Gurdjieff International Review
A review of Meetings with Remarkable Men
by Manuel Rainoird
Translated by Jack Cain
On January 1st, 1877, according to the old Russian calendar; somewhere on the outskirts of two empiressomeplace where Europe, with the noise and racket of its inventions and fashions, has thrust its tide across the great body of Russia; but where the spirit of a millennial Asia remained strongest, forming a natural climate with the support of Turks, Greeks, Tartars, Armenians and Persians; in that region where so many peoples possessing a heritage coexistedin the Caucasus; in the distant province of Kars, up until then Ottoman but which the Tsars armies have just taken; at the hearth of a Greek family, a son was born.
That this child should receive from the outsetthanks to a father who was a carpenter by trade, but who in fact was the recipient of a very ancient oral culture, and thanks to priests of the Russian clergyan education simultaneously moral and religious, scientific and practical, in short a real education, notable as much by its unity as by the diversity of the influences which shaped it, all this seems to indicate a kind of vocation nurtured by geography.
But that this child and later this man should harbor and foster in himself, reaching unimaginable limits, a spirit of investigation born with the first tooththat, dissatisfied with the explanations of science, he should investigate during perhaps twenty years, in the course of perilous voyages in Asian countries accompanied by other seekers, a response to questions which ordinary science cannot quench; that he should submit to rigorous disciplines, then having transcended for himself the still-living remnants of a knowledge concerning the human psyche, having recreated for himself unity, that he should acquire the conviction that modern man in spite of his abnormal conditions of existence had the possibility by means of a certain work to become conscious of himself, to awaken to his true interests; that with this aim he should launch in 1913 in Moscow, an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Manall this lends credence to a destiny which is personal, to a calling which must flower without regard for any person or any thing. And what emerged, confirms this. Since this overtly oriental Greek, contending with worldwide turmoil, in spite of difficulties of every kind, as if driven from East to West by the lassitude and the impermeability of men under the influence of their collective insanity, came, most definitely, to abundantly accomplish his labor of renewal at the other side of Europe, on a shore where naturally there could have reached only the attenuated echoes of his call.
This call, capable of interesting those who nourish the mad ambition of jumping over their knees, is the very life and work of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. But with the public at large, his life and work seem still poorly distinguished from myth. Even though he lived in France for the last years of his life, from 1921 to 1949, sustaining around himself a durable movement, his person, what he really was, remains difficult to place in the context of our habits, our thoughts. What useful facts can be drawn from the experiences that have been reportedoften after a single meeting, or openly second hand? They all have the same taste of exaggeration. One seeks some comfort and support from members of the literary community regarding those who saturated us with writings about Katherine Mansfield and Gurdjieff!
In the twentieth century, in our kind of civilization, doesnt the work of G. I. Gurdjieff seem impossible to place? Hes not a philosopher, a thinker in the sense in which that is meant in Europe. The range of his theories contain too many notions. Behind the points of view that he develops, there is something like a separate thing, a thing apart. Work on oneself seems to us poorly understood and finds its expression in distant religions, rather a natural attribute of the Hindus or Chinese. Perhaps we feel affected. But mistrust is mixed with fascination. In the arena where any down-home philosopher may catch our ear, this stranger from the East is suspect: our entrenched critical faculties are slow to stir; neither the awakening of thought nor conscience are of much help to them. Master Freud with his comfortable notions of the unconscious, the dissociation of personality, remains their favorite. Have we put forward as we ought the symbol of the (cosmic) man-machine that Gurdjieff postulates, noting that he also duly resurrected the ancient symbol of the horse, carriage and driver?
We are struck first of all by the least familiar aspects.
At the beginning of Meetings, the publishers note recalls the assessment of Gurdjieff by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright: In the work of this man and in his thoughtin what he did and the way he did itWest truly meets East.1
Although in this book there is very much a question of the East, Meetings with Remarkable Men is not an Eastern book.
The call to reason that is the dominant theme of all that he expounds, and the scientific method, applied here to large questions touching human destiny are not devoid of the echoes of our Western heritage.
These indubitable facts, which I had seen with my own eyes, as well as many others I had heard about during my searchingsall of them pointing to the presence of something supernaturalcould not in any way be reconciled with what common sense told me or with what was clearly proved by my already extensive knowledge of the exact sciences, which excluded the very idea of supernatural phenomena. The contradiction in my consciousness gave me no peace and was all the more irreconcilable because the facts and proofs on both sides were equally convincing.2
This evokes a meditation reminiscent of the challenge that Pascal addressed to his libertine friends.
If the appearance in French, four years ago, of his monumental work Beelzebubs Tales to His Grandson received little official response, even though it poured into the marketplace of thought such great riches, can we really be surprised? This literature comes from another place. Right from the start, an action on the part of the reader is required. The look with which the great Beelzebub embraces planet Earth is at one and the same time merciless and good. It obligates. Here, we ought to replace the mythic Beelzebub with Gurdjieff himself, while recalling the picture of him that we know well, which has been widely published. That which emanates from the eyes: a space, an immanent dimension, a call. The immediacy of his presence, of his look within us, does it allow us to realize that launching into his Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man entails risks? Our comfortable notions, our ideas in general must suffer. The reading of distant Zen masters involves fewer trials. The shadows of Time work against the messengers. The content of what they have left evaporates. Under the influence of too many manipulations, real influence is erased.
It is for us to drink the rivers water at its source, to seek, starting now, to understand the meaning of an incomparable work, of a destiny apart, achieved in our civilization, before our very eyes. His personality, what he has brought us, has permeated our era and any historian who would endeavor to draw up a panorama of human thought will be unable to account for it.
After Beelzebubs Tales, Meetings with Remarkable Men, the second book undertaken by Gurdjieff, while illuminating the person of Gurdjieff himself, so poorly known, shrouded in babbled myths, assists us in better placing the meaning of the spiritual investigations that he proposes. He brings us, in a form all his own, the material necessary for a reconstruction. But Beelzebub did not emerge fully armed from the cosmos. His critical conclusions, his exhortations, the lasting call that he constructed, the apparatus for a harmonious development of man that he established, all of these are the result of an incessant confrontation, a re-creation based on scattered elements, the product of considerable intelligence, common sense, suffering, and sweat.
Meetings has exemplary value. We are presented with models to follow. It is the how that follows from Beelzebubs Tales. But it may not seem that way at first.
In Beelzebubs Tales, as indeed in the introduction to Meetings, which is its sequel, everything conspires to shake us to the core so that we forget even our grandmother. In the portraits themselves the treatment is administered to the reader in another form.
In my opinion, the quintessence of an idea can sometimes be very well transmitted to others by means of certain anecdotes and proverbs formed by life.3
So, a series of familiar anecdotes starts us off. We can listen to them, it seems, with the sole aim of amusementsince the proffered search is not directly accessible. What becomes apparent, what arises from the tale itself after certain encounters, what works within me, is a conclusion that is not expressible in words. I listen with my feeling; the material of the Tales is projected there; fundamental problems are precisely delineated. But things are shown us from the other side of the glass; the elevation of abstract thought is very far beyond human existence and to arrive there, the seeing of the seeker must cross the high passes of his own darkness.
The chapters of Gurdjieffs books constituted a part of his teaching. He had them read aloud to a limited circle of pupils, invited guests, while allowing himself to modify one passage or another based on the reactions of those listening.
Also, beyond the literary form, we ought to deepen the possible relationship that might be established between this book and ourselves.
On the surface this appears to be a story in the oriental manner but as Gurdjieff says when describing the Thousand and One Nights, sacred writings and other “works of literature in the full sense of the word. Anyone reading and hearing this book feels clearly that everything in it is fantasy, but fantasy corresponding to truth, even though composed of episodes which are quite improbable for the ordinary life of people.”4
Everything in it is fantasy, but a fantasy that conforms to truthtransposed for us, for our use, in various modes, at one and the same time biography, novel, and travel journal. But, the authors permanent exhortation remains as an underlying patterning behind all these aspects of life itself. Does the truth of speech belong to language? Even when the truth expressed is harsh, the substrate of aspiration never deviates. But this is no dark mystery and we are very far from supposed black magic, from malevolent powers. This book seems to be dedicated to what we might bebecause it arouses in us, it evokes the words brotherhood, remorse. If the material necessary for the acquiring of genuine conscience is found in the context of anecdotes that are impervious to analysisjust as in Zen stories where everything and nothing consort to trivialize the evidencewhat already does exist is not in the process swept away. The author refers to established truths, to faith.
It is not a question of to whom a man prays, but a question of his faith. Faith is conscience, the foundation of which is laid in childhood. If a man changes his religion, he loses his conscience, and conscience is the most valuable thing in a man. I respect his conscience, and since his conscience is sustained by his faith and his faith by his religion, therefore I respect his religion; and for me it would be a great sin if I should begin to judge his religion or to disillusion him about it, and thus destroy his conscience which can only be acquired in childhood.5
And it is doubtless not for nothing that, within the exemplary portraits, we find slipped in, as experiences undergone, large unavoidable problems, regions of essential darkness around which our knowledge revolves. The figures of each of the seekers of truth illustrate this very well: My Father, as if one wishes for the aim of life; My First Tutor (Dean Borsh) the destiny of the couple; Bogachevsky, objective morality; Pogossian, the requirement to work; Abram Yelov, work in thinking; Prince Yuri Lubovedsky, the cry to emerge from darkness.
Eh, Gogo, Gogo! Forty-five years you have worked, suffered and laboured incessantly, and not once did you decide for yourself or know how to work so that, if only for a few months, the desire of your mind should become the desire of your heart.6
If only from the historical point of view, Remarkable Men helps us to better understand the body of Gurdjieffs work. Gurdjieffs childhood, his adolescence, his formative years appear in broad outline. No doubt certain paths are deliberately entangled. Who were his real masters?we have no idea. Transmission abuts the borders of life itself. The Sarmoung Monastery, the Universal Brotherhooddo they exist as he depicts them. It matters little. What has been delivered to us is more than a copy, a correspondence. Let us not try to discover geographic truths in his itineraries. Even though it is touching to find concerning the ruins of Ani,7 appearing in a recent art journal, the church of the Pious Shepherds Wife whose story Gurdjieff reports to us.
The direct, familiar styleso removed from bon ton literary language, itself the object of the authors merciless criticismmay prevent us from sensing the summation of knowledge, of first hand experiencings juxtaposed at every detour in the narration and of which we perceive only the fringe. Truly, its as if you were there, whether its a reception with the Khan or the fabrication of American canaries, performances of a fakir or the retail and wholesale purveying of twenty barrels of herring.
Because of the faithfulness of the rendering, we find that Meetings includes as a sub-theme remarkable sociological landscapes, such as that of Tsarist Russia, reminiscent of a somewhat more acerbic version of Chekov. How is it that this science wisdom can be as fascinating as science fiction?
What remains is to determine the internal logic of the tale, to identify the thread that guides us through unforeseen trials, each one of which representing the nature of a find.
We have also Gurdjieffs report as an Asian specialist:
Having lived fifteen years uninterruptedly in the West, and being constantly in contact with people of all nationalities, I have come to the conclusion that no one in Europe knows or has any idea about Asia.
Most people in Europe and America have the notion that Asia is a kind of indefinite, great continent adjoining Europe, and inhabited by savage or, at best, semi-savage groups of peoples who just happen to be there and go wild.
Their ideas about its size are very vague; they are always ready to compare it with European countries and do not suspect that Asia is such a vast continent that several Europes could be put into it, and that it contains whole races of people about whom not only Europeans but even Asiatics themselves have never heard. Furthermore, among these savage groups certain sciences, as, for example, medicine, astrology, natural science and so on, without any wiseacreing or hypothetical explanations, have long since attained a degree of perfection which European civilization may perhaps reach only after several hundred years.8
It is worth pointing out the extent to which the descriptions of voyages and expeditions, even when they become fantastic, are stripped of exotic trappings. In pondering the style of his second work, the author has chosen to respond to an instinctive curiosity, to an ill-defined attraction which unknown lands always evoke. But whether it concerns going from the Pamir Mountains into India by crossing the Himalayas, rafting down the River Pandj,9 or arduous hiking in the mountains of Kafirsitan, towards Bokhara, the secret heart of Islam, we are fed only the barest details; and these are immediately swept past by the flow of the narrative. Our imagination is never given free rein. Each reported trait, each incidental phrase instead of carrying us away, brings us back incessantly to the facts of a unknown landscape in the psychological realm.
Sometimes, as in the Thousand and One Nights, the story takes place on several levels at once. Ancillary characters in the story (Vitvitskaïa, Soloviev) are developed in relation to the central figure (Prince Lubovedsky). Has the stage set, the blocking been carried out according to an experiential logic of which the meaning has been lost? We are up against one of those Japanese boxes, a masterpiece of cunning, of common sense, of well-crafted skill. Apparently its a cube, an assembly of smooth surfaces enclosing a space. But the joinery, turned inward, looks towards a center.
This series of adventures, these so-called pieces belong to a whole. No matter what passage we recall, what is said has a correspondence elsewhere. There is an untold tale, parallel to the first, which is found higher up, at the high-water mark of ideas that can be perceived only with time. These are the ideas that Gurdjieff, by means of literature and other devices, aimed to make accessible to everyone.
1 All excerpts are from the English edition of Meetings with Remarkable Men which omits the French publishers note that includes this quotation from Frank Lloyd Wright.
2 Meetings with Remarkable Men, New York: Dutton; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, p. 83.
3 Ibid, p. 14.
4 Ibid, p. 18.
5 Ibid, p. 115.
6 Ibid, p. 158.
7 The passage about Ani is in Meetings, pp. 8788.
8 Meetings with Remarkable Men, p. 198.
9 Translators note: The Pandj (Pyandzh) River is a tributary of the Amu Darya. These two rivers form the border of the extreme northeastern corner of Afghanistan, where the Hindu Kush Mountains are found, and separate it from the fertile Fergana Valley to the north in present-day Tajikistan. The English spelling Pianje in Beelzebubs Tales is derived from the Russian spelling Pyandzha.
First published in Critique (Paris), No. XVI (162), November, 1960, at the publication of Gurdjieffs book in French. Manuel Rainoird is a novelist and playwright living in Paris.
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