Esoteric, Occult & Secular Voices
In Nazi-Occupied Paris
1940 - 44
William Patrick Patterson
(Arete)Part IGeorge Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was a strange bird. In his early travels, he claims to have found the truth --- or rather, The Truth --- in what he called "pre-sand Egypt." There he discovered the ancient and esoteric principles of "The Fourth Way," namely, the essence of Christian teachings before the church got hold of them.
Prehistoric Egypt was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ, that is to say, that its religion was composed of the same principles and ideas that constitute true Christianity.
Gurdjieff first settled in Russia to teach "the Seekers of Truth," but was run out by the Revolution. He then came to France, and was there for all of the occupation of the city by the Nazis. Even in the darkest days 1943 and 1944, he continued teaching his classes.
His politics? One of his students wrote down his exact words on war and patriotism:
I am not interested in who win war. Not have patriotism or big ideals about peace. Americans, with ideals, kill millions of Germans, Germans kill --- with own ideals --- English, French, Russian, Belgian ---all have ideals, all have peaceful purpose, all kill.
During the occupation, the Germans did not permit meetings. How then were the followers of Gurdjieff able to go to the meetings for the full four years; indeed, how was it possible for them to survive in a city where people were virtually starving on the streets? Gurdjieff said,
I have only one purpose: existence for self, for students, and for family ... So, I do what they cannot do, I make deal with Germans, with policemen, with all kinds of idealistic people who make "black market." Result: I eat well and continue have tobacco, liquor, and what is necessary for me and for many others.
What was revealed later that he made promises to storekeepers "that they would be paid after the war with royalties from the Texas oil wells he owned." Wells which were, like much of what he wrote and spoke, pure and beautiful myth.
§ § §
Voices in the Dark is a fascinating tour de force, not only for what it tells us about Gurdjieff, but life in Paris during its Occupation combined with an intimate history --- as good as we have ever read --- of WWII, the modus operandi of the SS and the French Resistance (and the French collaborators), and day-to-
day life in a city occupied by an army polite and circumspect during the day, remorseless at night.
We get brilliant sketches of the personalities involved, not only Gurdjieff, but the major political figures (Churchill and DeGaulle and Hitler), the minor ones: Jacques Doriot (the French Hitler), General Dietrich von Cholitz, the Befehlshaber (fortress commander) of Paris, and Marshall Pétain, Pierre Laval, and Robert Brassillach --- three of the most flagrant collaborators.
There are equally adroit portraits of French artists and writers --- some of whom collaborated, some of whom resisted, and some of whom sat on the fence: Sartre, Camus, Malraux, Jean Cocteau, Francois Mauriac, Simone de Beauvoir. Indeed, some of the most fascinating vignettes in Patterson's book are the wars within the war: the factions fighting to control the Resistance (and, thus, control France after the war) plus --- this is France, after all --- the endless philosophical battles between writers. The situation provided a rich background for The Big Questions of Life: what does it mean for a civilized man to live in a bestial world? What is loyalty, anyway? What is "the human condition?" What is patriotism? Should one punish those who are traitors to their country (and often traitors to their friends) during such a brutish occupation by the enemy. Should such be put to death, or should we observe Camus' dictum:
I will never again be among those who, for whatever reasons, accommodate themselves to murder, and I accept the consequences of my choice ... No matter what the desired goal, no matter how lofty or necessary it seems, no matter if it promises happiness, justice, and freedom, the means used to reach it represent such an enormous risk and are so greatly disproportionate to the chances of success that we must refuse them.
§ § §
No matter how good Voices in the Dark --- and it is writing of the highest order --- the book is a weird amalgam, a fascinating if atypical structure. The major portion of the book is given over to extended transcriptions of thirty-two meetings between Gurdjieff and his followers, complete with his typically paradoxical statements: "Your head is a ... typewriter."
Or, "You are lucky enough to have a short memory."
Or, "The secret is 'I am.'"
Or: "The first thing is to get rid of the dogs in the village of sex."
In this venue, there are the impassioned, often self-pitying, self-denigrating disciples, with their self-accusatory statements and questions.
Something is lacking in my self-remembering.
When I am alone, or with substantial people, I see my nothingness.
I do not understand the feeling of the body.
I see how empty I am, full of small mundane desires, contradictions, like a mill where everything comes in and goes out. I have no will and I have no remedy for this. I lack force.
To which Gurdjieff responds --- referring to tasks or specific work that he gives to each of his disciples --- "The task has been given for that. If you do not do the task, then let yourself go; open a vein, it will easier. I can give you a pill to make you sleep forever."
These "tasks" may well lead to frustration on the part of the reader; there are hints of strange and wonderful tasks given to the students, but none are described. For instance, one student refers to "the two exercises that you had given me... the exercise on the division into two and on the sensations of hot, cold, and tears." Hot, cold, and tears! However, that's it for the disciple's enlightenment --- but not the reader's.
Questioner: I would like to know what to do to prevent ... my imagination from running away with me.
Gurdjieff: What I advise you is a very simple thing. To understand logically can give you absolutely nothing. You will understand afterward that only this advice is good which I am about to give you. [Gives counting exercise.]
No more than those three words: that's the whole salami. And, at times, that's it for our patience, too.
§ § §
In all, the Gurdjieff portion of the book constitutes over half , and it gives a fascinating peek into some of the great themes of his philosophy. For instance, the importance of realizing the "I", as in the Cartesian split, but inverted: "The head is alien to the body. The head can play the role of police, but only of police, who looks how everything goes on, like a watchman."
Thus, one can never feel with the head. Rather, the site of feeling --- "the center of gravity of your presence" is the solar plexus. It is "the center of feeling. That is where things happen."
At times Gurdjieff comes across like a man of the Bible:
That which happens on earth comes from something which was done by a father or a grandfather. The results converge on you, the son or grandson; it is you who have to regulate them. This is not an injustice; it is a very great honor for you; it will be a means which will allow to regulate the past of your father, grandfather, great-grandfather....You are a link in the chain of your blood. Be proud of it, it is an honor to be this link.
At times, he sounds like he's been reading his Freud:
Your parents are your God. You cannot know God. He is too far away. There is no place for Him in you. Your parents are God, they are the future place for God in you. You owe them everything, life, everything. Work first with them...
At times, he turns Buddhist, which flows from his visit to Tibet many years before:
One arrives in the foothills and hears the music ... Truly it is celestial music. Well, one heard the music but saw nothing. Everywhere, all around, there were mountains and that was all. How and from where could this music come? How was it possible...
He that walked at the head of the seven musicians ... held in his hand an instrument that was a kind of radio. He hears what goes on in the valley. And he directs. There is no music, only vibrations that are made by the movements of the body. In his hand is a special instrument. A radio. The radio was discovered only twenty years ago and I saw this instrument thirty-five years ago; the radio did not yet exist.
There are times when Gurdjieff can sound like a crabby old man;
Questioner: Can I ask a question?
Gurdjieff: Why do you make a fly from an elephant? If you have a question, ask it. It is my specialty to talk, talk, talk. Help me to stop my machine from talking. Ask your question.
Then again, he's at his best when he's being quixotic, a crazy Zen master:
Question: I would like to ask Mr. Gurdjieff, [as] I do not know how to read, is there an exercise for learning to read?
Gurdjieff: You mean, to understand what is your form of disharmony? ... I will give you a page of the First Series, and you will take it as a task to read, beginning from the end backwards; then reread it the right way round.
Questioner: I have been asking myself if I shouldn't do translations.
Gurdjieff: No. Not translations. In order to translate, one needs years of preparation. You will take this material in this page, and you will make an article or a lecture out of it.
Questioner: I know that I have had this habit since my childhood.
Gurdjieff: Not only since your childhood. Since the childhood of your father and of your mother.
--- L. W. Milam