BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
ALTHOUGH GURDJIEFF WAS always set apart from everyone else at the Prieure, unquestioned, and accorded great respect which was combined with a proper element of fear, his "dictatorship" was also very benevolent. There was a side of his nature that was not only physically magnetic and animal-like, but extremely earthy. His sense of humour was often very subtle, in an oriental sense, but also had a broad, crude side, and he was a very sensual man.
He manifested this side of himself particularly when he was alone with the men and boys -- in the Turkish bath or, during the summer, at the swimming pool. Our swimming pool was at the far end of the formal lawns and gardens, facing the chateau beyond the expanse of lawns. Contrary to popular belief, there was no mingling of the sexes in any "immoral" sense. The men and women bathed separately at the bath, and different hours were allotted for male or female use of the swimming pool. There was, in fact, a very strict code of morality in this purely physical sense, and we were highly amused when people sent us clippings from the Sunday supplements of various newspapers which "proved" that the Institute was a nudist colony, or a "free-love" group -- some sort of crack-pot organization tinged with a certain licentiousness. Actually the nearest thing to "nudity" was the common habit -- for some of the men only, of course -- of working out of doors stripped to the waist. And, while it was true that we swam without bathing suits, the swimming pool was equipped with curtains which were always drawn whenever anyone went in swimming. It was forbidden, in fact, for even the small children to swim without drawing the curtains.
In spite of Gurdjieff's many preoccupations -- especially his wife's illness -- that summer, he frequently joined the other men and the boys at their allotted hour before lunch at the swimming pool When everyone had stripped, Gurdjieff would, inevitably, begin to joke about their bodies, their sexual prowess, their varIous physical habits. The jokes were usually what would be called "dirty" or at least "lewd" and he found all such stories highly amusing, whether he told them or whether they were told by the other men who were quick to join in the spirit of such joking. One of his favourite amusements or diversions at the swimming pool was to line all the men up facing in one direction and then compare their sunburns. This became a ritual of what Gurdjieff called the "white ass" club. He would look at all of us from the rear, remarking on the various shades of tan or sunburn, and the glowing whiteness of our buttocks. He would then make us all turn around and make additional comments on the size and variety of male genitalia exposed to him. Finally, we would, each time he appeared to swim, be rated, as members in good standing of his "white ass" club. Tom and I usually rated high -- in addition to deeply tanned backs and chests, since we were children and wore shorts, our legs were also deeply tanned, and because of this he would make some comment, usually to the effect that our small buttocks were "asses that shine with whiteness, like stars."
A good many of the older men, particularly the Russians, not only did not expose themselves to the sun, but rather disliked any form of nudity and were usually embarrassed by these proceedings. They, of course, rated very low on the list, but Gurdjieff, himself, was the lowest. So low, as he said, that he actually belonged to a different club. Since he always wore a hat -- winter and summer -- although his face was dark, his bald head was a glistening white. His club, of which he was the president and sole member, was called something like the "white crown" club, and he would compare the whiteness of his bald pate with the whiteness -- he made elaborate comparisons of the degree of white always -- of our behinds.
One of his favourite stories on these occasions was a long, involved tale about a farmhand who was having an affair with the farmer's wife. The farmer, suspecting his wife and the farmhand, went searching for them with his rifle, and discovered them when he perceived, in the moonlight, the farmhand's white ass, bouncing rhythmically through the darkness, shining in the reflected light of the moon. Although these stories were often repeated and many of them were not, in the first place, particularly funny, his own immense enjoyment in telling them made us all laugh. He was a superb storyteller, spinning out even the dullest tales to such fantastic lengths, embellishing them with such ornamentation and detail, accompanied by pointed, significant gestures and expressions, that it was impossible not to listen to him with total absorption.
The subtler side of his humour -- which was always complicated and involved -- expressed itself very differently. Early that summer, a group of us, for our own amusement, had been exploring the cellars of the main building and we had come across a tunnel. While we did follow it for almost half a mile, the rats, cobwebs, and mouldy dankness, and the complete darkness, kept us from trying to reach its end. There was a rumour that, since the Prieure had been reputedly built by Louis XIV for Madame de Maintenon, this was an underground passage to the Palace of Fontainebleau. Be that as it may, Gurdjieff was greatly interested in our discovery of this tunnel, and went to examine it personally.
A week or so after this discovery, he told me that he had an important job for me. He talked at some length about the tunnel, and then asked me to take a bottle of the ordinary red wine which we drank at meals, and bought at that time for about eight cents a litre, open it, pour out half of it and then refill the bottle by the addition of half a bottle of sparkling Perrier water. I was then to re cork the bottle, seal it with sealing wax, cover it with sand and cobwebs -- "wonderful cobwebs for this purpose in tunnel" -- and bring it to him when he called for it.
I must have looked puzzled, and he went on to explain that two very distinguished guests were scheduled to visit him the following week. This wine was being prepared especially for them. He would call me and when he asked for "one of the bottles of the special old wine" I was to bring this bottle with a cork-screw and two glasses. He smiled a good deal during these instructions and I made no comment about them, although I knew that he was "up to something" -- a phrase he often used when he was planning anything.
The two visitors arrived. They were well-known to me, in fact they were well-known, by reputation, to everyone there, and they elicited the automatic admiration and respect that is generally accorded to "famous" people, whether actually deserved or not. I ushered the visitors -- both women -- to Gurdjieff's room and then retired to my waiting post near the bell (there were two bells for me -- one in the kitchen and one in my room) .When I heard the expected ring I ran to his room and was told to bring "the special old, rare wine that we had found during a recent project of excavating the ruins of the original monastery". This colourful exaggeration had a basis in fact. The Prieure had been, in the 12th century, a monastery and there were a few ruins to substantiate this. Those ruins, of course, had nothing at all to do with the tunnel from the cellars. The original monastery building had been at a completely different location on the property.
I brought the wine as I had been instructed with only two glasses, the bottle completely covered with dirt, sand and cobwebs, plus a napkin with which to hold it -- my personal touch of elegance. Before telling me to open the bottle (he simply told me to wait there for a few minutes) he told them the story of the wine that was about to be served.
He began with a long, and highly inaccurate, account of the founding of the Prieure (in goo) by some order of monks who, among other things, like all monks, made wine. "These special monks; very intelligent. Monks like this no longer exist on earth. With such intelligence," he continued, "naturally such monk make also very wonderful wine."
He then said, with a quick, stern glance at me, as if to silence any possible laughter from me, "I have many projects, all very important, at Prieure. One project this year is excavation of old ruins." He then described, at great length, the number of people and the great energy involved in this project and how, miraculously, we had come across eleven bottles of wine. ..wine that had been made by these self-same intelligent monks. "Now come problem for me ... who I know worthy to drink such wine; wine that no longer exist anywhere in world except here at Prieure? This wine too good for me. I already ruin stomach with drinking Armagnac. Then I think of just you ladies, who, as if by Act of God, plan to visit me. J ust most suitable ladies to first taste this wine."
I was then ordered to open the bottle. I wrapped it in the napkin, uncorked it and poured a little of the "wine" into the two glasses. Gurdjieff watched me with great intensity, and when I passed the wine to the two ladies, he turned his equally intense attention to them; he appeared to be burning with anticipation, unable to wait for their reaction.
The ladies, properly impressed and suiting their actions to the momentous occasion, lifted their glasses gingerly in his direction and sipped, delicately. Gurdjieff was unable to restrain himself. "Tell!" he commanded them. "How taste this wine ?" The ladies, as if overcome, were momentarily unable to speak. At last, one of them, with half-closed eyes, murmured that it was "superb"; the other adding that she had never tasted anything to compare with it.
Puzzled, and embarrassed on their account, I started to leave the room but Gurdjieff stopped me with a firm gesture and indicated that I was to refill their glasses. I stayed with them until they had finished the bottle, with continued appropriate exclamations of rapture and ecstasy. He then told me to take the bottle and glasses, to prepare their rooms -- on the very same floor as his -- one room in which Napoleon had slept, the other having been occupied at some point by some King's mistress -- and to let him know when the rooms were ready.
The rooms, of course, had been ready that morning, but I laid fires in the fireplaces, waited a suitable time and then returned to his room. He told me to take them to their rooms, and then instructed them that they must rest after the experience of having tasted this marvellous wine, and must prepare for the feast of the evening -- a great feast which was being prepared, especially in their honour.
When I saw him later, alone, his only mention of the wine-drinking episode was to congratulate me on the appearance of the bottle. I gave him a significant, knowing look as if to tell him that I had understood what he was doing, and he said, rather seriously, but with a faint, mocking smile on his face : "Way you look, I know you already make judgment of this ladies; but remember what I tell before, necessary look all sides, all directions before make judgment. You not forget this."