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MEETINGS WITH JEANNE DE SALZMANN IN 1973

Joseph Azize Page

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Jeanne de Salzmann

Jane Heap

John Lester

Meetings with Jeanne de Salzmann in 1973

These notes were given to me by the late Dr John Lester. Dr Lester had become a pupil of Jane Heap in London during WWII. If I remember correctly, he told me it was between 1940 and 1942. In 1946, he and all Jane’s pupils had gone to study with Gurdjieff in Paris, remaining with him for more than three years. An Oxford trained physician, he became Jane’s doctor, being with her on the day she died in 1964.

I cannot be certain that he made these notes, but I am certain that he was confident of their accuracy. I never explicitly ask him if he had been at this meeting, but it was, as I recall, implied. He had a vivid recollection of Jeanne de Salzmann’s concern about not only the possible publication but even the dissemination of Jane Heap’s Black Book. This made me think he had been at the 1973 meetings recorded here. However, this is not certain, and his recollection of de Salzmann’s anxiety may have been based on other meetings. I had first thought only to edit the notes, but decided that I should make them available in their entirety, in case it is apprehended that I have selectively quoted them. I am thinking of writing a proper academic article, when time allows.

I have not changed a single word, except to correct spelling errors: e.g. replacing ‘to-day’ with ‘today’.

Part One: The Notes

Notes of Meetings with Mme Salzmann about Jane’s notes.
Switzerland August 1973

How to Work. This is something none of the other books have.
There is plenty published about Ideas but not
about How to work.

Perhaps the thing to do is to prepare a small volume on this. Then Mme Salzmann will show it to the older ones – Tracol, Mme Lannes, Deselle – to see if it would help.

We must be more DYNAMIC. The idea of the alphabet and index is alright for your own purpose – for practical work to find your way around the notes – but otherwise it is not dynamic enough – it is too intellectual – too like an ordinary dictionary. We have to find another way to select, a more dynamic way.

About Jane’s Black Notebook.
The question about whether these notes were taken from Addison transcripts. (And others as well) Mme Salzmann will ask Mme Lannes if the transcripts taken of all those Addison meetings still exist or if they have been destroyed. If they have been destroyed it makes what we have from Jane more valuable – maybe there are still copies in London – she can find out. There are none in Paris. (contradicted later).

As they are – Jane’s Notes – we would have to shorten them – edit them for reading. When they were given they were spoken – they were for that group to hear – for that moment – that meeting. They were spoken to be listened to. At a meeting – when spoken – the formulation does not matter so much because of the people there – they could be explained – elaborated – questions could be answered. But for reading by other people – people on their own – at home and not in meetings or groups – it would have to be different – and very carefully formulated – absolutely right.

There is too much repetition – too many inaccuracies – they could be misunderstood.

[2.] (On reading JBN for a while) They do not seem like Jane – nor yet Mme Lannes. Not her way. If it was Tracol he would have prepared – he would have his own notes – not Mme Lannes perhaps. There could be some of Jane’s writing in it.

If she had heard this material she would have tried for herself. Was it taken down verbatim at the time or remembered afterwards? If it was taken down – maybe by Cathleen Murphy.

Trouble with the Family and others,
There must be no quotation without permission otherwise the family will sue. They even wish to sue the Canadian Group for the Index to All and Everything – some of which is good – some not so good. Mme Salzmann doesn’t see why that was necessary – if you know the Book – but it was their work and they wanted to do it.

It would be our responsibility to know that anything we proposed had not been published before and would be clear of copyright. Not only from the Family but from Orage – Ouspensky – Nicholls (sic). The copyright of all these are protected.

In America the copyright laws are different from here (England and Europe).

There is even trouble about the Black Book of Gurdjieff Lectures that is coming out in October. But these were written down from memory – much later – and this is different. They could not be claimed as the writings of Gurdjieff.

We must remember that what we do will be for the benefit of Jane – editing and shortening – and not hold back or hold on to the old memories because we were there – were taught by her.

We must remember that the book will be read by people who never knew or saw Jane.

For this reason we must remember that we have to insure that the book has IMPACT.

(Jane’s sayings – need to be worked up and brought on).

[3.] When we first heard the Ideas – when we were told something – (for example about attention) we would be listening – trying to experience. But we did not know why the Ideas were given in the order they were given. Then later something else was given – perhaps in relation to something else – and it was a step forward. Something had been added. But again we didn’t know or understand why that was given in that way. But something had remained from before, (from the first time) and something new had been added.

When we revise the Notes we have to remember this.

If there is to be a book – a chronological order might be the way – but if in another then on subjects.

The introduction to the book will be very important.

To use the letter of Orage is good (on hearing the draft introduction read aloud) Some of the introduction is good but more is needed – the idea is not bad.

The story of Orage.

Orage had not been trained long enough by Gurdjieff before he began his Groups in New York. When one knows the Ideas well – when they are available to you – something can happen – there can be a danger. It always happens, everyone is exposed to this danger.

Orage had many people around him – he could attract them – arouse their interest – but then something else happened and it was a trap – inside one has to know the danger of this – he began to ‘play’ with the Ideas. To make up exercises of his own and so on. Gurdjieff went to America and he saw what was happening. It was not good and he decided to do something about it.

It would have been useless to say anything to Orage directly – it would have been no benefit for him. He had to receive a shock. He had to feel shame – deep inside. So G. began to talk to O.’s people – behind his back – and told them that they were being told nonsense – taught wrongly. There is a talk about it all in the Third Series. Naturally it soon got back [4.] to O. – there was much disturbance. G. then told every one of O’s people that they had to choose and that they would have to sign a paper and would solemnly swear never to see or speak to Orage again.

There was to be a special meeting of all O’s people and they were then to sign.

Mme S was there when Orage telephoned G – having of course heard about this meeting – Mme S heard the conversation on the second earpiece of the phone. O asked if he should come to the Meeting – would G let him come. G said – “Come Orage, come.”

At the meeting when the papers were passed around for signature Orage was the first person to sign. As he gave the paper back to G, he said he hoped he would never see or speak to Orage again. It was very clever – he had felt something – he had been touched.

A shock of this kind makes a complete difference to the direction of somebody’s life.

Orage decided to go back to England – to give up his Groups – to go back into life.

Maybe in another life he would return at just that point.

But not only Orage was put on the spot – every one of his people as well. Many were very upset – Jessie Orage in particular. Of course some didn’t sign, but that was no good for them. They thought they had escaped but they didn’t. G never accepted these people back again.

Perhaps later O. would have returned – maybe he was working – preparing to do so – he always stayed faithful – he didn’t go elsewhere to other teachings – perhaps he had only decided to go away into life for a time.

When Orage died Gurdjieff felt that he had lost somebody valuable.

We must remember there is never enough MENACE in ourselves – never enough hard confrontation. If there is a true confrontation there is an agony – a horror – in that moment of balance. This way or that? Whichever way we go is an escape. We have to pay. If we give up then we are lost.

[5.] This is why we always have to try and find a place near people who are also trying to work. So that we can relate to each other – to exchange. It is in this place where we give and receive. Only there can something be created. Only in that place where we give and receive at the same time.

We meet someone – read a book – it arouses our interest – we feel that person has something.

Even at a very early age that possibility of interest is there. This arousing of interest happens in our ordinary lives.

We become aware that there is a hunger in us and because of that we follow that interest – we put our energy into that and no longer just as always before on everyday things. In doing that we put our energy onto a new and different level in ourselves.

We meet someone – like you met Jane – who has something different – that meeting raises your interest to this other level – it calls you to give your interest and energy in that direction. That person remains special for you – will always remain so – has become permanent. They have altered the direction of your life.

Then later you will meet something else which will do the same and again raise you to another level. Gradually something becomes your own – what you have received is available to you. And you are in danger. There is a menace for you – a trap. You do not go on – you stay there. It has become too easy and you fall down and allow life to take you away.

You do not stay there with that danger, that menace. You do not find your place. If you lose that position of danger it is hard to come back again.

Then there is TIME. Gurdjieff used to give work of a certain kind, for a time only. And just when people were getting used to that work – beginning to be able to do it – to find it easy, he would sweep it away – destroy it – because of that danger – the danger of it becoming too easy.

Life changes – some of the things we still hear about – read about are now old fashioned. The time has gone for them, and this [6.] is inevitable and according to Law. There is a different way to call people to work now – a way that has to be used today. This we must always be searching for – and at the same time we must remain faithful to the Work – the Ideas – as we received them.

It is easy to make grand efforts – big efforts – to work extra hard on this or that, with terrific energy.

This also can be an escape – can be a danger too.

But if your work is related differently – if it is not just in one part – your mind or your feelings or your body – if everything in you is related and related to that danger – that menace – so that a true confrontation can take place – a confrontation that brings you up with a jerk – then that is different.

What we publish in a book of Jane’s Notes must be absolutely right. Not only because of the family and others in the work – or the general public – the people who are searching and in need.

And today there is a need in many of the young and they accept many of the Ideas that were astonishing to us when we first heard them as part of everyday life. (G. said this would happen in his book – the Ideas are passing slowly but inevitably into life.) But also because there may be someone – some Sufi – Buddhist – Hindu – some Zen in Japan – who would say it was wrong – not part of the true tradition of the work that has and always will exist somewhere in the world. This we must avoid.

Jane apart from her brilliant personality – her amazing qualities – those which she had as an ordinary person before she came to the work – was a very humble person. There was a great humility in her that many people never saw.

Second talk – the following day.

We are not enough challenged. There must always be a demand in you – and in the other person. It is the exchange that is important – it is in the exchange that you can receive some food.

Thinking about Jane’s Notes – I (Mme S) see more clearly now the problem since yesterday.

It is right that Jane should have her place. Something must [7.] be done. Did she write nothing else? Everyone wrote notes about their meetings with Mr Gurdjieff – and about the movements – but not at that time – that was forbidden. He demanded absolute attention to try and experience what he was saying – there was to be nothing else happening like taking notes. But afterwards everyone wrote notes, but they never wrote down anything serious – no exercises – nothing really important that he said – only the trivia and the outside things.

S.’s diaries – I (Mme S) have read them – these should not be published. But did not Jane write anything herself? Reply – No. Maybe she felt she did not need to – she could trust her memory. Are you sure there was nothing in her papers of that kind? Reply – No we would have seen if there was – there were a number of us with our eyes open and looking and even later when the move from her house was taking place, nothing new was found.

There is the need then to find out if there are original transcripts of Addison meetings in London – or Paris – to confirm with what you have (sic). If not there is perhaps a slender volume – but not more. All the rest you keep for yourselves.

(Mme S had not had time to read what we gave her in April) [this sentence underlined by hand]

Further brief notes.

Fear- there must be no fear.

You are not challenged enough – all the time there must be this challenge.

Chandolin – the chalet someone gave to Michel de Salzmann – where the Geneva groups work in the summer – the same village where Lizelle Reymond – who shares the group with M de S.

Bringing everything to the site by special life – the village high in mountains. When sand and cement were needed it was brought by helicopter – only way.

Necessary to make friends with village priest – mayor – gendarme. Now they think we are nice well meaning intelligent people.

It is necessary to do all this. We need to do this more and more. There is not enough contact with life around us.

Part Two: Some Comments

What is the big thing about this document, the really big thing which is so large that we would miss it for the details? I think it is Jeanne de Salzmann’s attitude: not her attitude to the notes of Jane Heap, as such, but to Gurdjieff’s heritage. Related to this is the way she bamboozles the people who have gone to Switzerland to ask her opinion. I suspect that the discombobulation is a technique she used, consciously or otherwise, to protect her attitude to Gurdjieff’s heritage.

First of all, a word on method. It seems to me that, very often, things which we write and say hold the key to understanding ourselves. I started to see this when time and again people’s criticisms of third parties proved to be strikingly accurate descriptions of their own weaknesses. Perhaps the same is also true in respect of strengths. Since I started to ponder this, it has helped to me to ask whether I may not share the very same weaknesses I detect in others. And often I do.

Why is this? I suspect that the elements which make us up are forever subliminally swimming in our minds and our feelings. We are most familiar with ourselves, even if we do not admit that what we see is true of ourselves. As Jane Heap said, something inside us always knows. And if it is known in ourselves, we can more readily see it in others. For this reason, a truthful person often needs a bit of time before they can spot a liar, while one cheat is onto others straight away.

Related to this, an analysis of another person, or even a critique of their ideas is more effective, indeed most effective, when it uses the other person’s own words, because it might grapple with their principles. So let us turn to these notes.

First of all, de Salzmann was struck by the fact that here were Jane’s own notes on “How to work”, something “none of the other books have.” The distinction she draws between the “Ideas” and “How to work” is difficult to establish in practice as even the ideas have a practical force. The ideas relating to self-remembering, self-observation and negative emotions can be put into practice even from the books. One will rarely get very far, but the same is often true even of people in groups. I would say that Jane seldom set out the ideas as if expounding them to the ordinary educated reader. She assumed an acquaintance with the basic ideas, and then offered more advanced ideas to help her students, that their being might grow in line with understanding. These were advanced ideas, of no value without practical attempts to actualize conscious efforts.

Salzmann’s initial idea was for “a small volume” as a tester. At the end of the second day’s discussion she has not shifted: “there is perhaps a slender volume – but not more. All the rest you keep for yourselves.” And this at a point when she had still not read all of the material.

De Salzmann’s opposition was evident from the start even if always apparently prompted by matters of principle: an alphabetical index was not sufficiently “dynamic” (whatever that meant), it was “too intellectual – too like an ordinary dictionary”. And what is so horrifying about an ordinary dictionary? How is an index “too” intellectual? How does one leaven an index with something not intellectual?

The next objection was that the notes cannot have been Jane’s, they were probably “notes … taken from Addison transcripts”. Then, they were not meant to be read, and if one is going to prepare such material to be read then it must be “absolutely right”. Not just right, but “absolutely” right. Then the notes themselves were denigrated: they had “too much repetition – too many inaccuracies – they could be misunderstood”, as if there is anything one can write which cannot be misunderstood.

This all reminds me of two conversations I had with Michel de Salzmann. He had exactly the same attitude as his mother: people should publish only under his careful direction because it might add to the misunderstandings – as if he could control people’s conclusions and thoughts through quiet behind-the-scenes censorship.

Then de Salzmann read the Black Book. Once more she returned to the tactic: “They do not seem like Jane”, before conceding that “There could be some of Jane’s writing in it.”

The next impediment was copyright: Gurdjieff’s family might sue! I cannot conceive why she thought that there was a possibility that any of this text was Gurdjieff’s, let alone why the family would think so, but she was quite categorical: “There must be no quotation without permission otherwise the family will sue. … It would be our responsibility to know that anything we proposed had not been published before and would be clear of copyright. Not only from the Family but from Orage – Ouspensky – Nicholls (sic). The copyright of all these are protected.” So they bore the onus of proving that not only Gurdjieff but even the Orage, Ouspensky and Nicoll estates could not sue (Jane did meet Ouspensky, but not often, and I am not sure if she ever met Nicoll). And what was de Salzmann’s objective basis for thinking that there was any question of material from these three being in the Notes?

Then, note the very subtle reference to the follies of the Canadian Group. Madame did not see why they needed to produce their index, but how allowing she was! The message is clear: don’t make trouble for me like those silly Canadians.

On page three, we have “the story of Orage”. To me, this is the key to what Madame herself did. What she says of him is true of herself. Although like Orage she knew the ideas well, she was “exposed to this danger” of ‘playing’ with the ideas. Also like Orage, she began “to make up exercises of (her) own and so on”. Was she subliminally aware that despite her extraordinary understanding, she did not understand enough for her position? I suspect that she needed to work with and not over other pupils of Gurdjieff, at least with respect to the ideas.

Then on page four is this comment: “Maybe in another life he (Orage) would return at just that point.” This was, from what I have heard, the sort of thing she and Lord Pentland would say from time to time. James Moore gives another example, where she said that if Mme Lannes’ pupils worked she (Lannes) would not have to come back. As if de Salzmann knew and had to say it to these people at this time! What does it mean if not “I am an oracle, I know the decrees of eternity: accept my word”? Ravindra’s “Heart Without Measure” quotes her as effectively saying that she knows what the planet needs: “one can sense it”, she would say. This is all, quite literally, pretentious.

A clue to de Salzmann’s deeper concerns is found at page six. It opens with reiterating that: “What we publish in a book of Jane’s Notes must be absolutely right.” This time, she invokes two groups: first, “people who are searching and in need” with its romantic appeal to the interests of “many of the young”. Why always the young? Are seekers less valuable as they age?

The second group is particularly revealing: “there may be someone – some Sufi – Buddhist – Hindu – some Zen in Japan – who would say it was wrong – not part of the true tradition of the work that has and always will exist somewhere in the world. This we must avoid.”

Why? Why must we avoid it? Why not engage with it in discussion? And can one avoid it? The thesis has in fact been argued by people such as Perry and will be argued in the future, and no Gurdjieff Foundation or Institute can stop them. But at a deeper level: is it true or not? If it is true, what is served by a blanket of silence? Why not explain where and why Gurdjieff makes an advance? What is the value of Gurdjieff’s heritage if it replicates what already exists and always will? But if it is untrue, why not let the facts come out so that at least one can claim the courage of one’s convictions? Why not deal with the danger, by bringing better information to bear?

I suspect that the S. whose diaries should not be published is Solita Solano. Even if it was not, the Solano example is revealing. Because the diaries had not been published in their totality, they were available to be used as a publishing coup. Extracts were made by Paterson who published some in his journal as “The Kanari Papers” and based much of his book “Ladies of the Rope” around them. Apart from the fact that the results in the book were not terribly distinguished, what happened? Did the bottom fall out of the Gurdjieff groups? In fact, hardly anyone noticed. I have read some of those notes: I think that a properly edited and annotated edition would go some way to rehabilitating the image of Gurdjieff: his relationship with women and lesbians emerges in what seems to me to be a rather sympathetic light as he experiments with various ways to help them. But they are more effective in their own words, not in Paterson’s awkward rephrasing.

Why this insistence on a “slender volume” at the most? Ultimately, despite her keen intelligence and her profound understanding, I feel that de Salzmann tried to control Gurdjieff and his public reception, to remake it in something more like her image. And I am quite certain that she had more to learn from the other pupils of Gurdjieff about Gurdjieff’s own heritage. But with those people, she adopted an oracular stance, while she went to Japan and Asia and picked up the “New Work”, and invented her own exercises: a process which has quite quickly lead to the disappearance of the Gurdjieff exercises, and the bowdlerization of Beelzebub, perhaps the two keys to his entire practical system.

Let us come back to this danger of ‘playing’ with the ideas. It is a very deep comment: but there were exceptions: I do not see that Jane, or Mrs Staveley or the Adies, to name but some, succumbed. And why not? What saved them? I think it was loyalty. Loyalty is a real emotion: in its pure form it is a function of higher emotional centre. And it is one which becomes available to us, it is given to us by Great Nature, by a providential arrangement of attachment to the scenes and peoples of our past. This attachment, blended with discrimination and impartiality, leads to loyalty. Loyalty does not exclude understanding: understanding is the first demand for attachment to spark into the higher emotion of loyalty. But that spark can be smothered.

And I personally conclude, without either regret or joy, that Mme de Salzmann compromised her loyalty in her desire to protect the movement.

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Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book “The Phoenician Solar Theology” treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The third book, “George Mountford Adie” represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.

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A REPLY FROM HENRI TRACOL IN 1951

Joseph Azize Page

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Henri Tracol

The notes I summarize here were written by Mr Adie under the heading “3 October 1951, Group II, Colet Gardens”, and placed in the same folder wherein I found the Gurdjieff group meeting of 16 October 1943. Their six pages relate to Henri Tracol’s exchanges with two persons, ‘Mr Andrews’ and ‘Mrs Brown’. I find the second exchange sound, but is not so novel now as it would have been in 1951. However, the first is unique, and deserves to be known. Mr Adie must have valued it, because he has written these notes very carefully. I suspect that he either worked from memory or had jotted down some rough notes during the meeting. Also, the meeting almost certainly had more than two exchanges. This also points to the probability of selection.

Part One
‘Mr Andrews’ had a question about the suffering he has occasioned himself by causing “a lot of trouble” to other people. Mr Tracol replied that there are different types of suffering: first, there is suffering in personality. He offered the example of the ordinary negative emotion we experience at having made ourselves look silly or bad in front of others. Secondly, he said, there is the suffering which comes when we have done something wrong “against ourselves”. With this suffering, the essential thing is not that other people have been touched by it or even know of it, but that “it has been against ourselves in the sense of the work”.

In this instance, replied Andrews, it was definitely the first type of suffering.

“Then”, said Tracol, “you have to fight very hard, probably all you can mobilize of effort of work against it.”

How?, asked Andrews, whart type of effort?

“So you can get some result when you fight”, replied Tracol.

I find it a little hard to follow what Andrews then said, but he spoke about his manifestations. Tracol may have too, yet he understood the man’s state. “But I mean the fight itself” – he used that word again – “That ought to be very very clear to you. You must know how to fight, really fight your negative emotions. Try to tell me more clearly.”

Andrews then mentioned his efforts to stop thought and to relax.

Tracol responded bluntly: “That is not sufficient now. You know that your help is ‘I’, but you must know how to do it. I will try to make you understand by a kind of pciture. You are in a house and a fire is in some part of it and you have to stop it. … We are in the presence of something quite catastrophic. You have to mobilize all your forces against it. It is quite a concrete thing that is happening, as concrete as fire … quite concrete and you have to oppose it with something quite concrete also.”

“It is a thing that demands energy against energy, or, if you will, energy to direct energy in another direction.You have to arrive ready at this feeling of yourself before a complete process after having tried and tried very much. This I want you all, when you have such an enemy inside you, to try.”

“You relax and you really try to get ‘I’. ‘I’ is an affirmation that you are there fighting. ‘I’ is like the soldier who arrives on the battlefield, who says ‘I am there’. That must be very concrete. ‘I AM HERE’. You must feel that ‘I’. It comes from your sensation. You must try to put all the force you can behind it.”

“Without that ‘I’ you can do absolutely nothing. For the moment when you say it, everything else has to disappear. Just the moment when you say ‘I AM’ you sense as much as you can. Then you begin again, ‘I AM’. Try really to understand that you can put an energy in there, and that now you must try at any cost. Then you will try and the beginning and perhaps not succeed, but try and try again. Then you will attract into your ‘I’ the energy that is in your feelings.”

Mr Andrews made a comment that it was more than a metaphor, it was a picture. Tracol continued: “You have a little sensation in you sometimes. That sensation is, right now, all that you have to lean on in your effort. When we begin to remember ourselves, we say ‘I AM’. We say it as we must, with whatever is available to us. But it cannot change anything until you have tried again and again. Then, little by little, through these unsuccessful efforts, we start to understand that the affirmation has contain a certain kind of something, and what can that something possibly be but an energy?”

“You remember how in ‘Fragments’ (i.e. In Search of the Miraculous) Mr Gurdjieff says it has to make a vibration? I have heard him say that many times with his own mouth. That vibration is a sign that the energy of vibrations is there and that energy is in that direction. You can not do it at once. You do it twice, thrice, four times, five times. I am suret aht your negative emotion is a little less after it and you will understand what the fight is.”

Part Two
A vigour leaps at me from the page. Gurdjieff had not then been dead two years. I suspect that the power of this exchange reflects Gurdjieff’s personal impact, at a close remove. Later, of course, that influence was obscured by time, but also by Mme de Salzmann’s “New Work”. The later material I have seen from Henri Tracol is not, in my view, of the order disclosed here.

Note that Tracol’s first advice was to try whatever gave results. As I have mentioned in the book George Adie and in earlier blogs, one can take the advice of not working for results too absolutely. Anyone who never seeks any result from their work is mad. The real problem, as I see it, it is identification with results, and dreaming about possible results. This will all undermine the very effort.

Further, I find the exchange fascinating as being consistent with the impression given by Mr Adie’s 1949 diary, which shows Gurdjieff speaking similarly about the importance of ceaseless struggle so that sweat pours even from one’s heels. But for me the important thing is that this robust approach is the one which for me works. The New Work only set me back.

But now, with the material I recently posted from Gurdjieff’s October 1943 group meeting, I feel that readers of this blog have access to some high quality and otherwise unpublished material which could lead to a new understanding of “effort” and how a clear intellectual understanding of true efforts can lead to encouragement.

To tie these strings together, Gurdjieff had said in 1943 that the secret is in the effort. And the effort demands an intensity only of attention or of concentration while the person remains relaxed. As Mr Adie would say, I focus or concentrate without self-tensing. There is no tension in any of the centres, just direction. This, of course, is what inner concentration is: all of the faculties are pointed towards the centre. One can look at an object while relaxing the eyes or one can fixedly stare at it. It removes some of the self-tension, perhaps, to reflect that as Gurdjieff said, the exercises should be allowed time to work. Tracol stressed the last aspect of this, especially. Do not expect to succeed the first time: be patient, and let the work operate.

In 1943, Gurdjieff stated his hope that the exercises would produce faith in our possibilities of becoming. Tracol stated as a fact that if one persisted one would feel the vibrations which lead up to “I AM”, and from this would understand what the fight is. His advice was to think of a soldier coming in to battle. Gurdjieff had prayed “May God help you with your intellect”. Perhaps these are three aspects of the same thing, for as Orage said: “Thought is the pure effort to attain the truth and takes place in the Intellectual centre.”

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Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book “The Phoenician Solar Theology” treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The third book, “George Mountford Adie” represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.

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THE PSEUDO-OUSPENSKY ON ST JOHN’S GOSPEL

Joseph Azize Page

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The wedding at Cana

The Pseudo-Ouspensky on St John’s Gospel

Part One: Notes on Saint John’s Gospel, published by Ediciones Sol, Mexico, undated, attributed to P.D. Ouspensky, almost certainly in fact written by an anonymous pupil of Ouspensky (see James Webb, The Harmonious Circle).

It (sc. the Gospel of St John) talks about New Foods. The first miracle it relates is the miracle of water turned to wine at the wedding feast. Wine represents New Food – not a natural food, but something which has to be made by a very complicated process. Wine is the juice of fruit which is ‘fermented’, which means it has taken on a new force from being dead. Water comes naturally, from a spring. Wine has to be made intelligently, by men, for their own use.

A whole chapter talks about Bread, Flesh, Blood. “For the bread of God is he which cometh down from Heaven and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said, I am the bread of life. He that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” The disciples wanted the bread to be ‘given to them’. Jesus at once answers, “I am the bread.” It is something very difficult; they cannot understand. They ask for ‘a gift’. Jesus answers, “He that cometh to me shall never hunger, he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”

“To come” means progress, advance step by step.

“To believe” means work to combine Imagination, Reason and Will into a balanced power which will be Faith. Faith is not an emotion.

Jesus said unto them: “Verily, verily I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood ye have no life in you … For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

“Flesh” and “blood” are New Food. Food is another name for Power . We are enclosed inside powers of which we are not conscious. We cannot ‘eat’ or ‘drink’ because the faculties with which we could take those powers in and use them are not working. We are like dried-up sponges in water. The water cannot soak in and penetrate the sponges because they are dead.

“Eat the flesh” and “drink the blood” means being made an active living part inside a great force – like a red corpuscle in blood, which draws life from the food a man eats and makes new life from it. “He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood dwelleth in me and I in him.”

“Dwelleth in me and I in him” means being admitted into a new consciousness.

Saint John gives a new meaning to the word “Light”.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. … All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”

Light is the basis of all life on earth. Vibrations of energy and power travel on. light. All material forms are threaded through with it, like beads on a string.

“And the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”

“Darkness” means mechanicalness. Earth is enclosed and enwrapped in a great flame of radiant power. The same power is stored inside every living form, waiting for some shock that will set it free.

“The darkness comprehendeth it not.” “Comprehend” means ‘take in and use’. We are Darkness so long as we are mechanical. Life with power flows all round us, but we cannot take it in and use it.

“Light” is Food. Every animal and plant and stone draws in something from light and could not live, without it. Colour is food which flowers draw out of a ray of light in which our eyes can see, no colour at all, unless it is broken up for us in a rainbow. Colour is as necessary for the flower as its ordinary food of moisture and warmth. But it uses another faculty to absorb colour. It is a faculty which we have not got at all.

The Gospel talks of ‘mechanicalness’ several times. “Then, said Jesus, I go my way, and ye shall seek me and die in your sins: Whither I go, ye cannot come.”

“Die in your sins” means in the circle of mechanical thoughts and feelings which enclose us.

Jesus answered, “For I know whence I came and whither I go.” We do not know whence we came and whither we go. We do not ‘come’ or ‘go’.

“I am the door of the sheep … By me, if any man enter in he shall be saved and shall go in and out and find pasture.”

“Sheep” represent mechanical people.

“Shall go in and out” means ‘shall be conscious and therefore free’.

“Find pasture” means ‘find fresh growing food’.

“And he said, Therefore said I unto you that no man can come unto me except it were given unto him of my Father. From that time, many of his disciples went back and walked. no more with him.”

The superficial disciples did not like being told they were mechanical. They liked to think they had ‘chosen’ to be disciples.

“Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? And Simon Peter answered him Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”

The real disciples could never be ‘offended’. They knew what they wanted. Their aim filled their minds and drove out all negative objections.

“Words of eternal life” means New Food. The true disciples thought it so precious they were prepared to sacrifice their worldly life in order to find it.

The Gospel talks of “Truth”. “God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

“Worship in spirit” means secretly, inwardly, in thought and feeling.

“Worship in truth” means ‘true with ourselves.’

“When the spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth; for he shall not speak of himself, but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak, and he will show you things. to come.”

“Spirit of truth” means ‘no self-deception’. The more we try to be true in spirit, secretly, the more chance we have of understanding objective truths.

“For he shall not speak of himself” means ‘he shall no longer be subjective.’

“But whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak.” He shall ‘hear’. It is a new faculty. Their machinery makes the noise they imagine they hear. To hear means three separate efforts combined continuously:

First, effort to make silence in ourselves, by stilling the noise made by our imaginings;

Second, effort to listen, to become aware of something outside us;

Third, effort to take in. A new faculty is needed, which will start a new process of thought and feeling.

“He will show you things to come” means the new faculty the conscious man will have acquired will enable him better to understand laws.

Jesus says, “I can of mine own self do nothing. As I hear, so I judge … and my judgment is just, because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.”

Jesus directly followed the Will of God. It cannot reach us except through laws. Each person has a law. Our work of self-observation is simply in order to find out what is our particular law. No one else can tell us what it is.

Jesus says, “He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory, but he that seeketh the glory that sent him, the same is true and no unrighteousness is in him.”

“He that seeketh the glory that sent him” means a man who is trying to wake, in order to follow the law that works through him, apart from his feelings.

“No unrighteousness is in him” means no mechanicalness.

“Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself; except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in me.”

“Abide in me” means ‘obey your law’. The home of the branch is in the vine. It ‘abides’ there. That is where it is fed and kept alive. If we awake, the home of our thought and feeling will be in a new sort of conscience. New food will be drawn from it and life will not be able to be parted from it.

Jesus heals the man who was born blind. No one recognizes him after he is healed. They think he is different – another person. Pharisees and Jews come and question him. They ask the wrong sort of question, ‘How was it done?’ ‘What sort of a man was Jesus?’ They do not really care. They are inquisitive. The man whom he healed simply says, ‘All I know is, I was blind and now I can see’. The result is all that matters.

Saint John is a poet. He gives new meanings to ordinary words. When he speaks of Wine, Bread, Light, Flesh, Blood, he means Foods – New Powers. Food is a key. It is a new force which starts machinery. Food is another name for Power. If we stop feeding for an instant we die.

Innumerable keys turn the wheels which control the circulation of our blood and feed our brain and keep up movement in us continually, which we call life. Our food is light, air, vision, sound and every impression of feeling and sensation drawn from our surroundings. We have an illusion of being active. In reality we depend entirely on our foods and have no more power in ourselves than a windmill without wind.

Self-remembering is an effort to make new power which will be Food for new faculties which otherwise are starved.

Part Two: The Provenance of the Text and Its Purport
The text was published in a small blue booklet by Rodney Collin-Smith in Mexico. His press, Ediciones Sol, is mentioned by Joyce Collin-Smith in her important book Call No Man Master. Copyright was not claimed by the editor, the publisher, or on behalf of the author. Someone purchased the booklet on my behalf in the USA, I think from the late Michael Smyth. However, I never asked Michael about it, although I am proud to say that I was close to him. I do not presently have access to Driscoll’s bibliography or any of my Gurdjieff and Ouspensky books. However, a correspondent who read the first draft of this blog has informed me that according to James Webb’s Harmonious Circle Rodney Collin-Smith found the materials amongst Ouspensky’s papers after his death, and believing Ouspensky to have been the author, published them (with, I might add, a Spanish translation). When he discovered his error, he withdrew the booklet. Why, I wonder, did he just not re-issue it as “Anonymous, Unknown”?

In the first version of this blog, I wrote of this text: “My own view is that it is too concise and too deep to be by Collin-Smith, but may well have been written by Ouspensky.”

I was not sure that it was in fact by Ouspensky, as my wording “may well have been written by Ouspensky” shows. However, the only alternative author I then considered was Collin-Smith. I continued: “Also, we know from odd comments made in A Record of Meetings that Ouspensky believed St John’s Gospel to have been the most extraordinary document, written, he said, by someone who was nourished by Hydrogen 12, if I remember correctly. By this Ouspensky meant that the author could consciously receive the impressions of higher centres. It is difficult to argue. If anything I have seen is inspired, it is the Gospel of St John. If any text warranted Ouspensky’s comments, it is this one. As an aside, in Orage’s unpublished notes in the Brotherton Library is the following scheme: Hydrogen 6 corresponds to I, 12 to sex, 24 to emotions, 48 to air, 96 to magnetism, 192 to air, 384 to water, 768 to food, 1536 to mineral and 3072 to mineral. In other words, St John’s food was the highest possible.” I thought, therefore that the attribution to Ouspensky was reasonable, but I went on to add: “Now, the thing is the commentary as it stands.”

I do not know whether Webb’s information is accurate or not, and unfortunately, as is well known, he gave very few references. He stated that he would leave his references with Thames & Hudson for scholars. I made enquiries, and am informed that Thames & Hudson do not in fact possess any such document. Further, Joyce Collin-Smith tells me that Webb’s wife did not retain any of the documents, and that they are effectively lost.

I do not know who really wrote these notes, but will refer to the author as the Pseudo-Ouspensky. It is a shame we know so little about the Ps-O., but he or she was a very impressive thinker. And this itself is important: in the late 1940s, Gurdjieff apparently disparaged Ouspensky’s teaching, but from the evidence of these notes, at least one student attained to insights of a high order, and possessed a great power of expression.

Modern biblical scholars have only recently started shaking off the dogma of the “higher criticism” in respect of what one may call the “Johannine Corpus” (the Gospel, the three epistles and the Apocalypse). I will just say here that if you have come across the books of writers like Bultmann and Raymond E. Brown on St John, you might bear this in mind. Ellis’s The Making of the New Testament Documents, and Charles E. Hill’s The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church, are, however, well worth the study.

I have no doubt, and neither did those closest to the Apostolic Age that all five documents were written by St John himself, the beloved disciple, even if all or some of chapter 21 has been added to the Gospel to authenticate and perhaps even to supplement the text. I suspect that St John wrote his Gospel chiefly to leave a testament of his own understanding of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, partly also to counter errors circulating about the roles of the apostles, especially perhaps Peter, and partly to supplement what he and others saw as lacunas in the three Synoptic Gospels. My reading of the texts is that John believed he had a special insight into Jesus’ work, and that his wish to share it was genuine, even if he was urged to it by others. He opted, in the event, to write a Gospel which was different: Clement of Alexandria refers to John’s decision to write a “spiritual” Gospel, which was published while he was still alive (see Ellis, esp. 151-4).

John’s first language was Aramaic, the language in which Jesus taught. John’s Greek was either poor or non-existent: certain Greek speakers approached Philip because he did speak Greek, as suggested in John 12:20-1. The Johannine Corpus has come down to us exclusively in Greek, and the Greek of the five documents is identical in style. Perhaps the texts we have were in whole or in part either (1) translated from John’s teaching, whether oral or written, or (2) edited from John’s rather rough Greek. John’s use of an amanuensis, translator or editor would explain discrepancies of style and vocabulary within the corpus, and why the Apocalypse is written in what scholars often consider a very “Semitic” form of Greek (in addition, the influence of its unusual genre should not be forgotten). For the authenticity of the Apocalypse, together with research into why authorship ever became an issue, see the thesis of Michael Michael, The Number of the Beast, available in the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library and elsewhere.

Part Three
One can infer from our text that it’s purpose was to relate the Gospel of St John to the teaching which Ouspensky had from Gurdjieff, and developed in certain respects. It explains key Gospel words and phrases in terms of the Gurdjieff system. It raises many questions for me: can light be shown on or related to the Ray of Creation? The Pseudo-Ouspensky seems to be saying that light is a very fine hydrogen or series of hydrogens, perhaps even H1. Could this be part of the meaning of the hackneyed phrase “God is Light”? Of course, light is not a simple thing, and I am not qualified to study it the way a tertiary trained scientist could. But I sense that light is of fundamental importance, and I shall have to return to it, many many times. The insight that light is food is striking.

To my mind, one of the most puzzling aspects of Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is its pervasive but eccentric religious aspect. Gurdjieff populates his cosmos with a deity and four ranks of angels, what is effectively hell, heaven and purgatory, and messengers from above bringing revelation. Where is the austere almost clinical universal scheme he sketched to Ouspensky, described in In Search of the Miraculous? I doubt that anyone would find a new religious faith in Beelzebub’s pages, whatever else they may strike there.

On the other hand, the Pseudo-Ouspensky’s comments here are luminous, deep and insightful. Why did Gurdjieff not write something like this? Perhaps, one could guess, because the Gospel wasn’t important to him: but then why did he speak of his system as “esoteric Christianity”, and why did he use the Johannine concept of the logos (the Word), as centrally as he did in Beelzebub (Theomertmalogos: the concept is also found in Views)? Did Gurdjieff wish to leave it to others? Who? I do not think Nicoll’s work is anywhere deep enough to demonstrate essential connections between Gurdjieff’s teaching and Christianity. The Pseudo-Ouspensky’s far briefer notes, however, succeed. No, my conjecture is that Gurdjieff was equivocal about Christianity.

Why did Gurdjieff cease teaching of the kind he had engaged in with Ouspensky? It cannot be because only Ouspensky could understand: many people proved otherwise. I just do not understand why Gurdjieff did not do more to spread his ideas, despite his stated intention of sharing his discoveries. Once more, I wonder if he did not have an equivocal attitude, at least to certain aspects of his ideas, namely, those he had taught to Ouspensky. The movements and the inner exercises, at least, seem to have been in a different category for him, as he continued to invent these until his death. Yet, the Gurdjieff groups profited immensely from the publication of In Search, indeed, it rather than Gurdjieff’s books, filled the Foundation and the Institutions for a period. And the Pseudo-Ouspensky established that they could be developed.

I repeat: why did Gurdjieff not do more to spread and develop his ideas? Because he had written Beelzebub? But he prevented its publication until after his death. Why? To form a nucleus which could support the book? But if the nucleus did NOT do one thing, it was support the book. The book was published, and then not used. I have a transcript of a meeting at Bray where Henriette Lannes is asked a question about something in the book and she replies in words to this effect: “No questions about Beelzebub. This is a rule in all groups, you have your reading of it and that is what is important: you work with that.”

I mentioned that to Mrs Staveley once, and she laughed: why not ask questions about it? And I would add now, that on that basis, “you have your own reading of it”, no questions on any topic would ever be asked in groups. You always have your own experience.

I suspect that from Mme de Salzmann’s point of view, the problem with Beelzebub was far more straightforward: she did not sufficiently understand Beelzebub, and she was too pragmatic to court questions she could not answer. I am told that someone once asked Tracol a question about the book, and his reply was something like: “everything in the book is in the Ashiata Shiemash chapters”. Tracol was dodging. Besides, it is wrong. There is a great deal in other parts of the book which cannot be found in Ashiata.

Post-Script
Some friends have made comments about the first draft of this piece, and I feel obliged to add a post-script. First, my appreciation of this piece is by no means undiminished by knowing that it was almost certainly not by Ouspensky. On the contrary, I now have a new sense of appreciation for the unknown pupil of Ouspensky, and gratitude that he or she left their papers with Ouspensky for Collin-Smith to find.

Second, in a DVD I have seen, Dr William Welch says that not long before he died, Gurdjieff, in the company of a few men, drove to a Russian Orthodox Church and parked outside. There he sat in silence for quite a while before driving off.

To my mind, this perfectly encapsulates what I call Gurdjieff’s equivocal attitude to what we might call “exoteric Christianity”. He felt outside it, and yet he felt attracted to it. He had unfinished business.

I have no doubt that Gurdjieff believed that there was a way not only out of the circle of mechanicalness, but to the vision of God. And it is at that second point, as I see it, that his equivocation begins. Others are entitled to disagree: that is my view.

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Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book “The Phoenician Solar Theology” treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The third book, “George Mountford Adie” represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.

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MELVIN B TOLSON & GURDJIEFF’S TEACHING

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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.
http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj79/cox.htm

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.

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