Twice in a row, now, Toomer experiences one truth and then, immediately afterwards, its apparent opposite: rather, I think, he sees one pole of a matter, then the other pole, the middle term being his own being. The first of these experiences concerns his relation to other people, and the second his own self as a sensing entity. Describing his impressions of other people, he writes:
People moved to and fro, all in a rush … where to? Why? They brushed elbows, squeezed past each other, sometimes bumped; but they were not together. Bound – yet separated. … Why didn’t it strike them that the only profit to be gained in that separated condition was the progress made towards liberation from it? (64)
Then, as he asserts that they had to seek freedom from “their ego-prisons,” he suddenly sees their “essential core,” as more real than their ignorance and limitations: “All that had made me feel other than them fell away. There was a swift contact of essences, a mingling of being with beings.” (64) Of course, there is a lot of Gurdjieff in how he expresses himself, and his time with Gurdjieff may even have influenced his memory of the experience, if not the experience itself. But there is no doubt that something quite striking happened to him; that he was feeling alien from others, until a certain thought took him beyond the exterior shell which was so off-putting, directly to the interior with which their was kinship. This shows, I suggest, the power of a real idea. Anthony Blake has pointed out that an idea, whatever else it may be, is also an expression: it joins, it brings together.
Then a feeling of himself came to Toomer, a sense of unity with these other people, and also of the holy: “The feeling became radiant. How wonderful! We were beings together in life, co-workers in a sacred work.” (65) This was then replaced by the first feeling, that of otherness. Again, this is natural: the higher feelings need a supply of the very finest energy to be sustained, and one cannot deny their trace.
Similarly, Toomer became aware of the vivifyingness of impressions:
Each object was seen with stark clarity. There was no filter between myself and things, no buffer between myself and men, but an amazing immediacy. … Impressions penetrated to the quick, so that something like pain mingled with the thrill. Each contact had an electric quality. Life crackled, and I enjoyed the sting of it. (65)
He then begins to speak about how he realised himself as a source of impressions. He pivots from one section to another with this phrase: “I was present.” Then, he continues that within him was “a boundless store of everything that constitutes the life of man.” He was present to the very going forth of his own thoughts, feelings, and actions, with an ability “to govern what issued from it.” (65) With this ability came responsibiity, reminding us that etymologically, “responsibility” is the ability to promise in return, that is, to pledge one’s being in answer to the call from outside. Toomer writes that the understanding of this “broke in” upon him with a conviction of its truth: “Self-responsibility was in the very core of my being.” In a passage with an importance I can hardly over-state, he said:
My basic experiences issued from me, and returned to me, affecting me first and last as they affected no other being. I was building myself. The causes of my action were in me. Their consequences would inevitably be in me. I would reap what I had sowed. Not God, not others, I alone was responsible for my life, for my inner as well as outer actions, even for the almost imperceptible thoughts and desires that would never be recorded anywhere in the Universe except upon the malleable substance of my mind. This was what it meant to be a being, to be a real “I.” (65)
This leads to him remarking on the people around who were, as he describes it, “absent-I’d.” (66) They were unable to recognise their strange situation as they were “so thoroughly” in it. He felt a need to understand their condition, that the “I” who could experience life, meaning and joy was absent, but a something which could experience pain and disappointment was present. They existed in reality, and for a reason, but they were oblivious to all this (66-67).
The meaning of man’s life had to be, he now saw, a developmental meaning: “We are here to grow up to God.” (67) Even the trivial details of our life played a part in this development, but we do not see their significance, and so we live for pleasure rather than for development. Pain and suffering should shock us “awake” and “spur (us) to ascend.” Then, in an almost astounding passage, Toomer writes:
If and as they undertook their real work, pain would diminish because the need for it would become less. … Meanwhile, the experiencer of pain had to be present, for a minimum development was required of each being in each life. (67)
In the 1940s, Gurdjieff said that “by as much as one is conscious there is no more suffering.” Of all his pupils, Toomer is the only one I know of who independently came to this insight. He goes on to say that he could see that the way forward is to meet all situations for the sake of conscious development, to use all obstacles and difficulties as “opportunities for creative struggle leading to new birth.” The “only way out,” he wrote, “is to develop out.” (67)
Then a question and its answer came to him together: could he, who was no awake, do anything to help them so that they could better serve each other and their Creator? No, nothing. Nothing except himself to develop. (68)
to be continued