Gurdjieff's Wartime Paris Meetings

ON THE MORNING OF JUNE 14, 1940, LONG COLUMNS OF JACKBOOTED German soldiers marched in goose-step precision down the Champs Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe. Nine days later, at 6 a. m. on the morning of June 23rd, a large black Mercedes drove slowly along the same route, carrying a triumphant Adolf Hitler. At Napoleon's Tomb in the Invalides, the Mercedes was directed to stop. Here the Führer stared at the red porphyry sarcophagus of Europe's last great conqueror. Murmured Hitler, "This is the finest moment of my life." Soon, the Nazi flag—the red, black, and white swastika—hung from the Eiffel Tower and every government building. Paris was an occupied city.


Initially, with the fall of Paris imminent, Gurdjieff's anxious and fearful students had induced him to leave. Four-fifths of Paris' 2.8 million citizens, despite Stuka divebombers strafing the roads, were streaming westward and southward in an attempt to elude the oncoming Panzer divisions. Gurdjieff left as well, but then turned back, returning to his apartment at 6 rue des Colonels-Renard. So began a new phase of his life—in Nazi-occupied Paris.

For some time, Jeanne de Salzmann had been meeting with a group at the home of orientalist Philippe Lavastine and his young wife Boussique at 54 rue du Four, on the Left Bank near the Hôtel Napoleon. The group was composed, among others, of Henri and Henriette Tracol, Marthe de Gaigneron, Pauline de Dampier, and Bernard Lemaître. That October, Mme de Salzmann presented her group to Gurdjieff and meetings began thereafter.

Soon, as the Gestapo took the city in hand, there were checkpoints, searches, and unexplained disappearances. To simply get to a meeting was a risk. Not only meetings but soon movements classes began to be held at the Salle Pleyel, on the rue du Fauberg St. Honoré, a short walk from Gurdjieff's apartment. Often there was no heat, as charcoal for stoves was unobtainable and, electricity being erratic, candles had to be used for light.

Nazis entertainment

By January 1942 official food rations were reduced to 1,200 calories a day, half that needed to maintain health and strength. (It was then that Gurdjieff began speaking to shopkeepers of his Texas oil well and how at the war's end, when he again had access to its income, they would be handsomely rewarded.) On May 29, the German edict was posted demanding that all Jews wear the yellow Star of David. Gurdjieff arranged that his Gentile group members hide those Jewish members who could not escape. The war was going badly. Life in Paris worsened still more when in February 1943 young Frenchmen began to be conscripted for forced labor.

Amid all this, Gurdjieff's group grew to 40 or so, among them the writer Luc Dietrich, a friend of the poet and writer René Daumal who was in the Unoccupied Zone (which the Germans, breaking their agreement with the Vichy government, overran in November 1942), the psychiatrist Hubert Benoit, René Zuber, Pierre Schaeffer, Tchekhov Tchekhovitch, Louis Le Prudomme, and Miss Elizabeth Gordon, who had been among Gurdjieff's first students at the Prieuré. Miss Gordon, an Englishwoman, was interned by the Nazis in 1943 and died in Paris after her release.

On August 25, 1944, General Dietrich von Choltitz, rather than blow up Paris as Hitler commanded, surrendered the city to General Leclerc. Still, everyday living conditions remained severe. The newly instituted French police reactivated Dossier Gurdjieff and, securing a search warrant, visited his apartment looking for illicitly held foreign currency. Word reaching Gurdjieff beforehand, they found nothing but still hauled him in. The next day he was let go and meetings continued. With this as the prevailing context, the following are notes of the meetings.

December 7, 1941

Question: Something intolerable happens in my work. In spite of my efforts I cannot remember myself; to get a better quality. It's useless to set myself hours of work by the clock. I get no result. Why?

Gurdjieff: That comes from your egoism. Particularly big egoism in which you have lived till now. You are enclosed in it; you must get out of it. To get out, you must learn to work. Not only for yourself alone, but for others. You began with work on your parents. You must change your task. Take a new one, the same one on the neighbor, no matter who, all beings, or choose from the people amongst you. You must work for yourself through the aim of being able to help them. This alone will struggle against egoism. I see that you both have a very bad past, a particular egoism. All the old material comes to the fore. That is why you can do nothing. It is normal; according to order; according to law. Before attaining the aim, there are many ascents and descents. This should reassure you. I could reassure you completely, but you must work for yourself.

Question: To get out of this state of suffering, so vivid and so negative. (Two kinds of suffering, one objective, one subjective.) Can I make use of exterior means?

Gurdjieff: No, you must work on yourself. Destroy the egoism in which you have always lived. Try what I say. Change your task. It is necessary now to reach a new stage. Both of you are on the way to the Gare de Lyon, but you go by different routes, one by London and one by the Opéra. You are both at about the same distance.

Question: I see my powerlessness and my cowardice. I can say nothing and do nothing for another. Because my head is not clear. I have a sensation of whether a thing is right or not, but I cannot explain why clearly.

Gurdjieff: You cannot say anything or do anything for another. You do not know what you need for yourself, you cannot know what he needs. Work with purpose for him. But play your role. Be apart internally: See. Externally speak as he does, so as not to hurt him. You must acquire the force to do this. Play a role. Become double. For the present you work as overseer. Do what I tell you, you cannot do more. Love of your neighbor; that is the way. Bring to everyone that which you felt for your parents.

Question: From the beginning of the work, one has this desire.

Gurdjieff: Certainly, it is the same thing; always the same thing that returns in a different degree. Now another degree. You must overcome this crisis. Everything comes from false love of oneself, of the opinion one has of oneself, which is lies.

Question: Everything has been turned upside down in me by the exercise—in all my work. It has taken away the joy of the work, has made it painful, without hope, I feel like a donkey pulling a very heavy cart up a hill.

Gurdjieff:It is because in you are other parts which are touched. It is like a painter who always mixes the same colors and there is never any red. When he puts red in, it changes everything. You must continue.

Question: This exercise has made me feel something which is new for me; when I try to do it and put my attention on this small motionless point and see that I cannot hold myself in front of it, I have a sensation of my nothingness and I seem to understand humility better. This small point is greater than I.

Gurdjieff: Because you have a dog in yourself which hinders you in everything. It is called insolence toward oneself. You must destroy this dog. Afterward you will feel master of this point, that you are stronger and it is nothing. I have no confidence in the artistic type which lives in the imagination, has ideas behind its head, not inside, thinks it feels and experiences, but in reality only is occupied with exterior things. It lives only on the surface, outside, not inside, not in itself. Artists know nothing of reality and imagine that they know. Do not trust yourself. Enter into yourself, all parts of yourself. Absolutely necessary to learn to feel and think at the same time in everything that you do, in everyday life. You are an empty person.

Question: How should one pray?

Gurdjieff: I will explain, but it is for later. In our solar system certain substances emanate from the sun and the planets, in the same way as those emanated by the earth, making contact at certain points in the solar system. And these points can reflect themselves in materialized images which are the inverted images of the All Highest—the Absolute.

Question: I want to know if by materializing the image of a saint, this will get me what I particularly desire.

Gurdjieff: You think like an ordinary person. You have not the means of materializing anything now. For the present take a task of auto-suggestion, so that one part convinces the other and repeats and repeats to it what you have decided. There is a series of seven exercises for the successive development of the seven centers. We cite the first, the brain, the one which counts in ordinary life. (The head is a luxury.) The other, the emotional also; but the only one which is necessary is the spinal cord. The one which you must first develop and strengthen.

Question: When I wish to make such efforts for work, a hard barrier forms in my chest, impossible to overcome. What should I do?

Gurdjieff: It is nothing. You are not in habit of using this center—it is a muscle which contracts—just muscular. Continue, continue.

Question: I have done this exercise till I had aching shoulders. While doing it, I had the sensation of "I". I felt myself apart, really "I".

Gurdjieff: You cannot have "I". "I" is very expensive thing. You are cheap. Do not philosophize, it does not interest me, and do not speak of "I". Do the exercise as service, as an obligation, not for results (like "I"). Results will come later. Today it is only service. Only that is real.

Question: I feel more within myself, but as if I were before a closed door.

Gurdjieff: It is not one door but many doors. You must open each door, learn to.

Question: I have worked especially on self-love.

Gurdjieff: Without self-love a man can do nothing. There are two qualities of self-love. One is a dirty thing. The other, an impulse, love of the real "I". Without this, it is impossible to move. An ancient Hindu saying—"Happy is he who loves himself, for he can love me." I see from Mme de Salzmann's report that no one has understood me. One needs fire. Without fire, there will never be anything. This fire is suffering, voluntary suffering, without which it is impossible to create anything. One must prepare, must know what will make one suffer and when it is there, make use of it. Only you can prepare, only you know what makes you suffer, makes the fire which cooks, cements, crystallizes, does. Suffer by your defects, in your pride, in your egoism. Remind yourself of the aim. Without prepared suffering there is nothing, for by as much as one is conscious, there is no more suffering. No further process, nothing. That is why with your conscience you must prepare what is necessary. You owe to nature. The food you eat which nourishes your life. You must pay for these cosmic substances. You have a debt, an obligation, to repay by conscious work. Do not eat like an animal but render to nature for what she has given you, nature, your mother. Work—a drop, a drop, a drop—accumulated during days, months, years, centuries, perhaps will give results.

Question: I've arrived at the point where I am very unhappy, everything is distasteful to me, of no interest.

Gurdjieff: And that handkerchief arranged like that in your pocket? That interests you. Well, nature wishes you well, I am glad. She brings you to real work by making all the rest distasteful—it's a certain crossing you must make. The more you work, the more you will come out of this discomfort, this emptiness, this lack.

Question: Even work is distasteful to me.

Mme de Salzmann: Because you do not work. There is never any work with you, nothing ever between us when we are together—it is empty. One person cannot carry everything alone. You must make the effort for yourself. Tonight it is the same. Nobody is there—nobody makes the effort.

Gurdjieff: Then one must change the way of working. Instead of accumulating during one hour, one must try to keep constantly the organic sensation of the body. Sense one's body again, continually without interrupting one's ordinary occupations—to keep a little energy, to take the habit. I thought the exercises would allow you to keep the energy a long time, but I see it is not so. Wet a handkerchief, wring it out, put it on your skin. The contact will remind you. When it is dry, begin again. The key to everything—Remain apart. Our aim is to have constantly a sensation of oneself, of one's individuality. This sensation cannot be expressed intellectually, because it is organic. It is something which makes you independent, when you are with other people.

Thursday, March 11, 1943

Salle Pleyel Question: I am not able to stop associations while I work.

Gurdjieff: It is necessary to prepare before the exercise of trying to see with three parts.

Question: At the beginning when I was working, I felt in myself an emotion. Now I cannot find it any more. I have a constant sensation of dryness. Yesterday this warmer feeling came back, but much weaker.

Gurdjieff: It is the sign of a crisis. It is because you have arrived at mi. You must pass this interval by yourself and find in yourself the necessary strength. Your head, which is as though separated from you, must help you.

Question: How?

Gurdjieff: It must convince you. It must allow you to see yesterday and tomorrow.

Question: But my head is weak.

Gurdjieff: Yes, but without your head you also would be weak. It is necessary to use it in this way.

Question: A little while ago I started to read again, but I find in myself that which has always prevented me from working, a sort of avidity which leaves me at the end of a short time tired and having retained nothing. My time has been wasted.

Gurdjieff: It is because you only read with your head. Do an exercise. Read only a little—a page at a time. At first you must try to understand with your head, then to feel, then to experience. And then come back and think. Exercise yourself to read with your three centers. In each book there is material for enriching oneself. It doesn't matter what you read and it doesn't matter the quantity, but the quality of the way of reading.

Question: Following a shock, I have really seen what has been my life—empty, sterile, useless. And I don't want to lose this vision, this feeling. Otherwise, I feel that I will fall again and again lose my life.

Gurdjieff: Cosmic phenomena for which you are not responsible go against your work. You can only give yourself your word that when life becomes quiet, you will set yourself to work.

Question: I feel that my intellectual center is different and that I do not find in myself any affirming force. What can I do?

Gurdjieff: There is there a little secret. It is that you are a big egoist. You only know yourself. You have no responsibility. It is because of that that you lack this affirmative force. For everything that you have, everything that constitutes you, you are under obligation, and you must repay for all this, so that then other things may be given to you. But instead of this, you are astonished not to have received even more.

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