BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
As PART O F the "complete reorganization" of the school, Mr. Gurdjieff told us that he was going to appoint a "director" who would supervise the students and their activities. He made it clear that this director would report regularly to him, and that he would still be fully informed concerning everything that took place at the Prieure. However, his personal time would be devoted almost entirely to his writing and he would spend a much larger proportion of his time in Paris.
The director turned out to be a certain Miss Madison, an English bachelor lady (as the children all called her) who had, up to that time, been mainly in charge of the flower gardens. To most of us -- children, that is -- she had always been a slightly comical figure. She was tall, of uncertain age, a bony, angular shape topped off by a somewhat untidy nest of fading reddish hair. She had, up to that time, stalked about the flower gardens, usually carrying a trowel and decorated with strands of raffia, knotted to her belt and flowing in streams from her waist as she walked, She took to the directorship with zeal and relish.
Although Gurdjieff had told us that 'e were to accord Miss Madison every respect -- "as if she were myself" -- I at least wondered whether she quite deserved that respect; I also suspected that he would not be as fully informed as when he had personally supervised the work. In any case, Miss Madison became a highly important figure in our lives. She began by setting up a series of rules and regulations -- I have often wondered whether she had not come from an English Army family -- which, ostensibly, were to simplify the work and, in general, to introduce efficiency into what she called the haphazard functioning of the school.
Since Mr. Gurdjieff was now absent at least half of each week, Miss Madison felt that I did not have enough to do simply taking care of the chickens and cleaning his room. Among other things, I was assigned to take care of our one horse and one donkey, and also to do a certain amount of work on the flower beds, under Miss Madison 's immediate, personal supervision. In addition to these specific chores, I was -- as was everyone else -- subject to a great many general ground-rules. No one was to leave the grounds without specific permission from Miss Madison; our rooms were to be inspected at regular intervals; in short, a general, military-style discipline was to be enforced.
A further change caused by the "reorganization'" of the school was the discontinuing of the nightly demonstrations of the dances or gymnastics. There were still classes in these gymnastics, but they only lasted for an hour or so during the afternoon, and it was on rare occasions, when Gurdjieff brought weekend guests to the Prieure, that we gave "demonstrations". Because of this, our evenings had been free all that summer, and many of us went to the town of Fontainebleau -- a walk of about two miles -- in the evenings. There was nothing much for children to do in town, except to go to an occasional movie or sometimes to a small country fair or carnival. This previously unsupervised -- in fact, unmentioned -- privilege was important to all of us. Up to that time, no one had bothered about what any of us did in our free time as long as we were present in the morning and ready to go to work. Confronted with the order that we were to have what amounted to "passes" in order to go to town -- we were told that we would have to give a "good reason" for any excursion off the grounds of the school proper -- we rebelled. There was no common agreement to rebel or to disregard this particular rule. As individuals, no one obeyed it; no one ever asked for a "pass".
Not only did we not ask for permission to leave the grounds, but we went to town even when we had no reason or desire to go. We did not, of course, leave by the front gate where the "passes" would have to be shown to whoever was on duty as concierge, we simply climbed the walls, going and coming. There was no immediate reaction from Miss Madison but we soon learned, although we could not imagine how it was possible, that she had an accurate record of each person's absence. We learned of the existence of this record from Mr. Gurdjieff, when, on one of his returns to the Prieure after an absence of several days, he announced to all of us that Miss Madison had "a little black book" in which she had recorded all the "misdemeanors" of the students. He also told us that he was, for the time being, reserving his own opinion about our behavior, but reminded us that he had appointed Miss Madison as director and that we were supposed to obey her. While it seemed to be a technical victory for Miss Madison, it was also a hollow one; he had done nothing to help her enforce her discipline.
My first difficulty with Miss Madison arose because of the chickens. One afternoon, just after Gurdjieff had left for Paris, I learned from one of the other children -- I was cleaning his room at the time -- that my chickens, at least several of them, had found some way out of the chicken yard and were happily tearing up Miss Madison's flower gardens. When I arrived at the scene of the destruction, Miss Madison was furiously chasing chickens all over the garden and, together, we managed to get them all back into their pen. There had not been much damage done to the flowers, and I helped Miss Madison, on her orders, to repair such damage as there was. She then told me that it was my fault that the chickens had escaped because I had not kept the fences in proper order; also that I would not be allowed to leave the grounds of the Institute for a week. She added that if she found another chicken in the gardens, she would, personally, kill it.
I did repair the fences, but apparently I did not do a very good job. One or two chickens escaped the next day, and went back to the flower gardens. Miss Madison kept her promise and wrung the neck of the first chicken she was able to catch. Since I had become very fond of the chickens -- I had a personal relationship with each one of them and had even given them names -- I took revenge on Miss Madison by destroying one of her favorite plants. In addition, for purely personal satisfaction, I also left the grounds and went to Fontainebleau that night.
Miss Madison took me seriously to task the next morning. She said that if we could not come to an understanding together, she would have to take the matter up with Mr. Gurdjieff; that she knew that he would not tolerate any flaunting of her authority. She also said that I, by this time, led the list of offenders in her little black book. My defense was to tell her that the chickens were useful and that the garden was not; that she had no right to kill my chicken. She said that I was in no position to judge what she had a right to do, and also that Mr. Gurdjieff had made it very clear that she was to be obeyed.
Since we had come to no truce or agreement, the incident was brought to Mr. Gurdjieff's attention when he returned from Paris later that week. Immediately upon his return, he was, as it were, pounced upon by Miss Madison, and closeted in his room with her for a long time. I did become anxious during that time. After all, whatever my reasons had been, I had disobeyed her, and I had no assurance that Gurdjieff was going to see things my way.
He called for coffee later that evening after supper, and when I brought it to his room, he told me to sit down. Then he asked me how I was getting along and how I liked Miss Madison. Not knowing what she had told him, I replied carefully that I was getting along all right and that I supposed Miss Madison was all right, but that the Prieure was very different when she was in charge.
He looked at me seriously: "How different?" he asked.
I replied that Miss Madison made too many rules, that there was too much discipline.
He did not say anything about this remark but then told me that Miss Madison had told him about the fracas in the flower gardens and that she had killed a chicken, and he wanted I know my version of the story. I told him how I felt about it and that I felt, particularly, that Miss Madison had no right to kill the chicken.
"What you do with dead chicken?" he asked me.
I said that I had cleaned it and taken it to the kitchen to be eaten.
He considered this, nodded, and said that I should understand, then, that the chicken after all had not been wasted; also that, while the chicken, although dead, had been useful, the dead flower that I had uprooted in anger could serve no purpose -- could not, for instance, be eaten. Then he asked me if I had repaired the fences. I said that I had repaired them a second time after the chickens had escaped again and he said that was good, and sent me to get Miss Madison.
I went for her, feeling crestfallen. I could not deny the logic of what he had said to me, but I still felt, resentfully, that Miss Madison had not been entirely in the right. I found her in her room, and she gave me an all-knowing, superior look and followed me back to Gurdjieff's room. He told us both to sit down and then told her that he had talked to me about the problem of the chickens and the garden and that he was' sure -- he looked at me as he said this -- that there would be no more difficulty. Then he said, unexpectedly, that we had both failed him. That my failure had been in not helping him by obeying Miss Madison, since he had put her in charge, and that she had failed by killing the chicken, which was, incidentally, his chicken; not only was it his chicken but it was my responsibility, which he had delegated to me, and that while I should have kept it in its pen, she had no right to take its killing upon herself.
Then he told Miss Madison to leave, but added as she was leaving that he had now spent a long time, when he was already very busy, on the discussion of this matter of the chicken and the garden, and that one of the functions of a director was to relieve him of such time-consuming, unimportant problems.
Miss Madison left the room -- he had indicated that I was to stay -- and he asked me if I felt I was learning anything. I was surprised by the question and did not know how to answer it, except to say that I did not know. It was then, I think, that he first mentioned, directly, one of the basic purposes and aims of the Institute. He said, disregarding my unsatisfactory response to his question about learning, that, in Life, the most difficult thing to achieve for the future, and perhaps the most important, was to learn to live with the "unpleasant manifestations of others". He said that the story we had both told him was, of itself, completely unimportant. The chicken and the plant did not matter. What was important was the behavior of myself and of Miss Madison; that if either one of us had been "conscious" of our behavior, and not simply reacting to one another, the problem would have been solved without his intervention. He said that, in a sense, nothing had happened except that Miss Madison and I had given in to our mutual hostility. He did not explain this any further, and I was confused, and told him so. He told me that I would probably understand this later in life. Then he said that I would have my lesson the following morning, although it was not a Tuesday; and apologized for the fact that he was unable to keep my lessons on a regular schedule because of his other work.