Gurdjieff had not been vigorously well when he was in New York in the winter of 1948, but he had not seemed seriously ill and never took to his bed. He was racked by a spasmodic cough, a deep, gurgling, tracheal rumble that reflected not only a chronic inflammation at the bases of his lungs, but also his love of Gaulois Bleu, the popular French cigarette, fat with harsh, black Turkish tobacco, which he selected from a bright blue package and carefully screwed into a short, hand-whittled wooden holder.
His abdominal girth was heroic and his presence in the Turkish bath, while not gargantuan, was at least the match of Rodin’s Balzac. He held court, when in New York, in the vast hot room of the Luxor baths on West Forty-sixth Street, an iced towel flipped around his bald head, his tiny feet splayed out under his vast belly above the expanse of which he poured himself tumblers of Perrier water, belching roundly, proclaiming with gutty satisfaction to no one in particular, “Bravo, Perrier!”
Regular visits to the bath were a ritual part of the festival of his life, and many of the men in the group around him became devotees of the hot room, the steam room, and even the Russian room, where the blinding heat, produced by splashing white hot rocks with cold water, was nearly more than could be borne, especially at the uppermost levels of the bleacher-like benches that lined the enclosure.
Other patrons must have wondered at the enigmatic, caramel-colored, fiercely moustached figure of Gurdjieff picking his way with feline grace from the hot room to the steam room to the Russian room, ultimately to lead his band of followers to the marble staircase going down into the neo-renaissance pool, which took up the central area of the baths. Only an “eedyot” would have the stupidity to plunge into the pool on emerging from the heat of the steam room or the sauna. (My son, Dick, received a dressing down for not restraining himself.)
We would line up on either side of him as he took a sitting position in the middle at the top of the staircase, with only his feet touching the water, several steps below the level of his tawny rump. At measured intervals, we would follow his lead in unison, and slip down one step at a time, until we were finally sitting chin deep in the chilly pool.
I was astounded to read some years later that among the bemused adepts who participated in this droll ritual, one believed himself to have been initiated into some special level of illumination in the course of his gradual, and ultimately total, immersion. I am afraid my only illumination derived from the shuddering chill to which I never became wholly acclimated, as my fundament and its anterior appendages were finally plunged into the icy water.
However much the analogy to an esoteric baptism might appeal to the unduly suggestible, I was not convinced, though almost anything Gurdjieff did could be interpreted as symbolic. When I went to the bath in Gurdjieff’s absence, I avoided such slow motion heroics and preferred to emulate another habitué of the bath who was not connected with our tribe. It was this gentleman’s habit to emerge from the Russian room six feet and at least six inches more of massive, steaming, tomato-red bulk. He would lumber impassively down the steps in measured strides, walking tall, looking straight ahead, and never hesitating at the shock of the cold water, but continuing to walk until he was completely submerged.
Still walking, and turning in a slow circle, he would start back. Gradually he rose up out of the water like Triton, his skin having returned to its apparently natural dull gray-blue. He was, I suspect, a Russian, or perhaps like Gurdjieff, a Georgian, who seemed wholly impervious to the ordeal, including the attendant illumination high or low.
It was thus with memories of Gurdjieff’s no longer young, but sturdy, aged vigor that I heard with disbelief in the late summer of 1949 of his dwindling strength and deteriorating health. He had talked of going away on a journey, or leaving his followers to pursue his own aims, and we had listened with mixed emotions. But in his presence, although he was not a big man, he gave a massive impression of contained energy—leonine, alert, watching, and capable of springing up. We certainly did not think of his death as near.
[The complete text is available in the printed copy of this issue.]
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This excerpt is taken from Dr. Welch’s autobiography, What Happened in Between: A Doctor’s Story, New York: George Braziller, 1972, pp. 132–142. Copies of the book are available from Olana Gallery, 2 Carillon Road, Brewster, NY 10509, 845-279-8077, email: email@example.com.
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Featured: Fall 2004 Issue, Vol. VIII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2004