -- and I cannot remember any one person who either spoke to me or smiled at me during those weeks, with the exception of a few of the more important adults who, from time to time, continued to exhort me to stop.