Gurdjieff Remembered


George Gurdjieff was a very impressive man. Dissatisfied with the explanation of the world he received, he traveled for some twenty years through Africa and Asia to discover real knowledge and develop his own view of things. After those years of spiritual achievement he became a teacher, setting up in Moscow and St. Petersburgh.
With the Russian revolution he traveled to the Caucasus, near where he’d grown up, followed by some of his students. They spent the civil war there, after which, as Russia was reclaiming all the parts of its empire, he, his family, and students traveled west; first to Istanbul, then to Europe, where he set up his headquarters (calling it the Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man) in Fontainebleu outside Paris.
Subsequently he wrote four books about what he’d discovered and his view of how the universe and human beings functioned. Many others also wrote books about him and his system of philosophy and teaching.
Fritz Peters wrote two books about him which were different from the others because Peters was a young teenager when he came to live at the Prieure (the estate where the Institute was headquartered, and where Gurdjieff, his family, and his students all lived), and stayed there four years, leaving when he was fifteen. Though he learned things there, he was never a formal student in the way the adults were. He worked on the estate, as did everyone else, eventually becoming an assistant to Gurdjieff, cleaning his rooms, among other things.
Thus, his books are more about his interactions with Gurdjieff, and Gurdjieff as a person than are the others written about him. The first, Boyhood with Gurdjieff, tells about his time at the Prieure, and is full of incident. The second, Gurdjieff Remembered, relates his interactions with Gurdjieff during the sixteen years after he left the Prieure. There are fewer incidents, and more ruminations about Peters’ impression of the man.
As an extremely powerful person, Gurdjieff collected extreme reactions. Some loved and idolized him, others hated him. Both reactions were exaggerations, and Peters found the latter unjust.
Katherine Mansfield was a famous writer who spent the last two or three months of her life at the Prieure, soon after Gurdjieff and his students had arrived and begun to put it in order. She was in the terminal stage of tuberculosis, had heard of Gurdjieff, wanted to spend time with him, and stay there. Gurdjieff allowed her to do so, giving her comfortable lodgings, healthy food and human contacts, and helping her reconcile herself to death. Letters she wrote to her husband, John Middleton Murry, indicate that she valued what she found there. Gurdjieff didn’t attempt to heal her, or to take heroic measures to prolong her life. Some outsiders said he had “killed” her. Peters wasn’t there when she was, but didn’t see it that way at all.
He compared that negative reaction to a couple who had stayed at the Prieure while he was there. The husband was partially paralyzed, and the wife spent much of the time pushing him in a wheelchair around the grounds. Gurdjieff had told them to begin with that he couldn’t cure the husband of his paralysis, and it was on those terms that he allowed them to stay. Peters had liked them.
Some years later, after he’d returned to America, Peters ran into them, and found that they now HATED Gurdjieff because he hadn’t cured the husband. He tried reminding them that that had never been part of the deal, but the couple couldn’t hear him.
Gurdjieff, being a powerful man, collected such injustices. A formal student of his, who later wrote a great deal about him, said that Gurdjieff experimented with people to find the best way to teach, and HOPED that they could benefit from what he taught them, but could guarantee nothing. Ultimately, they had to solve their personal problems themselves.
Gurdjieff was also not sentimental. He said that the vast majority of people would accomplish nothing but becoming fertilizer, adding that this was not a bad thing to be. Humans have far more potential than most realize, but few are willing or able to make the effort to really accomplish, especially in the area in which Gurdjieff taught.
This was the “spiritual” (which may not be the best description) area. He said that humans were generally unbalanced and “asleep”, and his teaching was aimed at helping students find balance and evolve to be what people potentially can and ought to be.
His teaching at the Prieure was interrupted by a very serious auto accident which almost killed him. As he slowly recuperated he realized that no one he had taught would be able to pass his teaching on, and decided to write books to present his system of thought and practice at least in theory. This happened shortly after Peters arrived there.
After four years Peters returned to America, didn’t find a wonderful reception from his mother and the man she had married since he’d been in France, but managed to find work and support himself. Gurdjieff visited him in America, and he traveled with Gurdjieff from New York to Chicago on a train, which he describes as nightmarish. Gurdjieff demanded service and attention, and constantly complained that Peters wasn’t treating him with the respect he deserved. Once they got to Chicago, he left Gurdjieff with his followers (who were buying all the negative things Gurdjieff was selling them about Peters), and left for New York.
After several months, he realized that he no longer worshiped Gurdjieff as a hero, but still loved and respected him, probably exactly the reaction Gurdjieff had aimed at by treating him that way. He met Gurdjieff several more times in America, but didn’t serve him as a companion again.
When World War II started he lost touch with Gurdjieff, who stayed in Paris. Peters was drafted into the army (and didn’t try to evade it, feeling he should experience the war), got a relatively safe job behind the lines, but was powerfully affected by the war, which he found sickening.
What was worse than seeing the effects of war from a distance was his experience of being spared death when others around him died, not just once, but over and over again. This put him into a state he describes as being even worse than depression. He had heard that Gurdjieff was living in Paris, and (since the Allies had recaptured it from the Germans) managed to get a leave to go find him. He had difficulty doing so, but managed it fairly quickly.
Gurdjieff didn’t at first recognize him, but when he did, immediately took him into his apartment, and gave him a bed on which to lie down. But Peters was too restless, and returned to the kitchen. He describes what happened next as there seeming to be a brilliant blue energy coming from Gurdjieff, and he began feeling better and better, while Gurdjieff turned grey. Gurdjieff excused himself, and came back fifteen minutes later, apparently restored. Peters says in the following days he saw Gurdjieff take such short “rests” several times. Peters felt that Gurdjieff had used his own energy to restore him, and that it had taken a lot out of him, but that Gurdjieff knew how to restore himself.
Peters spent much of the next few days alone, as Gurdjieff was often occupied with his students. But they did spend time together and have conversation.
One conversation was about the series of older people Peters saw visiting who were obviously not students. He asked Gurdjieff who they were, and why he was spending time on them.
Gurdjieff replied that they were people who had no families and no one else to turn to. During the Nazi occupation they had had no way to find food or anything else they needed. Gurdjieff had not been a partisan of either side, since each had its ideals and killed great numbers of the others. He had made deals with soldiers and police, and had obtained what he needed for himself, his brother’s family, probably his students, and these older people. He compared taking care of them to being like an old woman without much money who feeds birds every day in the park, because she loves birds. But, he said, he was more honest than that woman, because he admitted that he enjoyed doing it. And added that he was able to prepare them to die, which was something worth doing.
Peters also witnessed an old woman bringing Gurdjieff a painting, which he bought from her, and asked Peters to hang it on the wall. Someone had told Gurdjieff he had the largest collection of bad art in Paris. Gurdjieff told Peters that people could learn from the woman: one ought not to receive money from people without giving them something. This led to another conversation.
Gurdjieff had initially tried to support his work himself, by working all day at the Prieure and all night in Paris, or vice versa. His physical health wasn’t good to begin with (he had previously had three serious bullet wounds, and a number of diseases contracted during his travels which had become chronic conditions), so he became run down. Early in 1924 he had taken a number of his students to America, where they had performed oriental dances and he had solicited money from those interested. He had gotten enough to pay his debts, and planned to return to America later in the year. Then he had the auto accident which changed his course profoundly.
He commented to Peters that both rich and poor people were mainly concerned with money. Rich people despise poor people for not having any money, while the poor despise the rich for having so much more than they. Rich people, he told Peters, on giving him money felt he owed them something. Poor people wanted him to teach them how to make money. He could teach the possessor of either attitude very little, and few people seemed able to understand why this was a problem.
He told Peters about a wealthy woman who said that his teaching was important to her, and felt her money insulated her from life. Gurdjieff told her that she could give her money to him, knowing that he would make good use of it, and that learning to live with others under these new conditions would be valuable for her. She refused to give him her money, which proved, he said, that his teaching really wasn’t important to her. Only her money was.
Gurdjieff said goodbye to Peters not long after that. He died four years later. Peters remembered him not only as kind, vital, and energetic, but maybe above all, humorous. He had difficulties, but enjoyed life. Who, asks Peters, could fail to enjoy a man who could buy 200 bicycles for all the residents of the Prieure. Who else would even THINK of such a thing?
Peters concludes the book with a lengthy quote from P.D. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff’s most famous student, who wrote how love is the motive power for animals as much as for humans. Birds sing much more than necessary to attract mates. They build nests long before eggs are to be laid. Love is the underlying motive for life, and we rarely are aware of it.
Peters, like others, characterizes Ouspensky as being overly intellectual, and that Gurdjieff had told him that “knowing”, such as Ouspensky had shown in his quote, was a passing thing. Understanding lasts much longer.
And Gurdjieff understood, specifically about human beings and the logic that underlies them. Peters compares the quality of his awareness to that of a highly trained psychologist one sometimes meets who has a bit of such awareness. Gurdjieff, he says, had a tremendous amount of it.
Katherine Mansfield, in her letters to her husband, had mentioned how Gurdjieff always gave one something at precisely the right time. Peters agrees with this, and attributes it to love, saying that Gurdjieff’s love was unlike anything most humans experience: it was unrestrained, though that is probably not a good word for it.
His love was such that he felt COMPELLED to teach, which seems strange for someone who had achieved freedom. Peters tells how Gurdjieff told him he should consider himself shit, as well as everyone else he knew, and that if he then found something good in others or himself, this would be a cause for celebration. Peters asked him why he taught then, since so few would be able to learn from him. Gurdjieff replied that there was always a CHANCE that someone could learn something.


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