Tagged: Harlem Renaissance, lost generation, modernism, occultism, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston
Viewing 3 posts - 1 through 3 (of 3 total)
- 3 March 2013 at 10:56 am#1386
Jon Stanton WoodsonParticipantFormerly I have published on the Harlem Renaissance as having been heavily influenced by G. I. Gurdjieff’s esoteric ideas. This has been pretty much ignored. The few critics who understood the nature of the power of the occult on modern texts have refused to write on this topic and have even become important scholars by turning their backs on material that is more accurate than what they have felt they have had to publish. My further research revealed that the Harlem writers were only the tip of the iceberg; many of the white writers of the Lost Generation and many black writers who paralled them were in the same movement. The problem is that critics keep to the narratives such as literary nationalism that don’t actually describe the works of literature that they are concernd with. A recent case is Barbara Foley’s study of Ralph Ellison. She showed me that Ralph Ellison was an occultist, though her aim was certainly not that. The upshot is that Invisible Man is always said to be a roman a clef, but no one has identified more than two characters in the book. I have identified them all–and they are not who they are supposed to be. Realizing that I had missed the thread that tied all of these writers together, I have begun to work my way through the modernists all over again. The results have been astounding, and when I get excited I refer to my new book in progress as “the real Da Vinci code.” Here is the present form of my blurb:
I am currently finishing work on a book-length study—Oragean Modernism: a lost literary movement, 1924-1953, including Carl Van Vechten, Djuna Barnes, John Dos Passos, Arna Bontemps, Dawn Powell, James Agee, Maxwell Perkins, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, C. Daly King, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Arna Bontemps, Dorothy West, and many more. Because of the lack of interest in the occult the vast influence of A.R. Orage has been overlooked to the detriment of the understanding of a large number of important American writers. These writers were not the eccentric loners that they often appeared to be. The uniformity of their writings, particularly their comic novels, is astounding as they were all written to one outline and were published by an invisible network of editors and publishers who were insiders. This study examines the attempt by esoteric writers to intervene in massively in American history by inserting esoteric teachings into popular literary works and by covertly influencing left-wing organizations.
This has tremendous implications for the future of literary study.
Jon woodson4 March 2013 at 1:09 am#1399
Jerry W. WardParticipantDear Professor Woodson,
From the angle of trying to produce a more complete African American literary history, I am interested in how you might distinguish between the occult and what we traditionally accepted as folklore. I am puzzled by your claim that we might find “uniformity” in novels by Zora Neal Hurston, Arna Bontemps, and Ralph Ellison and do certainly want to know what documents you are using as warrants for your claim.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
4 March 2013 at 10:57 am#1403
Jon Stanton WoodsonParticipant“From the angle of trying to produce a more completeÂ African American literary history, I am interested in how you might distinguish between the occult and what we traditionally accepted […]”
[I apologize for this slightly diverging from your question, as the part about folklore did not transmit, though I see it now on the actual Commons site page. But I think that this reply goes some way toward explaining the problem that I am talikning about. This is not folklore--and I suppose that when I get to Ishmael Reed in the discussion below, would say that one problem that causes him his difficulties is that though he would seems to be aware of the European occult he eliminates it as an influence on Black writers and arranges a war between folklore and occultism, while I think that it is the European occult it is a crucial influence for many African American writers. But now that I am aware of the larger context, as i try to explain the African American impulse is a subset of a huge enterprise that is so far invisible. Everybody has been avoiding this all along.]
This question is a very good starting place. Thank you for the question. I think it’s best to reply by referring to concrete and specific instances. Take for example Carl Van Vechten’s novel Nigger Heaven. First of all, we have to recognize that to be able to have read that text as an occult text was not on offer. The candidates for reading that novel did not know anything about the occult in the first place. The occult novel disguised as a satirical comic novel was not a category that anyone was looking for. So, it was interpreted along the lines that were available to the critics and scholars. Generally speaking, the novel was seen to problematize race in a very insulting manner and to offer a story that was either read by its original admirers (e.g., Nella Larsen) as “real” or by detractors as “exotic” and “stereotypical.” So, the importance of Van Vechten’s novel has never been properly apportioned. And it has never been placed in the context of his other novels. And it has never been understood as a text that fundamentally influenced a long succession of texts by African American writers. (The shocking thing that I am dealing with now is that the same thing happened in the mainstream too, so that what went on in regards to African American writing is a model for what took place in the Lost Generation. Then there is the whole unexamined affair of the connection of the two groups, such as is just being broached by Anna Lillios in her account of Zora Neale Hurston befriending Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings—both of whom were writing very similar esoteric novels. Of course, Lillios has no idea that those two were occultists or what that even means.) Nigger Heaven was written in a code. The code was used by many others. It’s not that it even says anything interesting, it’s just that it takes up a good deal of what the novel comprises. A lot of the novel is just there to transmit this coded material. The psychology on which the novel was based is an esoteric psychology, so the characters don’t do what we might expect them to do; they are illustrations of a psychology about which we know nothing. The reader can’t extract the psychology from the text because the reader can’t distinguish between the various levels of code and doctrine. The ethical system used by the occultist is not the one at use in the larger world, so how the text makes its meanings is often at odds with what we might expect. (I’ll digress to give my favorite example of ethical violation: Zora Neale Hurston at no point that I can discover ever wrote any anthropology: for instance, her famous essay “The Characteristics of Negro Expression” is a combination of nonsense and coded occult doctrines. But this did not trouble her at all. She lived on a different ethical plane—the plane of the super-being, and from the normal point of view was an inveterate liar. And the essay is considered an important document and is used to interpret all manner of things, including her novels.) So, the work that has been done on Nigger Heaven has been a matter of expressing outrage, of deciding to just treat it as harmless and silly, to bring it down to the level of the critic doing the reading so that it means what it ought to mean, and to try more than anything to put it out of mind. So much got swept under the carpet, that it’s hard for me to address this topic meaningfully. Finally, I’ll mention one of the most fascinating things that I know of. Ishmael Reed recognized that something was wrong in the way the Harlem Renaissance was being read. So in his novel Mumbo Jumbo he constructed a hoodoo reading of the Harlem Renaissance and made Carl Van Vechten his villain. So we have a counter-narrative to Nigger Heaven, where the novel is in a sense completely reinscribed in order to insert an occult overview as a corrective to what Reed thought that Van Vechten did. This all happened because Reed was not really a master of the occult, and he looked right at all of these occult materials and did not see any of them. He looked at Hurston’s texts which are at every turn telling us about the Gurdjieff movement, the most important esoteric movement in the world at the time, and he saw what he wanted to see, because he wanted his context to be African. The upshot is that many of these texts are constantly being eroded by critics and scholars who apply the least common denominator reading to them and reduce them to what they know and tune out all of the confusing inclusions that are there to destroy even the possibilities of any such readings. So when we are told that stuff about “Mr. Gunnion” at the end of Nigger Heaven it’s obvious that it’s not to be taken at face value. You can’t run a restaurant the way we are told they run it. We are supposed to realize that something is wrong with everything in that conclusion. Ultimately, Mr. Gunnion is a way of identifying Gurdjieff —Mr. G., as he was called by his followers—as the agent by which we achieve “union.” So, the reading of African American literature that proceed by means of interposing convenient narratives of “community,” or “black feminism” in order to get around things that do not make sense because they are not supposed to make sense because they are there to wake up the reader, would require the corrective of some recognition that there has been an underground at work in African American literature—just as Ralph Ellison said there way. As an exercise to come to some grasp of what I am talking about, see if you can figure out which character in Invisible Man is Carl Van Vechten.