My Dear Father Gurdjieff (Daddy Gurdjieff by Nicholas de Val [Nikolai de Stjernvall]).
(Recently published and now available on Amazon)
Since the death of Georgii Ivanovich Gurdjieff in 1949, there has been an enormous amount written about his ideas, and now those ideas have been diluted by their application to the mainstream of “New Age” thought. Too little has been written, however, about the man himself, for it remains that, without sensing the human vitality of the author, it is difficult, if not impossible to grasp the essence of his work.
Besides James Moore’s magisterial biography of Gurdjieff published in 1991, there are but scattered and brief sketches of Gurdjieff, and none have been able to detail the intimate quotidian life of Gurdjieff. Nicholas de Stjernvall shared and observed every facet of that life. First, as a young boy at the Prieuré, he was one of the oldest of a large group of children; and then, as a young man, he lived with Gurdjieff in a crowded apartment in Paris where he fulfilled the role of Gurdjieff’s major domo, a man for all seasons in every aspect of the master’s domestic life. In this capacity, Nicholas de Val (Nikolai) de Stjernvall had a unique occasion to take note of the very human side of a man revered as exotic, fantastic and extraordinarily superhuman by many who ignore his humanity beneath his mask as trickster.
Gurdjieff’s trickster powers are most evident in the story of his extraordinary escape with a large entourage in 1919 from the Russian Revolution. That exodus began in an area in the Caucasus where Nikolai de Stjernvall was born himself in September 1919. The only other record we have of this amazing trek, besides Gurdjieff’s own casual remarks in the coda to Meetings With Remarkable Men, is the account of Thomas de Hartmann, Nicholas’ godfather. Those memoirs added to these of Nicholas’ mother, Elizaveta de Stjernvall, are of inestimable value in displaying the wonderful scope of Gurdjieff’s practical genius. Some years later at the Prieuré, this practical artistry, which some would call “magic,” was paramount for the large number of children about him. He cherished the very young, and he directed their activities with particular care for their future development. One aspect of that care is illustrated in Nikolai’s recollection of Gurdjieff’s frequent call pomni sebia, a command whose literal sense—“remember oneself”—can convey little of its broad and profound sense.
Gurdjieff both guided and tested those he loved constantly, and his tests took many forms from simple tasks in isolation to participation in what may seem like frightening demonstrations of his own skills, among many, as a driver, tradesman, and cook. Gurdjieff was a keen observer of others and an exacting judge of their performances as well as of his own. Though many children forgot in time their privileged lessons, Nicholas did not, and the record below offers his reader a vivid portrait of a man who welcomed and cultivated every aspect of his full and challenging life.
I was with both Nikolai and Gurdjieff briefly at the Prieuré in the early 1930s, but was too young to hold in my memory more than a few vague images of games on the lawn and odours in the kitchen. My mother took me to visit Nicholas and his parents later in Normandy, of which my only recollection is of a bicycle I wanted to be able to ride. I met Nicholas again in Geneva in 1949—when I was with Gurdjieff as a sort of mechanic and handyman—and I have profited from his company here in Geneva for the past few years. This is just to say that I knew Gurdjieff long ago and know Nikolai well enough now to appreciate that this memoir rings true to its author and its subject.