Europe: Grand Tour with Gulliver

[This is the fifth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

On our first visit to Paris, Gulliver singled me out for a “task.” I understood that this was an exercise in personal development. For a week, Gulliver said, don’t let anyone touch me. This prohibition included not only strangers in public—an idle passerby jostling me on the Boulevard du Montparnasse—but also him and Jacky in private. It was an exercise in life on the high alert, one that stretched my powers of attentiveness.

Gulliver did not make my task easy. Hour after hour, he tested me, unexpectedly reaching out to tap me on the shoulder or tickle me in the ribs. My high beams were always on, or so I thought. It became a sort of game to me, both playful and annoying.

Two days into this task, we rendezvoused with the brother of a former Lilliputian, living the bohemian life in Paris. He and three young friends looked like refugees from the cast of “Hair,” long-locked, draped in motley, sparkling with foolishness. Seven of us sat in a sidewalk café sharing beers and laughs, then headed down the avenue arm in arm, like Dorothy and companions on the yellow brick road. We hugged and kissed good-bye on both cheeks, French fashion. Then Gulliver led Jacky and me back to the pension, where he ripped me psychologically limb from limb.

I had forgotten my task! I had let these four people touch me! I hadn’t merely forgotten his directive. I had betrayed him, my teacher! For the past four days I had not let him near me. Now I was “ready to jump into bed” with strangers! I was struck dumb by this absurd ambush, the first time I ever saw Gulliver blow his stack, in a way that seemed disproportionate with my offense. I had nothing for rebuttal but silence. I shuddered and suffered, and when he put his arm around my shoulder some hours later in a gesture of forgiveness, it came like the touch of an angel.

From Paris we circled Europe counterclockwise by train, from France to Italy to Austria, through Germany and Belgium back to Paris. We continued reading from the Gurdjieff canon and I worked hard at assimilating the ideas intellectually, while Gulliver stirred the emotional pot. Yet what stuck in my memory—what remained forty years later—were a few very Catholic impressions: my first mass at Notre Dame, entering the holy space that is St. Peter’s in Rome, and visiting Assisi.

According to his close follower P. D. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff (1866–1949) had referred to his own teaching as esoteric Christianity, that is, the inner, secret teaching of Jesus. Ordinary “exoteric” Christianity—as taught to the masses, or even to the five thousand gathered and fed with five loaves and two fishes—had become a collection of tired rituals and rote prayers, according to this point of view. Esoteric Christianity, to which only Jesus’s Apostles had been privy, was a challenging inner discipline that could raise a man to the level of the angels. The discipline was methodical, beginning with study of the three primary centers, or brains, in the human machine: intellectual, emotional, and moving. Bring these centers into balance, in tune with one another, as it were, and the self might be better able to tune in to higher influences, flowing to us at all times from higher centers.

Without this inner work, the searcher was lost, and his soul only a dream. For Gurdjieff, the human soul was not a given, but something one must strive to make, like building an addition on your house. His was a Promethean method of salvation, or maybe Icaran.

As we continued traveling, Gulliver cited other teacher-disciple models than Christ and the Apostles. Comparative religious history offers many such models: stories of zen masters whacking students with sticks, of searchers climbing mountains to fall at the feet of gurus crouched in caves, of students following philosophers through marketplaces. Gulliver particularly alluded to the model of Socrates and his students, or “ephebes.” Socrates famously taught in the streets of Athens, revealing universal truths while drawing examples from the incidents of daily life. I could see that Gulliver was doing the same with Jacky and me. We were walking the great cities of the West—dodging traffic, sipping cafés au lait, plunging into life—while a wise man made parables of it all. Gulliver continued referring to the Socratic model of teacher-student relations and talked sympathetically of Socrates’s love for his young male students, and of their love for him. Gulliver made it clear that this ancient teacher-student model included sexual relations.

During that first circuit of Europe, we three had one regular place to call home, the second-class compartment on the standard-issue European train of the period. Our Eurrailpasses, good for ninety days, got us on board; then we staked out a compartment, private if possible. At night the facing banquettes slid to the center to form a flat, uncomfortable bed on which we dozed in flashing darkness after pulling the shades to corridor and countryside. When we had a compartment to ourselves, Gulliver defended it against intruders with scowls and imprecations, especially against a certain type of European woman he called “pushy.”

It was an intimate space, our defensible bedroom on wheels. Though we lay fully clothed or in underwear inside separate sleeping bags, we inevitably came in contact in small collisions as the carriage thumped and rang over the rails. Before falling asleep, Gulliver entreated us to join him in Lilliput-style “sensing exercises,” another discipline in attention needed on the long road to self-remembering, a key Gurdjieffian goal, the portal, as it were, to objective consciousness.

With eyes closed and minds quieted, lying closely, vulnerably on our backs, Gulliver led us on imaginary guided tours of our muscles. He quietly, gently urged us to relax, beginning in the the smallest corners of the face and moving down through the large muscles of shoulders, arms, and torso. His voice moved hypnotically over our bodies, passing through the abdomen and never failing to mention the gen-eee-tals, as he pronounced it, before passing down our legs to the feet and toes. Sometimes he asked me to lead these imaginary tours. This way I was taught to guide his consciousness and Jacky over their own private spaces, just as Gulliver had guided mine. Boundaries were crossed, if only in our imaginations.

During the daylight, Gulliver took pains to explicate Gurdjieff. The human machine has seven centers, in all, according to the teaching. All of the five lower centers have a positive and negative half, all of them except the sex center. The sex center was unique, Gulliver taught us. Unlike thoughts and feelings, unlike movements and instinctive functioning, sex has no negative part. Sex, said Gulliver interpreting Gurdjieff, is a pure energy that becomes positive or negative only by being mixed with the activities of other centers. Therefore, there is no such thing as negative sex. We make sex wrong only by entertaining negative thoughts and feelings about it.

I don’t know when I finally got it through my thick skull that Gulliver wanted to have sex with me. Six months after meeting him and seven weeks into our Eurotour, I had no direct evidence that he had ever had sex with a man. All the evidence seemed to be on the other side: a fiancée in Yugoslavia who he said had died dramatically in his arms following a car crash; a woman he had “almost married” at an American university; a young female lover at Lilliput, who had left Lilliput for mysterious reasons. But by the time we reached Paris again in late March, it must have begun to dawn on me that Gulliver wanted into my pants, in the best Socratic tradition of course.

Esalen and Lilliput and “Hair” were all symptoms of a new age of openness, of free love, of “being here now.” Like truth, conscience was relative. Subjective conscience, a Gurdjieffian term, was culturally determined, and sexuality therefore a malleable convention. The reason Socrates had sex with his ephebes was not that Socrates was gay but that homosexuality was not considered wrong in ancient Greece, or so Gulliver said. Homosexuality was wrong in our culture only because our culture made it wrong. Objective conscience, another Gurdjieffian goal, could only be reached by transcending the subjective. In other words, I was OK, you were OK, and so was sex between consenting adults. Useless walls could come tumbling down, and sparrows would sing on the fallen stones. The imagery was from a song by The Incredible String Band, which I liked and sang blithely. Gulliver sang it back to me. The sex center had no negative part. Why, therefore and QED, should one man not have sex with another? Any negative thoughts or feelings about it were only that. Why, in all reason, should I not have sex with Gulliver?

Well, for one thing, because I didn’t want to. I had no desire, inclination, appetite, or tendency toward homosexuality that I was aware of. And, but ah, there was the rub! Awareness! Wasn’t it possible that I had such tendencies but was un-aware of them? Wasn’t it just conceivable that I had repressed homosexual tendencies? The Freudian notion of repression had clout in 1971, and no one knew Freud like Gulliver—at least no one in our train compartment. In making his points, Gulliver drew freely from Freud as he did from Gurdjieff or Krishnamurti, with smatterings of Georg Grodek, R. D. Laing, and Wilhelm Reich, among others. Was Gulliver a trained psychoanalyst? Did he have any accreditation whatsoever in any of these teachings? I didn’t ask.

Our teacher, our master, our Socrates, made it clear to Jacky and me that not to be willing to open oneself at least to the thought of homosexual activity might be a confession of repression, unwarranted fear, neurosis, psychic confusion. Admittedly, the psychology of all this—served up as a pastiche of academic and spiritual teachings—was jumbled in my head and remains so today, but Gulliver hammered the point home, citing a dozen “schools” and “findings.” He saw sex and its repression everywhere and pointed them out. He said that a man who wore a beard was only trying to prove his masculinity. He said that a youth who jiggled his leg up and down beneath a restaurant table—and he noted such youths—had repressed sexual energies and would be better off masturbating in a toilet stall. Was I trying to prove that I was a man? Was I artificially restraining my sexual impulses? Was there something disordered in this? What if I abandoned him and returned to the “normal” middle-class world of my parents? Might I find myself ten years later with an unaccountable yearning for intimacy with another man? In Gulliver’s most memorable formulation, he said that someday, if I didn’t sort all this out, I might find myself “giving blowjobs to strangers in the men’s room at Grand Central Station.”

Why the hell didn’t I just get it over with?

On our second visit to Paris, Gulliver’s campaign approached the end stage. In our room one night, he asked Jacky and me to strip naked. As obedient students, we did so and so did he. Then the three of us sat in a circle on a bed, and Gulliver instructed us each to do something we were afraid to do, something our inhibitions ordinarily prevented. I do not remember what symbolic act Jacky chose, maybe a kiss on the lips. When asked to take my turn, I stated that I would touch their penises. Then I did so. Nothing more happened that night.

We returned to Madrid, where a letter was waiting for Jacky at American Express. His local draft board said that if Jacky didn’t want an all-expenses-paid trip to Southeast Asia, he needed to get his ass back in school, “field study” or no field study. Gulliver and I saw him off at the Madrid airport near the beginning of April. The following day Gulliver and I were in Paris again, filling out forms at the Pension de Famille at 76, Rue d’Assas, near the southwest corner of the Jardin de Luxembourg. For the next three months, we called that pension home.

West on the Rue Vavin and Notre-Dame des Champs and two hundred meters north along the Boulevard Raspail stood the gated enclave of the Alliance Française. Here I enrolled in advanced French classes on the troisième while Gulliver took up beginner studies on the rez-de-chaussée. Our weekdays for the next three months were given over to routine: waking to street sounds filtered through a pair of tall windows that faced the ends of our twin beds, taking petit déjeuner on a tray delivered to our bedroom, walking to class each morning past the tabac where I began buying rations of Gauloises, trading notes after school and having lunch in a café, walking Paris in the afternoon, taking dinner in the dining room of the pension where Gulliver spread the rumor that I was an American oil heir and he was my tutor, going out for beers along the boulevard afterward, then retiring to our rooms, where we read until we fell asleep separately or until Gulliver climbed into bed with me.

I remember details about that room: the faded bedcovers the color of blue iris, the fact that my bed was closer to the door than his, the bidet in the bathroom which Gulliver claimed was for washing one’s geneetals after sex (I had never used a bidet and had no clue), the small vanity in the corner too small for desk work so that we wrote our letters and read our books seated Indian-fashion on our beds. I remember that the telephone was down the hall in a cabinet like the one in the house in my childhood home in Minnesota much too long ago. But I do not remember having sex with Gulliver. Not there, not once, though it must have been a regular occurrence.

I know that it happened, but I can’t visualize it happening. Forty years on, I have no sensual memory of the experience. Maybe I was learning firsthand the meaning of repression.

When one of the women from Lilliput visited us in June, she entered our room at the pension. Years later she told me that at the moment she did so, she thought to herself, Ah! But then, like everyone else, like me too, she said nothing about what her intuition told her.

Socrates had found his ephebe.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt in sequence, “Lourdes: Glimpses of Faith,” click here

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