Any description, however clever, would fail to convey these “movements.” All I can say is that thanks to them, work of an extraordinary precision took place in our moving centres, a skilful disconnection became apparent in the functioning of our muscles and we acquired an intimate insight into the workings of our bodies. The stricter the execution of a movement, the greater the possible control and supremacy over every aspect of co-ordination. Once the machine was wound up and running by itself the exercise was made complicated to a degree never dreamed of by the beginners, given up as they were entirely to the joys of an apparent harmony. With intense difficulty the intellectual centre was first of all brought into play, then the emotional centre, or possibly both together. How can I explain this to someone who has not experienced it? To the outsider, what significance can there be in the efforts of these people to make asymmetrical movements with arms and legs, at the same time doing more and more complicated mental arithmetic and, to crown all, being told to perform in a religious spirit? What a wonderfully conventional phrase! What religion? It didn’t matter in the least. It was not enough to emerge from the Metro, one also had to emerge from one’s own private tunnel. To those who were striving for the most intimate physical co-ordination while at the same time keeping to the rhythm and the steps and making mental calculations, the extra command to do it all “in a religious spirit” involved no misunderstanding. The difficulty lay not in grasping the meaning but in acting on it.
“You now say God have mercy” Gurdjieff would say. The docile ones at once cried out in a loud voice “God have mercy.” (“You not shout loud enough.”) Then there were the believers for whom the words did, after all, hold a meaning; they were astonished at the gymnastic prayers. It seemed that they were asked to perform a spiritual exercise the wrong way round, first to make a physical effort, then a mental one and lastly to bring in the emotions. Here were no comfortable hassocks, no glamour, no stained glass or soft music. To the strains of middle-Eastern music on a piano tuned to augmented seconds (not everybody’s taste), muscles stiffened as arms took up the required position, relaxed again for a skilful movement of the legs, while all the time the mental calculations were proceeding. Each one took his turn in a kind of gymnastic canon without losing his proper place in the row; no-one was able to imitate the one in front but the slightest mistake threw out the row, if not the block, or even the whole forty-two performers. On top of all this, at the word of command, all inhibitions and fear of ridicule had to be cast aside and the words “God have mercy” shouted out loud.
There were no down-cast eyes or false ecstasy. Sometimes, if the “movements” went well, if exercise No. 27 (there were no names, only numbers) reached the required standard, it became possible to catch a glimpse of the goal, that is, collective liberation from mechanicalness, and the running of a machine now under full control. The spirit, now served by the body, attained a higher sphere, but this was nothing like the feeling of being moved or exalted. Rather, it resembled one’s feeling on gaining a hard-won height that had to be quickly abandoned because of giddiness. This experience was like the super-effort of the man who, to save his skin, runs faster than ever he thought he could. It would come in a flash, especially if Gurdjieff wasn’t there. When he was there he was always complicating the exercises and inventing new ones, and never, never gave us time to draw breath or to take stock.
He would walk amongst the dancers, straightening a row here, bending a torso there, correcting the position of an arm or leg and then moving on to the following line, making it do the next figure so that when all were once more in motion the exercise moved on from line to line, like a wave. Never mind about your bodies, it’s your state that counts. You are nothing but the hieroglyphs of an inexhaustible language that I shall continue to speak through you and whose secret I shall guard with my life. Though you may be clumsy, slow and lifeless, go on, write, write in your muscles, in your heads and, if possible, in your hearts. These are texts to be deciphered inwardly; only those who transmit them can understand them. You are living ciphers.
Some of the instructors were outstanding; they were usually girls who were the most gifted. They would note the hieroglyphs on little diagrams, receipts for the exercises, a collective score. Occasionally there were public performances. Gurdjieff, in one of his irrepressible freaks, would dress everyone up in Turkish costume. This just had to be borne. Misunderstanding would reach its height. The idle curious, to whom the aesthetic side mattered most, would go away, outraged; the other, less snobbish spectators, might guess that something important was going on, in spite of the fancy dress, something incomplete but possibly prodigious. As for the corps de ballet, these Parisians in Turkish slippers, Gurdjieff would simply throw them handfuls of boiled sweets.
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This webpage © 2002 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2002 Issue, Vol. V (1)
Revision: April 1, 2002
Excerpted from pages 433–437 of the author’s chapter “The Old Man and the Children of the Age” in Louis Pauwel’s anthology, Gurdjieff. Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) was an engineer, musician, composer, researcher and theorist who developed Concrete Music. He was also a pioneer in the development of radio, television and cinema in France as well as a novelist, essayist and cultural critic.