BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
THE SECOND SUMMER -- the summer of 1925 -- was a homecoming. I found, as I had dreamed I would, that nothing, essentially, had changed. There were some people missing from the summer before, and some new people, but the comings and goings of individuals were of little importance. Once again, I was absorbed into the place, becoming a cog in the functioning of the school. With the exception of the mowing of the lawns, which had become some other person's task, I went back to the customary, routine chores, along with everyone else.
The great security of the Institute for a child, as opposed to the usual boarding school, for example, was the immediate feeling of belonging. It may be true that the purpose of working with other people in the maintenance of the school proper -- which is what all our tasks amounted to -- had a higher aim. On my level, they made me feel that I, however unimportant I might be as an individual, was one of the small, essential links that kept the school going. It gave each of us a feeling of value -- of worth; I find it hard now to imagine any single thing that would be more encouraging to the ego of a child. We all felt that we had a place in the world -- we were needed for the simple reason that we performed functions that had to be performed. We did not just do anything, such as study for our own benefit. We did things that had to be done for the general welfare.
In the usual sense, we had no lessons, we did not "learn" anything at all. However, we did learn to do our own washing and ironing, to cook, to milk, to chop wood, to scrape and polish floors, to paint houses, to repair roofs, to mend our clothing, to take care of animals; all these things in addition to working, in large groups, on the customary major projects: road-building, clearing wooded areas, planting and harvesting, etc.
There were two major changes at the Institute that summer, although they were not immediately apparent to me. Gurdjieff's mother had died during the winter, which had made a subtle, emotional change in the feeling of the place -- she had never taken an active part in the running of the school, but we had all been aware of her presence -- and, much more important, Gurdjieff had begun to write.
I had only been there about a month, when it was announced that a complete reorganization was to be made in the way the Institute was to function and, alarming to everyone, it was also announced that for various reasons, mostly because Gurdjieff would no longer have the time or energy to supervise his students personally, not everyone would be allowed to stay on. We were also told that, in a period of the two or three days following this announcement, Gurdjieff would interview every student personally and decide whether or not they would be allowed to stay on and, if so, what they would do.
The general reaction was to drop everything, and wait until each person's individual fate had been decided. After breakfast the following morning, the buildings echoed with gossip and speculation; everyone expressed his or her doubts and fears about the future. To many of the older students, the announcement seemed to mean that the school would no longer have value for them since Gurdjieff's energies would be concentrated on his writing and not on individual teaching. The speculation and the expression of fears made me nervous. Since I had no conception of what Gurdjieff might decide about my personal fate, I found it simpler to go on with my particular job of the moment -- working in the clearing, removing tree stumps. Several of us had been assigned to this work, but only one or two of us went to work that morning. By the end of the day, there had been a good many interviews, and a number of students had been told to leave.
The following day, I went to my work as usual, but when I was going to return to work after lunch, my turn for an interview came.
Gurdjieff was sitting out of doors, on a bench near the main building, and I went to sit next to him. He looked at me as if surprised to find that I existed. He asked me what I had been doing, and, more particularly, what I had done since the announcements had been made. I told him, and he then asked me if I wanted to stay on at the Prieure. I said, of course, that I did. He said, very simply, that he was glad I did because he had new work for me. Beginning the following day, I was to take care of his personal quarters -- his room, dressing-room, and bathroom. He handed me a key, impressing upon me firmly that I was the only one -- other than himself -- who had a key, and he explained that I would have to make his bed sweep, clean, dust, polish, wash, and generally maintain order when the weather required. I would be responsible for making fires and keeping them going; an additional responsibility was that I would also be required to be his "server" or "waiter" -- which meant that if he wanted coffee, liquor, food or anything, brought to him at any hour of the day or night, I was to bring it. For this reason, he explained, a buzzer would be installed in my room.
He also explained that I would not participate in general projects any longer, but that my additional chores would include the usual work in the kitchen and concierge except that I would be relieved of these duties long enough to perform my housekeeping chores. One other piece of new work was that I was to take care of the chicken yard -- feed the chickens, collect the eggs, slaughter the chickens and/or ducks when required, etc.
I was very proud to have been selected as his "care-taker", and he smiled at my joyful reaction. He informed me, very seriously, that my selection had been made on the spur of the moment -- he had dismissed a student who had already been doing this work, and when I had appeared to be interviewed, he had realized that I was not essential in any other general function and was available for this work. I felt somewhat ashamed of my pride, but was no less happy for that, I still felt that it was an honour.
At first, I had no more contact with Gurdjieff than I had before. In the early morning, I would release the chickens from their coops, feed them and collect the eggs and bring them to the kitchen. By that time, Gurdjieff was usually ready for his morning coffee, after which he dressed and went to sit at one of the small tables near the terrace where he would spend the morning writing. During that time, I cleaned the room. This took a fairly long time. The bed was enormous and always in great disorder. As for the bathroom! What he could do to his dressing-room and bathroom is something that cannot be described without invading his privacy; I will only say that, physically, Mr. Gurdjieff, at least so I gathered, lived like an animal. The mere cleaning of these two rooms was a major project every day. The disorder was frequently so great that I had visions of great, hygienic dramas transpiring nightly in the dressing-room and bathroom. I often felt that he had some conscious aim to destroy these rooms. There were times when I would have to use a ladder to clean the walls.
It was not until later that summer that my care-taking chores began to assume really major proportions. Because of his writing, there were many more visitors to his room -- people who were working on immediate translations of his books -- as he wrote them -- into French, English, Russian, and possibly other languages. I understood that the original was in a combination of Armenian and Russian; as he said that he could not find any single language which gave him sufficient freedom of expression for his complicated ideas and theories. My additional work was mostly in the form of "serving" -- everyone who interviewed him did so in his room. This meant the serving of coffee and Armagnac,, and also meant that the room would have to be at least straightened up after these conferences. Gurdjieff preferred to go to bed during such meetings. In fact, unless he was entering or leaving the room, I hardly remember ever seeing him in his room when he was not in the great bed, lying in state. Even the drinking of coffee could produce a holocaust -- there would be coffee all over the room and usually in the bed, which, of course, would have to be re-made with fresh linen each time.
There were rumours at the time, and I am in no position to deny them, that a great deal more went on in his rooms other than drinking coffee and Armagnac. The normal state of his rooms after one night indicated that almost any human activity could have taken place there the night before. There is no doubt that his rooms were lived in, in the fullest sense of the word.
I have never forgotten the first time that I was involved in an incident in his room that was something more than the usual performance of my housekeeping chores. He had a distinguished visitor that day -- A. R. Orage -- a man who was well-known to all of us, and accepted as an accredited teacher of Gurdjieffian theory. After luncheon that day, the two of them retired to Gurdjieff's room, and I was summoned to deliver the usual coffee. Orage's stature was such that we all treated him with great respect. There was no doubt of his intelligence, his dedication, his integrity. In addition, he was a warm, compassionate man for whom I had great personal affection.
When I reached the doorway of Gurdjieff's room with a tray of coffee and brandy, I hesitated, appalled at the violent sounds of furious screaming -- Gurdjieff's voice -- from within. I knocked and, receiving no reply, entered. Gurdjieff was standing by his bed in a state of what seemed to me to be completely uncontrolled fury. He was raging at Orage, who stood impassively, and very pale, framed in one of the windows. I had to walk between them to set the tray on the table. I did so, feeling flayed by the fury of Gurdjieff's voice, and then retreated, attempting to make myself invisible. When I reached the door, I could not resist looking at both of them. Orage, a tall man, seemed withered and crumpled as he sagged in the window, and Gurdjieff, actually not very tall, looked immense- -a complete embodiment of rage. Although the raging was in English, I was unable to listen to the words -- the flow of anger was too enormous. Suddenly, in the space of an instant, Gurdjieff's voice stopped, his whole personality changed, he gave me a broad smile -- looking incredibly peaceful and inwardly quiet -- motioned me to leave, and then resumed his tirade with undiminished force. This happened so quickly that I do not believe that Mr. Orage even noticed the break in the rhythm.
When I had first heard the sound of Mr. Gurdjieff's voice from outside the room, I had been horrified. That this man, whom I respected above all other human beings, could lose his control so completely was a terrible blow to my feelings of respect and admiration for him. As I had walked between them to place the tray on the table, I had felt nothing but pity and compassion for Mr. Orage.
Now, leaving the room, my feelings were completely reversed. I was still appalled by the fury I had seen in Gurdjieff; terrified by it. In a sense, I was even more terrified when I left the room because I realized that it was not only not "uncontrollable" but actually under great control and completely conscious on his part. I still felt sorry for Mr. Orage, but I was convinced that he must have done something terrible -- in Gurdjieff's eyes -- to warrant the outburst. It did not cross my mind that Gurdjieff could have been, in any sense at all, wrong, There was no question but that I believed in him with my whole being, absolutely. He could do no wrong. Oddly enough, and I find this hard to explain to anyone who did not know him personally, my devotion to him was not fanatical. I did not believe in him as one believes in a god. He was right, always, to me, for simple, logical, reasons. His unusual "mode of life", even such things as the disorder of his rooms, calling for coffee at all hours of the day or night, seemed far more logical than the so-called normal way of living. He did whatever he did when he wanted or needed to. He was invariably concerned with others, and considerate of them. He never failed, for example, to thank me and to I apologize to me when I had to bring him coffee, half-asleep, at three o'clock in the morning. I knew instinctively that such consideration was something far more than ordinary, acquired courtesy. And, perhaps this was the clue, he was interested. Whenever I saw him, whenever he gave me an order, he was fully aware of me, completely concentrated on whatever words he said to me; his attention never wandered when I spoke to him. He always knew exactly what I was doing, what I had done. I think we must all have felt, certainly I did, when he was with anyone of us, that we received his total attention. I can think of nothing more complimentary in human relations.