talks with gurdjieff
george ivanovich gurdjieff (1866-1949)

glimpses of truth - 2

one day about the middle of november, i spent the evening with a friend of mine. the conversation was on a subject of little interest to me. during a pause in the talk, my host said, "by the way, knowing your partiality for occultism i think an item in today's golos moskvi [the voice of moscow ] would interest you." and he pointed out an article headed "round about the theatre."

it spoke, giving a brief summary, about the scenario of a medieval mystery, the struggle of the magicians: a ballet written by g. i. gurdjieff, an orientalist who was well-known in moscow. the mention of occultism, the title itself and contents of the scenario, aroused my great interest, but none of the people present could give any more information about it. my host, a keen amateur of ballet, admitted that in his circle he knew of no one corresponding to the description in the article. i cut it out, with his permission, and took it away with me.

i will not weary you with an exposition of my reasons for being interested in this article. but it was as a consequence of them that i took a firm resolve on saturday morning to find mr. gurdjieff, the writer of the scenario, at all costs.

that same evening when a. called upon me, i showed him the article. i told him that it was my intention to search for me. gurdjieff, and asked his opinion.

a. read the article and, glancing at me, said: "well, i wish you success. as far as i am concerned, it does not interest me. haven't we had enough of such tales?" and he put the article aside with an air of indifference. such an attitude toward this question was so chilling that i gave up and retreated into my thoughts; a. was also thoughtful. our conversation was halted. there was a long silence, interrupted by a., who put his hand on my shoulder.

"look here," he said, "don't be offended. i had my own reasons, which i will explain later, for answering you as i did. but first, i shall ask a few questions which are so serious"—he emphasized the word "so"—"you cannot know how serious they are." somewhat astonished by this pronouncement, i answered, "ask."

"do, please, tell me why you wish to find this mr. gurdjieff? how will you look for him? what aim will you follow? and if your search is successful, in what way will you approach him?"

at first unwillingly, but encouraged by the seriousness of a.'s manner, as well as by questions he occasionally put, i explained the direction of my thinking.

when i had finished, a. went over what i had said and added, "i can tell you that you won't find anything."

"how can that be?" i replied. "it seems to me that the ballet scenario of the struggle of the magicians, apart from being dedicated to geltzer, is hardly so unimportant that its author could be lost without a trace."

"it is not a question of the author. you may find him. but he won't talk with you as he could, said a.

i flared up at this: "why do you imagine that he . . . ?" i do not imagine anything," a. interrupted. "i know. but not to keep you in suspense i tell you, i know this scenario well, very well. what is more i know its author, mr. gurdjieff, personally, and have known him for a long time. the way you have elected to find him might lead you to make his acquaintance, but not in the way that you would wish. believe me, if you will allow me a piece of friendly advice, wait a little longer, i will try to arrange you a meeting with mr. gurdjieff in the way you wish . . . well, i must be going."

in the greatest astonishment i seized him, "wait! you can't go yet. how did you come to know him? who is he? why have you never told me about him before?"

"not so many questions," said a. "i categorically refuse to answer them now. in due course i will answer. set your mind at rest meanwhile; i promise to do everything i can to introduce you."

in spite of my most insistent demands a. refused to reply, adding that it was in my interest not to delay him any longer.

about two o'clock on sunday, a. telephoned me and said briefly: "if you wish, be at the railroad station at seven o'clock." "and where are we going?" i asked. "to mr. gurdjieff," he replied, and hung up.

"he certainly does not stand on ceremony with me," flashed through my mind, "he did not even ask me whether i could go, and i happen to have some important business tonight. besides, i have no idea how far we have to go. when shall we be back? how shall i explain at home?" but then i decided that a. was not likely to have overlooked the circumstances of my life; so the "important" business quickly lost its importance and i began to await the appointed hour. being impatient, i arrived at the station almost an hour too early, and waited for a.

finally he appeared. "come, quick," he said, hurrying me. "i have the tickets. i was delayed and we are late."

a porter was following us with some big boxes. "what is that?" i asked a. "are we going away for a year?" "no," he replied laughing. "i'll come back with you; the boxes don't concern us."

we took our seats and, being alone in the compartment, nobody disturbed our conversation.

"are we going far?" i asked.

a. named one of the country resorts near moscow and added, "to save you more enquiries i will tell you everything possible; but the greater part will be for you alone. of course, you are right to be interested in mr. gurdjieff as a person, but i will tell you only a few external facts about him, to give you your bearings. as for my personal opinions about him i will keep silent, so that you may take in your own impressions more fully. we shall return to this matter later."

settling comfortably into his seat, he began to talk.

he told me that mr. gurdjieff had spent many years wandering in the east with a definite purpose and had been in places inaccessible to europeans; that two or three years ago he had come to russia and had then lived in petersburg, devoting his efforts and his knowledge mainly to work of his own. not long ago he had moved to moscow and had rented a country house near the town, so as to be able to work in retirement undisturbed. in accordance with a rhythm known only to himself he would periodically visit moscow, returning to his work again after a certain interval. he did not think it necessary, i gathered, to tell his moscow acquaintances about his country house and he did not receive anyone there.

"as to how i came to know him," said a., "we will talk of that another time. that, too, is far from commonplace."

a. went on to say that very early in his acquaintance with mr. gurdjieff he had spoken about me and wished to introduce us; not only had he refused, but he had actually forbidden a. to tell me anything about him. on account of my persistent demand to make mr. gurdjieff's acquaintance and my aim of doing so, a. had decided to ask him once more. he had seen him, after leaving me the previous night, and mr. gurdjieff, after asking many detailed questions about me, had agreed to see me and himself had proposed that a. should bring me to him that evening, in the country.

"in spite of my knowing you for so many years," said a., "he certainly knows you better than i do, from what i have told him. now you realize that it was not just imagination when i told you that you could not obtain anything in the ordinary way. don't forget, a great exception is being made for you and none of those who know him have been where you are going. even those closest to him do not suspect the existence of his retreat. you owe this exception to my recommendation, so please do not put me in an awkward position."

several more questions produced no reply from a., but when i asked him about the struggle of the magicians he told me its contents in some detail. when i questioned him about something which struck me as incongruous, a. told me mr. gurdjieff would speak about it himself, if he thought it necessary.

this conversation aroused in me a multitude of thoughts and conjectures. after a silence, i turned to a. with a question. a. gave me a somewhat perplexed glance and, after a short pause, said: "collect your thoughts, or you will make a fool of yourself. we are nearly there. don't make me regret having brought you. remember what you said about your aim yesterday."

after this he said nothing.

at the station we left the train in silence and i offered to carry one of the boxes. it weighed at least seventy pounds, and the box carried by a. was probably no lighter. a four-seated sleigh was waiting for us. silently we took our places, and drove all the way in the same deep silence. after about fifteen minutes the sleigh stopped before a gate. a large two-storied country house was dimly visible at the far end of the garden. preceded by our driver carrying the luggage, we entered the unlocked gate and walked to the house along a path cleared of snow. the door was ajar. a. rang the bell.

after some time a voice asked, "who's there?" a. gave his name. "how are you?" the same voice called through the half-open door. the driver carried the boxes into the house and went out again. "let us go in, now," said a., who appeared to have been waiting for something.

we passed through a dark hallway into a dimly lit anteroom. a. closed the door after us; there was nobody in the room. "take your things off," he said shortly, pointing to a peg. we removed our coats.

"give me your hand; don't be afraid, you won't fall." closing the door firmly behind him, a. led me forward into a completely dark room. the floor was covered with a soft carpet on which our steps made no sound. i put out my free hand in the dark and felt a heavy curtain, which ran the whole length of what seemed to be a large room, forming a kind of passage to a second door. "keep your aim before you," a. whispered, and lifting a carpet hung across a door, he pushed me ahead into a lighted room.

opposite the door a middle-aged man was sitting against the wall on a low ottoman, with his feet crossed in eastern fashion; he was smoking a curiously shaped water pipe which stood on a low table in front of him. beside the pipe stood a small cup of coffee. these were the first things that caught my eye.

as we entered, mr. gurdjieff—for it was he—raised his hand and, glancing calmly at us, greeted us with a nod. then he asked me to sit down, indicating the ottoman beside him. his complexion betrayed his oriental origin. his eyes particularly attracted my attention, not so much in themselves as by the way he looked at me when he greeted me, not as if he saw me the first time but as though he had known me long and well. i sat down and glanced round the room. its appearance was so unusual to a european that i wish to describe it in more detail. there was no area not covered, either by carpets or hangings of some sort. a single enormous rug covered the floor of this spacious room. even its walls were hung with carpets which also draped the doors and windows; the ceiling was covered with ancient silk shawls of resplendent colors, astonishingly beautiful in their combination. these were drawn together in a strange pattern toward the center of the ceiling. the light was concealed behind a dull glass shade of peculiar form resembling a huge lotus flower, which produced a white, diffused glow.

another lamp, which gave a similar light, stood on a high stand to the left of the ottoman on which we sat. against the left-hand wall was an upright piano covered with antique draperies, which so camouflaged its form that without its candlesticks i should not have guessed what it was. on the wall over the piano, set against a large carpet, hung a collection of stringed instruments of unusual shapes, among which were also flutes. two other collections also adorned the wall. one of ancient weapons with some slings, yataghans, daggers and other things, was behind and above our heads. on the opposite wall, suspended by fine white wire, a number of old carved pipes were arranged in a harmonious group.

underneath this latter collection, on the floor against the wall, lay a long row of big cushions covered with a single carpet. in the left-hand corner, at the end of the row, was a dutch stove draped with an embroidered cloth. the corner on the right was decorated with a particularly fine color combination; in it hung an ikon of st. george the victor, set with precious stones. beneath it stood a cabinet in which were several small ivory statues of different sizes; i recognized christ, buddha, moses and mahomet; the rest i could not see very well.

another low ottoman stood against the right-hand wall. on either side of it were two small carved ebony tables and on one was a coffee-pot with a heating lamp. several cushions and hassocks were strewn about the room in careful disorder. all the furniture was adorned with tassels, gold embroidery and gems. as a whole, the room produced a strangely cosy impression which was enhanced by a delicate scent that mingled agreeably with an aroma of tobacco.

having examined the room, i turned my eyes to mr. gurdjieff. he looked at me, and i had the disctinct impression that he took me in the palm of his hand and weighed me. i smiled involuntarily, and he looked away from me calmly and without haste. glancing at a., he said something to him. he did not look at me again in this way and the impression was not repeated.

a. was seated on a big cushion beside the ottoman, in the same posture as mr. gurdjieff, which seemed to have become habitual to him. presently he rose and, taking two large pads of paper and two pencils from a small table, he gave one to mr. gurdjieff and kept the other. indicating the coffee-pot he said to me, "when you want coffee, help yourself. i am going to have some now." following his example, i poured out a cup and, returning to my place, put it beside the water pipe on the small table.

i then turned to mr. gurdjieff and, trying to express myself as briefly and definitely as possible, i explained why i had come. after a short silence, mr. gurdjieff said: "well, let's not lose any precious time," and asked me what i really wanted.

to avoid repetition, i will note certain peculiarities of the conversation that followed. first of all i must mention a rather strange circumstance, one i did not notice at the moment, perhaps because i had not time to think about it. mr. gurdjieff spoke russian neither fluently nor correctly. sometimes he searched for a considerable time for the words and expressions he needed, and turned constantly to a. for help. he would say two or three words to him; a. seemed to catch his thought in the air, and to develop and complete it, and give it a form intelligible to me. he seemed well acquainted with the subject under discussion. when mr. gurdjieff spoke, a. watched him with attention. with a word mr. gurdjieff would show him some new meaning, and would swiftly change the direction of a.'s thought.

of course a.'s knowledge of me very much helped him to enable me to understand mr. gurdjieff. many times with a single hint a. would evoke a whole category of thoughts. he served as a sort of transmitter between mr. gurdjieff and myself. at first mr. gurdjieff had to appeal to a. constantly, but as the subject broadened and developed, embracing new areas, mr. gurdjieff turned to a. less and less often. his speech flowed more freely and naturally; the necessary words seemed to come of themselves, and i could have sworn that, by the end of the conversation, he was speaking the clearest unaccented russian, his words succeeding one another fluently and calmly; they were rich in color, similes, vivid examples, broad and harmonious perspectives.

in addition, both of them illustrated the conversation with various diagrams and series of numbers, which, taken together, formed a graceful system of symbols—a sort of script—in which one number could express a whole group of ideas. they quoted numerous examples from physics and mechanics, and especially brought material from chemistry and mathematics.

mr. gurdjieff sometimes turned to a. with a short remark which referred to something a. was familiar with, and occasionally mentioned names. a. indicated by a nod that he understood, and the conversation proceeded without interruption. i also realized that, while teaching me, a. was learning himself.

another peculiarity was that i had to ask very rarely. as soon as a question arose and before it could be formulated, the development of the thought had already given the answer. it was as though mr. gurdjieff had known in advance and anticipated the questions which might arise. once or twice i made a false move by asking about some matter that i had not troubled to get clear myself. but i will speak about this at the right place.

i can best compare the direction of the current of the conversation to a spiral. mr. gurdjieff, having taken some main idea, and after having broadened it and given it depth, completed the cycle of his reasoning by a return to the starting point, which i saw, as it were, below me, more broadly and in greater detail. a new cycle, and again there was a clearer and more precise idea of the breadth of the original thought.

i do not know how i should have felt, had i been forced to speak with mr. gurdjieff tête-à-tête. the presence of a., his calm and serious enquiring attitude toward the conversation, must have impressed itself upon me without my knowing it.

taken as a whole, what was said brought me an inexpressible pleasure i had never before experienced. the outlines of that majestic edifice which had been dark and incomprehensible to me, were now clearly delineated, and not only the outlines but some of the façade's details.

i should like to describe, even if it is only approximately, the essence of this conversation. who knows but that it may not help someone in a position similar to my own? this is the purpose of my sketch.