In the Kitchen with Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff Special Meals

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff had many talents, but his ability to stimulate other people’s imaginations was the one that served him best.  His stories, allegories, music, dances and exotic meals were the magical tools which he used to provide those unsatisfied by their ordinary existence with a glimpse of something mysterious, a promise of a way towards a higher state of being and of experiencing reality.

In some way, he was the real-life Wizard of Oz.  A gifted man, an original and highly individuated one, but no wizard, except in the eyes of his followers. Did his teachings, the green tinted glasses attached to the eyes of his pupils, improve their life experience? Well, the answer to this question is beyond the scope of this blogpost.

Oz

However, after reading extensively on the subject of Gurdjieff, I am convinced that he possessed vast religious and esoteric knowledge. And, I do believe that in his youth he was a true spiritual seeker. It’s just that at one point in his life he decided that he had found all the answers and that it was time for him to start teaching others.  I am not convinced  that his Fourth Way was (is) the right way for spiritual growth, meaning that I doubt that his teaching techniques were beneficial to his followers. More on this subject in another post.

In this post I want to explore Gurdjieff’s use of food as a function of his teachings. He used different teaching methods at different periods of his activities but during the last period of his life, meals became an important component of his modus operandi.

It is important to compose a dish in its correctly blended elements as a composition of music or the colors in painting. Harmony in scale. Must have much knowledge to be a good cook. A culinary doctor.

G.I. Gurdjieff

A “culinary doctor”? What did he mean exactly? Was he referring to some special culinary knowledge? Was that knowledge related to some healing combination of the three types of food necessary for the nourishment of the three-brained system of the human being?

Now, for those of you not familiar with the concept of the “three-brained beings”, note that Gurdjieff believed that man was a machine, an unconscious automaton reacting impulsively to his external environment with the function of one of his three “brains”, the physical, mental and emotional.  According to Gurdjieff our three brains are invariably at odds with each other, and, it is precisely this inner disharmony of the functions of the human inner workings that cause the fragmentation of our psyches into many different “I”s. The sensation in the average person of a unified “I” is an illusion.

Gurdjieff held that the average man is unaware of his multiplicity, sleepwalking through his life. Only a man who has awaken and has struggled to integrate the functions of his three brains into one harmoniously working unity, is a real man. And, only a real man is able to perceive the terror of his situation, his fate, which is to fulfill the organic cosmic needs of nature. 

Gurdjieff’s cosmology proposes that the purpose of organic life on our planet is to provide the energy needed to sustain the Moon, and that energy is liberated through the process of death.  Once a man has recognised his fate, he could by the exertion of his will (the concept of intentional suffering) have a chance at developing a soul that could outlive the death of his physical body. (Note to readers: Please keep in mind that this is only a simple over-view of Gurdjieff’s system synthesised for the purposes of this post.)

Now let’s examine how Gurdjieff conceived of the nourishment of our three-brained system.

Mr. Gurdjieff next drew a scheme of the human body and compared it to a three-storied factory, the stories being represented by the head, chest and abdomen. Taken together the factory forms a complete whole> (…) and he explained that while the food of the lower story was man’s meat and drink, air was the food of the middle story, and that of the upper story was what could be called “impressions”.

 Glimpses of Truth, Views from the Real World

Gurdjieff held that the air, the “second-being food”, nourishes the mind (and on a physical level we all know that the brain needs oxygen to survive) and helps build the astral body which he called the “Kesdjan body”.  The third type of food, the “impressions” are the emotional records of all of our life experiences.

Since Gurdjieff believed only in experienced based knowledge, then the logical conclusion is that his concept of the alignment of the functions of the three brains is absolutely necessary for the construction of the soul. Hence, the “right” ideas can only be asserted as being right if experienced with the body, mind and heart.

Gurdjieff claimed to be a teacher of “Esoteric Christianity” and from that standpoint we can easily extrapolate that Jesus’s custom of sharing meals with others was Gurdjieff’s source of inspiration for his habit of serving food to his pupils. Gurdjieff, a keen observer of our human nature, must have realised the connecting power of this ritual. His daughter, Dushka Howart, confirms the teaching function of Gurdjieff’s meals in the shared memoir with her mother, Jessmin Howarth:

Much that was said at table had very personal application to the person addressed, but it could also be understood on different levels, in various ways, (or maybe not at all!) by others present.”

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Obviously, to succeed in creating his versions of The Last Supper Gurdjieff had to have a talent for cooking.  

cooking cabinet

Dushka reports of this talent. Once Gurdjieff, expecting important quests for lunch charged his nephew Valia to roast four chickens in the oven. Unfortunately, Valia failed to pull them out of the oven in time.

Mastering his rage and disappointment, Gurdjieff strode off toward the kitchen. With a quick twist of hand he tore off the skin which stuck to the burned carcasses of the birds. A few spoonfuls of butter, some cream, onion, garlic powder and some spices transformed into a delicacy what was a hopeless disaster a few moments ago.

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Gurdjieff concocted exotic dishes and turned his table into a dramatic stage where he acted as the master tamer of egos, administering the necessary external shocks that he believed were necessary to awaken his pupils from their identification to their thoughts and emotions.  His provocative remarks, the famous ritual of the Armagnac Toasts to the Idiots, the readings from his books and the music he played on his harmonium after the meals, assisted him in opening up  his pupils to new “impressions”. 

Gurdjieff handed down four books to posterity but unfortunately none of them was a cookery book. There is however Gurdjieff’s famous marinated salad for which Dushka generously provides the recipe in her family memoir.

What he called his “salad” was a soupy, highly seasoned mixture of raw vegetables that was nearer to a chunky “gazpacho”. Ripe tomatos, cucumbers, onions, dill pickles, herbs and spices were marinated to a thick consistency, redolent of fresh dill, fruit juices and gingery chutney. It was offered in a small bowl and was especially succulent with the smoothing addition of smetana (sour cream).

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Obviously, I wanted to have a taste of the salad, but unfortunately the measurements in the recipe are “for three hundred forty-six cup-sized servings …” .   I decided that the effort to reduce the measurements to something more reasonable would be futile given the fact that I have never tasted the salad before. How would I know if the result is accurate?  So instead, I made Russian borsch. I know he served borsch to his pupils.

A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers

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Christmas is just around the corner, which means that now is the right time to revisit Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable “The Fox at the Manger”.

It’s Christmas Eve in postwar London. The narrator along with three young boys takes part in the carol service at St. Paul’s cathedral. The young boys have brought their old toys for the poor children. Only, when the time comes to part with their toys, the boys swiftly change their minds and run off remorselessly in the opposite direction. The narrator witnessing their selfish behaviour affirms that “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere”. But the meaning of the story of the fox at the manger expands beyond this aphorism about love.

Right from the start, the title of the story hints of its unusualness, as Pamela L. Travers’s friend and collaborator, Brian Sibley, accurately noted when he first discovered the book: “What a bizarre, almost blasphemous idea: the wild, rough, red-haired chicken-thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.” The idea is certainly provocative and the fox’s discourse throughout the story challenges our well accepted ideas about good and evil, love and service. I can assure you that Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable is definitely unlike any other Christmas story you have ever read or listened to. The story begins in a Christian religious context, but then quickly veers off and dives into the author’s inner world of esoteric beliefs, such as this poetical reference to the mysteries of time and space, to the Akashic records where all past, present and future human events, thoughts, emotions and intents are encoded in the non-physical etheric plane of existence:  

What had been here – some stately office? A bank? A merchant’s hall? And before that, what? I wondered. If it is true the print and form of things remain forever, as they say, invulnerable and invisible – surely these children were dancing now through forgotten board-meetings, and shades of accountants. lawyers, clerks. Or, if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire of London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontosaurs; and beyond that we would whirl in lava, turning fierily through the air, nothing but elements.

Contrariwise, would not the City lords to come, in rooms that would rise from this fern and rubble, start up in astonishment at the fancied sight of willow-herb breaking through the carpet? And old cashiers scratch their heads, wondering if they were out of their wits or whether they had really seen three little boys run through the cash desk? Are we here? Are we there? Is it now? Is it then? They will not know. And neither do we.

When one of the boys asks the narrator “Why weren’t there any wild animals at the crib?” the narrator tells the story of the forgotten verse in the Carol of the Friendly Beasts, the one about the visit of the fox at the manger. The fox comes with a special gift for baby Jesus. The fox presents the Son of God with its cunning.  The idea is subversive as it goes against the teachings of the Bible where the fox is portrayed rather negatively. But in Pamela L. Travers’s story, the fox appears in its positive aspect: wisdom and discernment. And at the end, wild and cunning and selfish as it may appear to be, the fox proves itself capable of the ultimate act of love, self-sacrifice. “‘It was not sudden, the fox said, coolly. ‘I was a long time coming to it and it was not easy.’”

Of course, when the fox arrives at the manger, it is not welcomed by the tamed animals, but their rejection does not deter it from its plans. In response to the common disapproval of its character the fox says:

Reynard you called me, and that is my name. But if you use it to threaten me, ass, I bid you remember its meaning. It comes from Raginohardus, a name that means ‘strong in counsel.

The farm animals see the fox from a narrow perspective. They see the selfish predator, the thief of chickens, but then the fox turns the tables around on them and confronts them with the idea that man is no different than the fox and that chickens are made to be stolen. The fox did not invent the laws of nature it simply lives by them. “I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from the air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve, I do not know.” Does man really know? Nothing is less certain…

The dialogue between the farm animals and the fox also questions man’s place in Creation:

You speak like a slave, said the fox, mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forests no man has seen- do they not still go on growing? Will the fire at the core of the earth go out because man cannot warm his hand on it?

The fox also directs our attention to our all too human failure to see our life situations for what they are and the price we pay for not thinking for ourselves: “What would it profit me to run with the flock, shoulder to shoulder with woolly brother, when all it leads to is the basting dish.”

And as for the nature of the fox’s gift, well, it is ingeniously confounding, isn’t it? What use can Jesus have of cunning? I was dumbfounded by the fox’s gift, just as the farm animals in the story. Dumbfound and at the same time amused by Pamela L. Travers’s obstinate refusal to give explanations.

But what will you do with such a gift? I am puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” Pamela L. Travers’s answer to the questions of the ass is that it is not important to understand but to simply let it be. Although this is a wise advice, especially when confronted with unanswerable questions, in this particular case, I couldn’t let it be. Knowing a little (just a little) about Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual beliefs I was convinced that there was some hidden meaning to the fox’s gift, some allusion to something deeper. This was not an unanswerable question.

My doubts were confirmed. I learned that:

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff believed that in order to make progress in the world it is necessary to have the devil on one’s side.” and also that “St Paul speaks of the cross as a trick against the Devil whose own cunning failed to make him aware that by crucifying the Lord of Glory he was thus caught in a trap which would see his end. Jesus’s crucifixion releases the end time: the end time for the wicked angels who have governed mankind. The cross is then a kind of trick, an act of pre-ordained cunning, played on Satan.”**

Pamela L. Travers must have been aware of the ambiguities and subtleties of the issue, or why would she write: “ For wild and tame are but two halves and here, where all begins and ends, everything must be whole.”

If you are interested in the story of “The Fox at the Manger” you could listen to Brian Sibley’s radio adaptation. Music is omnipresent throughout the dramatization and it beautifully enhances the emotional tonalities of the story. British actress Dame Wendy Hiller lends her voice to the narrator in the story, and I am almost certain that she must have prepared herself for the role by listening to interviews given by Pamela L. Travers (or maybe they even met), because the intonations of her voice are strikingly similar to the dramatic way of expression of Pamela L. Travers.

And one last comment, Pamela L. Travers had a somewhat analogous difficulty relinquishing the character of the fox in the hands of Brian Sibley as she did with her Mary Poppins and Disney, but of course with lesser intensity, the stakes were not the same. Only in this case the adaptation is loyal to the original creation.

She, who didn’t bother with radios or television found it almost as difficult to entrust the Fox at the Manger’ to me as the children in the story found it to relinquish their toys. ‘How is the child going to speak? How can you possibly give Him a voice? Why don’t you call the children X,Y and Z, as they are in the book? I don’t want them to be given names, you understand, but how will we know which one’s speaking? Does quite so much of the narrative have to go? Couldn’t someone just read the story? I’ve read it many times – in cathedrals too! Does it have to be a play…?*

One must admire Pamela L. Travers’s constancy.

Happy Holidays!  

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*  Excerpt from “A Good Gift, Thoughts on The Fox at the Manger” by Brian Sibley

** Tobias Churton, author of “Deconstructing Gurdjieff”

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