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BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF

Chapter 24

THE TURKISH BATH consisted of three rooms, and a small furnace room in which Mr. Gurdjieff's brother, Drnitri, stoked the fires. The first room, into which one entered, was for dressing and undressing; the second room was a large, circular room, equipped with a shower and several water faucets, benches along all the walls, and a massage table in the centre of the room; the third room was the steam-room, with wooden benches on several levels.

In the first room there were two long rows of benches along one side of the room and opposite them a large, higher bench where Mr. Gurdjieff always sat, facing and looking down on the other men. Because of the number of men at the Prieure the first summer I was there, Mr. Gurdjieff had told Tom and myself to climb up on his bench behind him, where we would sit, peering over his shoulders at the assembled company. Any "important" guests always sat directly in front of him. Now, even though the baths were no longer crowded since there were not as many students at the Prieure since the reorganization of the school, Tom and I still occupied our places behind Mr. Gurdjieff; this had become a part of the ritual connected with the Saturday bathing.

Once we had all undressed, it was customary to spend about half an hour, most of the men smoking and talking, while Gurdjieff urged them to tell him stories; the stories, as at the swimming pool, were generally ribald or off-colour, at his insistence. Inevitably, before we proceeded to the steam-room, he would tell any newcomers a long, involved story about his exalted position as head of the Prieure, and founder of the Institute, and the story always included references to Tom and myself as his "Cherubim" and "Seraphim".

Conventionally, because of my preconceptions about death, and since Mme. Ostrovsky had died only about thirty-six hours previously, I expected the ritual of the bath that particular Saturday night to be a mournful and lugubrious one. I could not have been more mistaken. When I arrived at the bath that evening, somewhat later than most of the others, I found everyone still wearing their underwear and Mr. Gurdjieff and the Archbishop were involved in a lengthy argument about the problem of undressing. The Archbishop insisted that he could not take a Turkish bath with no covering of any kind, and refused to participate in the bath if the other men were to be completely naked. The argument must have gone on for about fifteen minutes after I arrived, and Gurdjieff seemed to be enjoying it immensely. He made numerous references to the Scriptures, and generally poked fun at the Archbishop's "false modesty". The Archbishop remained adamant, and someone was despatched back to the main house to find something we could all wear. Apparently, the problem had come up before, since the messenger returned with a large number of muslin breech-cloths which had been unearthed somewhere. We were all instructed to wear them, and to undress as modestly as possible. When we finally went into the steam-room, feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed in our unaccustomed attire, Gurdjieff, as if he now had the Archbishop at his mercy, gradually removed his breech-cloth, and one by one the rest of us did the same. The Archbishop made no further comments, but stubbornly kept his breech-cloth around his waist.

When we left the steam-room and went into the middle room to wash, Mr. Gurdjieff again directed a long harangue at the Archbishop. He said that not only was this partial clothing a form of false modesty but that it was psychologically and physically harmful; that ancient civilizations were aware that the most important cleansing rituals had to do with the so-called "private parts" of the body, which could not be properly cleaned if any garment was worn over them, and that, in fact, many religious ceremonies in former civilizations had stressed such cleanliness as a part of their religious and sacred rites. The result was a compromise: the Archbishop did not object to his arguments and agreed that we could do as we wished, but that he would not, and he did not, remove his covering.

After the bath, the argument continued in the first room, the dressing-room, during the "cooling-off" period which also lasted for about half an hour; Gurdjieff was determined about not venturing into the night air after a steam bath. A cold shower was essential, but cold air was forbidden. In the course of the discussion in the dressing-room, Mr. Gurdjieff brought up the question of funerals and said that one important measure of respect even for the dead was to attend their obsequies fully cleansed, in mind and body. His tone, which had been ribald in the beginning, serious in the washing room, had become conciliatory and persuasive and he reiterated that he had in no way intended to show disrespect to the Archbishop.

Whatever the differences between them, they apparently respected one another; at dinner, which was almost a banquet, the Archbishop turned out to be a convivial and well-mannered hard drinker, which pleased Mr. Gurdjieff, and they seemed to enjoy one another's company.

***

After dinner, although it was very late by that time, Mr. Gurdjieff had everyone assemble in the main salon and told us a long story about funeral customs in various civilizations. He said that since Mme. Ostrovsky wished it, she would have a proper funeral, as decreed by her Church, but he added that other customs which had existed in great civilizations in the distant past, civilizations that were literally unknown to modern man, were pertinent and important. He described one such funeral rite where it was the prevailing custom for all of the relatives and friends of the deceased to gather together for three days after the death of an individual. During this period they thought of, and told the assembled company, everything that had been considered an evil or harmful act --  in short, a sin -- that had been committed by the deceased during his or her lifetime; the purpose of this being to create opposition which would force the soul to fight its way out of the body of the deceased and make its way to another world.

During the funeral the following day, Mr. Gurdjieff remained silent and withdrawn from the rest of us, as if only his body were actually present among the mourners. He only intervened at one point in the ceremonies, at the moment when the body was to be removed from the study-house and placed on the hearse. At that moment, with the pall-bearers assembled, a woman who had been very close to his wife threw herself on the coffin, hysterically, literally wailing and sobbing with grief. Gurdjieff went over to her and removed her from the coffin, speaking to her quietly, and the funeral proceeded. We followed the coffin to the cemetery, on foot, and each one of us threw a small handful of earth on the coffin when it had been lowered into the open pit near the grave of his mother. After the services, Mr. Gurdjieff and all the rest of us paid our silent respects at the graves of his mother and of Katherine Mansfield, who was also buried there.  

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