BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
GURDJIEFF'S TRIP TO the United States had been made, according to him, for various reasons -- one of the most important ones being to make enough money to keep the Institute going at the Prieure. Mr. Gurdjieff did not own the property, but rented it on a long-term lease, and since very few of the students were "paying guests", money was needed to make the various rental payments as well as to provide the food that we were unable to grow or produce on the land; to pay the light and gas and coal bills. And Mr. Gurdjieff's own expenses were also heavy at that time: he maintained an apartment in Paris, and had had to pay for the passage of all the students he had taken to America with him -- enough, for instance, to be able to put on a demonstration of his gymnastics while he was there.
On his return, he frequently regaled us with stories about his adventures in America, about the American habit of embracing with open arms any new "movement", "theory", or "philosophy", simply in order to divert themselves, and about their gullibility in general. He would tell us how it was almost impossible for them not to give him money -- the very act of giving him money made them feel important, and he called this "extortion" of them "shearing sheep". He said that most of them had pockets that were so full of green folding "stuff" that it gave them itchy fingers and they could not wait to part with it. Nevertheless, in spite of his stories about them and the way he made fun of them, he genuinely liked the Americans and, on occasions when he was not making fun of them, he would point out that, of all the peoples of the Western World, they were distinguished by various characteristics: their energy, ingenuity and their real generosity. Also, though gullible, they were good-hearted and eager to learn. Whatever their attributes or their faults, he had managed, during his stay in America, to collect a very large sum of money. I doubt that anyone of us knew exactly how much, but it was generally believed to be in excess of $100,000,000. The first obvious show of spending after his return to France was the sudden and unexpected delivery of literally scores of bicycles to the Prieure. They arrived by the truckload, and Gurdjieff personally distributed them to everyone there, with only a very few exceptions: himself, his wife, and one or two of the smallest children. We were all amazed, and a great many of the Americans were appalled at this seeming waste of the money which many of them had helped to contribute to his "cause". Whatever his reasons for the acquisition of bicycles, the results were shatteringly colourful.
There were incredibly few people, considering the number of students living at the Prieure at the time, who could actually ride a bicycle. But they had not been purchased idly -- they were to be ridden. The entire grounds became a sort of enormous training-ground for bicycle riders. For days, and in the case of many of us, weeks, the grounds rang with the sound of bicycle bells, crashes, shouts of laughter and pain. In large groups we rode, teetering and collapsing to our assigned work on projects in the gardens and the woodlands. Anyone who had some valid reason or excuse for walking soon learned to beware of what had formerly been footpaths; for like as not, a bicycle would come careering at them, its rider frozen in horror and totally out of control, as he or she crashed into the unfortunate pedestrian or another equally helpless rider .
I suppose that most of us learned to ride quickly enough, although I seem to remember having bruised knees and elbows most of the summer. However long the process actually took, it seemed a very long time before it was safe to either ride or walk in the Prieure grounds without genuine danger from almost any angle in the form of some novice bicyclist.
Another project that was initiated that same summer was equally colourful, although it did not involve the spending of any great sums of money. Everyone, with the sole exception of a skeleton group who had to work in the kitchen or on duty at the concierge, was put to work on the re-making of the lawns -- the same lawns that I had mowed so arduously that first summer. No one escaped this duty, not even those so-called "distinguished" guests: persons who came for short visits, presumably to discuss Mr. Gurdjieff's theories with him, and who, up to that time, had not participated in work projects. Every available tool was put to use and the lawns were littered with people digging up the grass, raking, re-seeding, and rolling the new seed into the ground with heavy iron rollers. People worked so closely together that it sometimes seemed as if there was barely room for them all. During this activity, Gurdjieff would march up and down among all the workers, criticizing them individually, goading them on, and helping to contribute a feeling of furious, senseless activity to the whole proceedings. As one of the more recent American students remarked, surveying this ant-like activity, it was as if the entire student body, and perhaps particularly Gurdjieff, had at least temporarily taken leave of their senses.
At intervals, and sometimes for several hours at a time, Gurdjieff would suddenly cease his supervision of us, and go to sit at his small table from which he could watch all of us, and write steadily on his books. This only added to the comical aspect of the whole project.
It was on the second or third day that one voice rose in protest against the whole project. It was Rachmilevitch. In a towering rage, he laid down whatever implement he had been using, marched straight up to Gurdjieff and told him that what we were doing was insane. There were so many people working on the lawns, according to him, that the new grass-seed might better be thrown away than sown under our feet. People were digging and raking aimlessly, wherever they could find a vacant spot, paying no attention to what they were doing.
In what seemed to be equal fury, Gurdjieff protested against this uncalled for criticism -- he knew better than anyone in the world how to "rebuild" lawns, he was an expert, he was not to be criticized, and so on, ad infinitum. After several minutes of this raging argument, Rachmilevitch turned on his heels and strode away. Everyone -- we had all been impressed with his standing up to the "master" in this way -- stopped their work and watched him until he disappeared into the woods beyond the furthest lawns.
It was not until an hour or so later, when we were about to pause for our usual afternoon tea, that Mr. Gurdjieff called me over to him. At some length he told me that it was essential that Mr. Rachmilevitch be found and brought back. He said that in order to save Rachmilevitch's face it was necessary to send for him, that he would never return of his own accord, and he instructed me to harness the horse and go and find him. When I protested that I did not even know where to begin to look, he said that he was sure that if I followed my own instincts I would locate him without difficulty and that, perhaps, even the horse would help.
In an attempt to put myself in Rachmilevitch's place, when I had harnessed the horse to the wagon, I set off towards the woods beyond the main, formal gardens. It seemed to me that he could only have gone to one of the distant vegetable gardens -- a walk of at least a mile, and I headed for the furthest one, at the very end of the property. On the way I was troubled about what I would do if and when I did find him, particularly since I had been the chief culprit in the conspiracy against him during the winter. Nothing had ever been said about that to me -- at least not by Gurdjieff -- and I felt that I had been selected only because I was in charge of the horse, and that Gurdjieff could not have picked any less suitable candidate for this errand.
I was not very surprised when my hunch proved to be right. He was in the garden, as I had hoped he might be. But, as if to lend a dreamlike quality to the affair, he was not in what I would have thought a normal, usual place. He was, of all things, sitting up in an apple tree. Concealing my astonishment -- I really did think he was mad -- I drove the horse and wagon directly underneath the tree and stated my errand. He looked at me distantly and refused to go back. I did not know of any arguments -- I could not think of any good reasons -- with which to persuade him to come back, so I said that I would wait there as long as he did; that I could not return without him. After a long silence, during which he occasionally glared at me, he suddenly, without a word, dropped quietly into the wagon from the tree and then sat on the seat next to me as I drove back to the main house. Tea had been saved for us and we sat across from each other at the table as we drank our tea, while Gurdjieff watched us from a distant table. Everyone else had gone back to work.
When we had finished, Gurdjieff told me to unl1arness the horse, thanked me for finding Rachmilevitch, and said that he would see me later.
Gurdjieff came to the stable before I was through with the horse and asked me to tell him exactly where I had found Mr. Rachmilevitch. When I told him that I had found him sitting in a tree in the "far garden" he looked at me, incredulous, made me repeat this -- asked me if I was absolutely sure -- and I assured him that he had been in a tree and that I had had to sit there for a long time, under the tree, before he had consented to come back with me. He asked me what arguments I had used and I confessed that I had not been able to think of anything except to say that he had to come back. and that I had said I would wait there for as long as he would. Gurdjieff seemed to find this whole story very amusing and thanked me profusely for telling it to him.
Poor Mr. Rachmilevitch. When everyone was assembled in the salon that evening, he was still an object of interest to us all. It was the first time that any of us could remember one single individual defying Gurdjieff in the presence of everyone else. But the incident was not over. After the customary playing of music on the piano by M. de Hartmann, Mr. Gurdjieff told us that he had a very amusing story to tell us, and proceeded to reconstruct, in elaborate details, and with a great many new embellishments of his own, the story of Rachmilevitch's defiance of the afternoon, his disappearance, and my "capture" of him. Not only was the story highly embellished, but he also acted out all the parts -- himself, Rachmilevitch, the interested spectators, myself, even the horse. Amusing as it was to all of us, it was more than Rachrnilevitch could bear. For the second time that day, he strode away from Gurdjieff after a furious outburst, vowing that he would leave the Prieure for ever; he had, finally, had enough.
I do not believe that anyone took him seriously at the time, but, to our surprise and consternation, he actually did leave the following day for Paris. He had been so much a part of the place, so conspicuous because of his never-ending complaints, that it was like the end of an era -- as if some essential property of the school had suddenly vanished.