Excerpt from G I Gurdjieff’s “Meetings With Remarkable Men”

October 29, 2012





MY FATHER WAS WIDELY KNOWN, during the final decades of the last century and the beginning of this one, as an ashokh, that is, a poet and narrator, under the nickname of ‘Adash’; and although he was not a professional ashokh but only an amateur, he was in his day very popular among the inhabitants of many countries of Transcaucasia and Asia Minor.

Ashokh was the name given everywhere in Asia and the Balkan peninsula to the local bards, who composed, recited or sang poems, songs, legends, folk-tales, and all sorts of stories.

In spite of the fact that these people of the past who devoted themselves to such a career were in most cases illiterate, having not even been to an elementary school in their childhood, they possessed such a memory and such alertness of mind as would now be considered remarkable and even phenomenal.

They not only knew by heart innumerable and often very lengthy narratives and poems, and sang from memory all their various melodies, but when improvising in their own, so to say, subjective way, they hit upon the appropriate rhymes and changes of rhythm for their verses with astounding rapidity.

At the present time men with such abilities are no longer to be found anywhere.

Even when I was very young, it was being said that they were becoming scarcer and scarcer.

I personally saw a number of these ashokhs who were considered famous in those days, and their faces were strongly impressed on my memory.

I happened to see them because my father used to take me as a child to the contests where these poet ashokhs, coming from various countries, such as Persia, Turkey, the Caucasus and even parts of Turkestan, competed before a great throng of people in improvising and singing.

This usually proceeded in the following way:

One of the participants in the contest, chosen by lot, would begin, in singing an improvised melody, to put to his partner some question on a religious or philosophical theme, or on the meaning and origin of some well-known legend, tradition or belief, and the other would reply, also in song, and in his own improvised subjective melody; and these improvised subjective melodies, moreover, had always to correspond in their tonality to the previously produced consonances as well as to what is called by real musical science the ‘ansapalnianly flowing echo’.

All this was sung in verse, chiefly in Turko-Tartar, which was then the accepted common language of the peoples of these localities, who spoke different dialects.

These contests would last weeks and sometimes even months, and would conclude with the award of prizes and presents — provided by the audience and usually consisting of cattle, rugs and so on — to those singers who, according to the general verdict, had most distinguished themselves.

I witnessed three such contests, the first of which took place in Turkey in the town of Van, the second in Azerbaijan in the town of Karabakh, and the third in the small town of Subatan in the region of Kars.

In Alexandropol and Kars, the towns where my family lived during my childhood, my father was often invited to evening gatherings to which many people who knew him came in order to hear his stories and songs.

At these gatherings he would recite one of the many legends or poems he knew, according to the choice of those present, or he would render in song the dialogues between the different characters.

The whole night would sometimes not be long enough for finishing a story and the audience would meet again on the following evening.

On the evenings before Sundays and holidays, when we did not have to get up early the following morning, my father would tell stories to us children, either about ancient great peoples and wonderful men, or about God, nature and mysterious miracles, and he would invariably conclude with some tale from the ‘Thousand and One Nights’, of which he knew so many that he could indeed have told us one whole tale for each of the thousand and one nights.

Among the many strong impressions from these various stories of my father’s, which left their mark on my whole life, there was one that served for me in later years, perhaps no less than five times, as a ‘spiritualizing factor’ enabling me to comprehend the incomprehensible.

This strong impression, which later served for me as a spiritualizing factor, became crystallized in me while, one evening, my father was reciting and singing the legend of the ‘Flood before the Flood’ and there arose between him and a certain friend of his a discussion on this subject.

This took place at the period when, owing to the dictates of life circumstances, my father was compelled to become a professional carpenter.

This friend of his often dropped in to see him at his workshop, and sometimes they would sit all night long pondering on the meaning of the ancient legends and sayings.

His friend was no other than Dean Borsh of Kars Military Cathedral, the man who was soon to become my first tutor, the founder and creator of my present individuality, and, so to say, the ‘third aspect of my inner God’.

On the night when this discussion took place, I too was in the workshop, as well as my uncle, who had come to town that evening from a neighbouring village where he had large market-gardens and vineyards.

My uncle and I sat together quietly on the soft shavings in the corner and listened to the singing of my father, who was chanting the legend of the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh and explaining its meaning.

The discussion arose when my father had finished the twenty-first song of the legend, in which a certain Ut-Napishtim relates to Gilgamesh the story of the destruction by flood of the land of Shuruppak.

After this song, when my father paused to fill his pipe, he said that in his opinion the legend of Gilgamesh came from the Sumer-ians, a people more ancient than the Babylonians, and that undoubtedly just this same legend was the origin of the account of the Flood in the Hebrew Bible and served as a basis of the Christian world view; only the names and some details had been changed in certain places.

The father dean began to object, bringing forward many data to the contrary, and the argument became so heated that they even forgot about sending me off to bed as they usually did on such occasions.

And my uncle and I also became so interested in their controversy that, without moving, we lay on the soft shavings until daybreak, when at last my father and his friend ended their discussion and parted.

This twenty-first song was repeated in the course of that night so many times that it was engraved on my memory for life.

In this song it is said:

I will tell thee, Gilgamesh, Of a mournful mystery of the Gods:

How once, having met together,

They resolved to flood the land of Shuruppak. Clear-eyed Ea, saying nothing to his father, Anu,

Nor to the Lord, the great Enlil,

Nor to the spreader of happiness, Nemuru, Nor even to the underworld prince, Enua,

Called to him his son Ubara-Tut;

Said to him: ‘’Build thyself a ship, Take with thee thy near ones,

And what birds and beasts thou wilt;

Irrevocably have the Gods resolved To flood the land of Shuruppak,’

The data formed in me, during my childhood, thanks to the strong impressions I received during this discussion on an abstract theme between these two persons who had lived their lives to old age relatively normally, led to a beneficent result for the formation of my individuality which I first became aware of only much later, namely, just before the general European war; and from then on it began to serve for me as the above-mentioned spiritualizing factor.

The initial shock for my mental and feeling associations, which brought about this awareness, was the following:

One day I read in a certain magazine an article in which it was said that there had been found among the ruins of Babylon some tablets with inscriptions which scholars were certain were no less than four thousand years old. This magazine also printed the inscriptions and the deciphered text — it was the legend of the hero Gilgamesh.

When I realized that here was that same legend which I had so often heard as a child from my father, and particularly when I read in this text the twenty-first song of the legend in almost the same form of exposition as in the songs and tales of my father, I experienced such an inner excitement that it was as if my whole future destiny depended on all this. And I was struck by the fact, at first inexplicable to me, that this legend had been handed down by ashokhs from generation to generation for thousands of years, and yet had reached our day almost unchanged.

After this occurrence, when the beneficent result of the impressions formed in my childhood from the narratives of my father finally became clear to me — a result that crystallized in me a spiritualizing factor enabling me to comprehend that which usually appears incomprehensible — I often regretted having begun too late to give the legends of antiquity the immense significance that I now understand they really have.

There was another legend I had heard from my father, again about the ‘Flood before the Flood’, which after this occurrence also acquired for me a quite particular significance.

In this legend it was said, also in verse, that long, long ago, as far back as seventy generations before the last deluge (and a generation was counted as a hundred years), when there was dry land where now is water and water where now is dry land, there existed on earth a great civilization, the centre of which was the former island Haninn, which was also the centre of the earth itself.

As I elucidated from other historical data, the island of Haninn was approximately where Greece is now situated.

The sole survivors of the earlier deluge were certain brethren of the former ImastunBrotherhood, whose members had constituted a whole caste spread all over the earth, but whose centre had been on this island.

These Imastun brethren were learned men and, among other things, they studied astrology. Just before the deluge, they were scattered all over the earth for the purpose of observing celestial phenomena from different places. But however great the distance between them, they maintained constant communication with one another and reported everything to the centre by means of telepathy.

For this, they made use of what are called pythonesses, who served them, as it were, as receiving apparatuses. These pythonesses, in a trance, unconsciously received and recorded all that was transmitted to them from various places by the Imastuns, writing it down in four different agreed directions according to the direction from which the information reached them. That is to say, they wrote from top to bottom communications coming from localities lying to the east of the island; from right to left those from the south; from bottom to top those which came from the west (from the regions where Atlantis was and where America is now); and from left to right communications transmitted from the place now occupied by Europe.

As I have happened, in the logical course of the exposition of this chapter devoted to the memory of my father, to mention his friend, my first tutor, I Dean Borsh, consider it indispensable to describe a certain procedure established between these two men who had lived normally to old age, and who had taken upon themselves the obligation of preparing me, an unconscious boy, for responsible life and deserve now, by their conscientious and impartial attitude towards me, to represent for my essence ‘two aspects of the divinity of my inner God’.

This procedure, as was evident when I later understood it, was an extremely original means for development of the mind and for self perfecting.

They called it kastonsilia, a term derived, it seems to me, from the ancient Assyrian, and which my father evidently took from some legend.

This procedure was as follows:

One of them would unexpectedly ask the other a question, apparently quite out of place, and the other, without haste, would calmly and seriously reply with logical plausibility.

For instance, one evening when I was in the workshop, my future tutor entered unexpectedly and, as he walked in, asked my father:

‘Where is God just now?’

My father answered most seriously, ‘God is just now in Sari Kamish.’ Sari Kamish is a forest region on the former frontier between Russia and Turkey, where unusually tall pine-trees grow, renowned everywhere in Transcaucasia and Asia Minor.

Receiving this reply from my father, the dean asked, ‘What is God doing there?’

My father answered that God was making double ladders there and on the tops of them he was fastening happiness, so that individual people and whole nations might ascend and descend.

These questions and answers were carried on in a serious and quiet tone — as though one of them were asking the price of potatoes today and the other replying that the potato crop was very poor this year. Only later did I understand what rich thoughts were concealed beneath such questions and answers.

They very often carried on conversations in this same spirit, so that to a stranger it would have seemed that here were two old men out of their senses, who were at large only by mistake instead of being in a mad-house.

Many of these conversations which then seemed to me meaningless grew to have a deep meaning for me later when I came across questions of the same kind, and it was only then that I understood what a tremendous significance these questions and answers had for these two old men.

My father had a very simple, clear and quite definite view on the aim of human life. He told me many times in my youth that the fundamental striving of every man should be to create for himself an inner freedom towards life and to prepare for himself a happy old age. He considered that the indispensability and imperative necessity of this aim in life was so obvious that it ought to be understandable to everyone without any wiseacring. But a man could attain this aim only if, from childhood up to the age of eighteen, he had acquired data for the unwavering fulfilment of the following four commandments:

First — To love one’s parents.

Second — To remain chaste.

Third — To be outwardly courteous to all without distinction, whether they be rich or poor, friends or enemies, power­ possessors or slaves, and to whatever religion they may belong, but inwardly to remain free and never to put much trust in anyone or anything.

Fourth — To love work for work’s sake and not for its gain.

My father, who loved me particularly as his first-born, had a great influence on me.

My personal relationship to him was not as towards a father, but as towards an elder brother; and he, by his constant conversations with me and his extraordinary stories, greatly assisted the arising in me of poetic images and high ideals.

My father came of a Greek family whose ancestors had emigrated from Byzantium, having left their country to escape the persecution by the Turks which followed their conquest of Constantinople.

At first they settled in the heart of Turkey, but later, for certain reasons, among which was the search for more suitable climatic conditions and better pasturage for the herds of domestic cattle forming a part of the enormous riches of my ancestors, they moved to the eastern shores of the Black Sea, to the environs of the town now called Gumush Khaneh. Still later, not long before the last big Russo-Turkish war, owing to repeated persecutions by the Turks, they moved from there to Georgia.

In Georgia my father separated from his brothers and moved to Armenia, settling in the town of Alexandropol, the name of which had just been changed from the Turkish name of Gumri.

When the family possessions were divided, there fell to my father’s share what was considered, at that time, great riches, including several herds of domestic cattle.

A year or two after he had moved to Armenia, all this wealth that my father had inherited was lost, as a result of a calamity independent of man.

This happened owing to the following circumstances:

When my father settled in Armenia with all his family, his shepherds and his herds, he was the richest cattle owner of the district and the poorer families soon gave into his charge — as was the custom — their own small number of horned and other domestic cattle, in exchange for which they were to receive from him during the season a certain quantity of butter and cheese. But just when his herd had been increased in this way by several thousand head of other people’s cattle, a cattle plague came from Asia and spread all over Transcaucasia.

This mass pestilence among the cattle then raged so violently that in a couple of months or so almost all the animals perished; only an insignificant number survived, and these were merely skin and bones.

As my father, in accepting the care of these cattle, had taken upon himself, as was then also the custom, their insurance against all kinds of accidents — even against their seizure by wolves, which happened rather frequently — he not only lost all his own cattle by this misfortune, but was forced to sell almost all his remaining possessions to pay for the cattle belonging to others.

And in consequence my father, from having been very well off, suddenly found himself a pauper.

Our family then consisted of only six persons, namely, my father, my mother, my grandmother, who had wished to end her days with her youngest son, and three children — myself, my brother and my sister — of whom I was the eldest. I was then about seven years old.

Having lost his fortune, my father had to take up some business, since the maintenance of such a family, and, what is more, a family which until then had been pampered by a life of wealth, cost a good deal. So, having collected the remnants of his former large and grandly maintained household, he began by opening a lumber-yard and with it, according to local custom, a carpenter’s shop for making all kinds of wooden articles.

But from the very first year, owing to the fact that my father had never before in his life been engaged in commerce and had in consequence no business experience, the lumber-yard was a failure.

He was finally compelled to liquidate it and to limit himself to the workshop, specializing in the production of small wooden articles.

This second failure in my father’s affairs occurred in the fourth year after his first big calamity. Our family lived in the town of Alexandropol all this time, which happened to coincide with the period of rapid reconstruction by the Russians of the near-by fortress-town of Kars which they had taken.

The opening up of good prospects for making money in Kars, and the added persuasions of my uncle, who already had his business there, induced my father to transfer his workshop to Kars. He first went there alone, and later took his whole family.

By this time our family had already increased by three more ‘cosmic apparatuses for the transformation of food’, in the form of my three then really charming sisters.

Having settled in Kars, my father first sent me to the Greek school, but very soon transferred me to the Russian municipal school.

As I was very quick at my studies, I wasted very little time on the preparation of lessons, and in all my spare time I helped my father in his workshop. Very soon I even began to have my own circle of customers, first among my comrades, for whom I made various things such as guns, pencil-boxes and so on; and later, little by little, I passed on to more serious work, doing all kinds of small repairs in people’s houses.

In spite of the fact that I was then still only a boy, I very well remember this period of our family life down to the smallest detail; and in this setting there stands out in my memory all the grandeur of my father’s calm and the detachment of his inner state in all his external manifestations, throughout the misfortunes which befell him.

I can now say for certain that in spite of his desperate struggle with the misfortunes which poured upon him as though from the horn of plenty, he continued then as before, in all the difficult circumstances of his life, to retain the soul of a true poet.

Hence it was, in my opinion, that during my childhood, in spite of great want, there constantly reigned in our family unusual concord, love and the wish to help one another.

Owing to his inherent capacity for finding inspiration in the beauty of the details of life, my father was for us all, even in the most dismal moments of our family life, a source of courage; and, infecting us all with his freedom from care, he engendered in us the above-mentioned happy impulses.

In writing about my father, I must not pass by in silence his views on what is called the ‘question of the beyond’. Concerning this he had a very particular and at the same time simple conception.

I remember that, the last time I went to see him, I asked him one of the stereotyped questions by means of which I had carried on, during the last thirty years, a special inquiry or quest in my meetings with remarkable people who had acquired in themselves data for attracting the conscious attention of others. Namely, I asked him, of course with the preliminary preparation which had become customary to me in these cases, to tell me, very simply and without any wiseacring and philosophizing, what personal opinion he had formed during his life about whether man has a soul and whether it is immortal.

‘How shall I put it?’ he answered. ‘In that soul which a man supposedly has, as people believe, and of which they say that it exists independently after death and transmigrates, I do not believe; and yet, in the course of a man’s life “something” does form itself in him: this is for me beyond all doubt.

‘As I explain it to myself, a man is born with a certain property and, thanks to this property, in the course of his life certain of his experiencings elaborate in him a certain substance, and from this substance there is gradually formed in him “something or other” which can acquire a life almost independent of the physical body.

‘When a man dies, this “something” does not disintegrate at the same time as the physical body, but only much later, after its separation from the physical body.

‘Although this “something” is formed from the same substance as the physical body of a man, it has a much finer materiality and, it must be assumed, a much greater sensitivity towards all kinds of perceptions.

The sensitivity of its perception is in my opinion such as — you remember, when you made that experiment with the half-witted Armenian woman, Sando?’

He had in mind an experiment I had made in his presence many years before, during a visit in Alexandropol, when I brought people of many different types into various degrees of hypnosis, for the purpose of elucidating for myself all the details of the phenomenon which learned hypnotists call the exteriorization of sensitivity or the transference of sensations of pain at a distance.

I proceeded in the following way:

I made from a mixture of clay, wax and very fine shot a figure roughly resembling the medium I intended to bring into the hypnotic state, that is, into that psychic state of man which, in a branch of science which has come down to our day from very ancient times, is called loss of initiative and which, according to the contemporary classification of the School of Nancy, would correspond to the third stage of hypnosis. I then thoroughly rubbed some part or other of the body of the given medium with an ointment made of a mixture of olive and bamboo oil, then scraped this oil from the body of the medium and applied it to the corresponding part on the figure, and thereupon proceeded to elucidate all the details that interested me in this phenomenon.

What greatly astonished my father at the time was that when I pricked the oiled place on the figure with a needle, the corresponding place on the medium twitched, and when I pricked more deeply a drop of blood appeared on the exactly corresponding place of the medium’s body; and he was particularly amazed by the fact that, after being brought back to the waking state and questioned, the medium remembered nothing about it and insisted that she had felt nothing at all.

And so my father, in whose presence this experiment had been carried out, now said, in referring to it:

‘So, in the same way, this “something”, both before a man’s death and afterwards until its disintegration, reacts to certain surrounding actions and is not free from their influence.’

My father had in connection with my education certain definite, as I have called them, ‘persistent pursuits’.

One of the most striking of these persistent pursuits of his, which later produced in me an indisputably beneficent result, acutely sensed by me and noticeable also to those with whom I came in contact during my wanderings in the various wilds of the earth in the search for truth, was that during my childhood, that is, at the age when there are formed in man the data for the impulses he will have during his responsible life, my father took measures on every suitable occasion so that there should be formed in me, instead of data engendering impulses such as fastidiousness, repulsion, squeamishness, fear, timidity and so on, the data for an attitude of indifference to everything that usually evokes these impulses.

I remember very well how, with this aim in view, he would sometimes slip a frog, a worm, a mouse, or some other animal likely to evoke such impulses, into my bed, and would make me take non-poisonous snakes in my hands and even play with them, and so forth and so on.

Of all these persistent pursuits of his in relation to me, I remember that the one most worrying to the older people round me, for instance my mother, my aunt and our oldest shepherds, was that he always forced me to get up early in the morning, when a child’s sleep is particularly sweet, and go to the fountain and splash myself all over with cold spring water, and afterwards to run about naked; and if I tried to resist he would never yield, and although he was very kind and loved me, he would punish me without mercy. I often remembered him for this in later years and in these moments thanked him with all my being.

If it had not been for this, I would never have been able to overcome all the obstacles and difficulties that I had to encounter later during my travels.

He himself led an almost pedantically regular life, and was merciless to himself in conforming to this regularity.

For instance, he was accustomed to going to bed early so as to begin early the next morning whatever he had decided upon beforehand, and he made no exception to this even on the night of his daughter’s wedding.

I saw my father for the last time in 1916. He was then eighty-two years old, still full of health and strength. The few recent grey hairs in his beard were hardly noticeable.

His life ended a year later, but not from natural causes.

This event, sorrowful and grievous for all who knew him, and especially so for me, occurred during the last great periodic human psychosis.

At the time of the Turkish attack on Alexandropol, when the family had to flee, he was unwilling to leave his homestead to the mercy of fate; and while protecting the family property he was wounded by the Turks. He died soon after, and was buried by some old men who had happened to remain there.

The texts of the various legends and songs he had written or dictated, which, in my opinion, would have been his most fitting memorial, were lost — to the misfortune of all thinking people — during the repeated sackings of our house; yet perhaps, by some miracle, a few hundred of the songs he sang, recorded on phonograph rolls, may still be preserved among the things I left in Moscow.

It will be a great pity for those who value the old folklore if these records cannot be found.

The individuality and intellectuality of my father can, in my opinion, be very well pictured in the mind’s eye of the reader if I quote here a few of his many favourite ‘subjective sayings’, which he often used in conversation.

In this connection, it is interesting to remark that I, as well as many others, noticed that when he himself used these sayings in conversation, it always seemed to every hearer that they could not have been more apt or better put, but that if anyone else made use of them, they seemed to be entirely beside the point or improbable nonsense.

Some of these subjective sayings of his were as follows:

Without salt, no sugar.

Ashes come from burning.

The cassock is to hide a fool.

He is deep down, because you are high up.

If the priest goes to the right, then the teacher must without fail turn to the left.

If a man is a coward, it proves he has will.

A man is satisfied not by the quantity of food, but by the absence of greed.

Truth is that from which conscience can be at peace.

No elephant and no horse even the donkey is mighty.

In the dark a louse is worse than a tiger.

If there is ‘/’ in ones presence, then God and Devil are of no account.

Once you can shoulder it, it’s the lightest thing in the world.

A representation of Hell — a stylish shoe.

Unhappiness on earth is from the wiseacring of women.

He is stupid who is ‘clever’.

Happy is he who sees not his unhappiness.

The teacher is the enlightener, who then is the ass?

Fire heats water, but water puts out fire.

Genghis Khan was great, but our policeman, so please you, is still greater.

If you are first, your wife is second; if your wife is first, you had better be zero: only then will your hens be safe.

If you wish to be rich, make friends with the police.

If you wish to be famous, make friends with the reporters.

If you wish to be full — with your mother-in-law.

If you wish to have peace — with your neighbour.

If you wish to sleep — with your wife.

If you wish to lose your faith — with the priest.

To give a fuller picture of my father’s individuality, I must say something about a tendency of his nature rarely observed in contemporary people, and striking to all who knew him well. It was chiefly on account of this tendency that from the very beginning, when he became poor and had to go into business, his affairs went so badly that his friends and those who had business dealings with him considered him unpractical and even not clever in this domain.

And indeed, every business that my father carried on for the purpose of making money always went wrong and brought none of the results obtained by others. However, this was not because he was unpractical or lacked mental ability in this field, but only because of this tendency.

This tendency of his nature, apparently acquired by him when still a child, I would define thus: ‘an instinctive aversion to deriving personal advantage for himself from the naivete and bad luck of others’.

In other words, being highly honourable and honest, my father could never consciously build his own welfare on the misfortune of his neighbour. But most of those round him, being typical contemporary people, took advantage of his honesty and deliberately tried to cheat him, thus unconsciously belittling the significance of that trait in his psyche which conditions the whole of Our Common Father’s commandments for man.

Indeed, there could be ideally applied to my father the following paraphrase of a sentence from sacred writings, which is quoted at the present time by the followers of all religions everywhere, for describing the abnormalities of our daily life and for giving practical advice:

Strike and you will not be struck.

But if you do not strike they will beat you to death, like Sidor’s goat.

In spite of the fact that he often happened to find himself in the midst of events beyond the control of man and resulting in all sorts of human calamities, and in spite of almost always encountering dirty manifestations from the people round him — manifestations recalling those of jackals — he did not lose heart, never identified himself with anything, and remained inwardly free and always himself.

The absence in his external life of everything that those round him regarded as advantages did not disturb him inwardly in the least; he was ready to reconcile himself to anything, provided there were only bread and quiet during his established hours for meditation.

What most displeased him was to be disturbed in the evening when he would sit in the open looking at the stars.

I, for my part, can only say now that with my whole being I would desire to be able to be such as I knew him to be in his old age.

Owing to circumstances of my life not dependent on me, I have not personally seen the grave where the body of my dear father lies, and it is unlikely that I will ever be able, in the future, to visit his grave. I therefore, in concluding this chapter devoted to my father, bid any of my sons, whether by blood or in spirit, to seek out, when he has the possibility, this solitary grave, abandoned by force of circumstances ensuing chiefly from that human scourge called the herd instinct, and there to set up a stone with the inscription: