Jean Toomer, “The Experience,” Ninth and Final Part

Toomer closes chapter 11 (12) with these stirring words:

 People, you can awake and be. You can outgrow the condition you are now in, and what you think to be real will cease to exist, and you will stand in newness. I bear witness that what you believe to be you is not you. You are other than that. But in each man there is Man. In all beings there is Being. In Being there is God who designed man to fall and to ascend perfected. (68)

This is the only place in “The Experience” where Toomer’s extraordinary facility with English is not in evidence. The line “what you think to be real will cease to exist” is not as clear as it should be. The first time I read it, I read “real” as an adjective and “will” as a noun. But he means “real” to be a noun and “will” a verb. I modestly suggest that “reality” might have been a better word: “what you think to be reality will cease to exist …” The important thing is that this is pure Gurdjieff. But Toomer has established it through his own experience in circumstances where I do not think the experience can be said to have been conditioned by his time with Gurdjieff.

In chapter 12 (13), Toomer observes that when he sensed that life was everywhere, he had no need to be in any particular place. When he regarded those around him, he once more than the sense of their being somnambulists (68). Again, as before, this realisation brought a sort of revelation of the seed and power of life still being with them. He prayed that they might be lifted to Life and, as if in a vision, he saw it happening, and them “bright in wonder and new beauty, join hands and give thanks” (69).

As the fact of his existence for a purpose given to him dawned, and strengthened he realised that the “purpose … will be served” (70). Even death could neither remove him from the universe not terminate his responsibility. Death was a separation of the being and the physical body, which many people mistakenly believed would put an end to their being, because they wanted to be rid of their responsibility (70). Toomer summed it up thus: “The essence of man continues until it has made full use of its manifold equipment. The being remains in the created world until it has fulfilled its destiny” (71).

The final chapter, 13 (14), is titled “Kinship.” Toomer recounts meeting one of his closest friends for lunch, marked by a sense of strangeness being suddenly replaced by a feeling of kin. This kinship was not something to be made, but to be recognised (71-74). Then, he started to see this friend’s egotism as a coil, or creeper around the tree of his being. He perceived that this egotism is the main impediment to our being (74-75). That led to this insight:

At first sight the coil seemed an alien and evil parasite that had somehow gained root in human life and was destroying that upon which it fed. But presently I realized that it is an intended part of the human totality. I understood that it is designed to perform an essential function! A being develops by overcoming difficulties. The personal self provides them. This is their joint proper purpose! … It is only when a being does not so struggle, but becomes passive or actively abets the self, that the self misfunctions … all other faults and defaults of human life stem from this primary failure.

The coils and their ramifications are meant to be points of application for our being-efforts leading to being-development. They are what we are working on and working out in this life – if we are. And this is the meaning and purpose of life. (75)

I am not sure I would go so far as saying that this work is the meaning and purpose of life: I would say that there are several purposes of life, and that the effort Toomer describes is a good if general way of describing what we need to actualise in order to full the higher meanings and purposes. Put simply, what Toomer speaks of may be better viewed as a means of preparing us for the beatific vision. He seems to have had the same idea when, a little later, he wrote:

Ego-prisons are not meant to imprison forever, but to serve as means to permanent liberation. Separatism is not an externally fixed condition, not need it continue to breed the maladies of men. It can be used as a means to the discovery of the kinship of beings with one another, and the fatherhood of God. (75)

With reflections of a similar nature, this account comes to an end. Toomer never describes how or when the experience came to an end, or much less what he felt. But despite this, which would have been of great interest, Toomer has left us one of the great accounts of awakening to a higher level. It was clearly sustained for several days. Perhaps this can be taken into account when considering Gurdjieff’s statement that it is impossible to remember oneself for more than fifteen minutes. I would conjecture that Gurdjieff did not want people to have outsized expectations.

What Toomer described is self-remembering of a remarkable intensity. I have spent almost nine thousand words in laying it out. Everyone who has enjoyed moments of remembering himself will be able to relate to at least some of it. Toomer showed what is possible, and how such experiences provide reason for confidence in Gurdjieff’s system.

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