Posts Tagged ‘Jon Woodson’
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
The College of Charleston
This paper given by Sophia Wellbeloved at the Association for the Study of Esotericism’s
Third International Conference at the College of Charleston, South Carolina in June 2008, is one of five papers given relating to Gurdjieff. The others were given by Michael Pittman, Joseph Azize, Richard Smoley and Jon Woodson, to see the full program copy and paste this link:
http://www.cofc.edu/ase//program.html to see the full programme.
‘Gurdjieff as Magus’ looks at G. I. Gurdjieff (1866?-1949) in his role as a magus. He taught pupils the acquisition of will, use of symbolism, inter-relationship of macrocosmos to microcosmos and a manipulation of cosmic laws so as to form a set of new bodies of ever finer materiality and longevity. It shows the centrality of hypnotism to his teaching about consciousness and how hypnotic techniques function in his texts and oral teachings. Gurdjieff used the imagery of black and white magic and reflects the roles of both black and white magician, using alcohol, drugs and intense pressures to entangle pupils usually for short periods of time. Lastly we will look at how the teaching has become institutionalised, necessitating omissions and redefinitions of both Gurdjieff and the Work.
Gurdjieff as Magus: Omissions and Redefinitions of the Work
Gurdjieff is not an easy man to define, and we are not going to attempt to impose a fixed definition of him here. What we are going to look at is:
How he presented himself in his writings
How he presented himself to his pupils in his oral teachings
Present day omissions and redefinitions of the Work
Gurdjieff as Hypnotist
Gurdjieff was known as a hypnotist who cared for and cured drink and drug dependency and other conditions, a role which he regarded as separate from his role as a teacher and which he continued throughout his life, (Peters 1977: 214, 220-223. Webb: 1980, 473).
Now we will look at how Gurdjieff presented himself in his texts in relation to hypnotism. You can see below the full titles and the abbreviations I am going to use when I refer to the texts
The Herald of Coming Good, privately published Paris, 1933
First series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1950
Second series: Meetings With Remarkable Men, trans. A. R. Orage, Londond: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963
Third series: Life is real only then, when “I am”, New York: Duton for Triangle Editions, 1975
In all these writings Gurdjieff refers to hypnotism; in the Tales, the two central chapters are devoted to the practice of hypnotism, in these Gurdjieff’s life story merges with that of his hero Beelzebub. Mesmer is perhaps the only historical person mentioned in the Tales who is not vilified by Beelzebub (Tales: 561-2). In the other three ‘autobiographical’ works he gives examples of practicing hypnotism himself (Meetings: 197-98, Life: 25, Herald: 11-13, see also Wellbeloved 2003:100-02). Herald focuses almost exclusively on his study of hypnotism and other occult practises.
Gurdjieff’s represents hypnotism in both passive and active functions
WAKING (hypnotic) SLEEP
(our usual waking state)
HYPNOTISM(can function passively or actively)
(usually inaccessible to us but made accessible by hypnosis )
We can relate hypnotism to the central tenet of Gurdjieff’s teaching. He taught that what we usually regard as being our daily waking state is in fact a state of sleep. Not ordinary sleep but hypnotic sleep.
In brief summary: our ‘true’ consciousness resides in what he terms the ‘subconscious’ which we are usually unable to contact. As a result of this division in our consciousness, he says that, as we are, we cannot ‘do’, our actions are merely mechanical reactions.
In Chapter XXXII of the Tales Beelzebub explains that hypnotism is the means of linking these two states of being. It can be used to act on these separated consciousnesses in different ways, for example, it can put the usual waking state, where the personality functions to sleep so that the subconscious which contains the essence can function. The advantage of doing that is that according to the teaching essence can grow and develop while the personality is a prison in which we respond mechanically to what ever happens.
So we can see that a passive experience of hypnotism, being hypnotised by events or surroundings, may function to trap us in ‘waking sleep’, while an active hypnotism, may liberate us from waking sleep and give us access to our subconscious.
Hypnotism in Gurdjieff’s terminology is thus ‘a stick with two ends.’
Here I want to look at Gurdjieff’s four texts in relation to his law of three which expresses two possible outcomes for the interaction of negative and positive forces. Hypnotism is the third force that can reconcile these forces in an evolutionary/positive way, or in a devolutionary/negative way.
The diagram below show how Gurdjieff’s texts embody his law of three.
Results from reconciliation in an evolutionary/upwards direction
- TALES Hypnotism is the third force capable of reconciling positive and negative forces + MEETINGS
Results from reconciliation in devolutionary/downwards direction
We can regard each text as representing a positive or negative force according to Gurdjieff’s own intention for the books stated in the following way:
The Tales – functions as a negative force intended to destroy the reader’s beliefs and views
Meetings – functions as a positive force – because it is to provide the reader with good material for a new creation.
Life – functions as a result of an evolutionary reconciling force – because it is to help the reader realise the world existing in reality rather than in his fantasy.
Herald – functions as the result of a devolutionary reconciling force, this is the book that Gurdjieff withdrew or ‘exiled’.
In the two books which show how the positive and negative are resolved Gurdjieff presents himself as a predominantly wise white magician in Life, and the personification of a psychotic, black magician in Herald.
Gurdjieff instructed his pupils not to read Herald, but writes in Life, that we ought not to read it. This is not a convincing strategy for someone who wants his book to be ignored. Herald shows the chaotic state of a devolutionary descent in to madness, and it is necessary to include it in order to show the full expression of his law of three.
Gurdjieff employed hypnotic techniques in all these texts. Some of these are defined by Dr Joseph A. Sandford a psychologist and clinical hypnotheapist with Gurdjieffian interests and professionally trained in the hypnosis methodology of Milton H. Erickson. Sandford gives some examples of the hypnotic techniques that are used by both men: ‘story telling, metaphor, indirect suggestion, confusion techniques and implied directives, and shocks (Gnosis through Hypnosis: the Role of Trance in Personal Transformation, Proceedings of the All & Everything Humantities Conference,2005, privately published. See also (Runyon, Carroll, Magick and Hypnosis). http://nightbreed.tribe.net/thread/33226a91-c71c-49f4-90dd-dd1f0c997091 ‘<em>Ceremonial magic is ritual hypnosis’).
Gurdjieff himself said that breaking the connection between the emotional and mental centres will cause a person to become hallucinated (Gurdjieff, 1976: 263, 192), ‘Centres are without critical faculty … when a person looks with one centre only, he is under hallucination’). All his texts are intentionally confusing: misleading, contradictory, and paradoxical, he defined himself as:
‘unique in respect of the so to say “muddling and befuddling” of all the notions and convictions supposedly firmly fixed in the entirety of people with whom I come into contact.” (Tales, 26).
Now we will look at how Gurdjieff presented himself to his pupils.
Gurdjieff’s teaching emphasised specific methodologies according to where he was and what was happening, but the content of the teaching remained the same in all periods. Here, because of time constraints, we will look at two periods indicated in the chronology below.
G. I. GURDJIEFF 1866? – 1949
1866? Born Alexandropol, Armenia, (now Gyumri)
1885?- 1910? Undocumented travels to Middle and Far East
1910? – 1917 In Russia teaching: P. D. Ouspensky meets Gurdjieff
records teaching from 1915 – 1922
In Search of the Miraculous (Search) Ouspensky 1949
1917 – 1922 From Russia to Europe with pupils
1922 France: Gurdjieff founds The Institute for the Harmonious
Development of Man outside Paris,
fully functional until 1924
1924 -1930 Visits USA begins writing. Closes the Institute but
continues to live there. Will visit the USA a further
nine or ten times.
1932 lives in Paris
1935 – 1940 Paris teaching the Rope group [and others].
1940-1945 Teaching groups in his flat in Paris
1945 Gurdjieff continued teaching pupils until his death in
P. D. Ouspensky
During this time Ouspensky records Gurdjieff’s teaching pupils: the acquisition of will, the use of symbolism, the inter-relationship of macrocosmos to microcosmos and a manipulation of cosmic laws so as to form a set of new bodies of ever finer materiality and longevity. Gurdjieff expressed his teachings with reference to alchemical processes, (Search,176, 180), transmutation and transformation (Search,193), and in relation to the symbologies of astrology, magic and tarot, among others (Search, 278-295) and Webb, (The Harmonious Circle 1980, 499-525) gives a good account of some of the likely western esoteric origins of Gurdjieff’s teaching (Webb, 1980, 499-525).
Many if not most of Gurdjieff’s pupils had some knowledge of Theosophical ideas, so his cosmology, ideas about the formation of different bodies would have been familiar to them. What Gurdjieff offered pupils that differed from Blavatksy’s Theosophical teaching was an occult practice that would enable them to transform themselves, not just a theory about different bodies but methods for creating them. This brings Gurdjieff’s teaching into the realm of magic (Versluis, Arthur, 2007: 1. ‘Magicians seek direct spiritual insight and use it to affect the course of events’, and 4. ‘the Magus seeks to have effects in the world’.)
Gurdjieff defines magicians as men who understand the laws of nature and know how to use them to transform substances and also to oppose mechanical influences, and this is not a bad summary of what Gurdjieff himself taught. He gives Christ as an example of a magician who had this knowledge (Search: 226-7, see also (Views 1976/ 1st pub 1973 in a talk in Essentuki in 1918). Gurdjieff’s definitions of both black and white magicians are inconsistent and confusing (Search: 227). He does say that ‘Black magic does not in any way mean magic of evil’ and this is representative of a theme he returns to throughout his teaching. The pupils who took part in his revue ‘Struggle of the Magicians’, had to dance the roles of both black and white magicians.
Gurdjieff agrees with Ouspensky that narcotics are used for the creation of states that make magic possible, but says that they are not merely narcotics although substances used may be prepared form opium or hashish (Search: 8-9 see also 162, 195).
There is a short paper on Narcotics and Hormones by G. I. Gurdjieff, ‘evidently taken down by Ouspensky’. Here Gurdjieff relates some of the uses of narcotics including as a help in ‘the work of Self-Observation and self study,’ he stresses that the use of narcotics is dangerous and needs to be carried out by an expert.
In 1959 the Stourton Press in Cape Town published a short paper Narcotics and Hormones by G. I. Gurdjieff, ‘evidently taken down by Ouspensky’, some of the material is in his In Search of the Miraculous. Republished in Unforgotten Fragments, Pogson, Beryl Chassereau, and Lewis Creed, 1994. Gurdjieff states that narcotics can be used to change the state of consciousness. He refers to medieval literature as a rich source on the subject. He defines hormones as ‘clouds of fine matter, finer than the gaseous matter known to us which is given off by various organs of our body. The 1920s and 1930s were a time of great interest and medical research into hormones. In 1922 insulin was first used to treat diabetes, (see also http://www.uwyo.edu/wjm/Repro/classica.htm) There are references to opium in the Tales including an complex passage pages 826-40 detailing research into the properties of opium).
Gurdjieff was teaching’ the Rope’ a group of women pupils in Paris, seeing them once or twice every day. According to Gurdjieff’s pupil J. G Bennett this group progressed at a much faster rate than earlier pupils, Bennett attributed this to the use of drugs (Bennett 1976: 232), Bennett writes that Gurdjieff carried out ‘a very extraordinary experiment, making use of methods that brought them into remarkable psychic states, and developed their powers far more rapidly’ than those of earlier pupils. He saw memoirs but is not allowed to quote from them, he hopes they will be published as they throw light on Gurdjieff’s methods as a teacher and upon ‘his use of drugs as a method of developing not only psychic experiences, but also opening hidden channels of the human psyche’. Although he was castigated for making this suggestion, there are diary entries concerning courses of injections, which Gurdjieff himself gave to the pupils, recorded in:
‘Notes taken by Solita Solano from October 1935 – April 1939 in Paris, with additional notes about Gurdjieff’s visit to New York in 1948
(Janet Flanner and Solita Solano Papers, Library of Congress, folder 6 box 6).
There are twenty-three direct references to piqures (injections) and courses of injections that Gurdjieff gave Solano and other members of the Rope group. He gave inner exercises for them to do related to the injections.
Solano quotes Gurdjieff saying:
‘After a certain age this effort [his teaching] is very difficult and often impossible. There is an artificial aid by means of physico-chemical substance… for example a substance can be injected which will furnish artificial help for prayer … If the effort and the amount of the chemical are not balanced, it becomes a dangerous poison for the organism.’ (In January, 1936, p. 18).
He had already given her ‘My first piqure and my first exercise’ (16th November 1935).
These notes are greatly abridged and there is no mention of the actual substances he was injecting, but he did take blood and urine samples from the group to check what adjustments to make to their medications. The exercises are not give in the Notes, and the results of the injections are not referred to in detail, Solano reports feeling better after the first course. Later the group are strongly affected by the injections, two of them cry and feel suicidal, Solano fears loosing her memory. Another time she asks about an increase in menstruation which Gurdjieff attributes to the injections this last suggests injections of hormones (Notes 39-40).
The group also take other medicines given them by Gurdjieff (Notes July 18, 1936, 42-43).
There are references to magic, in the first (June 18th 1936) Gurdjieff refers to ‘the mag’, Solano writes in brackets after mag ( magus, adept, master) and says that
The mag (magus, adept, master) is cunning.
… The mag is the highest that man can approach to God because only he can be impartial and fulfil obligation to God. In old times the mag was always made the chief because he had cunning. Other mags could do either white or black magic but the mag who had cunning and canning could do both white and black and was the chief of the Initiates. Man with real cunning is man without quotation marks. Angel can do only one thing. Devil can do all.’ (July 18th 1936, Notes, 42-43).
A month later he says: “Both cunning and canning are necessary to all things. This is why there are two magics. Black magic is cunning – often also is cunning and canness – you understand the difference? Black magic is ideal for being. Cunning and can-ness is like conscious and unconscious, or like two words used in Bible for meaning two kinds of evil voluntary and involuntary sin”. (Notes 49).
Gurdjieff continued to teach pupils his mix of esoteric ideas and occult practices. He was at pains to present himself in his writings and in his oral teachings in the roles of both Black and White Magician. He never sought to present himself as solely good, or other than he was which was capable of both constructive and destructive relations with his pupils. I suggest that this duality is fundamental to his teaching because he is an embodiment of his Law of Three, showing the good and bad possibilities open to a human beings and how these may be reconciled.
Some of the methods that Gurdjieff used to hypnotised and entangled his pupils were:
exhausting physical efforts
lack of sleep
use of alcohol and drugs
The demands of both Gurdjieff’s writings and oral teachings entangle the reader or listener in hypnotic paradox and contradiction . The demand for students to observe themselves was contradicted by the teaching that they were mechanical and unable to ‘do’. The statement that pupils must have a critical mind was subverted by belonging to a regime in which they had agreed to be incapable of ‘doing’ and therefore of being critical. The constant demand for ‘making effort’ was reinforced by Gurdjieff’s instruction that leaving the teaching before having reached a certain stage would be injurious. It would be better for pupils to die making ‘super-efforts’ than to continue living their mechanical lives. He stressed that the teaching was dangerous. Pupils could not avoid danger, they had to face either the danger of the teaching, or of leaving it. Gurdjieff’s teaching always took place in the last chance saloon.
But he did repeatedly warn pupils against taking his cosmological ideas literally (Wellbeloved, 2003: 216-17). He also gave clues. The astute reader or listener will find the contradictions and begin to question the texts and maybe also the teaching. The process of freeing themselves from this hypnotised state might also free pupils from much of their usual mechanically hypnotised state and allow them to connect with their subconscious (Webb 1980: 560-573). Entanglement and liberation are two ends of the same stick. One of the properties that Gurdjieff defined as belonging to the subconscious is ‘confrontative criticism’ (Tales 568). Or to express it differently, they might be able to define themselves and the world around them in terms other than those used by Gurdjieff.
Ignoring the contradictions, both those created by him and those arising in his life, the pupil may defeat the point of the teaching. Gurdjieff himself usually made sure the pupil ‘got it’ that is could not ignore the contradictions inherent in his teaching by ‘orphaning’ pupils, sending them away, behaving to them in such a way that they chose to go, or by simply disbanding the whole group. This forced pupils to reassess him the teaching and themselves (The Fourth Way, i.e. Gurdjieff’s teaching is never permanent, Search: 312).
Present day omissions and redefinitions of the Work
Once the Magus dies, his presence as embodiment is not longer there and his teaching ends. Thus, he has to be reinvented and his teaching restructured and this has happened. Gurdjieff and his teaching have inevitably been institutionalised and redefined.
Today, in foundations (organisations set up after Gurdjieff’s death by his successor Jeanne de Salzmann) and other groups, as far as I have discovered, there is no focus on Gurdjieff’s use of:
Narcotics and other drugs.
While the teaching was defined by Gurdjieff as a dangerous but quick way to acquire knowledge, membership is now for long periods, or for life. The effort required is not ‘dangerous’. The pupil is focused on ‘searching’ rather than ‘finding’, ‘receiving’ rather than ‘stealing’ or ‘making efforts’ (See http://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com/ “Doing” and Not Doing” on the Joseph Azize page where he gives examples of the passive form of language used in the 1980s by a Foundation work teacher.). Gurdjieff is generally presented in a version ‘cleansed’ of occult practices. For example, the website of the New York Foundation does not include Herald in its list of Gurdjieff’s writings (http://www.gurdjieff-foundation-newyork.org/work2.html ).
The foundations have remained secretive and closed to general scrutiny. There are ‘not for public release books and videos’, one of the videos I have seen presents Gurdjieff in a romanticised sepia vision of his life as related in Meetings, where none of the contradictions of his life or teaching are mentioned. The Work has now spread out and become more widely known in versions that are entwined with other teachings (see Wellbeloved ‘Changes in G. I. Gurdjieff’s Teaching ‘The Work’ http://www.cesnur.org/2001/london2001/wellbeloved.htm A paper presented at The 2001 Conference (CESNUR-INFORM) in London).
What we might ask now is: why is there a reluctance to mention occult practices, magic, hypnotism and the use of drugs in this teaching, not only by the teacher/practitioners but also by scholars? This is a question that is important for the establishment of the discipline of western esotericism as a whole.
Traces of Gurdjieff as Magus, can be found in pupil memoirs and in Chaos Magic.
He remains fully alive in his roles as both black and white magician in his texts.
Bennett, John G. Gurdjieff: Making A New World, London: Turnstone Books, 1976
G. I. Gurdjieff, The Herald of Coming Good, privately published Paris, 1933
All and Everything, Ten Books in Three Series:
First series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s
Tales to His Grandson, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1950.
Second series: Meetings With Remarkable Men, trans. A. R. Orage, Londond:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.
Third series: Life is real only then, when “I am”, New York: Duton for Triangle
Views from the Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff: London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, 1sr pub. 1973.
Ouspensky, P. D. In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, London:
Arkana, 1987, 1st pub Harcourt Brace and World, 1949.
Peters, Fritz, Gurdjieff: containing Boyhood with Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff Remembered, London:
Wildwood House, 1977 (1st pub. 1965).
Pogson, Beryl Chassereau and Lewis Creed, Unforgotten Fragments, York: Quacks Books, 1994
Solano, Solita, unpublished Notes taken by Solita Solano from 1935 – 1940 in Paris, Beinecke Library, Kathryn Hulme Papers YCAL MSS 22 Box 19, folders 484-93 Solano, Solita 1951-75, n.d.
Versluis, Arthur, Magic and Mysticism,: an Introduction to Western Esotericism, Lantham,
Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth UK: Roman & Littlefield, 2007.
Webb. James, The Harmonious Circle, London: Thames & Hudson, 1980.
Wellbeloved, Sophia, ‘Changes in G. I. Gurdjieff’s Teaching ‘The Work’ 2001 CESNUR-Inform
Conference in London. http://www.cesnur.org/2001/london2001/wellbeloved.htm
Gurdjieff: the Key Concepts, London & New York: Routledge, 2003.
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.