The Gurdjieff Journal—Fourth Way Perspectives

Book Review
Daddy Gurdjieff: Quelques souvenirs inédits

by Nicolas de Val
Livre Georg, Geneva


(#) Parentheses indicate footnote number

Books about Mr. Gurdjieff that might increase our understanding of him and the teaching he brought and embodied are a welcome event. And one with the title Daddy Gurdjieff: A few unedited memories,(1) in French, has a certain attraction: what would Gurdjieff be like as a father? Who can imagine him being called "Daddy?" What would it be like to be his child? There are a number of previously unrecorded impressions in the book that make it worth reading, but unfortunately the perspective of its author, Nicolas de Val, a natural son of Gurdjieff, is too small and ordinary to embrace its subject.

In addition to de Val's memories and judgments there are three other stories(2), including one by his mother Elizabeta. The wife of Dr. Leonid de Stjernvall, one of Gurdjieff's oldest and closest pupils, she gives a first-hand account of the harrowing 1917 exodus of Gurdjieff and his pupils through the Caucasus. The only other source we have of these events is Thomas and Olga de Hartmann's Our Life With Mr. Gurdjieff.

De Val's storytelling, told from the perspective of a child, is vivid: what is, is. No comparisons. It is its own world; there is no other. And we are often shown a Gurdjieff who is hearty, full of life and enjoying it. Nicolas lived at the "phalanstery"(3) of the Prieuré from the age of three-and-a-half. He gives us a picture of life there, much of it already described, but, here and there, one can glean something of interest. His early memories there, with three other children,(4) are "gentle memories," interrupted unhappily, he reports, by "a cowhide who carried the name Ethel Mersten, an old unsatisfied woman and ugly as a louse." (This was the woman Fritz Peters refers to as "Miss Madison" in Boyhood with Gurdjieff.)

He gives an interesting picture of readings of All and Everything which, he says, were held in the grand salon after a hard day's work. The disciples seated themselves around Gurdjieff and listened with eyes lowered, in absolute silence, while Gurdjieff sat beaming, eyes sparkling, drinking buttermilk, "guffawing" often, no one knowing why. Philos, the "flea-bitten mongrel" that Gurdjieff "had begun to love...[would make] his appearance.... Nonchalant and sure of himself, he stretched out full length in the middle of the salon, under the indulgent gaze of the audience."

Nicolas's family influences with regard to Gurdjieff were polar opposites. At a meeting in Finland, in 1916, it was Dr. de Stjernvall (it would have been interesting to hear more about him) who exclaimed that he believed Gurdjieff to be "not less than Christ himself."(5) But Elizabeta Grigorievna, de Stjernvall's wife, and Nicolas's mother, was unstable and quarrelsome in her attitude toward Gurdjieff. She looked to Rachmielivitch—whom Gurdjieff paid to stay at the Prieuré to produce friction with which students could work(6)—for explanations of the teaching, not Gurdjieff or her husband. As her son quaintly puts it, the teaching was "never her hobby"! (The use of the word, as will be seen, reveals his valuation of the teaching.) Disregarding Gurdjieff's ideas about schooling and religion, she sent Nicolas to church and to school in Paris, thereby placing Nicolas in situations of greater mechanical influences and removing him from greater contact with conscious influences, as well as conveying her attitude toward Gurdjieff and the teaching.

Earlier, in Constantinople in 1921, Gurdjieff, desperate for funds to take himself and his pupils to Berlin, had borrowed from her for pawn a pair of very valuable earrings to help finance the journey to Germany. She made him promise to return them and for years spoke about this as "proof of his unreliability and even of his evil nature." When five years later, after long search and at great cost he finally recovered the earrings and returned them to her, suddenly "this was proof of what a wonderful man he was, and how she had always known that he would keep his promise to her."(7)

After the final closing of the Institute in 1931 (though Gurdjieff did not lose the Prieuré itself until 1933), de Val's family moved to Normandy. Dr. de Stjernvall, whom de Val called 'Papoussia,' contracted cancer. Gurdjieff visited often, visibly preoccupied with the health of the man he called his "precious and faithful collaborator." During one visit in 1937, his mother told the then twenty-year-old de Val that Gurdjieff was taking him to Paris to act as factotum(8) at his Paris apartment on the rue des Colonels-Rénard. Delighted, de Val ran to tell Papoussia, who cried and hugged him, agreeing that he should go.

De Val worked in the kitchen, as did Gurdjieff's nephew Valia, and the two became good friends. Every day there were guests for lunch and dinner, so the purchase of ingredients and preparation were very important—"cooking was an immutable ritual for Gurdjieff," he says. Like many a son, he was determined not to be intimidated by his strong and famous father, whom he often refers to as "G.I." De Val says he did as he liked around him, shrugging off what he took to be Gurdjieff's criticisms. He reports that the sixty-five-year- old Gurdjieff's sex life was so prolific that it disturbed his sleep, forcing him to move to a nearby hotel.

Gurdjieff liked fresh herbs and when, one day, de Val couldn't find fresh mint, Gurdjieff began to scold him. De Val says he stood impassive and unblinking, jaw lightly clenched as, having been familiar with what he sees as Gurdjieff 's "excesses of anger," he had "long before forged a hard shell." With great pride, he says, "I feel that my detached and placid attitude dumbfounded a little this dear Georges Ivanovitch each time he permitted himself an outburst."(9)

Gurdjieff, of course, was trying to teach his son, but de Val was more concerned with keeping his distance, not establishing a rapport; a not uncommon reaction of sons of powerful fathers. De Val would try to practice what Gurdjieff told him—"Daily, I tried to take the best part possible of the good principles that he taught me. I assimilated, so to speak, at work the essentials of the teaching." But he would do it his way, inventing exercises and making self-imposed efforts. Gurdjieff's encouragement he took for approval. Gurdjieff listened to his son attentively, smiling, asking questions as his son recounted how he'd fared with his self-invented exercises. In this way the "joyously useless lectures, vague theories and abstruse reasoning"(10) were circumvented, a viewpoint de Val amazingly, even after all these years, still holds.

Speed and driving, he reports, "literally intoxicated" Gurdjieff who, despite two accidents, "drove, alas, abominably. He had no sense of the machine, nor driving regulations, and cared little about distances between vehicles." But elsewhere de Val reports Gurdjieff having "precise and sure movements." Others have spoken of harrowing rides with Gurdjieff, also attributing the cause to ignorance of driving. And yet, like de Val, many have noted Gurdjieff's resourcefulness, skill with machinery and craft, knowledge of all sorts of things. Gurdjieff, no doubt, loved speed and mobility but he was always teaching, the nature of his outings being lessons, albeit frightful ones, for students who traveled with him.(11)

Notes

(1) A problem with "unedited memories" is that memory can be faulty. De Val says that Madame Ostrowska died of tuberculosis, but as all other sources report that she died of cancer, we begin to wonder about other inaccuracies in his reports.

(2) One story by de Val's mother concerns a few meetings she had with Rasputin. Gurdjieff, in response to someone speaking of Rasputin's reputed powers, said that Rasputin was merde, could do nothing and knew nothing. Solita Solano Papers, Library of Congress.

(3) A term, coined by a 19th century French socialist and reformer, referring to his planned socialistic community, or to any communal association; the word is derived from phalanx [a military formation] and monastery. The French still commonly refer to Gurdjieff's Institute at the Prieuré as a phalanstery.

(4) Boussick de Salzmann, Yvonne Pinder, and Leonia, grandson of Madame Ouspensky.

(5) Anna Butkovsky-Hewitt, With Gurdjieff in St. Petersburg and Paris. p. 67.

(6) Fritz Peters, Boyhood with Gurdjieff. pp. 71–72.

(7) Ibid. pp. 109–111.

(8) In the Preface, Paul Taylor, who'd also been factotum, defines the word as also meaning "odd-job man." Besides the meanings of handyman, or man-of-all-work, the 'job' that Taylor and de Val as well as Fritz Peters and other young men held could be seen as that of 'steward,' which resounds with meaning in terms of the teaching, and therefore the great opportunity Gurdjieff was giving them. Of these three men who have written about it so far, only Fritz Peters gained in understanding.

(9) There is a petulance in the words—"this dear Georges Ivanovitch"—that one would expect de Val to have outgrown.

(10) In this we can take warning of how easy it is to not understand—and to not even know we are not understanding, even though many years may have passed.

(11) For Solita Solano's description of traveling with Gurdjieff, see William Patrick Patterson's Ladies of the Rope (Arete Communications LLC, 1999), pp. 136–137.


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