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Gurdjieff in Tbilisi

Posted by lahar9jhadav on August 12, 2008



(January 1919-May 1920)

gurdjieff tbilisi 2

The more things change the more they remain the same. Tiflis had become Tbilisi in 1917 on a wave of Georgian nationalism, yet its streets physically emptied by the intense cold were for Gurdjieff populous with memory. Here on the hill were the railway yards where he had sweated as a young stoker; and here with Karapet, who worked the steam whistle, he had sung ‘Little Did We Tipple’. Here in frowning disapproval sat the black Theological Seminary. Here was the parade fronting the old Alexander Gardens, where decades ago, flitting from bookstall to bookstall, he and Pogossian and Yelov had fished avidly for knowledge. Round these quick corners they had lived cheekily on their wits, while nourishing that discrepant spiritual aspiration which before long called them all away to ‘inaccessible’ places. He was back now. Alone. Deepened in being and embarrassed for hard cash.

Gurdjieff quickly found a roof with his cousins the Turadzhevs. Although still burning with fever, he felt ‘compelled to run about the city in order to find at any cost some way out of this desperate situation.’ His footsteps turned naturally to Old Tiflis (set in a small hollow east of the Russian quarter). Here in the Tartar Bazaar he found little had changed: the same ageless veiled women stared down from high window grills into the same rat infested labyrinth; the tchaikanas were scalding lips with the same fragrantly delicate tea; and the old caravanserai offered the customary amenities to camel drovers. Only the officers of a tiny British garrison, seconded from Batoum in December 1918, and traipsing around with their Box Brownie cameras, -only these gave due warning of the vacuous modernism which would soon sweep Old Tiflis into oblivion.

For the bazaar’s carpet dealers these were lucky times; even the most dubious kilims and rugs could be funnelled away to Constantinople, where the avidity of undiscriminating young officers of the Allied Occupation Force had produced a splendidly false market. Perhaps no one in Tbilisi in 1919 knew his carpets more intimately than Gurdjieff — knots, provenance, symbolism, style, repair technique and market value; decidedly no one better understood the laws of suggestibility. Friends of Dmitri and of his father-in-law Arch-bishop Martiman bullishly advanced some risk capital; Gurdjieff bought his first rug cheap and sold it dear; he found apprentices, loyal and active; he taught them to scout for rugs, to wash them, to repair them. Side by side with his wife, Madame Ostrowska, he drove himself to a crescendo of activity and within three weeks ‘there was not only sufficient money for all to live on, but a good deal left over.’


With singular speed, the painful decision to quit Essentuki had been vindicated: despite the bleak climate of depression prevailing elsewhere throughout Transcaucasia, the clemencies of the Georgian Menshevik social democratic republic were coaxing through the snow the first unseasonable crocuses of a Gurdjieffian spring. Dr Stoernval found in the anxieties and maladies of fellow emigres the basis of a modest new practice (centred in the Russian quarter on the south-west bank of the Kura River). Thomas de Hartmann encountered his old friend the composer Nikolai Nikolaievitch Tcherepnin, who appointed him Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire of Advanced Musical Studies; thus in the twinkling of an eye he acquired 2000 pupils and a place at the centre of the city’s cultural life. Olga was cast to sing Micaela in a gala production of Carmen at the Tbilisi Opera House – large as the Opera-Comique in Paris.

Olga de-hartman 2

The boisterous Carmen premiere in February 1919 was both an ordeal and a triumph for Olga:

When I entered the scene in the fourth act, I saw a black spot at the back of the hall. Since I knew that no one in the audience would be wearing a black hat, I knew it was Mr Gurdjieff who was there .. . He had told me once, ‘If you are afraid, just look, and I will be there; sing and think about no one else in the hall.’ I really sang my prayer of Micaela quite wonderfully, dropping to my knees and taking a high C pianissimo, holding it for a long time, with feeling.

But the happy young soloist, contrary to appearances, was entering a period of crisis. She did not complain as daily she grew weaker, but she had not been well since nursing Gurdjieff’s dying cousin in Sochi. Had she perhaps-the thought was unthinkable-contracted tuberculosis? A specialist was called in and confirmed lung disease. He could recommend a mountain sanatorium in Austria which offered real hope but otherwise: he shook his head. Gurdjleff expressed a different opinion. Bacon! Olga should eat bacon every morning; and she should sleep outside on her verandah despite the cold; and, before eating food, she should drink a little glass of red wine from a bottle he had specially prepared. She did so. And when in three weeks’ time the specialist again examined her, ‘he told me how glad he was that I had listened to him and gone to the sanatorium, as there was practically no trace of infection left in my lungs.’

Alexandre Gustav Salzmann 2

As the brilliant sets and lighting for Carmen had developed in rehearsal, Gurdjieff established that their creator was Alexandre Gustav Salzmann, an associate of Rilke and Kandinsky. This Salzmann – although comfortably at home in Tiflis where he had been born on 25 January 1874 – was a citizen of the world: an artist, inventor, forest ranger; ‘a former dervish, former Benedictine, former professor of Jiu-jitsu, healer, stage designer … an incredible man.’ His family was of Baltic origin and the permafrost of an unassuageable northern melancholy had sunk deep into his face; yet by contrast his dashing poster-like paintings (redolent of Hieronymus Bosch in their symbolic penetration) shouted out a wholesome optimism and exuberant good humour. His excursions into Sanskrit, Chinese calligraphy, the canons of proportion and the Golden Number, argued a cultivated sensibility yet, ‘In spite of his artistic sophistication, there was something wild and savage in him … His method of shaving was simplicity itself: he took a dry razor and scraped his face. Even this was a concession. . .’

Gurdjieff and Salzmann were brought face to face at Easter 1919 (through de Hartmann’s tireless efforts) and interesting exchanges took place. ‘He is a very fine man,’ Gurdjieff assured Thomas, ‘and she is intelligent.’

jeanne de-salzmann

The intelligence of Jeanne Matignon-Salzmann was not only mental but physical. As a beautiful young woman of twenty two, she had married Alexandre in Hellerau in 1911, while studying dance at the Eurhythmics Institute of Emile Jaques Dalcroze. Her passionate interest in movement and rhythm had prevailed through the enforced travels and cruel exigencies occasioned by the war and the Russian revolution; its dimensionality had been enriched by her brilliant husband, and yet she was tormented with a sense of indefinable lack … which all amounts to saying she was perfect for Gurdjieff. Both the Salzmanns were people of the highest culture and strongest individuality hardly less remarkable than Ouspensky yet in Tbilisi Gurdjieff transited their lives and swept them imperiously into his trajectory.

By a happy coincidence Jeanne Salzmann was busy rehearsing for a prestigious public demonstration of eurhythmics, but on hearing of Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dances taught in Essentuki, she quixotically put her entire class at his disposal. Jeanne’s pupils – a circle of pretty young girls in Greek costumes – were now due for a series of shocks:

Mr Gurdjieff greeted them, watched with interest for five or ten minutes … and at once ordered them, in military tone, to straighten their lines, to dress left, to dress right. Then he put them all in one row in front of him and said: ‘Before beginning any work in “Sacred Gymnastics” you must learn how to turn.’

thomas de-hartman22

The girls were pleasantly baffled when Gurdjieff produced as class pianist Thomas de Hartmann, the Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire; but they were staggered when he ordered him (thirty minutes before his concert debut at the Town Hall), to demonstrate one of the six ‘Obligatory’ dances by putting ‘all the weight of the body on the hands while the feet made very strong rapid movements.’ When Gurdjieff provokingly insisted on paying these idealistic young amateurs a small fee, the entire class – which had actually wished to study Dalcroze – was on the verge of rebellion. And yet Jeanne Salzmann, with ‘the whole force of her authority and the feeling of the rightness of Mr Gurdjieff’s Work … was able to persuade her pupils to take part in the new “exercises”.’

Shortly after Easter 1919, Dmitri arrived unexpectedly in Tbilisi bringing eagerly awaited news from Essentuki. Gurdjleff’s mother and sister had suffered in the terrible winter of ice and famine and typhoid, but they had come through unscathed; they ’embraced’ Gurdjieff but shrank from the risky southward journey to join him; Gurdjieff’s carpet collection had been plundered, but a few recovered items lay awaiting claim at the public pound; Ouspensky had resourcefully survived the Bolshevik occupation in the guise of ‘Essentuki Soviet Librarian’, and was now teaching Gurdjieff’s ideas to groups of his own.

Gurdjieff reflected. Someone, he decided, must go to Essentuki with letters to his sister and to Ouspensky, and to retrieve whatever valuables remained. Dmitri confirmed that to send a man was out of the question; a man would be instantly seized by the White or Red Army. ‘When Mr Gurdjieff asked me to go,’ recalls Olga, ‘I was filled with terror … He gave me some gold coins (and) a mysterious little box in which he said there was a special pill that I could take in case of extreme necessity’, – otherwise he would like it back. Gurdjleff’s intention is transparent: he thrust into life the very pupil whose personality was least equipped to cope – never before had the aristocratic Olga even walked the streets alone – but entirely for her own good. There was sober calculation here, yet equally there was risk.

For an interminable week Gurdjleff endured his private reservations and the eyes of Thomas de Hartmann and then a radiant Olga returned. By rail and sea, by Batoum and Novorossiysk, by hook and by crook – she had journeyed to Essentuki and back. She had salvaged an Astrakhan coat and eight of her family’s priceless Persian miniatures and two of Gurdjieff’s antique carpets. Complete strangers had spoken to her and she had responded adequately. No obstacle had defeated her: not bureaucratic spite, nor the unwelcome advances of dirty old men with big black beards, nor even a violent tempest at sea. (‘I would use the pill only if the ship went down.’) The sense that Gurdjieff was grooming all his protégés – testing them, hardening them while paradoxically sensitizing them, generally mobilizing them to share with him the long daunting struggle ahead – this sense is overpowering.

On Sunday 22 June 1919, in the vast Tbilisi Opera House, the school of Jeanne Matignon-Salzmann staged the first ever performance of the Movements. What was Gurdjieff about? He had indeed created a rich and challenging experience for Jeanne. Yet might he not have done so without compromising his Sacred Dances? This public exposure has raised even some sympathetic eyebrows: after all, the knowledge which Gurdjieff had thirsted for, found and synthesized; the knowledge he had secretly passed on to hand-picked pupils in Moscow, Petrograd and Essentuki – had been esoteric.

‘There are things which are said only for disciples.’ But now a ticket. lifted casually at the box-office appeared to offer anyone entrée to the sanctuary. For us to grasp the sense of Gurdjieff’s singular march from inaccessible monasteries to the Opera House, we must ponder deeply. To ensure the future it was imperative he find sufficient good pupils – this inevitably poised him on a tightrope between vulgarization and the exclusivism of clique. Many were called but few were chosen. Gurdjieff’s quintessential teaching glided inviolate through the public arena, its exclusivity guaranteed not by locks and passwords and prohibitions but by spiritual capacity; not by social format but by initiatory order.

Excerpted from Gurdjieff- A Biography. By James Moore. Pp 123-129

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