Archive for the ‘BOOK & FILM REVIEWS’ Category
Rt Hon John Sinclair, 1 st Lord Pentland
Lord Pentland: President of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York
Andrew Rawlinson reviews
James Moore’s ‘Eminent Gurdjieffians: Lord Pentland’
It is, I think, impossible to write a good biography of someone you consider a nonentity.
James Moore does his best. We know from his previous books that this is an author with an ear for the English language. His description of Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, as a strange Old Testament figure with prematurely white hair, who gave the appearance of subsisting on a diet of locusts and Eucharistic wine is superb. Likewise:
The assassination of President John Kennedy on 22 November 1963 cast something of a pall over the twenty-first birthday celebrations of Pentland’s daughter the Hon. Mary Ishbel Sinclair. You expect a present but not Lyndon Baines Johnson.
And this gem:
From early youth Ouspensky had been in search of the miraculous but the sudden disappearance of his rancorous wife seemed a special marvel
- which is quite the equal of Les Dawson at his finest.
But Moore’s material here proves well nigh unworkable. He begins by covering the career of John Pentland’s father, the first Baron Pentland, with discursive ease. But he doesn’t think much of him either. Witness this description of a painting commissioned after Baron Pentland became Secretary of State for Scotland in 1905:
Tall, broad-shouldered, slim, clean-shaven, elegant and patrician, [he] poses unembarrassed like a well-achieved centrepiece in a Burlington Arcade window display. The Gilbertian flummery – the golden epaulettes, the impeccably cut uniform, the red belt, the virginal white sash, the blaze of obscure orders – are carried with aplomb yet with a hint of detachment.
The style is measured and taut. But the subject of the book does not live up to it – and neither does the rest of his family. Very few of Pentland’s class could. The First World War is delivered and dissected in short, deadly strokes.
For four tormented years The Manchester Guardian relayed deplorable events as the great Houses of Romanoff, Hapsburg-Lorraine, Hohenzollern, and Saxe-Gotha clashed and blundered through an ocean of blood to a doomed peace. Decorative old men, studious of maps, fought to the last drop of young men’s blood. Daily headlines testified to an unstaunchable wound: the despoliation of Europe; ruination of an entire generation; and the bankruptcy of the idea of progress.
Any good that might come out of that awful mess could never be ascribed to those who had managed it.
John Pentland’s life (6 June 1907 to 14 February 1984) is rolled out in a series of vignettes: minor incidents here and there, which, though linked, have yet no discernible arc.
At boarding school, Pentland’s ears are protuberant and flickable.
The title ‘Lord’ – here as elsewhere, lending to mediocrity the gloss of excellence… (This on Pentland’s succeeding to his father’s title at the age of 17.)
He got a Third in Maths Part I at Cambridge, switched to Mechanical Sciences and ended up with a Second. Moore records these achievements tautly: Unfortunately one can stumble over quite a modest barrier if it over-tops one’s competence. Away from the examination halls, Pentland did have some success: he was elected President of the Union.
Undoubtedly it was not just his peerage and boiled shirt manner which marked him out as presidential timber. He benefited from other qualities. He was incorruptible. He was overwhelmingly reasonable. His mind’s perfect vacuity was admirably suited to the role of an arbiter. His stewardship would not be skewed by any prejudice or fixed opinion. He had no opinions. As to whether the capital of France were Paris or Lyon he would maintain an impeccable neutrality until after the votes were counted. Yet toss him a point of order and he could deliver a ruling in the tones of Lady Catherine de Burgh snubbing an apothecary.
This is not damning with faint praise. It is illuminating a tepid and colourless form with the borrowed hues of more exciting lives.
Pentland’s entry into the Work is unrecorded. He went to one of Ouspensky’s meetings in London but we do not know when exactly – 1934 perhaps? – and have no inkling as to why. “I went to one meeting and didn’t go back,” he said. But Ouspensky wanted him. He was after all young, moneyed and brilliantly connected. So he was given a place at the top table and there he earnestly expounded ideas which had never occurred to him.
It appears that very few ideas did. In 1939, he crossed the floor of the House of Lords not for any ideological reason but because the Liberals were in opposition and the Conservatives in power. He became, in Moore’s phrase, a make-weight Conservative peer.
He continued in the Work, going to America in 1944 with his wife and daughter. Up until this point his participation in the war effort in Britain had been, once again, vague, tepid. Moore refers to his studied deafness to the solicitations of 1940′s patriotism.
Pentland was out of his depth with the top men in the Work (Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) and in thrall to the women (Madame Ouspensky, Madame de Salzmann). Moore doesn’t have much to go on but is clearly unimpressed by what he has found. Pentland’s account of being in Madame Ouspensky’s presence is described as patented incoherence. When, in 1948, Gurdjieff urged his followers to steal the energies of New Yorkers at Christmas prayers, Pentland’s response was a dazed goodwill but a singular incompetence.
All of this is in tune with Pentland’s deep superficiality. He prevaricated over Ouspensky’s repudiation of ‘the System’, and paid a visit to India immediately after Ouspensky’s death, thereby avoiding all the knots and difficulties which such a loss brings. When Madame Ouspensky advised everyone to seek out Gurdjieff, Pentland was one of the tardiest to respond. Holed up in Mendham, his idea was to sit on the fence as long as possible while keeping his ear close to the ground.
Yet Gurdjieff appointed him his representative in America. To begin with, this meant only that Pentland was in charge of promoting Beelzebub’s Tales – a modest appointment yet one which Moore finds baffling: Pentland was a parvenu, a class misfit, a disaffected follower of the late Piotr Ouspensky. And it didn’t end there. After Gurdjieff’s death, under Jeanne de Salzmann’s overall guidance, Pentland was promoted to President of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York. He was all diffidence; all diplomacy, all teeth and trousers.
Moore presents Pentland as the Work’s supreme company man and fixer. But this is as far as he goes. He has already noted that Pentland had occupied his chair as President of the Cambridge Union with decorum but no particular distinction. He has noted that Pentland is a pragmatic climber of institutional scaffolding. This irreducible undistinguishedness continued in America.
His exalted Work status …relied on his agreeing with Madame de Salzmann whatever she said. Had she asserted that the moon is made of green cheese, he would readily have conceded that it displays cheese-like qualities.
Throughout, he remains distinctly undiamond-like.
[The Work was] a shimmering reality, while Pentland, notwithstanding his good points, had about as much shimmer as a municipal dustbin-lid.
…His Lordship miraculously transformed Gurdjieff’s wine into water. He brought to his task a patent sincerity and [his] old flair for mouth-filling incoherence… propositions which would have baffled Jacques Lacan and…whose implausibility would have been manifest to an infant of three.
Lumped together, Pentland’s logic-chopping…responses in a thousand group meetings (whether characterised as crowned masterpieces of banality or crowned masterpieces of obfuscation) seem curiously infertile.
Vis-à-vis Gurdjieff’s awesome ideas Pentland will go down au fond as a well-intentioned if flat-footed expositor…[Yet] around him there had thriven up a wealthy and powerful authoritarian network with sharp prescriptive and proscriptive powers.
In short, Lord Pentland has no real shape, no real substance. But there he is, occupying space, seemingly close to the centre of the Work’s mission.
And James Moore has stepped up and flicked his ears.
Andrew Rawlinson, author of The Book of Enlightened Masters: WesternTeachers in Eastern Traditions with significant entries on Gurdjieff and the Gurdjieff Legacy (Ouspensky, Madame O, Maurice Nicoll, Rodney Collin, Robert de Ropp, Orage, Jane Heap, Madame de Salzmann) plus other entries on Bennett, Leon Maclaren, E.J.Gold, Jan Cox, Idries Shah and Gary Chicoine. was a lecturer in Buddhism at the University of Lancaster and a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Bargbara. He lives in France and is writing a book on the Hit in all its forms; the Hit as a derangement: derangement of the senses, derangement of the personality, derangement of society, derangement of reality.
James Moore’s book is available from Amazon UK where you can also read the review by Andrew Rawlinson. The image of the cover is not shown on the Amazon site and the one I found on google images would not load here - ‘due to security reasons’ – so here is an image of the author.
This is the draft of a review to be published in the forthcoming Volume 5 of JASANAS: Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies
Tamdgidi, Mohammad H., GURDJIEFF AND HYPNOSIS: A HERMENEUTIC STUDY,
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Appendix J Walter Driscoll ‘The Textual Chronology of Gurdjieff’s Life’ pp 237-252
Bibliography and Index
Foreword: J Walter Driscoll
First, some background information about the author’s academic interests. From his website I found that Mohammad H. (Behrooz) Tamdgidi is Associate Professor of Sociology, teaching Social Theory at UMass Boston. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology (in conjunction with a graduate certificate in Middle Eastern studies) from SUNY-Binghamton and a B.A. in Architecture from U.C. Berkeley. His fields of theoretical specialization include Sociological Imaginations, Self and Society, World-Historical Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge, Social Movements, and Utopias.
Tamdgidi’s research and teaching are framed by an interest in understanding how personal self-knowledges and world-historical social structures constitute one another. His continuing research on liberating social theory in self and world-historical contexts is pursued via critical comparative/integrative explorations of utopian, mystical, and scientific discourses and practices.
This book about Gurdjieff’s writings in relation to hypnotism is in part an extension of a theme occurring in his doctoral thesis, Mysticism and Utopia: Towards the Sociology of Self-Knowledge and Human Architecture (A Study in Marx, Gurdjieff, and Mannheim), 2002, SUNY-Binghamton Universtiy.
Tamdgidi’s sociological approach addresses two important issues in relation to Gurdjieff’s teachings. The first, evident from his title, is the centrality of hypnosis in Gurdjieff’s teaching, the second is his focus on hypnotism in relation to Gurdjieff’s four published texts. Both these are large themes and difficult to condense into the page limit that the author writes that he was confined to by his publishers. Because of this his text is densely complex as are the intricate diagrams, and this makes a prior knowledge of Gurdjieff’s teaching and texts a necessity, so this is a book for the specialist, rather than the general reader.
In relation to Gurdjieff Tamdgidi writes that he will examine only the written texts (not the oral teachings) and that the aim of this study is to show how, ‘Gurdjieff’s “objective art of literary hypnotism is devised and works.’ fn p.xvi. His interpretive method will be to make ‘an indepth textual analysis and interpret the text using ‘it’s own symbolic and meaning structures’ p. xvi. (author’s emphasis). These we can understand to be Gurdjieff’s cosmological teachings given most succinctly in P. D. Ouspensky’s ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, (1949) and in the symbol of the enneagram, familiar to Gurdjieff students and to a wider readership through more popular books which explore the enneagram in terms of a typology of personality. This method, of employing Gurdjieff’s own terms as a method of interpretation or explanation is also carried out by many Gurdjieff students who look to his texts as a help to explain the cosmology, and call upon the cosmology to illuminate Gurdjieff’s published writings. This does lead to a circularity in making any interpretation of Gurdjieff’s difficult, intentionally confusing and contradictory texts. It also ignores the primary interpretation, the world view that each reader already has already formed and already holds, even if unconsciously. I will give an example of this later.
The author has purposely preserved independence from any formal Gurdjieff organisations, but also writes that he has augmented his intellectual enquiry with helpful meditation practice drawn from other traditions that complement the experiential dimensions of Gurdjieff’s teaching, fn 8 p.16. It would be interesting to know what these practices were but he does not identify them nor tell us how they augmented his analysis of the text.
In relation to his use of the term hypnosis, Tamdgidi acknowledges that there are definitions of hypnosis that he could have referred to, for example in the works of Milton H. Erickson, but he does not wish to enter into these or any other definitions. Instead there is an unstated acceptance that Gurdjieff’s writing and teaching were governed by ‘hypnosis’ in what might be generally understood by the use of the term. For example he refers to the reader of Gurdjieff’s ‘Meetings with Remarkable Men’ ( 1978) as ‘mesmerised’ by curiosity about Gurdjieff p.188. His thesis is that the writings are intentionally hypnotic and thus capture the reader. Given the importance of hypnotism to his whole project it would have been useful if he had dealt with his definition of hypnotism more fully.
As referred to above, Tamedgidi argues that his hermeneutical method is one in which he will interpret the texts by using the text’s own symbolic and meaning structure. One consequence of his interpretative method is that Tamdgidi necessarily takes the stance of a compliant reader. There are difficulties in seeking to be compliant, not least because Gurdjieff makes many contradictory demands of his reader who must be compliant yet not passive,
There are anomalies and contradictions in the texts that Tamdgidi recognises, he interprets and explains these in conjunction with his overall thesis and this makes for a closely argued text. Problems arise for the analysis of any text, let alone Gurdjieff’s symbolic and multivalent texts, that aim to exclude all other possible readings, and though Tamdgidi’s interpretation is largely supported by reference to his own publications, here again, these tend to intensify circularity.
In his usefully contextualising Foreword J. Walter Driscoll gives a definition of hermeneutics and writes that at its highest levels it ‘involves the search for meaning via numinous interpretation, be it of poetry, scripture, philosophy, literature, music, art, law or architecture’ and that ‘Tamdgidi draws for inspiration on all of his relevant hermeneutic options in search of meaning in Gurdjieff’s ideas and writings, p. xii, (Driscoll’s emphasis). Perhaps this aim would be impossible to achieve, but the limitations Tamdgidi has set himself in referring only to Gurdjieff’s own terms, have caused problems for him. He records an experience (before he began writing his book), of awakening to his own hypnotic conditioning to the ideas of Gurdjieff among those of other academic and cultural traditions and as this being ‘deeply shocking’ p. xxi. Anyone involved in sustained exposure to and immersion in Gurdjieff’s writings is highly likely to be hypnotised, and there is, in the general sense that he uses the term, a hypnotic element in Tamdgidi’s text, and in his diagrams.
There are errors arising from a misunderstanding of the narrative structure of the Tales which initially might seem slight or insignificant. For example, according to Tamdgidi, Beelzebub having been pardoned and spoken his last words at the end of the Tales is:
‘on his way to eventually unite with His Endlessness via a transitional stay in the Planet Purgatory to
deal with certain remorses of conscience’, p. 8.
But Beelzebub had already been pardoned before the narrative of the Tales begins, pardoned and returned to his home planet Karatas where he meets his grandson Hassein. The tales of the title begin and are told on another spaceship flight from his home planet to and from a conference on a distant planet. The visit to the Planet Purgatory takes place on the return journey to Karatas. There is no suggestion within the text that Beelzebub’s visit to Purgatory is ‘to deal with certain remorses of conscience’, and it would be impossible for Beelzebub to ever be united with His Endlessness, because according to the narrative His Endlessness dwells on the Sun Absolute which is now unreachable by any being other than himself.
There is nothing in Gurdjieff’s text to say that Beelzebub will be united with His Endlessness but we can see that this mystic notion of union might be adopted if ‘His Endlessness’ is regarded as a synonym for God, (and he is referred to as God by Tamdgidi) and also if the notion of divine union was familiar to the writer. In this case the concepts of Purgatory and of ‘union with God’ are ones that have come from Tamdgidi and not from within the text. In my view this is bound to happen as it is quite impossible for anyone to banish their own world view including what may be largely unconscious assumptions. Many authors, (and here I do not exempt myself) who have written about the ‘Tales’ have I think wrongly assumed a conflation of God and his Endlessness. It is true that His Endlessness is represented as the creator of the universe, which suggests this, but he makes mistakes, mistakes with tragic and dreadful consequences one of which is the permanent separation from himself of all beings in the universe, except those on Purgatory whom he visits in order to alleviate their unending suffering.
Tamdgidi concludes, in accordance with Gurdjieff’s own teaching on multiple selves, that Gurdjieff was ‘afflicted with a legion of selves, some high and some low in character’ but that it is possible to ‘cherish the teachings of one Gurdjieff self, while being critical and uncompromising toward another self’, p 235.
This conclusion leads to a possible validation for the many differing interpretations of Gurdjieff and his texts, because each critically uncompromising reader will also be afflicted by similar legions of selves, some choosing certain Gurdjieff selves to cherish and be critical of, and yet other readers choosing differently. But, however readers interpret Gurdjieff’s writings Tamdgidi should be applauded for having focused on a unifying scheme for all of Gurdjieff’s texts, and on hypnotism in relation to Gurdjieff’s writings, a subject which as he rightly says, has been largely ignored by other scholars.
G. I. Gurdjieff, ‘First Series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson’. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950
‘Second Series: Meetings with Remarkable Men’. Trans. A. R.Orage, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
P. D. Ouspsensky, ‘In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching’, New York, Harcourt Brace and World, 1949.
G. I. Gurdjieff: Armenian Roots, Global Branches
Editor: Michael Pittman
Date Of Publication: Dec 2008
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
This volume presents a selection of writings based on papers originally presented at the G.I. Gurdjieff: Caucasian Influence in Contemporary Life and Thought conferences or, as they came to be called, the Armenia-Gurdjieff Conferences, which were held in Yerevan, Armenia in the summers from 2004-2007. Gurdjieff was born in Gyumri, Armenia, to an Armenian mother and a Cappadocian-Greek father, and was raised in eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus. According to his own accounting, he spent his early years traveling in Central Asia, Asia Minor, Egypt, India, and Tibet in search of undiscovered knowledge. Eventually, after 1921, his work led him to Europe where lived, wrote, and taught until his death in 1949. Though not having received great popular attention, he remains an important figure of the twentieth century and his influence continues to grow into the twenty-first century.
A growing body of secondary literature connected to the work of Gurdjieff has been produced in fields as disparate as psychology, philosophy, literature, health, ecology, and religion. The conferences and the book aim to provide a forum of exchange about the ideas, influence, and work of Gurdjieff, while making a contribution to the reintroduction of the work of Gurdjieff to Armenia, which had been cut off from his ideas and works during the Soviet period. The articles here reflect a range of work addressing key contributions and ideas of Gurdjieff, from more academic studies of All and Everything, or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, to a discussion of the application of Gurdjieff’s ideas and principles in the education of children, to a chapter on the music and of Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann.
Michael Pittman is currently Assistant Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, New York. Michael spent a year as a Volunteer Faculty Fellow in Armenia with the Civic Education Project, which led to the organization of the Armenia-Gurdjieff conferences. He completed a dissertation on Gurdjieff entitled, G.I. Gurdjieff: Medieval Textualizations of Oral Storytelling and Modern Teachings on the Soul. Michael continues to travel to Turkey and Armenia for research and teaching.
“The Armenian Gurdjieff conferences mark the significant and almost mythical return of the teachings of the greatest modern sage to his homeland. With imaginative insight and scholarly finesse, the papers in this volume confront the greatest human problem, man’s inability to take hold of reality —what Gurdjieff called sleep—and the catastrophic conditions that rise up from that cause, war, cultural irrationalism, over-consumption, and intractable hegemonies. The topics are timely, the exposition is clear and lively, and the information is crucial and compelling.”
Jon Woodson, Department of English, Howard University
Author of To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance
E. J. PACE Dierctor of the Missionary Course at the Moody Bible Institute c 1919
This book on ‘The Law of Octaves’ is a print version of lectures given by Dr Pace in the USA from material that he writes comes from the Rev. John N. Wright DD of Wooster Ohio, who served for thirty-two years as a Presbyterian missionary in Persia at the end of the nineteenth century. Dr Pace had been lecturing on this for some years before publication in 1922.
Thus this material was being written down at a time earlier than that of Gurdjieff’s first appearance in Russia.
This is an astonishing collection of diagrams many which have a likeness to the diagrams that Ouspensky brought from Gurdjieff’s teaching, but which have come from a different source.
To see this material copy and paste this link
The website is worth looking at for those with a Gurdjieffian interest and a necessity for the Gurdjieff scholar. I am indebted to a reader of this blog who kindly sent this link to Joseph Azize who has sent it to us.
This book includes material from the International Conference ‘G. I. Gurdjieff from South Caucasus to Wetern World His Influence onf Spirituality, Thought and Culture in Italy Europe and the USA’ which was held in TbIlisi on 7th March 2007.
PUblished by Shota Rustaveli Theatre and Film University, it has 90 pages and can be ordered from the Stichting Caucasus Foundation through the email:
It contains contributions from Massimo Introvigne, Fabrizio Romano, PierLuigi Zoccatelli, Constance Jones, Manana Khomeriki, Claudio Gugerotti, Janri Kachia and Alexander Cherkezishvili.
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.
Cox, Judy. “AN INTRODUCTION TO MARX’S THEORY OF ALIENATION.” Issue 79 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM, quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) Published July 1998 Copyright © International Socialism.
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.