Monday, February 25, 2013
Memoir Fragment: The Façade of Notre Dame
In a previous post, I described this meeting. Five months after this meeting, I began a seven-month grand tour of Europe with the teacher and one other student, my college roommate. Immediately, the three of us began studying the teaching of George Gurdjieff (1866–1949), as laid out encyclopedically in P. D. Ouspensky’s book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. The first idea we wrestled with was Gurdjieff’s notion that the “human machine” is comprised of several “centers,” or brains.
That’s enough context for the following fragment of the memoir I am currently working on. The scene is Paris, spring 1971, a very long time ago. By this time, my roommate had left for home to answer queries from his draft board. . . .
As one plumbed Ouspensky, the simple proved not so. The idea of the three centers mapped out by Cesareo on our Boston-Madrid flight was one example. There are not three centers, but seven. Alongside the movement center in the “basement” of the human machine, we were asked to imagine an instinctive center and a sexual one. Ouspensky explained what made an internal or external movement “instinctive,” while the sexual center was the only “lower” center without positive and negative halves. Sex was whole, meaning, according to Cesareo’s interpretation, that there is fundamentally nothing “wrong” about it; what’s wrong with sex is being wrongly mixed with the manifestations of other centers—negative thoughts and emotions, in particular.
There are, according to Ouspensky, five “lower” centers (intellectual, emotional, movement, instinctive, and sexual) and two “higher” ones. The higher intellectual and higher emotional functions are said to be always at work, sending their signals. But our lower centers are too dumb, too disordered to heed them. Their messages may sometimes arrive all mixed up in dreams, as they came to the prophets and seers of the past in less garbled forms. Our mission as Gurdjieffians in The Work was somehow to muck out the Augean stables of our lower centers to provide proper mangers for these two holy steeds. It is possible for man to be in knowing contact with the “higher,” but he must work like the devil to clean himself up.
In a memorable translation of the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky teaching, Cesareo one day sketched the façade of Notre Dame and asked me what I thought it symbolized. Three portals open westward. A rose window sits above the central portal, and to either side is a two-tiered tower.
I drew a blank.
“It’s the centers,” Cesareo said, and I saw that it was. The portals on ground level were the three physical centers: movement, instinctive, and sexual. The two towers were our intellectual and emotional functions, the higher separated from lower by a semipermeable membrane of interlaced arches.
“But what about the rose window?” I asked, pointing to the center of the diagram, playing stump the master. “Real I, of course,” Cesareo said.
Real I was the Holy Grail of the Gurdjieff work, a state of inner unity in which our conflicts are resolved, the “many I’s” of our common nature joined in a unanimous parliament. Behind real I, Gurdjieff was said to have said, “stands God.” Indeed, God did exist in the Gurdjieff teaching, especially in his own literary masterwork, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, where God is given honorific titles like Our Common Father Endlessness. But between God and man stood a whole lot of psychology, a term that Ouspensky and Cesareo interpreted variously. What Gurdjieff might have said about all of this—especially my simplistic gloss—remains unknowable.
Still and all, Cesareo’s interpretation of the façade of Notre Dame as a diagram of the Gurdjieff teaching touched my heart. There were two clear messages, one intellectual, one emotional. The intellectual message, which I believe Cesareo intended, was that the Gurdjieff teaching was the one teaching that unified all received tradition and academic psychology into a master system. It even explained Notre Dame. Cesareo said that he had read all the modern psychologists and that none measured up to Gurdjieff. At Salem State College beginning in 1972, his most popular course would be Theories of Personality, and the final theory covered was the Gurdjieff Work.
The emotional message was not intended by Cesareo. This inner, secret meaning—and I didn’t even know that I was receiving it at the time—was that eight hundred years before Gurdjieff, when Notre Dame of Paris was under construction, Christianity already had every “secret” worth discovering, meaning that there is no such thing as esoteric knowledge, no Gnostic code available only to the initiate. Some organizing, unifying force had designed that mighty fortress, the master plans having been laid down two thousand years ago by Christ and the Apostles, and preserved today by the Roman Catholic Church.
Cesareo’s Gurdieffian vision of Notre Dame and my religious reception of it reflected themselves in the books he and I chose while in Paris. By this time we had both read Boyhood with Gurdjieff, Fritz Peters’s memoir of a year at the Prieuré, the master’s estate in Fontainebleau-Avon. When we learned that the sequel, Gurdjieff Remembered, was on deposit in the American Library in Paris, Cesareo and I made a pilgrimage there by Métro and sat side by side, reading it silently together all one long day.
Through the Peters connection, Cesareo became intensely interested in the writings of Peters’s aunt, Margaret Anderson, founder of The Little Review, an influential literary journal founded in 1914, which first published James Joyce’s Ulysses in serial form. Anderson was a participant in the Work and later author of The Unknowable Gurdjieff; but it was her three-part memoir that particularly fascinated Cesareo, especially the middle volume, The Fiery Fountains, about Anderson’s years in the Gurdjieff circle.
I was magnetized by Cesareo’s interest in Peters and Anderson because they were Gurdjieffian acolytes, one a child, one an adult, who wrote memoirs in a human voice, who had been huddled around the master like convents around a relic. But personally I was attracted to other books when left to my own devices. In the afterglow of Assisi and with the sense that I was following in the spiritual tracks of LB, I picked up a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Saint Francis in an English-language edition. The Greek writer invests the story of il poverello with wit and passion, recalling it through the bemused eyes of Brother Leo, the Sancho Panza to Francis’s Don Quijote. This pudgy, food-and-rest-loving companion finds the saint’s asceticism a bit trying sometimes.
One afternoon, after our classes at the Alliance Française, I followed Cesareo into a Catholic bookstore not far from St. Sulpice. There I bought a French-language edition of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I picked up this particular volume because it was short and in French and so would allow me to practice the language; but there was a third reason. Cesareo—who used the Spanish version of Loyola’s first name, Iñigo—had spoken of the Spiritual Exercises as a sort of Catholic work on oneself, as though worship could deliver the same results as Work.
The slender 230-page paperback with the laminated cover is still tucked between taller volumes on my bookshelf today. My underlinings and margin notes echo an eagerness to look at Catholic culture from a firmly Gurdjieffian stance. I wrote alongside one paragraph, “Consenting to a negative thought = a mortal sin,” an equation that connects Gurdjieff’s ban on the expression of negativity with a Catholic phrase, mortal sin, which sounded to my uncatechized ear like capital crime. My last note in the book translated a phrasing of Loyola into the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, “in thought, word, and deed.” I may have been thinking, “in the intellectual, emotional, and moving centers.”
These are some things I wrote then, but here is what I remember now. I am reading the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola while sunning myself on a deck chair at an outdoor piscine near the Seine. The late spring sunshine laughs over the blue water, making it sparkle. I am sitting erect, both feet squarely on the deck, as Cesareo has instructed me, endeavoring manfully to pay attention to religious exercises. Meanwhile, all around me French women are stretched out topless on their backs, and breasts of all shapes and sizes are winking at me like Brueghel demons.
It is a very Brother Leo moment.