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Chapter 36

My "OTHER WORK" consisted of several things: clearing various areas of the property of stinging nettles, which had to be done without wearing gloves; working, with one other person, on the construction of a stone house which had been partly built -- and never worked on -- ever since I had first been at the Prieure; and, to my amazement, helping in the translation of parts of Gurdjieff's book from a preliminary French translation into English.

After a few hours on the job of pulling out nettles, I soon learned that with care, by pulling them out by the roots and avoiding handling the stems or leaves, it was possible to uproot them without being painfully stung by them. I also learned, quite incidentally, that they could be used to make an excellent soup. In any case, as I was still pondering about the American lady's remarks about the value of work, the uprooting of nettles did seem to have practical value as well as whatever it might have been doing for my "inner being", since it eliminated weeds and also provided soup.

As to the building of the house, I was convinced that the lady was undoubtedly right -- no visible progress was made on the building so I assumed that all the progress was "spiritual". I was the helper on this job, and my "boss" decided that the first thing we were to do was to move an enormous pile of stone, located about fifty feet from the house, to an area next to it. The only sensible way to do this, he informed me, was for me to stand by the rock pile, throw individual rocks to him, and he would then throw them into a new pile near the building. When this was done, we would use the stones which had been moved to construct partitions or walls inside the building; the outer walls had been erected three or four years previously. I was warned that there was a definite rhythm to this rock throwing which had to be observed as it would make the work much less tiresome; also that in order to keep the proper rhythm it was necessary for us to sing. We only managed to sing and throw rocks for about two hours when my companion and "boss", distracted by something, failed to catch a rock that I had heaved in his direction, and was felled by it as it struck him on the temple.

I helped him to his feet and then walked with him as he more or less staggered in the direction of the main building, presumably to consult the doctor about the effect of this blow. Gurdjieff saw us at once as he was sitting in front of the terrace in one of his usual writing places, and when he heard what had happened, examined the man, pronounced him in no danger, but said that we were to discontinue working on that particular construction. With a rather amiable smile in my direction he told me that it was apparently impossible for me to be involved in any kind of work without causing trouble, and that I was a born troublemaker. Given some of my past experiences at the Prieure I took this to be, if not exactly a compliment, at least praise of a kind.

I was fascinated, however, with the work on his book. An Englishman had been assigned to make a rough, preliminary translation from the French version of the book, and my job was to listen to it and read it and to make suggestions as to vernacular and Americanisms that would correspond as closely as possible to the French version which I was also to read. The particular chapter was on the subject of the continent of Africa and dealt mainly with Gurdjieff's explanation of the origin of monkeys. [1]

What began to interest me much more that summer than any of my daytime tasks were the nightly readings of the sections of Gurdjieff's book, usually in Russian or French but sometimes in English -- depending upon the latest completed translations -- and Gurdjieff's comments on his aims and purposes. In the simplest terms, he would usually reduce what had been written in the chapter that had been read that evening (his comments always followed the readings) to a kind of synopsis or simplification of what he was trying to convey in writing.

I was particularly impressed by his statement that his purpose in writing this book was to destroy forever the habitual values and ideas of people, which prevented them from understanding reality or living according to "cosmic laws". He was then going to write additional books which would prepare the ground, as it were, for the acquisition of new understanding and new values. If, as I saw it, the existence of the Prieure had the same aim; to destroy existing values, then it was more comprehensible. If, as Gurdjieff had so often said, the world was "upside down" then perhaps there was a definite value in what he was apparently attempting to do at his school. It might be quite true, as the American lady had suggested to me, that one should not work for the immediate, obvious result of the particular work one was doing, but for the development of one's being. Even though I was not convinced that Gurdjieff had all the answers to the dilemma of human life -- as someone had called it -- it was certainly possible that he, as well as anyone else, might have them. What he did do was at least provocative, unpredictable, irritating and, usually, interesting enough to arouse questions, doubts, and controversies.

In the course of his talks and comments on his writings, he frequently digressed from the subject of whatever had been read, to talk in general terms about almost anything that either came to his mind, or might be brought up by one of the students. When someone, through some association with the chapter that had been read that evening, brought up the question of the worlds of east and west, and the lack of understanding between the oriental and the occidental mentalities, Gurdjieff talked at some length on the misunderstandings that were created in the world by this lack of understanding, saying that it was due, at least in part, to lack of energy in the east and lack of wisdom in the west. He predicted that a day would come when the eastern world would again rise to a position of world importance and become a threat to the momentarily all-powerful, all-influential new culture of the western world, which was dominated, according to him, by America -- a country that was very strong, to be sure, but also very young. He continued to say that one should look at the world in the same way that one looked at a man, or at oneself. Each individual was a world, of itself, and the globe -- the big world in which we all lived -- was, in a sense, only a reflection or an enlargement of the individual world in each one of us.

Among the purposes of all leaders, messiahs, messengers from the gods, and so forth, there was one fundamental and very important purpose: to find some means by which the two sides of man, and, therefore, the two sides of the earth, could live together in peace and harmony. He said that time was very short -- it was necessary to achieve this harmony as soon as possible to avoid complete disaster. Philosophies, religions and other such movements had all failed to accomplish this aim, and the only possible way to accomplish it was through the individual development of man. As an individual developed his own, unknown potentialities, he would become strong and would, in turn, influence many more people. If enough individuals could develop themselves -- even partially -- into genuine, natural men, able to use the real potentialities that were proper to mankind, each such individual would then be able to convince and win over as many as a hundred other men, who would, each in his turn, upon achieving development, be able to influence another hundred, and so on.

He added, grimly, that he was in no sense joking when he had said that time was short. Further, he said that history had already proven to us that such tools as politics, religion, and any other organized movements which treated man "in the mass" and not as individual beings, were failures. That they would always be failures and that the separate, distinct growth of each individual in the world was the only possible solution.

Whether one believed him whole-heartedly or not, he made a convincing and passionate case for the importance of individual development and growth.



1. Gurdjieff, G. I., All and Everything; (Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson; or an Impartial, Objective Criticism of Man). E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, N. Y.

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