Jean Toomer’s Essay, “The Experience,” Pt V

This third chapter, “Birth above the Body,” treats of the conception of a new understanding of his being, the body, and how our usual identification with the body keeps us divorced from the fuller being which we are created to be able to realize. A signal sentence in this chapter is: “To me the body was an object” (42). I have long been moving towards the understanding that, in self-remembering, the body, the thought, and the feeling, become objective to the representative of real “I.” For Toomer, this was not the result of despising the body, but simply the impartial acknowledgement of a fact together with the loss of his identification with the body (42). Realising that he was a being and not just a body, he felt liberated from “imprisonment in the little self” (42). He knew, without an out-of-body experience, that his being would survive even if his body died. Further: “… just as the body was only a part of my being-totality, so my earthly life was only a segment of my total universal existence” (42). His intimation of “universal existence” led to this realisation: “Our beings have to endure, regardless of our wish. They have to accomplish what they were created to accomplish, however long it takes, whatever the labour …” (43)

In the fourth chapter, “First Sight,” Toomer relates this new perspective of himself in his “universal dimension,” to call it that, to what appears to be his sense perception that he was somehow above New York and even the planet, which he now saw was “far down and removed from the centre of the Universe …” (43) I have no doubt at all of Toomer’s sincerity, but I cannot wonder whether Gurdjieff’s teaching about earth being a cosmic Siberia might not have influenced him, or at least the formulation. He now had his “first sight” of the earth as but a planet, and of people as being earthlings, but earthlings who “were not awake, not aware of themselves, did not realise they lived … I was viewing somnambulists” (44). Surely his understanding of Gurdjieff’s ideas would have led him to recognise the significance of this insight. How, he wondered, did this come to be the situation for people? Whence could such blindness proceed?

If he saw earthlings, he now saw that “I live and move within the Universe,” (his italics, 44). The Universe was full of life, and is a living being in “its own grand right” from which nothing, not even death, can remove us: “We are being and living in the Universe, and cannot cease” (44-45). Read in cold print, this can seem trite, but Toomer had a feeling of the truth of this insight which led him to see himself as “a being of the Universe … above the personal self” (45). I would say that his “small self” was displaced from the centre of his consciousness where, hitherto, it had reigned. To see the world around him with “intense curiosity … a rapt observing unaccompanied by interpretations” was, he concluded, “perhaps, pure contemplation directed to an outward scene” (46).

Now he started not only to perceive but to understand: people live in bodies on the earth, but they have no “inter-penetration, no exchange of living forces” with either body or planet. In an astonishing description, Toomer saw people moving about “as if their heads were down and their arms wrapped tight around their bodies” (46). Chapter Five is summed up in this passage:

Unrelated to the Earth, unrelated to their own bodies. Unrelated to their beings, unrelated to the Universe. Exiles in every possible way. … (But I was) newly come to Being, newly come to the Earth, I was a newcomer in every sense … I penetrated a vast unknown, a formless world of formless life … (46-47)

In Chapter Six he describes returning to his apartment, and the amused sense of strangeness this provoked, including both the thought of his furniture and his making the limbs of his body move. On the train, Toomer realised that we assume others are in the same state of consciousness as ourselves, but we cannot see their state (48). Looking at the people on the train, a feeling of “outrage and sorrow” at their ignorance and unconsciousness arose, leaving them “body-aware, being-blind” (49). He paints this picture at some length, almost every sentence is striking. One I will select is that, regarding his quarters with a new objectivity, he “had a sense that just as I was aware of being in a vast Life, so Life was aware of me being in it. I was connected with Consciousness” (50). He sat down in a chair, but realised that he was not tired: “It seemed that I had come upon an inexhaustible spring of quiet energy …” (51), yet, note that he nonetheless had sat down on the chair: so habit had not disappeared.

Toomer decided to sleep, aware that the state might pass, but that what he had learnt while experiencing it, would remain with him, and for this, he was grateful, and aware that he had something important to communicate to others (51). When he awoke from an “unusually tranquil sleep,” the experience continued. As he received the impressions of nature and the city’s street sounds, he had “a strong impression that it was all make-believe” (52). And yet, something external was being perceived. He had the impression of the pointlessness of what the people outside were doing (53), and yet I cannot help but feel that the real point was that it did not matter so much what they were doing, provided they had being, and that it was not really “make-believe,” it was, rather, not the plenitude of reality. In this the seventh chapter, “First Morning,” he writes:

Not as a child on Christmas morning had I been so thrilled by what was in store … Joy possessed me. Not a mere absence of pain and sorrow, but joy itself, a singing gladness. I could have sung the Lord’s song, for I felt close to His land. All morning I was in this sheer being. I came to be aware of life as a sacred process moving towards the kingdom. I also had an intimation that though the kingdom, as the goal of the entire evolutionary trend, is distant, as an expression of God’s life it is at hand, everywhere, always. (53)

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