A survey of Mr. Gurdjieff’s writings revealed that games are mentioned many times: in ‘games’ played by the Greeks and Romans, in the English ‘sport’, in children’s games, in games played at French fairs, in games specified by name, including baccarat, roulette, snip-snap-snorum, chess, wrestling, and billiards.
Here we look briefly at what Mr. Gurdjieff wrote about children’s games and fair games, and their value in relation to the Work.
In a passage in Beelzebub’s Tales about the ancestors of the Greeks, there is a reference to children’s games:
“As it later became clear, these ancient fishermen amused themselves at first with such games as children now play there—but children, it must be remarked, who have not yet started contemporary schooling—because the children there who do go to school have so much homework to do, consisting chiefly of learning by rote the ‘poetry’ which various candidate Hasnamusses [psychopaths] have composed there, that the poor children never have time to play any games.
“Briefly, these poor bored fishermen played at first the ordinary children’s games already established there long before…”
Beelzebub’s Tales, p. 418
There are a large number of children’s games passed down entirely by word of mouth from child to child and from generation to generation. For example, among the games I remember playing when I was a child, there was “Red Light, Green Light”—a game that resembles the “stop” exercise Mr. Gurdjieff employed with students—that was played under different names many generations before me. I also remember Tag, Hide and Seek, Marco Polo, Hopscotch, Marbles, Blind Man’s Bluff, Dodgeball, Kickball, Tug of War, Horseshoes, Musical Chairs, Leapfrog, Telephone, Concentration, Hot and Cold, Rock Paper Scissors, and others.
The passage remarks that the playing of children’s games is prevented for school-aged children because they are compelled to participate in contemporary schooling—with its rote learning and excessive homework—so that they never have time to play any games, to their personal impoverishment.
I say personal impoverishment because children’s games include and develop one or more of the following skills: running, jumping, balancing, spacial awareness, listening, hiding, seeking, throwing, catching, communication, conflict resolution, memory, logic, deduction, creativity, comparison, numbers, counting, and so on—skills beyond the rote learning found in contemporary schools.
For grown-ups, unlike harmful diversions such as alcohol and sports, fun fairs and their games are regarded as relatively harmless amusement from which we are told can provide a much needed diversion and relief from harmful fascinations. The following is an excerpt from Beelzebub’s Tales about fun fairs; it is long but worth reading:
“While telling you about this separate grouping of the three-brained beings, that is about France, I must also tell you for the fullness of its characterization that in France there are also beings of the ruling class, who also invented very ‘good means’ for the calming of the minds of the ordinary beings of their community, just as the power-possessing beings of the big community Russia employ such a means for the encouragement of the use of the famous Russian vodka, and the power-possessing beings of the community England at the present time attain the same by their not less famous ‘sport.’
“However, it must be admitted that although the power-possessing beings of the community France also adopt these ‘good means’ and successfully attain their egoistic aims, yet these means, though, be it said, to no credit of the power-possessing beings of the communities of England and Russia, bring scarcely any harm to the planetary bodies themselves of the ordinary beings.
“This is not all: by these means they unconsciously brought and bring to the ordinary beings of their community a certain benefit, diverting them and giving them temporary relief from the ill effects of their fascination by ‘fashions,’ invented by present and future Hasnamusses gathered in this capital from various countries, and under the slavery of which fashions the ordinary beings of this same France have now fallen even more than all other beings of other communities.
“These ‘good means’ are called there ‘fairs,’ and at the present time such fairs are held in the principal squares of all their towns and villages in turn, and moreover, just in those squares in which, about two centuries ago, the three-brained beings there usually held discussions on what they call ‘religious-moral subjects.’
“In justice it must be said, my boy, that these French fairs are very very gay places.
“I confess that even I myself liked to visit them and pass there an hour or two, thinking about nothing.
“At these French fairs everything can be had ‘cheap’ and ‘fine.’
“For instance, every being there, for a trifling fifty centimes, can ‘whirl’ to complete ‘stupor’ on various what are called ‘pigs,’ ‘chameleons,’ ‘whales,’ and so forth, and on various American and non-American new inventions designed just to produce ‘stupor.’
“If a being recovers too quickly from all these ways of getting ‘stupefied,’ he can then have there, also for a few more centimes, something very tasty, most often prepared right on the spot.
“It is true that from these tasty things the beings, as far as their stomachs are concerned, often become… h’m… h’m… but what is this in comparison with the pleasure they have had in eating them.
“And in case any of the ordinary beings there wishes as they say to ‘try his luck’ again for a few centimes, he can satisfy this desire there also on the spot; he may try his luck in every way, for at those famous French fairs there is every means of gambling that exists there on the planet Earth, for speculation as well as for fun, and almost all their games of chance are seen there.
“In a word, all the games, beginning with the ‘roulette of Monte Carlo’ and ending with the game of ‘Snipsnapsnorum.’”
Beelzebub’s Tales, p. 692-3
Unintentionally, the French power-possessing beings created conditions which were beneficial to their community, providing a much needed diversion from the fascinations of their day.
Sadly, today, our current diversions, such as social media, television, movies, and even games, provide us little relief from harmful fascinations such as contemporary partisan politics, because these harmful fascinations are brought into the diversions themselves for the power-possessors’ purpose of propaganda.
To have a harmless diversion is no escapism—that would be an insatiable excess of diversion. Sometimes, as Beelzebub put it, you need to “pass an hour or two, thinking about nothing.” Fun fairs provide just that—ride the rides, eat the fair food, play some games, have some fun.
Work and Rest
But wait—isn’t the Work only about constant and unflagging effort? And conscious labor and intentional suffering? And striving? And süüüper-efforts? Well, yes and no.
In the following meeting notes, a student is given a general limit on the time he must work, and having overexerted himself, how he must fix his condition:
A. E.: I cannot manage to maintain self-remembering in my exercise.
MR. GURDJIEFF: How so?
A. E.: I can’t maintain self-remembering. The exercise is done mechanically. There is always laziness in my body. I must devote all my strength to struggle against it, otherwise I go back to sleep.
MR. GURDJIEFF: So, it may be the result of having done too much before this exercise, and not having acted as I advise. I said that you must work at most a third of your waking time. You want to do too much. You do more than I recommend. This is what brought you to this state. You’ve done too much, always. It’s your fault. I have said many times: never work more than a third of your waking time. But you have worked half your time. A part only remained mechanical. You’ve made too much effort. Now we must fix it. You have wasted time. Stop exercising for a week. You can do another thing: relax. Sleep well, eat well, go to the comedy theater, amuse yourself, entertain yourself. Send our God and our work to the devil. We will then start the work again, but following my advice: never more than a third of your waking state.
Sunday January 23, 1944, Paris Groups 1944 (translated from French)
I am reminded of one of the Work’s early detractors. He participated in group work and movements from 1948 for 15 months. He took exercises he was given and fanatically overexerted himself, contrary to advice. He ended up in a hospital for his own folly, which he blamed on Gurdjieff.
In seeming contradiction, rest and relaxation are a necessary part of our work. We must learn how to work like human beings, not like machines. We have a limited amount of energy each day for work. When that runs out, there is nothing that can be done but rest, and games can provide a useful diversion to give us balance and rest.
Finally, there is an amusing aside in Meetings with Remarkable Men, where, after finding a newspaper article on exactly the subject he wished to write, Mr. Gurdjieff leaves us to read the article on our own, while he departs, not to work, but to perhaps even play some fair games:
“I was so calmed and cheered up by this article that I determined not to work at all that day, but to go out to see the famous Coney Island, to which I had wanted to go on each previous visit to New York, without ever having succeeded in going there.”
Meetings with Remarkable Men, p. 144