talks with gurdjieff
george ivanovich gurdjieff (1866-1949)

glimpses of truth - 4

when they had gone i followed mr. gurdjieff's advice, and, pouring out coffee, remained sitting. i realized that mr. gurdjieff had concluded from the question about fasting that my attention was tired. and i recognized that my thinking had become feebler and more restricted by the end of the conversation. therefore, in spite of my strong desire to look through all the diagrams and numbers once more, i decided to give my head a rest, to use mr. gurdjieff's expression, and sat with closed eyes trying not to think of anything. but the thoughts arose in spite of my will, and i attempted to drive them out.

in about twenty minutes, a. entered without my hearing him and asked, "well, how are you?" i had no time to answer him when the voice of mr. gurdjieff was heard quite close by saying to someone, "do as i have told you and you will see where the mistake is."

then, lifting the carpet which hung over the door, he came in. taking the same place and attitude as before, he turned toward me. "i hope you have rested—if only a little. let us talk now of casual matters, without any definite plan."

i told him that i wanted to ask two or three questions that had no immediate reference to the subject of our conversation but might make clearer the nature of what he had said.

"you and a. have quoted so much from the data of contemporary science that the question spontaneously arises, 'is the knowledge you speak of accessible to an ignorant, uneducated man?'"

"the material you refer to was quoted only because i spoke to you. you understand, because you have a certain amount of knowledge of these matters. they helped you to understand something better. they were only given as examples. this refers to the form of the conversation but not to its essence. forms may be very different. i will not say anything now about the role and significance of contemporary science. this question could be the subject of a separate conversation. i will only say this—that the best educated scholar could prove an absolute ignoramus compared with an illiterate shepherd who possesses knowledge. this sounds paradoxical, but the understanding of the essence, over which the former spends long years of minute investigation, will be gained by the latter in an incomparably fuller degree during one day's meditation. it is a question of the way of thinking, of the 'density of the thought.' this term does not convey anything to you at present but in time it will become clear by itself. what else do you want to ask?"

"why is this knowledge so carefully concealed?"

"what leads you to ask this question?"

"certain things which i had the opportunity of learning in the course of my acquaintance with occult literature," i answered.

"as far as i can judge," said mr. gurdjieff, "you are referring to the question of so-called 'initiation.' yes, or no?" i replied in the affirmative, and mr. gurdjieff went on: "yes. the fact of the matter is that in occult literature much that has been said is superfluous and untrue. you had better forget all this. all your researches in this area were a good exercise for your mind: therein lies their great value, but only there. they have not given you knowledge, as you yourself confessed. judge everything from the point of view of your common sense. become the possessor of your own sound ideas, and don't accept anything on faith; and when you, yourself, by way of sound reasoning and argument, come to an unshakable persuasion, to a full understanding of something, you will have achieved a certain degree of initiation. think it over more deeply. . . . for instance, today i had a conversation with you. remember this conversation. think, and you will agree with me that in essence i have told you nothing new. you knew it all before. the only thing i did was to bring order into your knowledge. i systematized it, but you had it before you saw me. you owe it to the efforts you had already made in this field. it was easy for me to speak to you, thanks to him"—and he pointed to a.—"because he had learned to understand me, and because he knew you. from his account, i knew you and your knowledge, as well as how it was obtained, before you came to me. but in spite of all these favorable conditions, i may confidently say that you have not mastered even a hundredth part of what i said. however, i have given you a clue pointing to the possibility of a new point of view, from which you can illuminate and bring together your former knowledge. and thanks to this work, to your own work, you will be able to reach a much deeper understanding of what i have said. you will 'initiate' yourself.

"in a year's time we may say the same things, but you will not wait during this year in the hope that roast pigeons will fly into your mouth. you will work, and your understanding will change—you will be more 'initiated.' it is impossible to give a man anything that could become his inalienable property without work on his part. such an initiation cannot exist, but unfortunately people often think so. there is only 'self-initiation.' one can show and direct, but not 'initiate.' the things which you came across in occult literature with regard to this question had been written by people who had lost the key to what they transmitted on, without any verification, from the words of others.

"every medal has its reverse. the study of occultism offers much, as training for the mind, but often, unfortunately very often, people infected with the poison of mystery, and aiming at practical results, but not possessing a full knowledge of what must be done or how, do themselves irreparable harm. harmony is violated. it is a hundred times better not to do anything than to act without knowledge. you said that knowledge is concealed. that is not so. it is not concealed, but people are incapable of understanding it. if you begin a conversation about higher mathematical ideas with a man who did not know mathematics, what good would it be? he simply would not understand you. and here the matter is more complicated. i personally should be very glad if i could speak now to somebody, without trying to adapt myself to his understanding, on those subjects which are of interest to me. but if i began to speak to you in this way, for instance, you would take me for a madman or worse.

"people have too few words with which to express certain ideas. but there, where words do not matter, but their source and the meaning behind them, it should be possible to speak simply. in the absence of understanding it is impossible. you had the opportunity of proving this to yourself today. i should not speak to another person in the same way that i spoke to you, because he would not understand me. you have initiated yourself already to a certain degree. and before speaking one must know and see how much the man understands. understanding comes only with work.

"so what you call 'concealment' is in fact the impossibility of giving, otherwise everything would be quite different. if, in spite of this, those who know begin to speak, it is useless and quite unproductive they speak only when they know that the listener understands."

"so then, if, for instance, i wanted to tell somebody what i have learned from you today, would you object?"

"you see," replied mr. gurdjieff, "from the very beginning of our conversation, i foresaw the possibility of continuing it. therefore i told you things which i would not tell you were the contrary the case. i said them in advance, knowing that you are not prepared for them now, but with the intention of giving a certain direction to your reflections on these questions. on closer consideration you will be convinced that it is really so. you will understand precisely what i am speaking about. if you reach this conclusion it will only be to the advantage of the person with whom you speak; you may say as much as you like. then you will be convinced that something intelligible and clear to you is unintelligible to those who hear. from this point of view such conversations will be useful."

"and what is your attitude toward enlarging the circle with whom relations might begin, by giving them some indication that could help in their work?" i asked.

"i have too little free time to be able to sacrifice it without being certain that it will be of use. time is of value to me, and i need it for my work; therefore i cannot and do not wish to spend it unproductively. but i have already told you about that."

"no, it was not with the idea of your making new acquaintances that i asked, but in the sense that indications might be given through the press. i think it would take less time than personal conversations."

"in other words you wish to know whether the ideas could be set forth gradually, in a series of outlines, perhaps?"

"yes," i replied, "but i certainly do not think it would be possible to clarify everything, though it seems to me that it might be possible to indicate a direction leading nearer to the goal."

"you have raised a very interesting question," said mr. gurdjieff. "i have often discussed it with some of those with whom i speak. it is not worthwhile repeating now the considerations which were expressed by them and by me. i can only say that we decided in the affirmative, as long ago as last summer. i did not refuse to take part in this experiment, but we were prevented from making it on account of the war."

during the short conversation which followed on this subject, the idea came into my head that if mr. gurdjieff did not object to making known to the public at large certain views and methods, it was also possible that the ballet the struggle of the magicians might contain a hidden meaning, representing not only a work of imagination but a mystery. i asked him a question about it in this sense, mentioning that a. had told me the contents of the scenario.

"my ballet is not a mystery," replied mr. gurdjieff. "the purpose of it is to present an interesting and beautiful spectacle. of course, under the visible forms a certain sense is hidden, but i did not aim at demonstrating or emphasizing it. the chief position in this ballet is occupied by certain dances. i will explain this to you briefly. imagine that in studying the laws of movement of the celestial bodies, let us say the planets of the solar system, you have constructed a special mechanism for the representation and recording of these laws. in this mechanism every planet is represented by a sphere of appropriate size and is placed at a strictly determined distance from the central sphere, which stands for the sun. you set the mechanism in motion, and all the spheres begin to turn and move in definite paths, reproducing in a lifelike way the laws which govern their movements. this mechanism reminds you of your knowledge.

"in the same way, in the rhythm of certain dances, in the precise movements and combinations of the dancers, certain laws are vividly recalled. such dances are called sacred. during my journeys in the east, i often saw dances of this kind executed during the performance of sacred rites in some of the ancient temples. these ceremonies are inaccessible, and unknown to europeans. some of these dances are reproduced in the struggle of the magicians. further, i may tell you that at the basis of the struggle of the magicians lie three thoughts; but, as i have no hope that they will be understood by the public if i present the ballet alone, i call it simply a spectacle." mr. gurdjieff spoke a little more about the ballet and the dances and then went on:

"such is the origin of the dances, their significance, in the distant past. i will ask you now, has anything in this branch of contemporary art been preserved that could recall, however remotely, its former great meaning and aim? what is to be found here but triviality?" after a short silence, as though waiting for my reply, and gazing sadly and thoughtfully before him, he continued, "contemporary art as a whole has nothing in common with the ancient sacred art. . . . perhaps you have thought about it? what is your opinion?"

i explained to him that the question of art, which amongst others interested me, occupied an important place. to be precise, i was interested not so much in the works, that is, in the results of art, but in its role and significance in the life of humanity. i had often discussed this question with those who seemed to be more versed in these matters than i—musicians, painters, and sculptors, artists and men of letters, and also with those simply interested in studying art. i happened to hear a great deal of opinion of many kinds, often contradictory. some, it is true they were few, called art an amusement of those who lacked occupation; but the majority agreed that art is sacred and that its creation bears in itself the seal of divine inspiration. i had formed no opinion which i could call my firm conviction, and this question had remained open until now. i expressed all this to mr. gurdjieff as clearly as possible; he listened to my explanation with attention, and said:

"you are right in saying that there are many contradictory opinions on the subject. does not that alone prove that people do not know the truth? where truth is, there cannot be many different opinions. in antiquity that which is now called art served the aim of objective knowledge. and as we said a moment ago, speaking of dances, works of art represented an exposition and a record of the eternal laws of the structure of the universe. those who devoted themselves to research and thus acquired a knowledge of important laws, embodied them in works of art, just as is done in books today."

at this point mr. gurdjieff mentioned some names which were mostly unknown to me and which i have forgotten. then he went on: "this art did not pursue the aim either of 'beauty' or of producing a likeness of something or somebody. for instance, an ancient statue created by such an artist is neither a copy of the form of a person nor the expression of a subjective sensation; it is either the expression of the laws of knowledge, in terms of the human body, or a means of objective transmission of a state of mind. the form and action, indeed the whole expression, is according to law."

after a short silence, in which he appeared to be pondering something, mr. gurdjieff went on: "as we have touched upon art, i will tell you of an episode which happened recently which will clarify some points in our conversation.

"among my acquaintances here in moscow there is a companion of my early childhood, a famous sculptor. when visiting him i noticed in his library a number of books on hindu philosophy and occultism. in the course of conversation i found that he was seriously interested in these matters. seeing how helpless he was in making any independent examination of these related questions, and not wishing to show my own acquaintance with them, i asked a man who had often talked with me on these subjects, a certain p., to interest himself in this sculptor. one day p. told me that the sculptor's interest in these questions was clearly speculative, that his essence was not touched by them and that he saw little use in these discussions i advised him to turn the conversation toward some subject of closer concern to the sculptor. in the course of what seemed a purely casual talk at which i was present, p directed the conversation to the question of art and creation, whereupon the sculptor explained that he 'felt' the rightness of sculptural forms and asked, 'do you know whey the statue of the poet gogol in the arbat place has an excessively long nose?' and he related how, on looking at this statue sideways, he felt that 'the soft flow of the profile,' as he put it, was violated at the top of the nose."

"wishing to test the correctness of this feeling, he decided to search for gogol's death mask, which he found, after a long search, in private hands. he studied the mask, and paid special attention to the nose. this examination revealed that probably, when the mask was taken, a small bubble was formed just where the soft flow of the profile seemed to be violated. the mask maker had filled in the bubble with an unskilled hand, changing the form of the writer's nose. thus the designer of the monument, not doubting the correctness of the mask, had furnished gogol with a nose that was not his.

"what can be said of this incident? is it not evident that such a thing could only happen in the absence of real knowledge?

"while one man uses the mask, fully believing in its correctness, the other, 'feeling' the incorrectness of its execution, looks for a confirmation of his suspicions. neither is better off than the other.

"but with a knowledge of the laws of proportion in the human body, not only could the end of gogol's nose have been reconstructed from the mask but the whole of his body could have been built up exactly as it had been from the nose alone. let us go into this in more detail to make clear exactly what i want to express.

"today i briefly examined the law of the octave. you saw that with knowledge of this law the place of everything is known and, vice versa, if the place is known, one knows what exists there and its quality. everything can be calculated, only one must know how to calculate the passage from one octave to another. the human body, like everything that is a whole, bears in itself this regularity of measurement. in accordance with the number of notes of the octave and with the intervals, the human body has nine principal measurements expressed in definite numbers. for individual persons these numbers vary very much—of course within certain limits. the nine principal measurements, giving an entire octave of the first order, are transmuted into the subordinate octaves which, by a wide extension of this subordinate system, give all the measurements of any part of the human body. every note of an octave is itself a whole octave. consequently it is necessary to know the rules of correlation and combination, and of transition from one scale to another. everything is combined by an indissoluble, unchangeable regularity of law. it is as though, around every point, nine more subordinate points were grouped; and so on to the atoms of the atom.

"knowing the laws of descent, man also knows the laws of ascent, and consequently not only can pass from principal octaves to subordinate ones, but also vice versa. not only can the nose be reconstructed from the face alone, but also from the nose the entire face and body of a man can be reconstructed inexorably and exactly. there is no search for beauty or resemblance. a creation can be nothing other than what it is. . . .

"this is more exact than mathematics, because here you do not meet with probabilities, and it is achieved not by study of mathematics but by a study of a far deeper and broader kind. it is understanding which is needed. in a conversation without understanding, it is possible to talk for decades on the simplest questions without coming to any result.

"a simple question can reveal that a man has not the required attitude of thought, and even with the desire to elucidate the question, the lack of preparation and understanding in the hearer nullifies the words of the speaker. such 'literal understanding' is very common.

"this episode yet again confirmed what i had long since known and had proved a thousand times. recently in petersburg i spoke with a well-known composer. from this conversation i clearly saw how poor his knowledge in the domain of true music was, and how deep the abyss of his ignorance. remember orpheus, who taught knowledge by means of music, and you will understand what i call true or sacred music."

mr. gurdjieff went on, "for such music special conditions will be needed, and then the struggle of the magicians would not be a mere spectacle. as it is now there will only be fragments of the music i heard in certain temples, and even such true music would convey nothing to the hearers because the keys to it are lost and perhaps have never been known in the west. the keys to all the ancient arts are lost, were lost many centuries ago. and therefore there is no longer a sacred art embodying laws of the great knowledge, and so serving to influence the instincts of the multitude.

"there are no creators today. the contemporary priests of art do not create but imitate. they run after beauty and likeness or what is called originality, without possessing even the necessary knowledge. not knowing, and not being able to do anything, since they are groping in the dark, they are praised by the crowd, which places them on a pedestal. sacred art vanished and left behind only the halo which surrounded its servants. all the current words about the divine spark, talent, genius, creation, sacred art, have no solid basis—they are anachronisms. what are these talents? we will talk about them on some suitable occasion.

"either the shoemaker's craft must be called art, or all contemporary art must be called craft. in what way is a shoemaker sewing fashionable custom shoes of beautiful design inferior to an artist who pursues the aim of imitation or originality? with knowledge, the sewing of shoes may be sacred art too, but without it, a priest of contemporary art is worse than a cobbler." the last words were full of emphasis. mr. gurdjieff became silent, and a. said nothing.

the conversation had impressed me deeply; i felt how right a. had been in his warning that in order to listen to mr. gurdjieff more was required than just the wish to meet him.

my thought was working precisely and clearly. thousands of questions rose in my mind, but none corresponded to the depth of what i had heard and so i remained silent.

i looked at mr. gurdjieff. he raised his head slowly and said: "i must go. today it is enough. in half an hour there will be horses to take you to the train. about further plans you will learn from a.," and, turning to him, he added, "take my place as host. have breakfast with our guest. after taking him to the station, come back. . . . well, goodbye."

a. crossed the room and pulled a cord concealed by an ottoman. a persian rug hanging on the wall was drawn aside, revealing a huge window. light from a clear, frosty winter's morning filled the room. this took me by surprise: till that moment i had not thought of the hour.

"what time is it?" i exclaimed.

"nearly nine," a. replied, putting out the lamps. he added, smiling, "as you observe, time does not exist here."