Acolyte
As She Howls, fabric art by Marilyn Johnston

 

The door to the bar was open and for a moment the streetlight framed him in the doorway: curly dark hair, eyes set in a square brow, muscular biceps showing just below his rolled-up, blue-denim shirtsleeves. A large ring of keys dangled from his leather belt, advertising his masculinity. I’d been doing some advertising of my own that evening, gazing into my scotch and water as if I were contemplating an unendurable loss. It was a pose that seemed to come naturally, one I had often assumed as a lure to barroom conversation. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him look briefly in my direction as he passed and then turn to nod to the bartender. I continued to stare sadly into my glass, and waited. 

 

It was the summer of 1961, years before the second wave of feminism, a time when being a young woman living in Greenwich Village as a free spirit made one a bohemian even if one weren’t an artist. I had recently returned to New York from the San Francisco Bay area, having relentlessly surfed the beat life in North Beach for a year and then moved across the Bay and enrolled in UC Berkeley’s English Department. Two years later, with no particular desire to complete a degree and a failed sexual affair behind me, I drove back across the country and landed in the Village. 

I spent most evenings in a friendly Village bar talking to strangers, mostly men, and occasionally going to bed with one. Tonight the Cedar Tavern was my mise-en-scène. A well-known watering hole for New York artists during the ’50s, it still had a certain currency among the beats and painters in the neighborhood—the kind of freewheeling company I often sought out. I had settled myself on one of two empty adjacent stools at the bar, hoping that the other would extend an invitation. So when the dark-haired key dangler came over and sat next to me, I was pleased.

I no longer recall his first words, but our conversation must have started as usual, oiled by small talk. He must have asked what kind of work I did; I must have told him I was temporarily working as a substitute teacher while considering what to do with “my life— this thing I had charge of that had come to a standstill”—for I remember vividly the flicker of heightened interest that crossed his face when I called my life a “thing.”  

What more did he tell me about himself as we sat at the bar that evening? I can easily reel off the basics: his name was Brian; he was born and raised in the Village but now lived on the Lower East Side; his father was a Village artist—a painter—but he himself had no similar talent. He was a carpenter; he liked to make things. I recall the startling passion in his voice when he talked about the importance of labor to the spirit. As we sat there talking, I felt the promise of something real happening between us. 

He was, he told me, a follower of Gurdjieff. 

The name was familiar: I’d heard it only a few days earlier from an acquaintance. Here at the Cedar Bar, I was hearing it spoken more reverentially. Yet the coincidence seemed to signify: Pay attention

“Do you know his work?” Brian asked.

“I’ve heard the name, but don’t know much about him.  Katherine Mansfield supposedly died in his arms at his Institute—where was it, in France somewhere? He was a Russian mystic, right?” 

“He was a lot more than just that,” Brian said, sounding a bit irked. He took a long draft of his beer, and then, as if I had tapped an underground spring, he began: “I’ve found my way to a higher state of consciousness through Gurdjieff—a new self-awareness.” His voice was deep yet soft, as if he were gently stroking the words before he let them go. I was intrigued.

Higher state of consciousness?  Meaning. . . ?” 

He smiled into his beer as if he’d waited for me to ask, and then went on.

“Gurdjieff started a school to help people who were stuck in a groove reach a better level of existence. He taught that human beings are only partially developed.” He paused and took a long look at me. I felt in his scrutiny a penetrating appraisal. “Consciousness, conscience, and will are not given to us freely”—his voice now grew more vigorous— “but must be acquired by intention, by work.”  As if to punctuate his remarks, he took another long look at me, and I felt myself caught in the intensity of his gaze. 

I was, of course, a perfect foil for Brian’s words. A dangling woman unmoored from any meaningful anchor, I found myself drawn by his fervent certainties and my lack of them. Inevitably, it seemed, our conversation on that hot New York night at the Cedar led me a few hours later to climb the five floors of his Lower East Side tenement knowing I was about to enter an affair even before I crossed the threshold. 

To my astonishment, I stepped into a wondrously transformed space. Brian had knocked down the inside walls of the apartment and turned the cramped rooms into an airy open loft. Bookshelves adorned one wall. Across the room, a bed, near two windows that looked onto the street; between them hung a large painting of a woman, its saturated colors—vivid reds, blues, yellows —demanding attention. As I stood admiring it, Brian reached out from behind and put his muscular arms around me, and I felt myself flow effortlessly into the healing promise of the summer. Yes, I said to myself, it felt good to be enveloped like this; I needed this powerful swaddling. 

And so it began. I would lie in Brian’s bed on those July mornings, the air already shimmering with heat and humidity, my own body wet with a summer sweat familiar from my Bronx childhood, and look out the dusty windows at the tenement buildings across the street. It was all so comforting, this heat and sweat and dust. It was New York.

The summer wore on, the heat continued to blanket the city through August, and I sank into it, spending more and more time with Brian in a compelling physical intimacy that complemented the daily conversations we had about the nature of consciousness. The previous year, I’d been reading Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus; its anti-hero rolling a stone uphill to no purpose had struck a chord of recognition. Now, with Brian, my interest in purpose returned. I learned that for Gurdjieff our ordinary state of being was a “waking sleep,” that there was a “Fourth Way” to a higher consciousness. In response to a modern ennui, Gurdjieff offered a solution, a path to “an advanced state of being” that we could attain by rejecting conventional morality and following the rigorous system of discipline he had devised.    

“Say more about this higher consciousness,” I said to Brian one morning, lying next to him in his bed after making love. The morning light passed through the window and lit Brian’s face. “How would I be more conscious than I am now, lying here with you, at peace with the world?”   

Brian smiled with the kind of smile one offers a child, then pursed his lips and looked up at the ceiling.  “When you achieve a state of higher consciousness, the mind is cleared of all the junk that’s part of “personality,” he began, “and we come into contact with the real world of pure meaning. Now we’re cut off by our senses, by our needs and passions”—he turned his head toward me — “even by our pleasures. We’ll become receptive to pure consciousness. Truth will be revealed to us directly, without the use of words.” 

Irritated—his words didn’t suit my mood—I challenged him: “Without the use of words? How could I be conscious without the use of words? Aren’t words the very tools of consciousness?”

He flinched at the disrespect in my voice.   

“Unless, of course, it’s the here and now of body consciousness,” I went on teasingly, and reached out to finger a curl of hair on his chest. For a moment there was silence. Then he laughed. 

“Well, anyway, we can’t lie here forever,” and swinging his legs to the side of the bed, he stood up and headed for the shower.  

The weeks passed, our conversations frequently returning to Gurdjieff’s vision of the Fourth Way. But the more I heard, the less I liked. I bristled when Brian told me that acolytes had to submit to a regimen of “intentional suffering”—to expose themselves to disbelievers—in order to strengthen their own psyches. Was I serving that function?   

My growing distaste for Gurdjieff came to a climax in a trivial incident in late August, at a private piano recital of extemporaneous music by the Gurdjieff group’s New York guru, Mr. Weiland. These concerts, held monthly in Mr. Weiland’s spacious Upper East Side apartment, were offered to the group as an example, Brian explained, of the creative freedom one acquired through the Gurdjieff system. Invited to attend as a special favor, I was welcomed by a tall, slim, grey-haired man with chiseled features, piercing blue eyes, and an exceedingly calm demeanor, and took a seat in his light-filled living room along with twenty or so others. 

The room was hushed. Mr. Weiland’s fingers ran dexterously across the keyboard as he poured his consciousness into a flight of notes that circulated around the room. Everyone was listening with deep attentiveness.  And then I coughed.  Immediately, all eyes turned on me accusingly. Higher consciousness brooked no coughing. I turned to Brian for support, but he had the same sour scowl of disapproval on his face; he was with them, not me. 

By Labor Day, when a cool thread of wind in the air promised to blow away the summer’s heat, I decided to end this relationship and return to Berkeley. I had not found anything I was looking for in New York. Brian’s commitment to Gurdjieff was too complete; his way was not mine. As I told him before I left, at the very least the English Department at UC offered a discipline I enjoyed, and, more practically, a fellowship I could resume. But Brian had other ideas about my future. A month after I’d driven back to Berkeley, traded in my car for a Vespa scooter, and settled into a small apartment, he arrived at my door and moved in, intent on giving true meaning to my life. And I allowed it. Why? Did I feel guilty for having left him so precipitously? Did I still long for that heady pleasure whenever he wrapped me in his powerful arms?  Or was it rather his seductive words that had gotten at a truth about me: “You need to take yourself more seriously.” He certainly seemed to be taking me more seriously than I had ever taken myself.  That seemed reason enough to let him back into my life. 

Brian easily found a carpenter job on a building project in San Francisco, and we became a Berkeley couple. Still, living with Brian was unsettling. He didn’t chat. There was little casual talk and less of the music—bebop or baroque—that used to fill my apartment. Instead, what I heard almost daily were the recorded piano improvisations of Mr. Weiland that Brian had brought with him from New York—a sinuous flow of harmonious notes toward no climax. “Let’s sit quietly and listen to this,” Brian would say, putting two glasses of wine on the lazy Susan and then patting the couch cushion next to him. For several months, I slipped comfortably into my allotted place, ignoring the occasional craving for another kind of music. But the craving grew stronger, and as I began to resist our daily rituals, Brian’s conversation became more insistently a monologue about essential matters: Truth. Knowledge. Higher Consciousness. And always, what Mr. Weiland—always Mr. Weiland—called Work. 

“I am working, Brian. I’m a graduate student.” Even as I said the words, I knew there was too much pleasure and very little discipline in my casual routine for Brian to accept that as real Work. Pleasure’s time was present time. Work was pointed toward the future. 

“That’s not the kind of work I’m talking about,” he’d say, his voice itching with frustration. “If you really want to Work, you need to recognize it’s a way of transforming your life. You’re admitting that what your life is now is not right, not complete.” In New York I found these words compelling. Now they exasperated me.  And I was becoming afraid of Brian, of his strength and his passion.  

He was the carpenter and I was the raw material. 

Regularly after work, he would interrogate me about what I had done that day. “Did you read the Ouspensky book, In Search of the Miraculous?”

“Not the whole book . . . I read around in it.” 

“Reading ‘around’ gives you at most only fragments of understanding.” And then, in a voice of patient instruction, he would say: “Claire, I’m trying to help you reach a higher consciousness where you can make the choice not to react automatically to external stimuli.”    

“You’re hardly an example of higher consciousness,” I spit out one evening, his patience now my enemy.  

“But sweetheart, I’m trying to help you find your way.” He put a steel arm around my shoulder while I froze inside. 

As the months dragged on, I found I could neither openly defy him nor break the bond. Instead, like some rebellious schoolchild, I needled him. When he quoted Gurdjieff, I spouted Camus; when he talked about Ouspensky, I talked about Rollo May. Insidious undermining rather than open confrontation—a feminine strategy learned young—seemed all the resistance I was capable of. Strangulated by the force of his personality and my own ambivalence, I found myself dreaming my rebellion:

I am climbing the stairs of a New York tenement, up to the fifth floor, Brian’s floor. I knock on the door, open it, step inside. The apartment is empty, but sunlight pours in through the windows; the oak floors gleam in the sunlight. I look around, and there in a corner of the room, lying on the floor, is my favorite blue striped dress. On it, ugh, a huge, fat, ugly bug. Grabbing a broom that leans against the wall near me, I hit the bug with all my strength, hit it again and again, pounding it into a bloody disgusting mess that spatters all over my dress, and shouting the words: DON’T BUG ME! 

One afternoon, Brian walked into the apartment with his arm in a cast and told me he had fallen off a first-floor girder at his construction site. I laughed. Spontaneously. I saw him wince with the pain of my laughter and then flush with anger. 

“Don’t you care at all?” His question rang through the apartment mirroring me to myself appallingly. I was becoming a monster; he had to leave. 

Yet even then, I equivocated.

“Space,” I said as firmly as I could, “I need my own space. You need to find your own place.” 

Surprisingly, he agreed and a few days later moved out. Yet our relationship continued; the tension accumulated. Then one evening, it snapped. Brian appeared at my apartment door for “a serious conversation,” and the words I’d held back for so long erupted: “You are suffocating me . . . this has to stop. You have to go back to New York.” He stiffened, turned the lock on the front door, and putting his arm around my shoulders, led me gently but firmly to a chair.

“Please sit down, Claire. You don’t mean that. You’re just afraid to let yourself go, afraid to be vulnerable, and that’s holding you back from being with me. We need to talk.” But I could see it wasn’t talk that he wanted. It was interrogation. 

“How authentic are you? How free, really? What do you think about the quality of your life? Don’t you want more from life than what you have now?”

Standing in front of me as I cowered in the chair, his face a mask of tolerant concern, he assaulted me with a battering of sophism and wisdom that made my head feel like splitting; the pressure was unbearable. I had to get away; yet he stood there, this Colossus, blocking my access to the front door. Ah, but the small door to the balcony. Open wide. He looked away for a moment. I jumped up and dashed onto the balcony. Two stories to the ground: I could be killed, but no matter, I had to get out. I lifted a leg to climb over the balcony ledge, but there he was suddenly, pulling me back. For a moment we both stood facing each other. Then, with a spurt of desperate energy, I broke from him, rushed into the apartment, opened the front door and ran down the stairs. I could hear Brian’s footsteps sound heavily not far behind me. There was my Vespa waiting at the curb. I jumped on, pumped the pedal a few times, and took off.  I saw Brian dashing across the street to his car as I raced away. 

But where could I go? It was almost midnight. I felt a flush of shame at my situation. And then it came to me: the student hospital. It had taken care of me years ago when I had the flu; it might take care of me now. I sped across campus, the road empty at this late hour, pulled up sharply in front of the hospital building, ran up the front steps, rang the emergency doorbell, and as the door opened, fell into the arms of a nurse. 

“There’s someone after me. Please help me!” 

A few moments later, the bell rang again, and when one of the nurses opened the door, Brian rushed in. The hospital lobby suddenly was a swirl of people, some holding him while he shouted—“I just need to talk to her”— and another swirl rushing me to a roped off area on the side. Immediately, a hospital staff person was on the phone to the police while I was ushered into a private room. Hours later, I was told that Brian had tried to run down a police officer in his effort to escape the scene and had been taken to the police station. I was given a room in the psychiatric wing, behind locked doors, safe for the moment. I remained there for about a week, Miss Dumpty, trying to put my mind together again, neither knowing nor asking whether my seclusion was voluntary. It was necessary. 

Alone and unpressured, I mulled over the drama of the past year. What had happened to me? How had I, who thought myself an independent woman, allowed myself to become a weakened object of Brian’s will? I needed to know myself better to be able to answer that question. “You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life,” Camus had written somewhere. I had believed that once.  With Brian I had been looking for meaning as a way of life but it was his search, and it had almost shriveled my spirit. His powerful male presence had been a lure, his arms a respite, but even more, an entrapment I had invited.  

What was most shocking was the realization that I had been desperate enough to be willing to kill myself in order to escape.  And with that radical recognition, a wall crumbled, leaving me exposed to my own vulnerability. I was not who I thought I was.  One leg had always been over the ledge; Brian was right about that.  And then, I had a kind of perverse epiphany: I needed Work, real Work—a project grounding me in an activity that was inherently both pleasurable and valuable, that lent me value.  Work could answer my sense of rootless susceptibility.  But not Brian’s way of Work.  I thought of my time in graduate school with no goal, no future prospects—just the pleasures of studying literature. That’s where pleasure had always lain for me, but meaning too: words, sentences, phrases—their colors, their rhythms, their music offering simultaneously the pleasure of insights into human experience. Literature was already an attachment; could it also be a serious vocation?  Women were rarely hired on tenure tracks in universities.  Could I be one of the rare ones? It was worth a try. 

But first, there was Brian to deal with.  

By the end of the week, I could think of only one way to reclaim my life.  From the hospital, I called Mr. Weiland in New York; Mr. Weiland called Brian; and finally, it was over. On Mr. Weiland’s orders, Brian immediately returned to New York, and I left the hospital, deeply shaken but relieved. Ironically, the rigid discipline of the Gurdjieff group had rescued me from its most devoted acolyte and cleared the path for me to find my own way. Already nineteenth-century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was throwing me a life-line in iambic pentameter: My future will not copy fair my past. 

 

Bios

A retired English professor at SUNY-Buffalo now living in Berkeley with her partner, and currently a Research Associate in UC Berkeley’s English Department, Claire Kahane has published numerous academic articles of literary criticism from a feminist-psychoanalytic viewpoint. More recently, having been an adventurous young woman before becoming an academic, she has turned to writing memoir and has completed a picaresque narrative, Nine Lives, that traces her risk-taking path from rebellious fifties female to feminist scholar. Two adapted excerpts from the memoir have recently been published: 'My Mother's Story: Memento Mori,” in Persimmon Tree (Winter, 2020) and “Whatever Happened to Wang” in Litro, Essay: Saturday, July 3, 2021.

Marilyn Johnston is an Oregon writer and filmmaker and is currently working on her first graphic novel. She teaches in the Artists in the Schools Program and has a Doctor of Education degree from Oregon State University.



2 Comments on “Acolyte

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *