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AL STEWART, REINCARNATION & RECURRENCE:part 1

Joseph Azize Page

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Al Stewart, Reincarnation and Recurrence: Part One
Joseph Azize
(all quoted lyrics by Al Stewart)

“(God) also puts eternity in their minds …”, so spoke the esoteric Solomon, Ecclesiastes 3:11. And from the store of Al Stewart’s mind, intimations of eternity have been infused into some of his songs. Music, surely, is an ideal stage for such alchemy. It provides a rhythm and a tempo to mark time; and melody, performance and tone to colour, as it were, those few minutes which are consecrated to the song. And so the invocation of something beyond time comes to be expressed in time. This miracle is possible, for according to Plato and also to Gurdjieff (perhaps the greatest of the modern Platonists), time is the moving image of eternity (Timaios 37C). That line is frequently quoted, but it deserves to be pondered. It means, first, that time is in fact related to eternity. But more than this, it also means that time is related to eternity by the same mode as man is said to be related to God in Genesis 1:26 and 27.

Eternity itself “rests in unity”, it is beyond movement. But the realm of time is different: it is the world of multiplicity, change and passing (Timaios 37C-D, Beelzebub ch.XVI and Wellbeloved’s summary with correspondences to other passages in that book and the Bible, Astrology, pp.202-3). The quondam office of the church, as I remember it, told us the same thing: “Rerum deus tenax vigor immotus in te permanens”: “God of all the universe, maintaining, active, (yet) in yourself unmoved and always the same.” Indeed, one can actually sense change in and around oneself. The total sensing of oneself is sometimes called the sixth sense. I would say that this subtle feeling of “me-here-now in an ineffable relation to the flow of history” is part of the sixth sense. We are barely aware of this sixth sense, and very rarely of the specific feeling the “myself-in-relation-to-history”. But everyone has it, and some of us are more aware of it than others.

No other modern singer known to me expresses this subtle but transfixing feeling as well the under-rated Al Stewart. This sense of history is found in some stupendous songs, such as Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”, Kate Bush’s “A Coral Room”, ELP’s “The Sage” and Loreena McKennitt’s “The Old Ways”, to name but an eminent few. But no one in folk (or folk rock) has made the sixth sense his own as Al Stewart has.

Best known for “The Year of the Cat”, Stewart’s songs often evoke a poignant sense of the passage of time, and even of a sense of eternity (which are much the same thing, for each is a different form of timelessness). In my view, the very best of Stewart’s albums can at least be said to compare with the best rock and folk albums ever recorded, even if they are not of quite the same standard of say Sgt Pepper and Led Zeppelin IV. I refer here particularly to what I consider his finest albums: Year of the Cat, Famous Last Words and A Beach Full of Shells. Like Elton John, he had a period of apprenticeship, as it were, with its own unique graces. Elton John found stardom sooner and to a significantly greater degree; and both had their blaze of glory, followed by an autumnal twilight. But they have each seen a resurgence as deeper writers, even if their largest audiences were irrevocably left behind in the 1970s.

Although I have no evidence that Stewart has even heard of Gurdjieff or Ouspensky, let alone of the idea of recurrence, the ideas are widely available, and Robert Fripp is so close a friend that he attended Stewart’s wedding. As is often the case with art, intentionally or otherwise, Stewart’s words are often suggestive but not explicit. One of the interesting features of Stewart’s writing is how often ramifying ideas are found there. In the case of Stewart, as of someone like Lennon, or in poetry like Hopkins, the openness is often deliberate: it is a function of his artistic mastery. Interpretation, then, is subjective. But it is nonetheless valuable for that, and is sparked by the high quality of the product. In this blog, I shall simply pick my way through Year of the Cat, and then in the next blog, try and relate the themes set out here to other of Stewart’s songs. Year of the Cat is an excellent vehicle for this, as it is, considered as a whole, a lapidary depiction of Stewart’s approach, his strengths and his weaknesses.

The opening track is “Lord Grenville”, the story of a British captain who for no apparent good reason, in a suicidal manoeuvre, sailed his single ship towards a hostile Spanish navy some 53 vessels strong. The entire song has a sort of feel of late afternoon, as if one were on an English cliff, looking over the sea as rays from the setting sun strike paths across the water. As is so often the case with Stewart, there is something very English about the perspective, as he sings:

Go and tell Lord Grenville that the tide is on the turn.
It’s time to haul the anchor up and leave the land astern.
We’ll be gone before the dawn returns … like voices on the wind.
… Go and fetch the captain’s log and tear the pages out,
We’re on our way to nowhere now, can’t bring the helm about.
… Tell the ones we left home not to wait: we won’t be back again.
And come the day, you’ll hear them saying: “They’re throwing it all away”.

I would say that this is the sort of song Stewart’s voice is best for: reflective but not brooding, measured but not heavy. The melody suits the words so well that it is as if they could not be conceived separately. But the philosophical rub comes in these lines:

Our time is just a point along a line that runs forever with no end.
I never thought that we would come to find ourselves these rocks again.

Is the troubadour saying that although our lives seem to be single days in a year of infinity, yet we find that day again … and perhaps yet again? In Stewart’s own take on the last line, he is referring to England, having recently been in the USA where he now resides (see generally Neville Judd’s Al Stewart and also the remastered album with Judd’s notes and Stewart speaking of the songs on the final track.) But the two interpretations are not necessarily inconsistent, and Stewart may of course feel some diffidence in speaking about a concept which few people have heard of.

To most listeners, the lines might conjure up the notion of our lives as points which either (1) stretch into infinity (the standard idea of survival after death), or (2) into chains of reincarnation. But it is also possible to recall (3) the eternity of recurrence. And these options are not exclusive. It is the third concept which is the most interesting, and which, whether Stewart intended it or not, is an available inference. What then, is recurrence?

At its simplest, recurrence is the idea that when we die, we live our lives once more, beginning with our conception as we were conceived in this life, living as we have lived this life, and dying once more as we will, and so on, many times, perhaps endlessly. Nietzsche had an idea of eternal recurrence, but it was a folly. He conceived the notion, probably based on a misunderstanding of classical ideas, that we would live this life again at some point in the future. Ouspensky’s idea of recurrence, however, is that we live this life again not in the future but in its very own time. Ouspensky sometimes described this as a sort of circle of time, but one can speak of it as if someone had drawn a circle and then traced his pencil back over the same circle.

To Ouspensky, “our time is our life”. When we die, the solar system continues, and it is in that time that we have the continuing life of the soul and the “higher bodies”. But for the whole ensemble which comprises us, soul and all, there is no more time. Time has more than one dimension, although we do not know it. When we die our souls or higher bodies continue in the linear or second dimension of time, but recurrence takes place along the planar or third dimension of time. And there may be further dimensions, too.

Each moment of time is a sort of traffic-intersection. We have come down one road, and are at an intersection. Roads branch off while the road continues ahead. We proceed directly ahead, but the perpendicular roads still subsist, the moment in time is extended sideways into infinity. Each instant eternally subsists, but we cannot look down those streets, even as they open up on either flank as we drive down the main road. We just do not see them as they spin off from our passage. And then, when we reach the end of our road, we are at the beginning again.

It is difficult to conceive how we can be reborn when our individual lives end. It is difficult, but it is not impossible. Let us suppose that Socrates sets off westward from Athens, in a straight line. Whenever he encounters water, a mountain range, or any impediment to travel, Apollo lends him wings, and he continues westwards, never straying from his path. It would seem to him, as it does to us whenever we travel, that he is always moving in a straight line, and yet he is not. The flatness of the planet is a trick of the eye. The end result of Socrates’ relentless movement in a straight line is that he finds himself in Athens once more. The same thing, Ouspensky said, happens to us in time. Time is not flat: it is three dimensional, at least.

This has an interesting corollary, it suggests to me that each person is an individual cosmos. The solar system in which we lived was here before us and it will be here after us. But if we bear our own time in ourselves, we are individual worlds which have participated in a sort of galactic ballet of individual worlds, each with their own time, just as the planets have their individual orbits, and periods of day and night.

To return to “Lord Grenville”. There is an oddity about this song. It was Grenville who sailed into oblivion, but the song is addressed to some third party to take a message to him: “Go and tell Lord Grenville that the tide is on the turn …”. This little trick, whether intentional or not, appropriates Grenville’s journey into darkness for the speaker, thus generalizing it. So there is an intimation of recurrence here. The sixth sense, “myself-in-relation-to-history” is found here, too, but more so in the next song on Year of the Cat, the tremendous “On the Border”.

The fishing boats go out across the evening water
Smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish border.
The wind whips up the waves so loud,
The ghost moon sails among the clouds, turns the rifles into silver
On the border.

… In the village where I grew up nothing seems the same,
Still you never see the change from day to day.
No one notices the customs slip away.

Late last night the rain was knocking on my window,
I moved across the darkened room and in the lamp glow,
I thought I saw down in the streets, the spirit of the century
Telling us that we’re all standing
On the border.

In the islands where I grew up nothing seems the same
It’s just the patterns that remain, an empty shell.
But there’s a strangeness in the air you feel too well.

The musical delivery is of the same elevated standard as the lyrics. I don’t think any further comment is needed. Note, however, the artful use of sea and moon imagery, and a “ghost moon” to boot. The concept of the border is deepened by being presented first as a border in space and then as a border in time. The high room from where the singer sees, in a prophetic manner, the spirit of the centuries is lit by “lamp glow”. The refrains each speak of the unnoticeable incremental changes made through the passage of time. And then the reference to the patterns immediately points us to a deeper level, for things can appear the same although the are different: streets bear the same names, the school is still there, but the street is different, the school is not what it was, and so on.

I am not particularly fond of the next three songs. Stewart is a good craftsman. He can turn out handy songs at need. But then they might feel like products, and unfortunately, he seems to me to do this on “Sand in your Shoes” and “If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave it.” I am not so sure of “Midas Shadow”. It has an excellent line (“Conquistador in search of gold for all the jackdaw reasons …”) and the music is fine, but it is not of anything like the standard of the first two songs, or of side two.

The second side opens with the exquisite “Flying Sorcery”. The inspired acoustic guitar work perfectly complements the lyrics:

With your photographs of Kitty Hawk and the bi-planes on the wall,
You were always Amy Johnson from the time that you were small.
No school-room kept you grounded while your thoughts could get away.
You were taking off in Tiger Moths,
Your wings against the brush strokes of the day.

Are you there? On the tarmac with the winter in your hair.
By the empty hangar walls you stop and stare … Oh, are you there?

… Are you there? In your jacket with the grease stain and the tear?
… The sun comes up on Icarus as the night birds sail away,
Lights the maps and diagrams that Leonardo makes.
You can see Faith, Hope and Charity as they bank above the fields.
You can join the flying circus, you can feel the morning air against your wheels.

The frequent question, “are you there”, and the evocative description of the young woman pilot, all conspire to place her in a timeless world. The music conjures a sense of these old planes soaring in joy, and then the magnificent lines about the illumination of Icarus and the three theological virtues (are these four planes, or stars, both or neither?) could almost move on to a backward somersault, they spring so lightly from the speakers. The very names, Icarus, Faith, Hope and Charity are magical.

The next track, “Broadway Hotel”, has a certain “thusness” about it, the tale of a wealthy woman who lives in a hotel, and finds love in an unexpected manner, but the two most powerful tracks on this side follow. Track three is “One Stage Before”.

It seems to me I’ve been upon this stage before
And juggled away the night for the same old crowd.
These harlequins you see with me, they too have held the floor
As here once again they strut and they fret their hour.
I see those half-familiar faces in the second row,
Ghostlike, with the footlights in their eyes,
But where or when we met like this last time,
I just don’t know.
It’s like a chord that rings and never dies … for infinity.

And now these figures in the wings, with all their restless tunes,
Are waiting around for someone to call their names.
They walk the backstage corridors and prowl the dressing rooms,
And vanish to specks of light in the picture frames.
But did they move upon the stage a thousand years ago,
In some play in Paris or Madrid,
And was I there among them then, in some travelling show,
And is it all still locked inside my head … for infinity.

And some of you are harmonies to all the notes I play;
Although we may not meet, still you know me well.
While others talk in secret keys and transpose all I say,
And nothing I do or try can get through the spell.
So one more time, we’ll dim the lights and ring the curtain up,
And play again like all the times before,
But far behind the music you can almost hear the sounds
Of laughter like the waves upon the shores … of infinity.

The song is sung in a sort of folk rock manner, but after the last call of “infinity”, a coruscating guitar solo brings intensity, aurally conveying the sound of waves upon the shore … The references to reincarnation are clear enough. But this idea that each action rings a note which sounds for infinity is really properly speaking more consistent with recurrence. It is the traffic-intersection of every moment in time as it branches into the second dimension of time. The idea is repeated in the last two lines: the infinity which Stewart evokes is not only the endless cycle of reincarnation, it is also the presence of the “eternal now”.

The final song on the album is the famous “Year of the Cat”, a song so good, I think it fair to say, that it was effectively recycled with new lyrics as “Time Passages”, Stewart’s next hit. The opening lines of “Cat” are splendid. Although he was apparently speaking of North Africa, the way that Stewart does this is significant:

On a morning from a Bogart movie,
In a country where they turned back time,
You go strolling through the crowd
Like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime.

The lady who appears is a strange fey creature: “… her eyes shine like the moon on the sea.” The reference to the moon and the water is reminiscent of “On the Border”. The story is a sort of adventure in an eddy of time and place, an appropriate ending for a record, which heard as a whole, leaves one with the sense of having been playing with time.

There is much to say in the next blog. I want to deal with some of Ouspensky’s ideas from A New Model of the Universe, with the concept of recurrence in one life, and with other of Stewart’s unique corpus, and especially his late brilliant masterpieces, Famous Last Words and A Beach Full of Shells. I shall try and bring the ideas together.

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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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Written by SOPHIA WELLBELOVED

April 14, 2008 at 8:26 am

MELVIN B TOLSON & GURDJIEFF’S TEACHING

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melvin-btolson.jpg

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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