Gurdjieff’s Cheek

by William Patrick Patterson

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      “I do not pretend to understand George Ivanovitch,” said Mme Ouspensky. “For me he is X.” It was January 1924 and her husband had just left Gurdjieff. His leaving—with the added admonition to his students forbidding them to see or speak about Mr. Gurdjieff—put into high relief the by-then perennial question: who was Gurdjieff? A great many people have attempted to answer that question, but in many ways he remains, and will continue to remain, X. The reason has to do with scale. Attempts to see him invariably bring him down to the level of the inquiry as well as the inquirer. Factually more is known about Gurdjieff

than any of the other seminal spiritual figures, but beyond a certain point one is still left in question. Mme Ouspensky said, “It is useless for us to try to know him,” and while in the essential sense that is true, still it is helpful to keep returning to what we do know about Gurdjieff’s life, for his life was a living demonstration of one who both embodied and lived the teaching. In doing so—focusing on the facts and applying our reason to the point where intuition speaks—here and there edifying glimpses emerge.

      The usual focus is on what an individual does, not what he doesn’t do. This is normally passed over, not as the consequence of a conscious decision, but because the focus itself is not considered deeply enough. To know what is left out we must first know what is put in; but we become so focused and entangled with that that the question of what has been left out, what has been denied, never appears.

Greek & Armenian Forebears

      A noteworthy example is Gurdjieff’s heritage. That his father was Greek, his mother Armenian is well known. We know that his family suffered at the hands of the Turks and Kurds, yet in none of his writings does he ever excoriate them. Nor does he express a personal grief at the murder of his father. Nor does he speak of the genocide of the Armenians, his mother’s people. Only when Gurdjieff tells us about the “skeletons” arriving at his door in Essentuki in July 1918, does he give us an idea of what he felt. In February of 1918 he had sent for his family in Alexandropol to come to him in Essentuki to escape the impending Turkish invasion. His mother, brother Dimitri and his wife, younger sister Sophie Ivanovna and her fiancé Georgilibovitch Kapanadze came, but Gurdjieff’s eldest sister, Anna Ivanovna Anastasieff, had stayed behind in Alexandropol with their father who refused to flee. That May, with the Turks advancing, she and her husband Feodor and six little children fled, along with twenty-two other relatives, losing their home and homeland, and, cold and hungry, walked on bare feet over tortuous mountains. In mid-July, looking like skeletons, they arrived in Essentuki, bringing the news of the murder of Gurdieff’s father by the Turks. Said Gurdjieff, “The enemy, stronger and better armed than their own troops, will inevitably mercilessly and indiscriminately massacre not only the men, but the women, the aged and the children, as was the order of things there.”

      The only reference Gurdjieff makes to this persecution is in the “Armenian” chapter of Meetings with Remarkable Men. “The Aïsors suffered very much in the last war, having been a pawn in the hands of Russia and England, with the result that half of them perished from the vengeance of the Kurds and the Persians….” In this chapter he also speaks of the destruction by invasion and earthquake of Ani, the ancient Armenian city of churches, and then makes a curious statement, that this is the only time he has, or will, “take from information officially recognized on earth.”

      If we do look at ordinary information, one fact leaps out: after centuries of enduring killings and persecutions by the Turks, Armenians suffered two horrific genocides, the first in 1895 and again in 1915–16, under an official Turkish government policy of annihilation. On April 24, 1915, during World War I, the Armenian Holocaust began. By the time it was over 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Assyrians, and 400,000 Greeks had lost their lives.

      We know that shortly after the 1915–16 genocide, from March to July 1917, Gurdjieff stayed with his family in Alexandropol and then went to Essentuki. Events of the Russian Revolution worsening, in August 1919 Gurdjieff left his family in Essentuki and undertook the hazardous journey of guiding his students between the Red and White armies and then over the bandit-infested Caucasus mountains. Arriving in Sochi, they took a boat to Poti and then went overland to Tiflis, where they arrived in January 1920. That Easter, Dimitri arrived in Tiflis to say that their mother and sisters and families had survived a harsh winter with famine and typhoid rampant. In June, with the Red Army having conquered the areas north of the Caucasus and threatening to take Georgia, northern Armenia and Azerbaijan, Gurdjieff left for Constantinople, arriving there in early July. Meanwhile, with his mother and family staying on in Essentuki, Anna and her family returned to Armenia. In November 1920, when the Turks once again invaded Armenia, Anna and everyone in her family was killed except a son, Valentin, one of only 30 people who escaped out of 400 villagers .

No Haven in Turkey
      In Constantinople, Greeks were only marginally accepted, Armenians not at all. Only five years earlier most Armenians in the city had been sent to concentration camps to die or were taken into the wilderness where they were bludgeoned to death. With what Gurdjieff called the “wiseacring” of the “Young Turks”—Kemal Attaturk and other young military officers and reformers bent on making Turkey a secular state—becoming more virulent, he says that since the situation began “to have a particular smell, I decided—without waiting for the various delights which were bound to develop in connection with these wiseacrings—to get away with my people as quickly as possible, with our skins whole.” Leaving for Europe in August 1921, the following year he was able to establish the Institute in France and bring his mother and the remainder of his family to safety.

      Years later, when living in France, Gurdjieff said the Armenians were “a wonderful people of great antiquity. They had not let their country be overrun by Western civilization. They had kept up their old customs, particularly the roots of their language, which was full of old sayings, old customs of the past, and this kept their people clean and unspoiled by the slime of the West.” Family was important to Gurdjieff, and he understood the objective meaning of war and destruction. No more than alluding to the immense suffering endured by the Armenian people, and the personal suffering he and his family endured, never did Gurdjieff vilify the Turks. In the true Christian meaning, he turned the other cheek. Of this, he said in In Search of the Miraculous:

Let us suppose that a man decides according to the Gospels to turn the left cheek if somebody strikes him on the right cheek. But one ‘I’ decides this either in the mind or in the emotional center. One ‘I knows of it, one ‘I’ remembers it—the others do not. Let us imagine that it actually happens, that somebody strikes this man. Do you think he will turn the left cheek? Never. He will not even have time to think about it. He will either strike the face of the man who struck him, or he will begin to call a policeman, or he will simply take to flight. His moving center will react in its customary way, or as it has been taught to react, before the man realizes what he is doing.

Prolonged instruction, prolonged training, is necessary to be able to turn the cheek, and if this training is mechanical—it is again worth nothing because in this case it means that a man will turn his cheek because he cannot do anything else.

      Gurdjieff turned the other cheek often in life. As he said many times, “Exterior play a role, interior never.”

      This can be seen at the time of Gurdjieff’s death. When Attaturk and the Young Turks came to power in 1923 they had immediately banned men from wearing the traditional fez, women the veil. Though outwardly he wore western clothes Gurdjieff remained traditional. In 1949, dying of cancer, Gurdjieff was taken on a stretcher from his apartment to the American Hospital. He was sitting up, smoking a cigarette, and on his head he wore a red fez.

Notes

  1. I do not pretend. J. G. Bennett, Witness, p. 158.
  2. Skeletons. G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men, p. 278.
  3. The enemy. Ibid., p. 278.
  4. After centuries. Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary (New York: Random House,  2000); Christopher J. Walker, Armenia: The Survival of a Nation. rev 2nd ed (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990).
  5. Take from. Meetings, p. 88.
  6. To have a particular smell. Ibid., p. 283.
  7. A wonderful people. Cecil Lewis, All My Yesteryears: An Autobiography (Rockport, Maine: Element, 1993), pp. 174-76.

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.”