BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
SHORTLY AFTER MADAME OSTROVSKY'S death, the atmosphere at the Prieure seemed to change; part of it was definitely due to her death (Gurdjieff, for example, was living with a woman who became pregnant a few months later); part of it was simply because I was, inevitably, growing up. Questions that had not occurred to me previously loomed in my mind. What was I doing in such a place, what was the purpose of the school, what sort of a man, after all, was Gurdjieff?
I suppose that early adolescence is a "normal" time in which a child begins to evaluate his surroundings, his parents, the people around him. It was easy enough for me to answer my questions concerning why I was there: the aimless, haphazard series of events that had led me there was fresh in my mind. But, by this time, the question of whether or not I wanted to be there became a different one. Up to that time I had had no control over the course my life had taken; nor had it occurred to me that I could have had any influence in determining that course. At thirteen, I still had no voice and no power over my "destiny" or my future, but I did have questions about them.
In the course of the comings and goings of all types of people at the Prieure -- visitors, semi-permanent residents -- there were always discussions about Gurdjieff, about the purpose and/or value of his work. There were a great many "students" who left the Prieure under more or less violent emotional circumstances: sometimes because Gurdjieff did not want them there, sometimes because of their own attitudes and feelings about him as a man.
During the two years that I had been there, I had been aware of, and had certainly subscribed to, the feeling and the belief that Gurdjieff could do no wrong; that whatever he did was purposeful, necessary, important, "right". I had not, up to then, needed to make any decisions about him on my own. But a time came when I began to look at him against my own background, with my own unconsciously acquired values, and to make some attempt to evaluate the man, the students, the school. A great number of questions, mostly unanswerable, arose.
What was the power of this man whose word was law, who knew more than anyone else, who held absolute sway over his "disciples"? There was no question in my mind about my personal relationship to him. I loved him, he had taken the place of my parents and he had unquestioned authority over me and devoted loyalty and affection from me. Even so, it was obvious that much of his effect on me, and his power over me, was due to the feelings of others -- generally feelings of reverence and respect -- and to my natural desire to conform. On the other hand, my personal feelings of awe and respect were less important than my fear of him. The fear had become unquestionably genuine the more I came to know him.
It had been impressive, enlightening and even amusing to watch him, at close range, when he reduced people to a pulp, as he had done in the case of Mr. Orage, in my presence. But was it not also significant that Mr. Orage had left the Prieure shortly after that and had not returned ? I had been told that he was teaching the Gurdjieff "work" in New York since that time, and it may have been that whatever Gurdjieff had done to Mr. Orage had been necessary; but, finally, who was to determine that?
Gurdjieff himself was no help. One of the unforgettable things he had said, and he had repeated it many times, was that what he called the "good" and "evil" in man grew together, equally; that man's potentiality to become either an "angel" or a "devil" was always equal. While he had spoken, frequently, of the necessity to create or acquire a "reconciling force" within oneself in order to deal with the "positive" and "negative" or "good" and "evil" sides of one's nature, he had also stated that the struggle, or "war", was never-ending; that the more one learned, the more difficult life would, inevitably, become. The prospect seemed to be one of "the more you learn the harder it will get." When he was countered, occasionally, with protests against this rather grim outlook on the future, he seemed invariably to answer with the more or less irrefutable statement that we -- individually, or as a group -- were unable to think clearly, were not sufficiently adult or grown -- up to judge whether or not this was a proper and realistic future for man; whereas, he knew what he was talking about. I had no arguments with which I could defend the charge of incompetency against me; but I had no absolutely acceptable proof of his competence, either. His force, magnetism, power, ability, and even wisdom, were, perhaps, undeniable. But did the combination of these attributes, or qualities, create, automatically, the quality of competent judgment?
It is a waste of time to argue or to do battle with people who are convinced. The people who were interested in Gurdjieff always ended up in one of two categories: they were either for him or against him; they either stayed at the Prieure, or continued to attend his "groups" in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere, because they were at least reasonably convinced that he had some kind of an answer; or else they left him and his "work" bec3use they were convinced that he was a charlatan, or a devil, or -- more simply -- that he was wrong.
Given the goodwill of his auditors, he was incredibly convincing. His presence and his physical magnetism were undeniable and generally overwhelming. His logic -- in practical ways -- was impossible to refute, and never coloured or distorted by emotion; in that respect, in the purely ordinary problems of life, there was no question but that he played fair . He was a considerate and thoughtful judge in dealing with questions or disputes which arose in the course of running an establishment such as the Prieure; it would have been ridiculous, and illogical, to argue with him or to call him unfair.
However, going back in my own mind at that age to such things as my various experiences with Miss Madison, what had he done to her? What was the effect on her when he rewarded all those who had defied her orders? Why had he put her in that position of authority? Of course, Miss Madison was physically present as an answer to those questions. She seemed to have become that much more a follower, that much more a devoted disciple, and apparently did not question what he had done to her. But was that, in the long run, any answer? Was it, perhaps, merely proof that Miss Madison was overpowered by his magnetism, his positive force?
I had the feeling then -- and I have no valid reason to change that feeling or opinion almost forty years later -- that he was perhaps searching for some individual or some force that could or would oppose him effectively. There were certainly no such opponents at the Prieure. Even at that age, I began to have a certain contempt for the abject devotion of his adherents or "disciples". They spoke of him in hushed tones; when they did not understand a particular statement he had made, or something he had done, they blamed themselves, far too readily for my taste, for their lack of insight; in short, they worshipped him. The atmosphere that is created, somehow, by a group of people who "worship" an individual or a philosophy seemed then -- and still seems now -- to carry the seed of its own destruction with it; it certainly lends itself to ridicule. What was perplexing to me was Gurdjieff's own ridicule of his more convinced and devout followers ( witness the case of the ladies and the "famous old wine"). In my childlike, simple way, I felt that he was likely to do anything at all -- at the expense of anyone -- for "fun" ; to see what, if anything, was going to happen.
In my opinion he not only played games with his students, but the games were always "loaded" in his favour; he was playing against people he had called "sheep" to their faces ; people who, in addition, accepted the term without protest. Among the devout there were a few who fenced with him verbally, but, in the long run, they seemed to be the ones who were the most "possessed" or "convinced" ; daring to joke with him became proof of a certain intimacy with him -- a privilege accorded to them because of their total agreement with his ideas -- and in no sense an indication of rebellion. The rebellious did not stay at the Prieure to exchange banter, and they were not permitted to stay to challenge or oppose him; the "philosophical dictatorship" brooked no opposition.
What began to obsess me, at thirteen, was a serious and, to me at least, a dangerous question. What was I dealing with? I did not mind the fact that he was perhaps making as much of a fool of me as he seemed to be making of others; I didn't know whether he was or not. But, if he was, I wanted to know why. I could not deny that it was amusing to me, as a child, to see Gurdjieff "expose" adults, to make fun of them, but did it serve any constructive purpose?
Even at that age I was somehow conscious that evil could, conceivably, produce good. When Gurdjieff would speak of "objective" morality and "subjective" morality, I was not left entirely in the dark. In the simplest sense it seemed to mean that custom governed subjective morality, whereas what Gurdjieff called "objective morality" was a matter of natural instinct and individual conscience. In discussing morality, he recommended living in accordance with the particular moral customs and habits of the society in which one lived -- he was very fond of the phrase "When you live in Rome, live as the Romans do" -- but he stressed the necessity of an individual, objective, personal "morality", based on conscience, rather than tradition, custom, or law. Marriage was a good example of a subjective moral custom; objectively, neither nature nor individual morality required such a sacrament.
I did not feel especially confused when I learned that the title of Gurdjieff's first book was "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson" or " An Impartial, Objective Criticism of Man". The idea that the devil -- or Beelzebub -- was the critic did not appall me. When Gurdjieff stated that Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, and other such prophets, were "messengers from the gods" who had, finally, failed, I could accept the implicit theory that perhaps it was time to give the devil his chance. I did not, as an adolescent, have such a good opinion of the world that I found it difficult to accept Gurdjieff's verdict that it was "all mixed up" or "upside down" or, in my own translation of his terms, a general mess. But if the mentioned prophets had, for some reason, "failed", was there any assurance, then, that Gurdjieff (or Beelzebub) was going to succeed?
Fail or succeed at what? I could accept the theory that there was something "wrong" with humanity, but I resisted the statement, on the part of an individual, that he knew exactly what was "wrong". Also, acceptance is not conviction, and in order to discuss seriously a cure it seemed to me logical that one would have to be convinced that the illness existed. Was I, then, going to be forced to form an opinion about the "condition of man" -- to make a diagnosis? I was not equipped to do so, but I was not averse to making an attempt in that direction. The only answer that I could find was, of course, no answer at all.
All these speculations led back, inevitably, to Gurdjieff, the man. When he prescribed an exercise, such as "self-observation", with the avowed aim of getting to "know oneself", I had no argument with him and he had the weight of all organized religion behind him as he had pointed out. Perhaps the difference lay in the particular method, and I was in no position to judge the merits of his methods. The aim, however, was not a new one.
If I was to accept the premise that man is inferior to nature -- and I was in no position to deny it -- then I was immediately forced to consider the possibility that Gurdjieff, being a man, did not necessarily have all the answers -- assuming that there are any. His philosophy, as I understood it at that age, was unquestionably attractive. Was it anything more than that? All "mystical" ideas are attractive to the inquisitive for the perfectly simple reason that they are mystical or, in some way, mysterious.
Such questions are troubling; they can threaten the self-confidence, the "raison-d'etre", of a human being completely. My doubts and questions were like a nest of concentric circles -- the very reason for life itself, for human existence, seemed to boil down to whether or not I could or would accept Gurdjieff as the man who held the key. The simple fact of living in his presence had made it impossible for me to retreat (which is not necessarily the proper word) into any "belief" or "faith" in any other existing religion or theory of life. I was attracted by his repudiation of organized activity -- whether religious, philosophical, or even practical, I was further attracted by his seeming support of individual truth, or action. But what was terrifying was the inevitable concept of the uselessness of human life -- individual or collective. The story of the acorns on the oak tree had impressed me as a child. The concept of human life as simply another form of organism -- which might or might not develop -- was new to me. But was Gurdjieff's work, actually, the proper means by which to grow into an "oak"? Was I, finally, dealing with the devil? Whoever he was, I liked him; I was certainly smitten with him. Even so, it remains significant that my only serious attempt at suicide occurred that year. I was tortured by the questions that did not cease to torment me -- tortured to the point that I could not continue to ask them of myself, relentlessly, without finding some sort of answer. Obviously, to me, the only person who might have the answer was Gurdjieff himself, and since he was also, in all probability', the villain, I could not ask him directly. What I did was to drink a small bottle of wood alcohol. On the face of it, this was not a very determined effort, but I intended it seriously -- the bottle '''as marked "Poison" and I believed it. The results of the attempt were not particularly dramatic. I became sick to my stomach, and did not even have to take an emetic.
The attempt was made at night, and when I saw Gurdjieff the following morning, when bringing him his customary coffee, he took one quick look at me and asked me what was wrong. I told him what I had done and also, rather shame-facedly, about my immediate physical reaction of sickness. At that moment I no longer cared whether he was the devil or not. His only comment was that in order to commit suicide successfully the effort had to be whole-hearted. He did not ask me why I had done it, and I remember having the curious sensation that as we faced each other that morning we were being completely, dispassionately honest with one another.