"Was there laughter around Mr. Gurdjieff?"
Updated: Jul 29
Paul Reynard, ill but still active, was visiting Seattle for the final time. Among a cluster of visitors from Portland, I sat through an unusually quiet, serious evening, as many of us labored to formulate something useful to ask Paul, while, we must assume, working diligently on ourselves. The air seemed heavy and a sadness entered me, since this could be the last time these young members, in a growing center far from New York, would be with someone who was "with Gurdjieff," and might speak about those days and atmospheres, long past. I found myself wondering: did this evening have to be this quiet, with, in my perceptions, undertows of fear? But I said nothing, contributing my share to the general heaviness.
Afterward, a senior figure in Seattle drove Paul to where he would sleep that night and I was in the back seat, behind Paul. A mile or so along our route, I finally asked the question I had wanted to ask, back in that ultra-heavy meeting.
"Paul, was there laughter around Mr. Gurdjieff?"
In a voice charged with feeling, he said, "Always!"
Then began a narrative I had never heard, of how skilled Mr. Gurdjieff was in leading the assembly into quiet inner reaches, into hushed silences, with just a few words. "Then, unexpectedly, a shift, perhaps to an even quieter place, so dense as to be painful. Yet, seconds later, a joke, a quip or bit of teasing, and everyone would roar with laughter!"
"There was," he said, "everything in that apartment, including profound tensions, from which there was escape only by deepening one's work. But often there was laughter."
Living on the other side of Paris, well into the morning and with public transportation no longer functioning, I walked accross Paris to my flat. As I walked I carried some of the atmosphere of our work together, there in Mr. Gurdjieff's apartment, and still I wasn't drunk. But finally that atmosphere began to wear off and by the time I put my key in the apartment door, then I was drunk."
Photo: G.I Gurdjieff with just-married Rita Romilly and Martin Benson. Image from the cover of Martin Benson Speaks, available from Gurdjieff Books and Music.
A response from a friend, now living in southern California:
It's likely I was also there that evening in Seattle although I do not remember the conversational heaviness you talk about. I may not have known that this was probably the last time I would see him. For me, it was the FIRST time since St. Elmo days to be with Paul.
What I remember is the movements class which Paul led that weekend. Since I had been providing the piano music for Portland’s movements classes, I had been in only a few movements classes that fall, which was the first time in 25 years for me to be in movements classes. As a musician, I could hang out in the one of the back rows. BUT - at one point Paul motioned for me to come into the front row. I will never forget how scared/angry I was - scared and angry are good masks for inner considering which was full-blown at that moment. I remember wishing that a trap door would open in front of me that I could disappear into. But I had to tough it out and I did. Afterwards I told Paul how I had felt and that I had to admit to appreciating that opportunity. Later when earnestly recounting my experience to Stephanie Cohen, Portland’s movements instructor, who worked with Paul since the late 1960’s, she said, "Oh he just wanted to see how you worked."
With her words my inner considering vanished.