Jean Toomer, “The Experience,” Part VII

Toomer develops his insight that the health of psyche and body are interrelated in a manner stimulated by his direct insight that “the entire ordinary self oppresses and deranges the body …” (58). However, it starts to get a bit theoretical and, with that, overly enthusiastic about the physical health effects of spiritual work.

In chapter 9, “Anonymity,” he speaks about feeling as if he had landed on the Earth, and this gave him a sort of separation in his perceptions. Gurdjieff had already begun writing Beelzebub, and I wonder not so much whether Toomer had heard of the novel’s setting, but whether an experience such as Toomer’s may not have occurred to Gurdjieff. Could Gurdjieff have had the same sort of dramatic awakening, and felt that he was a visitor from another world? Toomer’s sense of impartiality is, I suspect, always part of self-remembering (although the actual way we articulate it to ourselves may be quite different):

Observing the passersby, I saw them as earth-beings. Each and all seemed equally strange, equally familiar. People were people, stripped of the labels and classifications they foist on each other. I saw an earth-being, not an American or a New Yorker or a foreigner. I saw an earth-being, not a white or a coloured man. I saw an earth-being, not a street-cleaner or taxi-driver … Of bodies, what my eyes saw were the features that any pair of eyes would see: the sex, skin colour, facial features, gait, etc. I looked. My eyes told me all too little. What bearings did the fact that bodies were of male and female sex, of various colourings and conditions, have on the central puzzle, namely, why the consciousness of people is so inadequate, why people are beings but do not realize it? (59-60)

I think it would always be this way: that for anyone who beings to perceive reality, even relatively more than we do now, the consciousness of other beings will what counts, and race, sex, skin, looks, will be so far secondary as to count only to help recognise persons as among those we have or have not met. The chapter ends with a strange reflection which likewise has the ring of truth:

… here I was right in these rooms where others I knew lived, as available as ever. These friends and I were bound to meet, and I would welcome it – not because we had been friends but because we were beings. (61)

The tenth chapter (apparently the eleventh in the original text), “The Restaurant,” is most important. Toomer opens it by saying that the something in us which limits our experience, also limits us as regards our understanding of time: “The little self condemns us to a miser’s view of hors and years, shutting us out of a sense of the eternal. … In Being, time seems unlimited. I knew with certainty that there is time to do whatever we need to do.” (61-62)

Gurdjieff said something similar, and so did Mr Adie. Sometimes when I feel oppressed by the amount of work I have to do, what Mr Adie said about it comes to me, by association, and – why, I don’t know – it comes that I will indeed have time I feel that what I need to do (I might almost say, what I need to do to fulfil my small part in the divine plan).

When he went to his local restaurant, he observed himself go about the usual business of greeting the waitress and ordering his food, with that freedom from identification which brings a state one could misinterpret as indifference, but his articulated perceptions were of another order entirely:

I looked around. Here were earth-beings. The Universe was all around them, and within them, but they were not in it. God was all around and within them, but they were not in Him. They were in their little selves, and enclosed by these walls. … Across the way a good-looking young woman had a book propped up on the table so that she could read while she was eating. … Would a being in Being-Consciousness feel lonely because she was alone?

Near enough for me to overhear their conversation were two ruddy and vigorous middle-aged men, talking business. How absorbed they were! … No prayer life was there, no practice of the presence of God. (62-63)

There is a striking parallel with Ouspensky’s statement that when he could remember himself, he could see, and he meant see, that the people around him were asleep. Generally, such perceptions come only in flashes: although it is self-remembering that enables one to see this, one can be overwhelmed by the raw and naked impression of the hollowness and mechanicality of what one had once taken for human life. I suspect that something like this is what happened to Elizabeth Bennett in her early days in the Work.

When the food he had ordered arrived, he found that he enjoyed his food better than before, but he needed less. His body actually fared better with less food, and he realised that both his body and he were obtaining “sustenance and energy from sources other than physical food.” (63) This lead him to say that the saying in Luke 12:22-24 about taking no thought for what one shall eat could literally be true: if one is awake, the body will ensure that its simple needs are met, without my needing to be concerned.

Chapter 11 (12) was called “Sight-Seeing.” He now has an impression of himself as a sight seer, making the comment that: “Years after I had fallen from Being and the experience had all but been forgotten by my conscious mind, I would be reminded of it every time I rode on the top deck of a Fifth Avenue bus.” (64) Except, of course, that it was his unconscious mind which would forget.

to be continued

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