Fourth Way Perspectives

Book Review
"Not remember self, forget others."
Shadows of Heaven

by Paul Beekman Taylor
Samuel Weiser, 245 pp.

(#) Parentheses indicate footnote number

"How do you put up with so many people about you who seem so shallow?" This was Paul Beekman Taylor's question to Gurdjieff in their only private conversation. It was late August 1948 (1) and Taylor had come from New York to be with Gurdjieff in Paris at what would be the last summer of Gurdjieff's life. Since June, Taylor had eaten at Gurdjieff's table, taken trips with him and the Bennetts, Pentlands, Margaret Anderson and others. Now he was returning to America and his only question was concerned with the shallowness of others.

Gurdjieff—who Taylor says was always "extraordinarily patient and generous to me"—took some time with his question, telling him that people listen to everything except themselves. "I only teach them," he said, "remember what they forget." The subtlety of the answer—that Taylor was not listening to himself—understandably, escaped Taylor then; he was only eighteen at the time.

Gurdjieff then told him a story about someone who wanted to be a pupil and the teacher told him to "'Go away now and observe self. Come back after you try. If you remember self, I take you as pupil.' The person leaves, works hard and when he returns the teacher asks, 'Do you understand now what means to observe self, to remember self?' 'Yes,' say person. 'Wrong answer,' say teacher, and man go away. You see what story say? You like that person. You talk like Toomer talk, but what talk? You must not say thing unnecessary. That wiseacre talk."

Taylor, deaf to Gurdjieff, and completely identified with his reaction, came away feeling, "I had been tricked somehow. In my confusion, I had refrained from saying a word in reply. I never heard his voice again. He had had the last word."

Jean Toomer, Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, OuspenskyNow, 50 years later, Taylor is having the "last word." Unfortunately, though it has been 50 years since this Professor of Medieval English Languages and Literature at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, sat at Gurdjieff's table, he appears no less dense. Among the strange ideas he puts forth is, most notably, that Gurdjieff and Toomer were somehow on the same level, that each brought a teaching. So fundamentally wrongheaded is this belief that one can only suspect that Taylor is still hypnotized by Toomer.

He had lived with Toomer and his wife Marjorie Content for two years (2) when he was seven and eight years old and wrote to the man he called "Poppy" ever after, visiting him whenever he could. Toomer, having already broken with Gurdjieff by this time, put what he understood of the teaching into him early, and so when Taylor arrived in Paris for his summer with Gurdjieff he was under Toomer's influence, continually comparing the two. In effect, he 'saw' Gurdjieff through Toomer's eyes. Gurdjieff tried to break the trance. Taylor says Gurdjieff told him, "You think you are clever, but you are what Americans call, yes, 'wiseacre.' Your Toomer was wiseacre, clever, but he wiseacre in a hurry, see fast, talk quick, think slow. Lunatic(3) man lose way, forget to listen. Not remember self, forget others."

"A Ruler of Africa"

For years there has been a question as to what Gurdjieff meant when Toomer had questioned him about Toomer's being "a ruler of Africa," about really coming into his own, and Gurdjieff had replied, "You not as I counted." Now the answer, unwittingly via Taylor, comes from Gurdjieff himself: Jean Toomer was a lunatic, a wiseacre who didn't listen, didn't remember himself, and lived in his own world.

This explains why Toomer lived a life that endlessly repeated itself. Why he doggedly kept turning out novel after novel, none of which were ever published. Why he wrote play after play, none, except one, performed, and this by a university theater. Why he always had to play teacher, even buying and running a farm in imitation of Gurdjieff's Prieuré.

Such a dismal future could never have been predicted given how high Jean Toomer originally flew. Cane, his first novel, a lyrical and majestically rich picture of black life in the South, bore an expansive introduction by Waldo Frank, one of the day's most celebrated writers. Highly praised by critics, the book opened literary doors and friendships—Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio, being an example—that otherwise would have remained long closed. Nevertheless, Toomer was upset. Frank had spoken of him as an "African–American poet" and reviewers followed suit. Racially mixed—"In my body were many bloods, some dark blood, all blended in the fire of six or more generations"—Toomer identified himself with no race. He held that he was "an American."

The race question was a sore point that he lived with and fought to overcome all his life. Lemon–skinned and fine–featured, Toomer could "pass" in the white society of his day, while also being taken as black by blacks. Biographers who have studied the question believe that his ancestry was between 6 to 12 percent black.(4) That was enough to mark his extraction as problematic and often brought it into question.

With Gurdjieff and Orage

Orage at the Prieure, Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, Jean Toomer, Ouspensky

Just a year later, in February 1924, still aglow with Cane's success, 26–year–old Jean Toomer met the man who would change his life forever. George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and his troupe of dancer–students had arrived in New York. The impact of Gurdjieff and his teaching was such that Toomer immersed himself in the teaching, joining the study group of A. R. Orage, Gurdjieff's pupil, and going to the Prieuré that summer.

Within several years Toomer, intelligent and committed, was sent to Chicago to start and lead groups. Magnetic and articulate, he quickly became second only to Orage in the teaching in America. Through the generous donations of his pupils and Orage's, Gurdjieff was able to keep the Prieuré solvent while finishing the First Series of his projected magnum opus, All and Everything. It was believed that Gurdjieff would soon pull Orage back to the Prieuré to help with the English translation of the First Series and put Toomer in charge in America.

His star in the teaching on the ascent, his literary career unexpectedly hit a wall. Transatlantic, his second novel, completed in 1927, could not find a publisher. Taking himself to be an apostle of the teaching, the lyrical prose of Toomer's Cane had turned pedantic, wooden; his ideas, disguised sterile remakes of Gurdjieff's. Unwittingly, Toomer had passed from writer to polemicist, and despite the advice and warnings of friends and publishers, was blind to the difference.

Break with Gurdjieff

By the mid–1930s he broke with Gurdjieff. Toomer's archived papers(5) indicate that break was ostensibly motivated by money matters. But in Shadows of Heaven Taylor gives another reading. "Toomer seems to have gone to Gurdjieff," Taylor writes, "not only to learn, but, in learning, to confirm certain ideas about himself. What Toomer digested of Gurdjieff's teaching did confirm much of his earlier thought; and, more importantly, it gave a structural framework and a vocabulary with which he could develop and transmit it. Toomer probably wanted, and even expected from Gurdjieff as well as from Orage, reciprocal respect and admiration as a partner in an adventure of ideas, but this he did not get in terms he could appreciate." If true, this is an extraordinary perspective, one that could only arise from Toomer's unbounded narcissism. That Taylor considers this a possibility only shows the extent of his identification.

Like race, money seems to have always been an issue for Toomer, though more hidden. The good thing about money is that the practical need for it has a way of putting people's feet on the ground, yet somehow Toomer always finessed the money question. How he supported himself after coming to New York in 1922 is not clear. He had sold some poems and essays to magazines and had an advance for Cane, but that was hardly enough to live on for any length of time. It is known that he had an affair with Waldo Frank's wife, Margaret Naumberg, a wealthy psychologist. The heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan fell madly in love with him and had him out to her ranch in Taos, New Mexico. According to his longtime friend Gorham Munson, all his life Toomer was "successful in getting people to support him."(6) The money question was taken care of when on September 1, 1934, he married Marjorie Content, daughter of a Wall Street tycoon. (His father–in–law took a dim view of his son–in–law's workless lifestyle and when he died—perhaps making a statement—left his estate to his mistress.)(7)

In 1935, using his wife's money, Toomer bought a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania, about a three hour drive from New York. Called the Mill House, he attempted to turn it into a "Prieuré." "Embarrassing," was how Gorham Munson, a fellow Gurdjieff student, described it. He recounted how "Jean would actually go into broken English, too [like Gurdjieff], and he would tear loaves of bread apart. He would use bad, vulgar language at times. He would try to shock people by going into these seemingly rambling discourses. He was all imitative of Gurdjieff and bad, bad, bad, imitation."(8) His wife, who stood by him through all his 'teaching' and continued womanizing, put it more bluntly: she said he was "a fake."(9)


(1) Born in December 1930, Taylor says that as his mother was a student of Gurdjieff's, he was also in Gurdjieff's company on an irregular basis from the summer of 1931 through the autumn of 1935.

(2) "My presence with the Toomers in both New York and the Mill House was a nightmare for Marjorie [his wife], who saw in me a sort of grotesque caricature of her husband, displaying what she felt were the worst of his traits, an ego which related everything to self."

(3) Gurdjieff speaks of different types of people who want to be students. One is lunatics who are under the influence of the moon, i.e., their dreams. Lunatics can be very learned people and occupy a big position in life. Lunatics have false values. They have no right discrimination. Formatory thinking is always defective and lunatics are particularly devoted to formatory thinking: that is their chief affection in one way or another. (In Bennett's Witness he reports that Gurdjieff told him that his pupils were all lunatics, thereby seeming to say something about Bennett himself.) A second type are tramps, the so–called intelligentsia, the artists, poets and any kind of bohemian who despises the third type, the obyvatel, of which there are many types. For a full discussion, see P.D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous, pp. 362-63, and his The Fourth Way, pp. 298-99.

(4) Cynthia Earl Kerman and Richard Eldridge, The Lives of Jean Toomer (Louisiana State University Press, 1987).

(5) See Telos, Volume 4, Issue 4, "Gurdjieff & Money."

(6) Charles R. Larson, Invisible Darkness (University of Iowa Press, 1993), p. 25.

(7) Still, there was enough to live comfortably, to write, travel to India, delve into Quakerism, the Edgar Cayce teachings and L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, and eventually, after a long period of denying Gurdjieff and the teaching, to return to it in the early fifties to retrain as a teacher. His return was cut short by a persistent stomach problem that forced him to spend his last years in a nursing home, where he died at 72 years of age on March 30, 1967.

(8) Struggle of the Magicians, p. 171.

(9) Taylor declares: "He was no fake. But he was naively optimistic about his capacities to communicate and transmit to others the extraordinary belief he had in both himself and them." Of course, the Work is not about belief, extraordinary or not, in oneself or others.

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