BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
TOWARDS THE END of the summer, I learned that Mr. Gurdjieff was making plans to go to America for an extended visit -- probably the entire winter of 1925-26. The question of what was going to happen to Tom and myself automatically came to my mind, but this was quickly solved: to my great relief, Jane told us that she had decided that she would have to go back to New York but that Tom and I would stay on at the Prieure that winter. She took us to Paris with her one weekend and introduced us to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Jane had somehow persuaded Gertrude and Alice to, as it were, watch over us during her absence.
On our occasional visits to Paris, we had met many controversial and distinguished people: James Joyce, Ernest Heming- way, Constantin Brancusi, Jacques Lipschitz, Tristan Tzara, and others -- most of whom had been contributors at one time or another to The Little Review. Man Ray had photographed both of us; Paul Tchelitchev had attempted portraits of us both. I remember when Tchelitchev, after two or three consecutive days of work on a pastel portrait of me, threw me out of his studio, telling me that I was unpaintable. "You look like everyone," he had said, "and your face is never quiet."
I was either too young or too self-involved at that time to be fully conscious of the privilege, if that is the word, of knowing or meeting such people. In general, they did not make a very strong impression on me; I did not understand their conversation, and was aware of their importance only because I had been told they were important.
Of all such people, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein did stand out as genuinely impressive to me. At our first meeting with Hemingway, whose A Farewell to Arms had not yet been published, he impressed us with his stories of bull-fighting in Spain; with great exuberance he ripped off his shirt to show us his "battle-scars" and then fell to his hands and knees, still stripped to the waist, to play at being a bull with his first child, still only a baby at that time.
But it was Gertrude Stein who made the greatest impact on me. Jane had given me something of hers to read -- I do not know what it was -- and I had found it totally meaningless; for that reason I was vaguely alarmed at the prospect of meeting her. I liked her immediately. She seemed uncomplicated, direct, and enormously friendly. She told us -- she, too, had a "no-nonsense" quality about her that appealed to me as a child -- that we were to visit her every other Thursday' during the coming winter, and that our first visit would be on Thanksgiving Day. Although I was worried about Gurdjieff's absence -- I felt that the Prieure could not possibly be the same without him -- my immediate liking of Gertrude and the know- ledge that we would be seeing her regularly was considerable consolation.
Gurdjieff only spoke to me directly about his forthcoming trip on one occasion. He said that he was going to leave Miss Madison in full charge and that it would be necessary for me -- as well as for everyone else -- to work with her. Miss Madison no longer troubled or frightened me, I was getting used to her, and I assured him that I would do my best. He then said that it was important to learn to get along with people. Important in one way only -- to learn to live with all kinds of people and in all kinds of situations; to live with them in the sense of not reacting to them constantly.
Before his departure, he called a meeting of certain of the students and Miss Madison; only those students, mostly Americans, who were going to stay at the Prieure during his absence -- excluding his own family and a few of the older students, or followers, who had been with him for many years and who, apparently, were not subject to Miss Madison's discipline. I had the feeling that Gurdjieff's immediate family, his brother, sister-in-law and their children, were not so much "followers" or "students" as simply "family" that he supported.
At this gathering, or meeting, Miss Madison served tea to all of us. It seems to me now that this was her idea, also that she was making an attempt to "put her best foot forward" with those students who would be in her charge during the winter to come. We all listened as she and Mr. Gurdjieff discussed various aspects of the functioning of the Institute -- mostly practical problems, work assignments, and so forth, but the one outstanding memory of that meeting was the serving of the tea by Miss Madison. Instead of sitting in one place, pouring the tea, and handing it to us, she poured each cup, standing, and then brought it to each person. She had, unfortunately for her, a physical habit -- it was sufficiently delicate, actually, to seem to be a kind of refinement -- of faintly passing wind each time that she stooped over, which she had to do as she handed each person his or her cup of tea. Inevitably, there would be a rather faint, single, report at which she would immediately say "Pardon me" and stand up.
We were all amused and embarrassed by this, but no one was more amused than Gurdjieff. He watched her attentively, the faint beginning of a smile on his face, and it was impossible not to watch him as we all "listened" to Miss Madison. As if unable to control himself any longer, he began to talk. He said that Miss Madison was a very special person, with many qualities that might not be immediately apparent to the casual onlooker (he could be very verbose and flowery in the English language when he chose). As an example of one of her qualities, he cited the fact that she had a particularly exceptional manner of serving tea. That only Miss Madison served tea with the accompaniment of a small, sharp report, like that of a toy gun. "But so delicate, so refined," he said, "that it is necessary to be alert, and highly perceptive, even to be aware of this." He went on to remark that we should notice her extreme politeness: that she unfailingly excused herself after each re- port. He then compared this "grace" of hers with other social graces, stating that it was not only unusual but, to him, even with his wide experience, completely novel.
It was impossible not to admire Miss Madison's composure during this merciless, lengthy comment on her unfortunate habit. While it was obviously "farting", none of us could bring ourselves, even in our own minds, to the use of that gross word. As Gurdjieff talked about it, the habit became practically "endearing" to us, making us feel sympathetic and tender towards Miss Madison. The "end result" as someone punned mercilessly, was that we all felt a spontaneous, genuine liking for Miss Madison that none of us had felt before. I have often wondered since then whether or not Gurdjieff was not making use of a minor weakness in Miss Madison's seemingly impervious "armour" for the very purpose of bringing her down from the level of strict "director" to a more human conception in the minds of those of us who were present. It was certainly impossible for us to take Miss Madison too seriously from that time on; it was also equally impossible to dislike her with any great intensity -- she seemed, from then on, far too human, and too fallible. For my own part, I have never heard a delicate "fart" in my life since then, without it being accompanied, in my mind, by a rather tender memory of Miss Madison.
I will not now state that Miss Madison's wind-passing made me learn to actually love her, but it certainly came close to achieving that goal. There were times when we were able to work together without difficulty or animosity, and I attribute all of those periods to her habit, or at least to my memory of it. It was and is impossible for me to whole-heartedly despise anyone who is, for any reason, a comic figure. There was a pathetic aspect to this "farting", and since the habit is relatively universal, we were inevitably laughing at ourselves, as well, when we poked fun at her behind her back. Even the phrase, as we were always doing things "behind her back", had immediate, hilarious connotations. In fact nothing could have been more appropriate for her. Even her "reports", or the mention of them, was enough to send us off into gales of laughter. And as children, we, of course, made up elaborate, merciless jokes about the possibility of the walls of her room collapsing from a constant barrage.
For her own part, Miss Madison continued to direct the activities of the school, busy, stern, and dedicated; and with occasional sharp reports, like punctuation, always accompanied by a bland apology.