One of the most interesting developments of modern times in the realm of philosophic ideas is the system expounded by M. Gurdjieff, with which many Americans have become familiar through the work of Mr. A. R. Orage. The following article by Mr. Zigrosser makes no attempt to explain the Gurdjieff philosophy, but gives a vivid picture of a visit to the Gurdjieff Institute, at Fontainebleau, and a personal sketch of its head.
The New Republic Editors
When I visited the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainebleau for the first time, one gray and showery June Sunday morning, I was taken out into the garden to meet Mr. Gurdjieff, who was strolling there with an old Russian friend. As they approached me, Mr. Gurdjieff was walking with a slow, firm step, his hands behind his back: I saw a man of medium height but powerful build, swarthy complexion and piercing black eyes. He was dressed in almost shabby clothes, a rusty black overcoat, and a slouch hat, all of which he wore with indifference to ordinary standards of fashion. He thus presented a deceptively undistinguished appearance. In contrast, I remember how impressive he looked in oriental clothes, in an old painting by Mr. Salzman which I saw later. I also have another, and still more vivid impression of Mr. Gurdjieff sitting cross-legged in his Turkish bath and wrapped in an enormous white towel, which set off the swarthiness of his face.
When we came near, he opened the conversation by saying, “I smell American.” I†had been prepared for this sort of greeting by the reports of previous visitors, so I was not as startled as I might have been. He went on to explain in his curious English: “You no take bath here last night; I smell American smell.” After some conversation he asked if I could drink. When I replied that I hoped I could, he invited me to sit beside him at dinner—a place which I learned later was reserved for those who drank. He laughed and added that he liked three kinds of people; those who could drink, those who could tell stories—and the third he would tell me about some other time. A few minutes later, he left us and went to his room.
While waiting for dinner I explored the grounds with Mr. de Hartmann, a brilliant musician who has been associated with Mr. Gurdjieff for many years. The Chateau and the grounds had the lovely, quiet charm of old French country places. This one had been left practically unchanged since the seventeenth century, when Madame Maintenon, among others, is supposed to have lived in it, and when it was remodelled with royal funds. The house consisted of a central building with a wing on either side, and a rambling addition containing the kitchen, stable, and former servants’ quarters. The main building—called “the Ritz” by those at the Institute—faced a sloping lawn, laid out with gravel paths and a fountain, and said to have been designed by Le NŰtre.
Mr. de Hartmann and I came back in time for dinner, which was served to about six or seven older members of the community in the main dining room. The meal was much like those that I later discovered were served on feast-days or other special occasions, beginning with platters of hors d’œuvres, potato and other mixed salads, smoked fish, onion tops and other herbs, eaten by hand, such as mint, fennel, parsley, tarragon, and exotic plants that have no English names. These herbs were always on the table at the Institute. The soup was followed by Russian meat cakes, and a rhubarb compote. At other times, kasha or the Armenian madzoon was served as dessert. Occasionally a whole sheep’s head was cooked as a delicacy, and served by Mr. Gurdjieff to his guests with smiling reflections on the foolishness of a civilization which allowed him to buy such a morsel for a couple of francs. Some kind of spirits, either Vieux Marc or Armagnac, was usually passed around. There was a ritual for the drinking of this brandy: seven rounds were served, each with a toast, to which everyone was expected to drain his glass. The toasts seldom varied from the following order: (1) To the health of all idiots; (2) To the ordinary idiot; (3) To the candidate for idiocy; (4) To the superidiot; (5) To the archidiot; (6) To the hopeless idiot; (7) To the compassionate idiot.
I once asked him why he always toasted idiots, why he did not invoke a benevolent power in his toasts, such as BeŽlzebub, for instance. He answered that he sometimes did, but that he never could venture—and here his tone assumed the greatest reverence—to drink to BeŽlzebub himself. “To the tip of his tail, yes, or his hoofs, or his horns, maybe—but never to the great being himself.” And he showed me the chair that BeŽlzebub always sat in when he visited him, pointing out that there was room for him to curl up his tail comfortably, and so on.
[The complete text is available in the printed copy of this issue.]
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1 I have since heard a number of pieces in which the harmony was complex and in which dissonance was used in an extraordinarily effective way.
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This essay was first published in The New Republic, New York: Vol.†LIX (757), June 5, 1929, pp.†66–69.
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