Gurdjieff & Fritz Peters, Part I

by William Patrick Patterson

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     Much has been written of Gurdjieff’s relationship with his chief pupils, but his relationship with Fritz Peters is rarely, if ever, mentioned. And yet, it is unique. Only 11 years old when he first met Gurdjieff in 1924, just a month before Gurdjieff’s car crash, Fritz Peters was quickly drawn into the life of the Prieuré. In the months following the accident, the young boy acted as Gurdjieff’s “chair-carrier,” following him everywhere, watching out for his safety. Later, “Freets,” as Gurdjieff called him, was enlisted as Gurdjieff’s personal servant, delivering messages, doing errands, cleaning his room. And soon, every Tuesday morning the young Fritz—who, when Gurdjieff first asked what he wanted most to know, had answered: “I want to know everything”—was receiving private lessons from Gurdjieff.

      At such a young and impressionable age to be taken under the wing of a master like Gurdjieff is a blessing as great as it is unique. But it can be a kind of ‘curse,’ as well, if not taken rightly. One learns only by consciously living one’s errors and Peters’ later life shows how harrowing a journey that can be. Leaving the Prieuré in October 1929, Fritz Peters, then 15 years old, was immediately thrown into a turbulent adult world where he found himself totally alone, blamed and victimized, fighting for his very survival. Developed and shaped by his Prieuré training, Fritz Peters walked his life’s path, always the outsider, the rebel, the malcontent. He would become a member of the Chicago and New York groups, but, though the teaching and Gurdjieff were in his blood, he never found his place in the Work. His days with Gurdjieff at the Prieuré were over. Neither the Chicago nor New York groups were serious enough for him. Too much reverence for Gurdjieff. Too many members he saw as “phony.” His experience at the Prieuré was undeniably special, but as Gurdjieff warned—“Every stick has two ends.” But Peters never saw the other end of the Prieuré stick. Though keenly observant and detesting any sign of falseness, he didn’t see that he had allowed his early experience to make him too special, too separate. He became, as it was expressed one day in 1945 at 6 rue des Colonels Renard—“a colossal egotist.”

Gurdjieff’s “Successor”
      That 32-year-old Fritz Peters, standing amidst a group of wartime French pupils in Gurdjieff’s apartment that autumn day, could for even a moment have believed it when 73-year-old Gurdjieff pointed to him as his successor….Well, to the assembled pupils, who regularly had to pass Nazi checkpoints to get to meetings at Gurdjieff’s apartment, it was yet another vivid proof of Peters’ overweening self-love.

      That Gurdjieff’s act had evoked, as well, a trace of will-to-power and envy in those who had not grown up at the Prieuré, or enjoyed as intimate a relationship with Gurdjieff, was perhaps neither recognized nor appreciated. And certainly the later life of Fritz Peters, filled as it was with seizures of anger, jealousy, rejection, vengeance, nervous breakdowns1 and alcoholism, would do nothing to mitigate the sweeping indictment of him on that day in postwar Paris. It would forever brand Peters as a nullity, a fool, no one to take seriously. The one group of people, then, that might have understood Fritz Peters all but disowned him. Though he was to later write Boyhood with Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff Remembered, two books that are without rival in portraying the heart and soul of Gurdjieff in the last period of his life, Fritz Peters remains maligned and marginalized, his relationship with Gurdjieff never seriously considered.

      Meeting such a monumental father-figure so early in life took nearly a lifetime for Peters to digest. For years Peters struggled with Gurdjieff’s identity and his own relationship to Gurdjieff and to the teaching. In his last book, Balanced Man, Peters recounts how as late as 1960, 46 years after he first met Gurdjieff, “I was still laboring under the impression that I was special—the real son of a Messiah. In an emotional sense, I was Gurdjieff’s son. I loved him more than anyone I had ever known. But times change…I no longer feel like anyone’s ‘son.’” As Gurdjieff foresaw, Peters would not lead a happy life. He had a broken marriage, alcoholism, homosexuality, and relationships that inevitably turned contentious.

      Troublemaker. That’s how Fritz Peters was commonly seen. And not simply a troublemaker but “a born troublemaker,” according to Gurdjieff. Like Rachmilevitch, a lawyer and member of the St. Petersburg group and later a Prieuré resident, Peters had the inborn knack of setting people’s teeth on edge, bringing up the animal in them. Although Gurdjieff said that we should thank anyone who gives us the opportunity to see ourselves…to see a little “I” or two in us, yes—but to see the “animal-I?” Who wants that? Ouspensky didn’t want it. Nor Orage. Certainly not Bennett.

      The similarity between the young boy and Rachmilevitch was seen at once by Gurdjieff. “You remember, how I tell you that you make trouble?” Gurdjieff said. “This true, but you only child. Rachmilevitch grown man and not mischievous, like you, but have such personality that he constantly cause friction whatever he do, wherever he live. He not make serious trouble, but he make friction on surface of life, all the time. He cannot help this—he too old to change now.… I know no one person like him, no person who just by existence, without conscious effort, produce friction in all people around him.” Like the caring father that Peters never had—his father having deserted the family when he was only 18 months of age—Gurdjieff was using the figure of Rachmilevitch to show Peters what he would become if he continued to act as he did. All children are naturally mischievous at times, but if Fritz allowed this characteristic, this “I,” to grow and become fixed in personality, if he did not work to control it, in adulthood it would control him.

Conscious Troublemaking
      To be a “troublemaker” is, in itself, nothing bad, Gurdjieff told him. Troublemakers, in fact, play an important role in life. “What you not understand,” Gurdjieff said, “is that not everyone can be troublemaker, like you. This important in life—is ingredient, like yeast for making bread. Without trouble, conflict, life become dead. People live in status quo, live only by habit, automatically, and without conscience.…”

      Gurdjieff confided that he, too, was a “troublemaker.” The difference between them was that he played the role consciously, molding it to circumstances; creating conditions and friction in the service of awakening people to what keeps them asleep. This stepping on toes is a “Divine principle”2 when consciously directed, when not born of the mechanical reaction to make others suffer; make them pay for trespasses, injustices, psychic wounds. To be able to call up a role in oneself and play it, that is one thing; to be controlled by it, quite another.

      Of trespasses, injustices and psychic wounds, Fritz Peters’ life would be filled to the brim. After his father divorced his mother, Lois, she married an Englishman, a Chicago lawyer, who was far from fatherly. His early life was marred by physical calamities—“disasters” he called them and rightly so. His older brother Tom, for example, stuck a crochet hook in his right eye, which permanently blinded Fritz in that eye. His grandmother put him in the bathtub and then went to answer the telephone. He turned on the hot water and could not turn it off. As his grandmother was deaf,3 it wasn’t until his screams were heard by a neighbor that he, now “partly parboiled,” was rescued.

      When he was nine years old, Fritz’s mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown that lasted about a year. It was then that his mother’s sister Margaret Anderson and her companion Jane Heap took on the responsibility of caring for Fritz4 and his older brother, Tom. That was in 1923. In June 1924 Fritz and his brother were brought by Anderson and Heap to the Prieuré. Upon meeting Gurdjieff the 11-year-old was asked, among other things, what he wanted to know.

      “I want to know everything,” Fritz replied.

      “You cannot know everything,” Gurdjieff told him. “Everything about what?”

      “Everything about man. In English I think it is called psychology or maybe philosophy.”

      Gurdjieff sighed and after a short silence answered: “You can stay. But your answer makes life difficult for me. I am the only one who teaches what you ask. You make more work for me.”

      This exchange, like so many others, gives an indication of Peters’ quality of mind and mental maturity.

A Piece of Unwanted Luggage

      In October of that year Fritz and his brother left the Prieuré to return to New York. There, the boys’ mother, their real father and Jane Heap became involved in an emotional struggle for their allegiance. Fritz and his brother were shunted back and forth so much that Fritz began “to feel even more alone than I had before—like a piece of unwanted luggage for which storage space was needed.”

      It seems Jane won and, as Margaret had stayed on in Europe with her new friend, the actress and singer Georgette Leblanc, the primary care for the boys devolved to her. Of his relationship with Jane, Fritz said that it was “highly volatile and explosive. There was, at times, a great deal of emotion, of love, between us, but the very emotionality of the relationship frightened me. More and more I tended to shut out everything that was outside of myself. People, for me, were something I had to exist with, had to bear. As much as possible, I lived alone, day-dreaming in my own world, longing for a time when I could escape from the complex, and often totally incomprehensible, world around me. I wanted to grow up and be alone—away from all of them.” With characteristic insight and frankness, he says of these early years: “Obstinate and independent because of my feeling of aloneness, I was usually in trouble, frequently punished.” He said that Jane once went so far as to hit him with a board with nails in it because he refused to do as he was told. Even so, Jane eventually came to the idea that she and Margaret5 should adopt the boys. And so they did. “I am not at all sure that I understand why Margaret and Jane took on this responsibility. It was a strange form of ‘planned parenthood’ for two women neither of whom, it seemed to me, would have wished for children of their own, and a mixed blessing from any point of view.”6

      Fritz and his brother returned to the Prieuré in the spring of 1925. When Gurdjieff saw him he put his hand on the boy’s head, and Fritz “looked up at his fierce mustaches, the broad, open smile underneath the shining, bald head. Like some large, warm animal, he pulled me to his side, squeezing me affectionately with his arm and hand, and saying… ‘So…you come back?’” In the middle of that summer, reminding Fritz of his desire “to know everything,” Gurdjieff began giving him private lessons. Every Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock sharp Peters was to go the second floor of the château, the “Ritz,” as it was called, and report to Gurdjieff’s room.

      The lessons and all of his ensuing experiences at the Prieuré with its adult population are well-documented in Peters’ book Boyhood With Gurdjieff. The unusual maturity, clarity, and will of Peters is demonstrated many times in the book, but one incident in particular is striking. Gurdjieff was having the lawns of the Prieuré resown and had all the pupils out on the lawns. But Gurdjieff had them working so close together that planting new seed was a useless activity since it was immediately trampled underfoot. Days passed. No one said a thing. Finally Rachmilevitch, thick with rage, confronted Gurdjieff. He told him the work was insane and stalked off. It was the first time Gurdjieff had ever been publicly defied.

Rachmilevitch & the Apple Tree
      An hour passed and Rachmilevitch did not return. Peters was sent to find him and bring him back. Peters protested, saying he didn’t know where he had gone. Trust your instincts, Gurdjieff told him. It was then that Peters demonstrated, though he didn’t know it, a lesson Gurdjieff had been teaching him. Not knowing where Rachmilevitch had gone, he put himself in the Russian’s place, experiencing empathy with him. A hunch came as to where he might be and Peters “set off towards the woods beyond the main, formal gardens.” He said, “It seemed to me that he could only have gone to one of the distant vegetable gardens—a walk of at least a mile, and I headed for the furthest one, at the very end of the property.” There, he found the 60-year-old sitting up in an apple tree.

      He wouldn’t go back to the château, Rachmilevitch insisted. What to do? How could Fritz Peters argue with a man who was not only five times his age, but a lawyer7 as well? So he did the only thing possible and he did it with all his will. Said Peters: “I did not know of any arguments—I could not think of any good reasons—with which to persuade him to come back, so I said that I would wait there as long as he did; that I could not return without him.” Finally, after a long silence, Rachmilevitch dropped out of the apple tree and returned to the château with him. (To be continued)

Notes

  1. Throughout his life, Peters had a number of nervous breakdowns. He once told Margaret Anderson that “I had enjoyed my last crisis of ‘madness’—it gave me great pleasure, really.” It was so serious that she thought he might never have another. “I think his collapses are unconscious, half-conscious and conscious,” she said. “And one can see this time that, though he broke with, and cursed, everyone except William Segal [a well-regarded member of the New York Foundation], he was quite conscious of wanting to keep them as friends.”
  2. G.I. Gurdjieff, All and Everything, Third Series.
  3. He doesn’t explain how if she was deaf she heard the phone. Perhaps she had only one good ear, the one she held to the receiver.
  4. Peters given name is Arthur D. Peters. He did not know this until as an adult he wanted to learn his exact birth date and time. Writing to the county seat where he was born, they had no record of a “Fritz Peters.” He then tried to recall his earliest memory. “I thought and thought and finally remembered when I was a fat little kid crawling up into my chair and banging the table with my spoon, yelling, ‘I want my breakfast!’ and Jane Heap coming into the room and saying, ‘You sound just like a Prussian general, let’s call you ‘Fritz.’ Later I found out that my real name was ‘Arthur,’ but who wants to be called ‘Art.’” Given the strong animus personality of Jane Heap, the naming seems a projection and also a means of belittling, cutting the boy’s power. Given the emotional deprivation he was subject to, it was not physical food for which Fritz yearned. For children whose mothers are bonded to them it is not an issue. 
  5. Jane and Margaret had been together as a couple since 1916. When Margaret met Georgette Leblanc, formerly the mistress of Maeterlinck, she became entranced and the two women went off to Europe together in a relationship that would last until Georgette’s death in 1941. It might be that the idea of adoption was Jane’s way of getting Margaret back.
  6. Fritz and Margaret’s relationship, both inordinately strong-willed and hot-tempered, was an emotional roller coaster with long periods of silence, some lasting years, followed by tearful reconciliations and then outbursts, such as when Fritz once called Margaret “a bitch of a mother.” Of their separations Margaret once said, “It is like losing one of my most cherished and interesting friends.” 
  7. It is interesting how much of Peters’ life was involved with lawyers. His stepfather, with whom he later would contend, was a lawyer. He later worked in his law office as a clerk, and as an adult was employed as a paralegal. When he answered the questions posed in the last issue of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s Little Review, he wrote that what he feared most is that “I might have to lead the business man’s life.”


First printed in The Gurdjieff Journal.

William Patrick Patterson is the author of seven books on The Fourth Way, the latest of which is “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time.”

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