BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
WE LEFT THE Prieure in October, 1924, to return to New York for the winter. I was part of a rather "unusual family group" at that time. My brother, Tom, and I lived in a strange, errant world for several years. My mother, Lois, had divorced my father when I was about eighteen months old; we had had a stepfather for several years, but in 1923, when my mother was hospitalized for about a year, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson (Margaret is my mother's sister), co-editors of the notorious, if not famous, Little Review, had taken charge of us both. To this day, I am not at all sure that I understand why Margaret and Jane took on this responsibility. It was as a strange form of "planned parenthood" for two women neither of whom, it seemed to me, would have wished for children of their own, and a mixed blessing from any point of view. As Margaret had not returned from France with us, the real responsibility devolved on Jane.
I can only describe our household as it seemed to me at the time: Tom and I went to a private school in New York; we also had various chores at home, helping with the cooking, dishwashing, and so on, and while we were exposed to many unusual influences and experiences, they had less effect on me, at any rate, than might have been expected. In a household, if that is the proper word, where a magazine was edited, and which was visited exclusively by artists, writers, and -- for want of a better word -- intellectuals, I managed to live in my own private world. The daily routine of school was considerably more important to me -- involving, as it naturally did, other children and ordinary, comprehensible activities -- than the temperamental and "interesting" life which, actually, formed our background. The world of the arts was no substitute for childhood; even family life with my mother and stepfather was more "normal" to me than living in New York away from my family, which, basically, revolved around my mother.
The most important exterior event of that winter was the sudden appearance of my father. Jane had decided, for reasons which I have never fully understood, that she (or perhaps she and Margaret) should adopt Tom and myself legally. The adoption proceedings were the reason that my father came back into the picture after a complete absence of some ten years. At first, he did not actually appear in person. We were simply told that he was going to resist the adoption and that he wanted to assume custody of both of us himself,
As I understood it at the time, Jane, aided by A, R. Orage and others who were "Gurdjieff people", and after consulting both of us, was able to talk my father out of this, and the adoption became a legal fact.
In many ways, it was a terrifying winter for me. I think it is probably impossible for any adult to understand the feelings of a child who is told, in perfectly clear language, that he may or may not be adopted by this or that person. I do not believe that children, when they are consulted about such things, have "opinions" -- they naturally cling to the known, relatively safe, situation. My relationship with Jane, as I felt and experienced it, was highly volatile and explosive. There was, at times, a great deal of emotion, of love, between us, but the very emotionality of the relationship frightened me. More and more I tended to shut out everything that was outside of myself. People, for me, were something I had to exist with, had to bear. As much as possible, I lived alone, day -dreaming in my own world, longing for the time when I could escape from the complex, and often totally incomprehensible, world around me. I wanted to grow up and be alone -- away from all of them. Because of this, I was almost always in trouble. I was lazy about my work at home, I resented any demands that were made on me, and any duties that I was supposed to perform, any contribution I was expected to make. Obstinate and independent because of my feeling of aloneness, I was usually in trouble, frequently punished. That winter, I began, slowly at first, but firmly, to despise my surroundings, and to hate Jane and Tom-mostly because they were there, and a part of the life in which I lived. I worked well at school, but because it was easy for me, I had little real interest in what I was doing, More and more, I retreated into a dreamworld of my own making.
In this world of my own, there were two people who were not enemies, who stood out with the brilliance of lighthouses, and yet there was no way that I could communicate with them. They were my mother and, of course, Gurdjieff. Why "of course"? The simple reality of Gurdjieff as a human being -- the, to me, uncomplicated relationship which I had had with him during those few months in the previous summer -- became like a raft to a drowning man.
When I was consulted about the possibility of being "taken over" by my father (who was simply another hostile adult in my mind) I voiced my opposition loudly, not that I expected my voice to have any weight. My main fear was that I did not feel I could face another new, strange, unknown world. Also, and this was very important to me then, such a change in my existence would, I felt sure, preclude any possibility of my ever seeing either Gurdjieff or my mother again.
To complicate matters even further, my mother arrived in New York, with a man who was not my stepfather, and she was summarily dismissed by Jane. I remember being allowed to speak to her on the stairs of the apartment; no more than that. It is impossible for me, now, to judge Jane's motives or her purpose at that time. I am convinced that she was motivated, in her own mind, by the best of intentions. The result was that I thought of her at that moment as my mortal enemy. The link between the average child and his mother -- especially when that mother has been the only parent for many years -- is, I think, strong enough. In my case it was violent and obsessive.
Matters did not improve when, shortly before Christmas, my father made his actual, physical appearance. It was a difficult, uneasy meeting; there was very little communication -- I speak for myself alone -- with him, He did not know how to communicate without self-consciousness, being a shy and "well-brought-up" man. One thing that he did manage to communicate was that before we made any final decision about the adoption (I had been under the impression for some time that it was final and that he had been disposed of as a threat) he would like Tom and me to spend a weekend with him and his wife.
I felt that it was only fair to give him a trial. If this statement seems cold- blooded, I can only say that most childish decisions are, in that sense, "cold-blooded" and logical -- at least mine were. It was decided, presumably by Jane and my father (and agreed to by Tom and myself), that we would go to visit him on Long Island for a week.
The visit, from my point of view, was a disaster. It might have been less calamitous had my father not announced, almost immediately upon our arrival, that in the event we should decide to come to live with him, we would not be able to live in his house, we would be sent to live in Washington, D.C., with two of his maiden aunts. I suppose that it is inevitable that adults must explain to children the actual facts or circumstances which are facing them. However, this announcement, made without any feeling, any emotion (there was no suggestion that he loved or wanted us, or that the aunts in question needed two young boys in their household), seemed both completely illogical and even, finally, hilarious to me. I began to feel even more alone than I had before -- like a piece of unwanted luggage for which storage space was needed. Since my gentle father constantly seemed to be seeking our approval and asking us questions, I stated firmly after two days at his house that I did not want to live with him or his aunts and that I wanted to go back to New York. Tom stayed for the balance of the week; I did not. However, the condition of my leaving was that I should at least consider coming out to Long Island again, for Christmas. I agreed, coldly, to consider it. I may have -- I do not remember now -- agreed without any reservation. I would have done anything to get away. Even Jane, in spite of her rejection of my mother, was familiar ground; and what I feared was the unfamiliar, the unknown.
Somehow, the winter did pass. Somehow, although I frequently had nightmares about the possibility that I would never see the Prieure again, it was decided -- it was actually true -- that we would return the next Spring. Gurdjieiff, by this time, had become the only beacon on the horizon, the only island of safety in a fearful and unpredictable future.
During that winter, Gurdjieff's first question to me: "Why had I come to Fontainebleau" assumed tremendous importance. Retrospectively, in those few months, he assumed great stature in my heart and in my mind. Unlike any other adult I had ever known, he made absolute sense. He was completely positive -- he had ordered me to do things and I had done them. He had not questioned me, forced me to make decisions which I was completely unable to make. I began to long for someone who would do something as simple as to "order" me to mow a lawn -- -make a demand on me that was, however incomprehensible his motives might be (after all, every adult was "incomprehensible"), a demand. I began to think of him as the only logical, grown-up individual I had ever known. As a child, I was not concerned with -- in fact, I did not want to know -- why any adult did anything. I needed, desperately, and wanted above everything else, an authority. And an authority, at my age, was anyone who knew what he was doing. To be consulted, at eleven; to be asked to make vital decisions about my own future -- and that seemed to me to have been going on all winter -- was not only impossible to understand, but very frightening.
His question evolved into "Why' did I want to go back to Fontainebleau" and was not difficult to answer." I wanted to go back and live near a human being who knew what he was doing -- whether or not I understood what he was doing was of no importance whatsoever. I did not, however, dismiss the original wording of the question -- one of the reasons it remained alive in my mind was that I had had nothing, directly, to do with going there in the first place. I could only thank whatever force (the idea of "God" was rather vague to me then) had made it possible for me to be there at all. One year earlier, the most attractive thing about going to Fontainebeau was that I would have to cross the ocean to get there, and I loved boats.
In the course of the winter, and because of the importance Gurdjieff had assumed in my mind, I was greatly tempted by the feeling that my presence there had been "inevitable" -- as if there had been some inexplicable, mystical, logic that had made it necessary for me, personally, to arrive at that particular place at that particular time -- that there had been some real purpose in my having gone there. The fact that Gurdjieff was primarily associated -- in the conversation of most of the adults surrounding me at the time -- with metaphysical activities, religion, philosophy, and mysticism, seemed to increase the possibility of some sort of foreordination in our meeting.
But in the long run, I did not succumb to the idea that my association with him was "predestined". It was my memory of Mr. Gurdjieff himself that prevented me from giving in to such daydreams. I was in no position to deny the possibility that he was clairvoyant, mystical, a hypnotist, even a "divinity". The important thing was that none of those things mattered. What did matter about him was that he was a positive, practical, sensible, logical human being. In my small mind, the Prieure seemed the most sensible institution in the entire world. It consisted, as I saw it, of a place which housed a large number of people who were extremely busy doing the necessary physical work to keep it going. What could have been simpler and what could have made more practical sense? I was aware that, at least by repute, there were probably other benefits that could accrue from being there. But at my age, and in my terms, there was simply one aim, and a very simple one at that. To be like Gurdjieff. He was strong, honest, direct, uncomplicated -- an entirely "no-nonsense" individual. I could remember, quite honestly, that I had been terrified of the work involved in mowing the lawns; it was equally apparent to me that one of the reasons for my terror was that I was lazy. Gurdjieff made me mow the lawns. He did not do this by threats, promises of rewards, or by asking me. He told me to mow the lawns. He told me it was important. I did it. One obvious result, obvious to me at eleven years of age, was that work -- just plain ordinary physical work -- lost a great deal of its horror for me. I also understood, although perhaps not intellectually, why I had not had to scythe the hill -- why I had, as he had said, "already done it".
The total effect of the winter of 1924-25 in New York was to make me long to go back to France. The first visit there had "happened", the result of an aimless, unconnected, chain of events which had depended on my mother's divorce, her illness, the existence of Margaret and Jane and their interest in us. The return, in the spring of 1925, did seem to be foreordained. My feeling was that, if necessary, I would get there alone.
My disenchantment with, and lack of understanding of, the adult world had come to a kind of climax at Christmas-time, I became (I am describing my feelings) something like a bone fought over by two dogs. The contest of wills, since my mother had been eliminated as a contender, for the custody of Tom and myself, was still waging between Jane and my father. I feel sure, now, that it was a "face-saving" operation on both sides; I cannot believe that either side wanted us for our special value -- I was certainly behaving badly enough not to be particularly desirable at the time. In any case, I had agreed, or at least agreed to consider, to visit my father at Christmas. When the time for the actual decision arrived, I refused. Jane's counter-offer of an "adult" Christmas -- glamorous, with parties, visits to the theatre, and so forth, was my ostensible and handy reason for refusing to visit my father. My real reason, however, remained what it had always been: Jane, however impossible our relationship might seem to me, was the passport to Gurdjieff, and I did my best to achieve some sort of harmony with her. On her side, since she was neither infallible nor inhuman, my decision -- indicating an apparent preference for her -- pleased her.
My father was very unhappy. I could not understand why, since I had been told that the decision was mine to make. He arrived in New York to pick up Tom -- who had agreed to spend Christmas with him -- and brought with him several large boxes of presents for me. I was embarrassed by the presents, but when he also asked me -- and it seemed to me used the presents as bait -- to reconsider, I was wounded and furious. I felt that the unfairness, the lack of "justice" in the adult world, was synthesized by this act. I told him, raging at him in tears, that I could not be bought and that I would always hate him for what he was doing to me.
For the sake of the memory of my father, I would like to digress just long enough to say that I am fully conscious of his good intentions, and that I appreciate the horrible emotional shock he received from me at the time. What was sad, perhaps even heart-breaking for him, was that he had no conception of what was really happening. In his world, children did not reject their parents.
The winter did end, finally, although I still think of it as interminable. But it did end, and with the spring, my longing for the Prieure intensified. It was not until we were actually on a ship bound for France that I believed I would really get back. And it was not until I went through the gate of the Prieure once more that I was able to stop dreaming, believing and hoping.
When I saw him again, Gurdjieff put his hand on my head, and I looked up at his fierce moustaches, the broad, open smile underneath the shining, bald head. Like some large, warm animal, he pulled me to his side, squeezing me affectionately with his arm and hand, and said: "So ...you 'come back?" It was phrased as a question, something a little more than a statement of fact. All I was able to do was to nod my head against him and contain my explosive happiness.