A few months before his death, G.I. Gurdjieff drove with a group of students from Paris to a recently opened series of interconnected caves in Lascaux in southwestern France. His student J.G. Bennett told him about extraordinary Paleolithic paintings that had been discovered by accident in 1940, by four teenagers and a dog. In spite of being in much pain, Gurdjieff was determined to see them. As the great teacher stood in looking up at the great stag with many antlers and the other extraordinary figures of bisons, horses, cows, and at least one Sphinx or unicorn-like imaginary figure–figures layered on top of one another as if by succeeding generations– he is reported by Bennett to have looked as if he completely belonged there.
Curious, that impression of belonging–not just of being present and having presence which Gurdjieff reportedly always had everywhere, but belonging? Gurdjieff reportedly said that the depiction of an imaginary looking creature was the emblem of a brotherhood that appeared seven or eight thousand years ago, and that the stag with many antlers was a way of depicting attainments in consciousness and being. Gurdjieff strongly disagreed with Bennett’s claim that the art was possibly 20,000 to 18,000 years old (a Metropolitan Museum essay dates them at possibly 15,000 B.C.E.). Gurdjieff believed the paintings were made by humans who had inherited an ancient knowledge about our inner human possibilities that had existed long before their own “prehistoric” time–that the artists were the survivors or inheritors of an advanced civilization that had been lost. That impression that Gurdjieff seemed to belong in the caves–it was a profound recognition. He had dedicated his life to the search for the aim and significance of life on earth and human life in particular–beyond mere survival. After much search, he believed he picked up the thread of ancient knowledge that he formulated and reformulated for contemporary beings. In the stone chambers of Lascaux, he found evidence of the lineage of that knowledge, evidence that there were fellow humans who had tried to live as he had tried to live, who bore witness to the vibrancy and sacredness in life.
I have always taken heart from our ancestors capacity to survive. Years ago, as I’ve written in this blog, I sent a sample of my matrilineal DNA to the National Geographic “Genographic Project.” I don’t think I’ll ever get over the amazement that a small scrape of cells from inside my cheek could produce a genetic map that stretched around the world and ultimately back to a single woman who lived about 150,000 years ago, our common genetic mother, in East Africa. At moments when I have had to face fear and difficulty, when I had to go “off road” into uncharted territory, I would think of my mother and my Danish grandmother and women stretching back in time who have had to brave loss and danger, who have had to flee earthquakes and deluges and head off into the unknown. Survival itself often seems miraculous to me. I have often taken comfort in the thought that being a good human being has always meant the same thing in all times and places, and that creativity and spirituality have been in evidence since the caves at Lascaux (that last bit I picked up that thought from a book by Karen Armstrong).
After encountering the writing of Madame de Salzmann, which fulfills and advances Gurdjieff’s own work, it dawns on me as if for the first time that there has always been more to life than survival–at least for some of the “family.” I was never one of those who got a charge out of thinking about secret brotherhoods or lost Atlantis or any of that. As I write this, however, I feel a quiet…not certainty but a definite sense of possibility. Having read the excerpts from Madame de Salzmann’s upcoming book, it strikes me that it just might really be the case that something extraordinary is possible for humans, that a “way” has always existed and that it is waiting for us.