MELVIN B TOLSON & GURDJIEFF’S TEACHING
MELVIN B. TOLSON
Dr Jon Woodson reviews the film: The Great Debaters with reference to Tolson’s involvement with Gurdjieff’s teaching.
Melvin B. Tolson had attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. When, as an instructor of English, I first walked into the campus bookstore in 1968, I found about twenty copies of Tolson’s long poem, Harlem Gallery(1965), piled up in the back. I had been reading Ezra Pound’s Cantos since the age of fifteen, having come upon it in the stacks of the Washington, D.C. public library. My discovery of a dense, obscure, and vexing long poem by a shadowy African-American motivated me to resolve then and there that if I ever went on to further study, I would write my dissertation on Melvin B. Tolson. In 1971 I did exactly that. Along the way many things happened but few were of any real significance with respect to my understanding of Tolson: the chief event was that I was given a box of esoteric books by an avant-garde poet who had mastered their contents and moved on to phenomenology and Wittgenstein. At some point I read the entirety of the little library that my friend had given me, and one fortuitous afternoon it dawned on me that so had Melvin B. Tolson. And it was clear that P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous was an important influence on Tolson’s long poems: there are many renderings in cabala of Ouspensky’s name in Tolson’s poetry, but my favorite is “…or / tight / like ski pants at the ankle” (lns. 1969-72). The esoteric level of Harlem Gallery also generates the poem’s drollery. At the time I little realized the difficulties that finding that Tolson was an esotericist would make for me: I entered into research with boundless energy, optimism, and determination. I applied myself to the careful disclosure of Tolson’s use of esoteric lore, and in 1978 I finished my dissertation, ¬ A Critical Analysis of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson. Following that two very odd things happened: Wilburn Williams, Jr. published his dissertation The Desolate Servitude of Language (1979) and Robert Farnsworth published a biography on Tolson (Plain Talk), 1984). Williams’s dissertation asserted that Tolson’s poetry was intricate nonsense, vapid imitations of T.S. Eliot. Farnsworth wrote that he had thought about my dissertation a little and concluded that Tolson had not been interested in Gurdjieff’s system, as I had mistakenly supposed. From that time on Farnsworth had the definitive word on Tolson, and further scholarship assumed with Williams that Tolson’s writings were inconsequential, though that somehow did not prevent scholars from writing about him as a “great” poet and including him in authoritative anthologies. For the few scholars who wrote on Tolson, it was perfectly sensible that a poet would spend a lifetime producing nonsense, if the alternative reading was that he was an occultist.
An examination of studies of Tolson’s work demonstrates that the scholarship by the followers of Farnsworth and Williams is laughably inadequate. There is simply nowhere any work that deals with what is on the pages that Tolson wrote: the readings ignore every feature that Tolson labored to create. Here is a typical instance.
Behind the curtain, aeon after aeon,
he who doubts the white book’s colophon
is Truth’s, if not Laodicean, wears
the black flower T of doomed Laocoon.
[Libretto 338- 340]
Williams interprets line 339 above in the sense of “white papers” though Tolson actually wrote “white book’s colophon”—that being more convenient, since Williams does not know what the white book is. However, the real deficiency is that the common run of students of literature are simply lacking in the information that would allow them to read Tolson intelligently: they know nothing of Tolson’s real subjects. For instance, the surface of Harlem Gallerycontains the name of many famous alchemists. He even uses the word cabala, the name of the code in which alchemical texts were written. He uses the word “cipher” in the poem five times, “secret” six times, and even uses “esoteric” twice. But because he supplies a cover text that is grounded in science, this surface-oriented reading has prevailed—though the science has been interpreted as merely pseudo-learning. What I am emphasizing is that it is not required that one penetrate to the deeper levels of the codes in the poems to encounter material that really should not be there if Tolson is who Williams and Farnsworth said that he was. But if the reader is narrowly educated and incurious (because there are other types of keys that also should raise questions about how the poem is to be read), there is going to be no recognition of the poem’s inner content.
My own work was just as troubling to me as it was to my detractors. Eventually, I worked it out that Tolson was not alone in his approach to esoteric modern writing. His Master’s thesis The Harlem Group of Negro Writers is a key text that supplied the missing link. Tolson had gone to New York for a year in 1931 and 1932 (to study literature at Columbia University), where he had fallen in with the New York disciples of G. I. Gurdjieff—though at first I did not recognize them for who they were. It took me several years to clear away my own unwarranted assumptions, until I was finally able to realize that there are no texts by Tolson that are not esoteric. Even his thesis contains a hidden level. Most mysterious to me of all of his books was his unpublished “Marxist” epic: only recently was I able to see that while the poems in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits may be read at face value as a social realist exercise, the table of contents is written in code. The title renders Gurdjieff’s name as the title of one of the poems: “Jesse Seegar.” (Improbably, the Harlem Gurdjieffians were obsessed with the politics of the Gurdjieff movement—the Orage-Gurdjieff rivalry, and its details haunt their writings. Thus the title of Tolson’s Marxist epic is in code, insisting that Gurdjieff is a traitor, an assertion that reflects Tolson’s allegiance to the A.R. Orage-C. Daly King group after Gurdjieff “excommunicated” Orage in 1931.) Another of my findings was that it was C. Daly King who was at the center of Tolson’s esoteric school in Harlem: King (using the name Robert Courtney) had initiated the American school of Gurdjieffian writing in 1927 with Beyond Behaviorism [The Butterfly]. King, who had organized groups after the death of A. R. Orage in 1934, had written a series of detective novels— Obelists at Sea (1932), Obelists en Route (1934), and Obelists Fly High (1935). The word “obelist” indicates that something is spurious, a puzzling usage unless one realizes that the titles of King’s novels indicate that the surface levels are “spurious” and that the novels require an esoteric reading. King was imitating Gurdjieff, attempting to write a legominism—a coded text. A legominism is, according to Gurdjieff, “one of the means of transmitting information about certain events of long-past ages through initiates.” Following King’s lead, the members of what Tolson labeled the Harlem school of Negro writers produced a long list of “obelist” texts—an enterprise that I described in my book, To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff , Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance (1999). My latest research reveals that there were other participants in this endeavor, the most surprising being James Agee, whose experimental documentary study of poverty during the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men(1941), is a “obelist” text that substituted the name George Gudger for Floyd Burroughs, the actual name of the man on whom the book was based.
Now we have a major motion picture about Melvin B. Tolson, The Great Debaters. The story takes place in Marshall, Texas in 1935. Tolson is featured in this film in the first place because he was seized upon as a role model, a figure of racial uplift who is allowed to get off only one good speech. The film spends a lot of time building Tolson up as a leftist political organizer, wearing a disguise and organizing a farmer’s union that dangerously combines blacks and whites. This allows for scenes of frenzied violence and hair-breadth escapes. When the film finally gets back to the debate theme, Tolson is confrontationally asked about his own father by one of the obstreperous debaters that he was training. Tolson replies with a terrifying description of the historical ur-lynching, as it was performed by its supposed originator, Governor Sir Thomas Lynch of Jamaica. Tolson tells his debate team that the spectacle of the torture-murder of slaves was designed to rob slaves of their minds, while effectively putting their bodies at the disposal of their owners. Tolson passionately declares that his goal is to return to his students their minds. Crucially, Tolson’s speech flies in the face of Marxist theory. The Marxist term for the condition of the students is “alienation”: “Under capitalism, those who work harder increase the power of a hostile system over them. They themselves, and their inner worlds, become poorer. ‘The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things’” (Cox). The use of Marxism as a cover or code for the Work is witty, in that Gurdjieff’s teaching is known as the Work (the name is taken from Alchemy which was known as the Great Work) and so references to the ‘workers’ would be understood by Gurdjieff students to refer to themselves as ‘workers’ i.e. those who are working on themselves for their own inner transformation.
What Tolson proposes to do is not encompassed by Marxist thought: “Lifestyles and leisure activities cannot liberate us from alienation, or even create little islands of freedom in an ocean of alienation. As alienation is rooted in capitalist society, only the collective struggle against that society carries the potential to eradicate alienation, to bring our vast, developing powers under our conscious control and reinstitute work as the central aspect of life” (Cox). This contradiction is not and cannot be dealt with in the film. As I show in To Make a New Race, it was the strategy of the New York Gurdjieffians to seek to use Communism as a means to “shock” the masses in order to eventually recruit a very small number of individuals to their own group. Here is how Wallace Thurman (the subject of the thirteenth chapter of Tolson’s Master’s thesis) expressed this idea: “Gladly would I urge the Negro masses to take an active part in the revolution, just to see them, for one moment emerge from their innate sluggishness, massacre their ministers, and perhaps, in the interim, give birth to a few exceptional individuals capable of arising the mob, Communism, Christianity, and all other such doctrines to become master intellects and creative giants.” Tolson uses a title in the table of contents of A Gallery, “Aunt Tommiezene,” to tells us that he “ain’t commie.”
The character of Tolson that the film presents is, in the final analysis, inexplicable and unaccountable. Tolson, an African-American college English teacher, is eccentric, secretive, and brilliant. The film does not deal with his poetry at all. He has two activities, organizing farmers as a Communist agitator and leading a championship debate team. The film makes no attempt to harmonize these contradictory activities, so by the conclusion of the film, we have no real idea of who Tolson was or what he was doing. He is perhaps a new type of black man, a sort of Indiana Jones, combining derring-do and intellectuality. Thankfully, the film does not try to develop Tolson’s radical activities. He is presented as a mysterious figure that is beyond our everyday categories. Yet, Tolson had not meant for this condition to have come about. He inserted Gurdjieffian terminology in everything that he said and wrote, providing a way into his inner activities. This is borne out by a recent article on his teaching methods by David Gold, “`Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock’: The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson.” [CCC. 55.2 (2003): 226-253.] Gold is unable to account for Tolson’s use of the importance of the “shock” in education, and he does not admit that this usage is unusual. The “shock” is an important concept that Tolson derived from Gurdjieff, though it is at the same time one of great complexity, so that we do not immediately know what Tolson meant to communicate by employing the term beyond his awareness of the teachings of Gurdjieff. (We do get some insight from the title “Ben Shockley” [A Gallery] in that it suggests that one must get shocked in order to “be.”) But if we can become aware of the nonconformity of Tolson’s assertion that “Nothing educates us like a shock” we may be able to track down its source. For example, Ouspensky, (1949, 221), writes that shocks must be given to man, to help him ‘wake up’, by someone whom he ‘hires’ to wake him, while Tracol (1994, 113), one of Gurdjieff’s senior pupils, writes that Gurdjieff shocked pupils out of blind worship by his language and the calculated contradictions of his behaviour.’ for further references see Wellbeloved (2003, 191-192).
The trouble is that even in an article that calls attention to Tolson by citing his interest in “shocks,” in the final analysis Tolson is reduced to a serviceable pedagogue: Gold concludes that “Tolson demonstrates that it is possible to instruct students in the norms of the academy without sacrificing their home voices or identities.” Again, though Gold appreciates Tolson’s dedication to the creation of illusions, he does not seem to grasp the implications: Gold states that “…Tolson had a complex understanding of rhetoric’s epistemic functions. He was keenly aware of the difference between the private and publicly constructed face. He celebrated the hypokrinesthai in Greek theater—”the speaker’s stage voice instead of his real voice” (Letter to Partisan Review). Time and time again he insisted that art, scholarship, and even “being human” were all “unnatural.” “To be natural on the stage is to [be] unnatural. . . . A naturalistic work is unnatural” (Tolson Papers). “A work of art is an illusion of life” (“A Poet’s” 187). Indeed, creating an illusion of naturalness was to him the essence of being human. He therefore disavowed totalizing philosophies of race and human nature.” Like many other Gurdjieffians, Tolson was simply imitating Gurdjieff: “Gurdjieff [disguised himself] …with layers of acting, multiple personas, irony, sarcasm, ambiguity — with rumors of scandalous personal conduct intentionally encouraged, … with a misty, shadowy, mythologized, fairy-tale past” (Tamm). The first time we see Tolson in the film, he unhesitatingly strides across furniture and stands on a desk, from which vantage he begins to recite poetry.
Of course, The Great Debaters is removed from Tolson’s direct influence, so that it allows no access to Tolson’s motivations. Presumably, it was required for his development that he traveled. In the film we see a teacher determined to make a name for his debate team. In actuality, Tolson was a sophisticated modernist poet and esoteric initiate stuck in a remote town in Texas, with no means of escape. By organizing the debate team, Tolson had a presumptive reason to travel, and his victories even provided funds for further contests. The film even points out that Tolson cheated by writing the arguments for the students, thus making sure that his teams were victorious. In the film’s version of the story, the students only come to write their own speeches once Tolson is prevented from traveling with them because of some legal troubles that he became involved in. Tolson had written his Master’s thesis in the early 1930s, though he did not finish his degree for many years, until June 1940: this also provided an excuse for travel—to do more research. However, what we know of his travels departs greatly from what the movie depicts. Tolson mentions only one trip in his thesis, to Portage, Wisconsin, to visit Zona Gale, and he does not connect it to a debate. His biographers (Flasch and Farnsworth) place the trip in 1932 and show that it concurs with a trip that he made with his debaters. This is doubly interesting. Zona Gale was a wealthy novelist who took a correspondence course from Gurdjieff. And, though Gale supposedly contributed information to Tolson for his thesis, the only member of the Harlem Group that Gale seems to have supplied information on was Jessie Fauset, despite the fact that Jean Toomer had married Gale’s protégé and that Toomer had used Gale’s Portage land for Gurdjieff group work in the late 1920s. Even though Toomer was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance and a direct linkage to Gurdjieff, Tolson does not write about him in his Master’s thesis. The one mention of Toomer contains a series of mistakes (see Mullen, 85) that suggests that Tolson was employing the Gurdjieffian technique of lawful inexactitude. The fact alone that Tolson ignores Toomer is for me an indication that his thesis is not to be taken at face value, but the provocative treatment of Gale is a further alert that he was up to something. All of this is very suggestive. Somehow Tolson came into contact with a great deal of esoteric information: his poems are testimony to wide reading, but the record of his books has not yet come down to us. It remains to be worked out who else he might have visited while traveling as a debate coach.
Jon Woodson is a Fulbright scholar and Professor of English at Howard University. His To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance explores the influence of G. I. Gurdjieff on Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman and through them his influence on American literature.
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Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B. Tolson, 1898–1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy, 1984.
Flasch, Joy. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Gold , David. ”Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock”: The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson. CCC 55:2 / DECEMBER 2003. 226-253.
Mullen, Edward J. The Harlem Group of Negro Writers by Melvin Tolson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group 2001. 182 pp.
Ouspensky, P.D. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949.
Tamm, Eric. Robert Fripp. http://www.progressiveears.com/frippbook/ch07.htm
Tolson, Melvin. Harlem Gallery. With an introd. by Karl Shapiro. NY: Twayne [1965- ] v.1.
Tracol, Henri. The Tase for the Things that are True,: Essays and talks by a Pupil of Gurdjieff, Dorset: Element, 1994.
Williams, Jr., Wilburn. “The Desolate Servitude of Language: A Reading of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson,’ Yale University, 1979.
Wellbeloved, Sophia. Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, New York: Routledge, 2003.
Woodson, Jon. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.