BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
MY NEXT TEMPORARY job on a project was the repair of the study-house roof. The construction of the roof was a simple affair of beams placed in such a way that they formed a peaked roof, with about eight feet of air-space at the centre between the peak of the roof and the ceiling. The beams were at intervals of about one yard -- lengthwise and crosswise -- and were covered with tar-paper which had begun to leak in various places. The job turned out to be exciting and rather perilous. We mounted the roof on ladders and from then on it was necessary to walk only on the beams, of course. It was also necessary to bring rolls of tar paper and pails or buckets of hot tar with us up the ladders. After a few days of walking on four or six-inch beams we became reasonably proficient at this work and even made a sort of test of skills out of racing along the beams carrying a bucket of hot tar, or balancing a roll of tar paper on our shoulders.
One young American who was making his first visit to the Prieure, and who was not only aggressive and very competitive but who also thought that everything at the Prieure was, as he put it, "a bunch of nonsense", was determined to be more daring, more skilful and more foolhardy than anyone else. After about one week, he had manifested his superior agility to the point where none of us even attempted to compete with him. Even so, he seemed unable to stop showing off and continued to demonstrate his superiority over all the rest of us. His performance began to irritate all of us and to make us nervous; we did not go so far as to hope that he would have an accident -- any accident could have been very serious as it was a high roof -- but we did begin to long for something to happen that would bring an end to this exhibition of bravado.
The end did come, sooner than we had anticipated, and in a much more spectacular way. Later, it seemed inevitable that he would, of course, have been carrying a pail of boiling tar when he did make a false step on to the unsupported tar paper and fall through the roof. The only thing that saved him from very serious injury was that he had fallen just over the small balcony so that he did not actually fall more than about fifteen feet. However, what made the fall a brutal and painful one was that he did not let go of the bucket of tar and was not wearing a shirt at the time. One whole side of his body was very badly burned and covered with hot tar.
As the boiling tar had also flowed down inside his trousers, it was almost impossible for him to walk, so we moved him to a place in the shade while someone raced for Gurdjieff and the doctor. The only remedy -- or, in any case, the remedy that was used -- was to remove the tar from his body with gasoline, which took more than an hour, and which must have been almost unimaginably painful. The young man appeared to have tremendous endurance and courage, and submitted to this ordeal without flinching, but when it was over and he had been properly bandaged, Gurdjieff lashed into him in a great fury for his stupidity. He defended himself valiantly but without making much sense; the argument turned into a stream of invective against Gurdjieff and his ridiculous school, and ended with Gurdjieff ordering him to leave as soon as he was well enough.
While I could not help but feel great sympathy for the American, I did feel that Gurdjieff was completely right, although to revile the young man at that particular time had seemed unnecessarily cruel. I was very surprised when Gurdjieff, the following day, unexpectedly called to me when I was returning from work in the evening and, unpredictable as always, complimented me on my good work on the roof and gave me a large sum of money. I said that I had to admit, in all honesty, that since I was the only person working on the roof who was not a full-grown man, I had done considerably less work than anyone else and did not feel that I should be rewarded.
He gave me an odd smile, insisted that I take the money, and said that he was rewarding me for not having fallen through the roof or otherwise injured myself while I worked on it. He then said that he was giving me the money on the condition that I think of something to do with it for all the rest of the children -- something that would be valuable for all of them. I left him, pleased with all the money I had in my pockets, but extremely puzzled as to what I could do with the money that would be valuable for all the other children.
After thinking about the problem for two days, I finally decided to share it with them, although not quite equally. I kept a larger share for myself since I was the one who had, for whatever odd reasons, "earned" it.
Gurdjieff did not wait for me to tell him about what I had done, but sent for me and asked me, as if he was especially interested. When I told him, he was furious with me. He shouted at me, told me that I had not used my imagination, that I had not thought about it, and that I had not finally done anything valuable for them; also why had I kept a larger share for myself?
I said, calmly enough, that I had come to realize that nothing at the Prieure was predictable and that he had made it clear to me often enough that things were never "what they seemed" to be. I maintained firmly that I had only emulated him. By giving me this totally unexpected large sum of money, he had, along with it, given me a condition and a problem concerning its disposition. Since I had been unable to think of anything "valuable" to do with the money, all I could do was to pass the problem along to the other children -- my injunction to them being that they had to do something valuable with it for themselves. As to why I had kept a larger sum for myself, I said that I felt I deserved the larger sum because it was thanks to me that they had the opportunity to make this important decision about the value of money.
Although he had listened to me without interruption, his anger had not abated and he said that I was behaving like a "big-shot" and that he was extremely disappointed in me ; that I had failed him.
To my own surprise, I stood my ground and said that if I was behaving like a "big-shot" it was because I had many examples of such behaviour to emulate, and that if he was disappointed in me he should remember that it was he who had told me, repeatedly, that one should learn never to be disappointed in anyone, and that, again, I was only following his advice and his example.
Although he told me then that I was, as usual, "sinning against my God" by talking to him in this way, he asked me what I was going to do with the money that I had kept for myself. I said that it was only possible either to spend money or to save it. That, for the time being, I was going to save it since I was clothed, fed and housed and did not need to spend it, but that I would spend it when I found something that I needed -- or wanted -- to buy.
He looked at me in disgust, remarking that what I had said indicated that I had typical middle-class morals and that I had not learned anything at all from him during the time that I had been at the Prieure. I replied, rather hotly, that I was fully aware of those possibilities and that, as to learning, when I looked around me at his other students, I was not convinced that anyone else was learning anything either; that, in fact, I was not sure that there was anything to learn there.
Quite calm by this time, he said that I failed to realize that the value of the Prieure was not necessarily obvious, and that time would tell whether anyone learned anything by being there. Then, for the second time, he said that it was useless to continue talking to me and added that I was not to continue my work on the roof of the study-house but that I would be assigned to other work.