Late in the Day

late-in-the-day.
Late in the Day is the title of this collection of the poems and effects composed during the year 2014 by John Robert Colombo. As well as the texts of 101 poems, the collection includes diary entries that focus on the events of each day of the year. The wrap-around cover is the brilliant design of Bill Andersen It confines the text (title and byline) to spine of the trade paperback book, although sharp eyes will discern that the shadows of the letters of the title have become part of the front cover. The poems range over history and literature, philosophy and speculation. Card cover, 6×9 inches. ISBN 978-1-894-540-74-2. 248 pages.

You may download a PDF version of the book here, free of charge.

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Gurdjieff in His Own Words

A Review of Paul Beekman Taylor’s “Gurdjieff’s Worlds of Words”
by John Robert Colombo

It has been some time since I have taken up the mantle of the reviewer. Half a year ago I laid the mantle to one side, distracted as I was by reading all the published writings of Northrop Frye, for a collection of the late literary critic’s quotable remarks. Currently I am concerned with preparing for the publication of another mammoth collection of quotations (1.5 million characters in length), some five thousand remarks of special significance and interest to Canadians.

In the past, the reviews that I had been writing of Work-related matter and materials have been appearing on Dr. Sophia Wellbeloved’s Cambridge-based website. Those reviews are still there and may be accessed at < https://gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.com > . Some recent reviews have appeared on own website (< www.colombo.ca > ) where they are not given featured treatment. But they are easily accessed. Simply click onto the website, then click onto the big green button, and then read the current review. If you scroll down, you will find other reviews, amidst much Canadiana!

I recently experienced a computer crash of epic proportions with attendant professional and psychological consequences. But now, bolstered by a brand-new computer on my desk, using a newer word-processing package, I have the desire to catch up on reviews and notices of current book-length publications in the field of Work studies. The review that appears here is about a newly published book. Its importance will be appreciated by all serious students of the Work.

Paul Beekman Taylor bears three names which every serious student of the history and historiography of the Work will recognize and respect. A linguist by training, a scholar by education, and a literary critic by profession, Professor Taylor is the author of eight highly original critical studies of various aspects of Gurdjieff’s life and work, including most recently two valuable volumes: Gurdjieff in the Public Eye (a collection of the press coverage of his endeavours during his lifetime) and Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff (a study of what the public knew about him during his lifetime).

Professor Taylor’s current book is Gurdjieff’s World of Words: A Methodological Reading, and it is best viewed as a monograph, not because it is short (in fact it is reasonably long: 76,000 words in length – with all those words set in smallish type), but because it has the sharp focus of a monograph, in this instance on Gurdjieff’s use of words – not his language or meaning so much as the words themselves: verbissima, the very words.

First: a few of my words about the book itself; second: my own summary of the book’s content and argument. The physical book is a sturdy trade paperback that measures 6.25 inches by 9 inches; it has 160 pages; it appears in an edition of 250 copies. Its publisher is Eureka Editions of Utrecht, The Netherlands, which has an informative site on the web that features a long list of invaluable Work publications.

The present monograph consists of an Acknowledgements, an Introduction, a Preface, a Prologue, an Epilogue, a Selected Bibliography, and an Index … and, almost as if as an afterthought, eleven detailed Chapters. Each chapter is in effect a critical paper or even an academic lecture. Now, Professor Taylor has an interesting habit. His habit (or habitus, as Latinists might have expressed it) is to wait until the end of the book to account for all and everything in the final pages. He himself wrote, “Last proves best.” The observation is true for the present book: the Epilogue speaks for the work as a whole, and I advise the reader to begin to read it from there, as I will now do.

The Introduction (which should be identified as a Foreword because it is supplied by someone other than the author, in this instance by the distinguished theorist Anthony Blake) makes the point that “this book provides a veridical account of what we know about the Gurdjieff writings.” Blake observes the surprising fact that Gurdjieff devoted “over just ten years of his life” to writing his books, no more than that. He finds that Taylor’s term “worlds of words” is “a strange but apt phrase.” Blake offers his own take on the notion: “I myself came to believe that words are like crystallized bits of consciousness that can release feelings in us if we enter into them.”

The Preface (written by Professor Taylor) is something of a lecture about hermeneutics, the disciplined interpretation of otherwise obscure meanings. “This book is unashamedly a scan of Gurdjieff’s stylistic mastery of the English language, not so much in theory but in practice, that is, in attention to possibilities of meaning, translation, and words whose contexts inform particular sense.” The insights into utterances of theorists like Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, Butor, and Hermes Trismegistus are introduced. Sometimes I think Professor Taylor is a frustrated philosopher, or perhaps merely a frustrated lecturer, as much of the discussion is only marginally germane to the work at hand. However, this section ends with a lovely image: “Gurdjieff’s language is like shot silk: what one sees depends upon the angle of vision.”

The Prologue is subtitled “Gurdjieff’s Cradle of Languages.” As a polyglot, Gurdjieff was able to mint words and create pun in numerous languages, notably Russian, French, and English. Professor Taylor’s strength is that he has no fear when it comes to explicating texts written or translated into these and other languages. The bulk of this chapter is newly uncovered details about Gurdjieff’s birth and birthplace and those of his close relatives. Oddly, the root of his surname, gurd, means “Kurd” in the Turkish language, “Christian” in the Armenian language, and “Georgian” in the language of Georgia. A man for all states if not all seasons.

Chapter 1 is a “defence” of the inerrancy of the English edition of Beelzebub’s Tales. (I could not resist employing that term, so beloved of Christian fundamentalists, but I should resist the temptation; the term I should use is “authorized” in its literal meaning, for it bears the imprimatur not of the Vatican but of Mr. G.) Professor Taylor has discussed this matter in a previous book, but in this one he updates his research with respect to the 1950 and 1992 editions of Tales by examining statements made by James Moore, Stephen A. Grant, Madame de Salzmann, Mrs. A.L. Staveley, Roger Lipsey, and many others. These two editions and other ones in other languages are compared and contrasted and the author soon reaches this conclusion: “I cannot find any compelling reason to deny that Gurdjieff approved and authorized the English text that he edited with Orage.”

Chapter 2 continues in the same vein of inquiry, which is known as explication de texte, with respect to the French versions along with his other texts, notably Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life Is Real. One of his judgements is particularly interesting: “To accept the claim that the French version’s clarity is a veritable model for revision of Gurdjieff’s English in the 1950 publication of All and Everything is to accept a language not Gurdjieff’s.” Equally interesting is one of the reasons he gives for not revising the English of that edition: “Last, if the 1950 [edition] seems difficult to read, Gurdjieff intended as much.”

Chapter 3 is a short lecture on what might be called “the spoken word” and specifically the word described by St. John as being “in the beginning.” I despair, in a sentence or two, of the task of trying to summarize the argument here, for it is full of talking-points like this one: “One can understand that Saint John means that god ‘spoke’ Creation into being, and Beelzebub seems to suggest the same.” There is much discussion of “Heropass” or the flow of time, and also of the nature of “endlessness,” with the chapter ending with the suggestion that it has to do with everything “from Classical Natural Philosophy to modern Western quantum physics.”

Chapter 4 is a chapter of speculation. There are many allusions to space travel and time travel, especially to novels published at the turn of the twentieth century, and the present work has some points in common with them. “Whether Gurdjieff’s Tales is science, science fiction, fantasy or vision, is inconsequential, for all these literary genres lie within its encyclopaedic scope.” Inadvertently Professor Taylor has hit upon the key word here and that word is “encyclopaedic.” The best literary description of the genre of Beelzebub is that the work is an “anatomy,” employing the term in the sense of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and currently of Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism. This is the route that Professor Taylor could well take in his future speculations. The “anatomy” is a work of the imagination and instruction that is “encyclopaedic” in nature, inclusive of all allusions and genres.

Chapter 5 is in many ways the core of the inquiry for it deals with what Professor Taylor calls “Gurdjieff’s Semantic Worlds,” that is, the confluences of meanings of a great gamut of terms and terminologies. Plato and Goethe held that the mind must know the meaning before hand – before it recognizes the meaning as being present in any word, old or new. Professor Taylor presumably agrees, for he discusses the matter with respect to the views of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Orage. Gurdjieff’s celebrated neologisms he places to one side. In this chapter he examines an odd assortment of words: dainty, whim, twaddle, wiseacre, galoshes, mills, and tango. Then he examines some phrases: intentional and voluntary suffering, the extents and limits of chief feature, and what he calls bodily functions. The argument here bears the imprint of deep thought, and its perusal cannot but enrich every reader’s sense of the depth of the texts being discussed.

Chapter 6 amounts to an eight-page analysis of the “Worlds of Accident and Fate.” Here Professor Taylor brings into the loop The Herald of Coming Good and the ballet-pageant known as The Struggle of the Magicians. He finds the words “law-conformable” to be especially revealing with respect to “the forces of the creation and maintenance of the world.” There is a discussion of the nature of law which is amplified through association: “The phonological association of ‘law’ with ‘love’ might well have been brought to Gurdjieff’s attention by Orage. The link is significant, of course, in Beelzebub’s Tales where the Common Creator commands: ‘Love everything that breathes.’” The technical terms are Heptaparaparshinokh for “the law of seven” and Triamazikammo for “the law of three.” Also introduced is the chapter “Glimpses of Truth” from Views from the Real World. Nietzsche and Ralph Waldo Emerson are introduced. “Only a law of change can reconcile the two, and since all laws are probabilities, man has the possibility of altering his personal relationship to laws.” In this regard the distinction between personality (being under forty-eight orders) and essence (under twenty-four orders) is recalled, along with the role of one’s magnetic centre, and becoming free of chance happenings. A surprising aside on Sartre’s Existentialism lends an intriguing perspective. The exposition here displays evidence of much thought, both associative and original (or perhaps traditional is the right word to use).

Chapter 7 begins, “There are both vertical as well as horizontal worlds of words in Meetings with Remarkable Men,” and Professor Taylor does his best to examine the riddles and puzzles in the text and the purposeful confusions that are to be found as part of “the architectonics” of the work, a work that incorporates as an integral part the supposedly added-on chapter titled “The Material Question.” Thus the text proceeds from the father through the companions along the way to the son. Professor Taylor is a talented textual scholar and there is little that eludes or evades him, especially when it comes to plumbing the depths of the names and the characters of this cast of characters – “remarkable men” and one remarkable woman, seekers all.

Chapter 8 is a mathematician’s delight but it may be off-putting to some readers because it takes with the utmost seriousness each and every specific date given in the canon and it attempts to link it to an overriding reason for it being there. Here is one instance: “Orage died on 6 November 1934, seven years to the day after Gurdjieff had warned him about his frail health and seven years to the day after Gurdjieff had apostrophized: ‘My Being is necessary not only for my personal egotism but also for the common welfare of all humanity,’ and projected another seven years to rewrite his work in accordance to the law of ‘sevenfoldedness.’” About this instance of numerology, Professor Taylor concludes: “The play of Gurdjieff’s numbers figures the play of man’s spirit with his body.”

Chapter 9 deals with The Herald of Coming Good which has always struck me as a work that would have benefited from the helping hand of Ouspensky or Madame de Salzmann. The role played by Payson Loomis in its appearance is discussed, as is the plan to close the Priory and re-establish the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in the United States. Professor Taylor pauses over the word “herald” in its title and gives an attentive reading to the text, one that will send me back to its pages for further edification. “It is worth noting that each of Gurdjieff’s four published works contain historical information not found in the others.” And this is true of details in Herald. The text includes an insightful review of that book written by T.J. Davis and published in Lincoln Kirstein’s Hound and Horn, a review that is otherwise not readily available. Davis makes an extravagant claim: it contains “the most authoritative writing on psychological and religious themes which has appeared in the western world since before the time of Aristotle.”

Chapter 10 examines “words of movement and colour” in the text of Struggle of the Magicians. The text of this work, not generally considered to be part of the canon, is tailor-made for Professor Taylor, who “goes to town” on its references, comparisons, metaphors, symbols, and archetypes. Even if the reader of this book has not had a chance to read the text of the five-act ballet, he or she will be carried along by the exact and exciting description of its action on many levels. The chapter ends with a commentary contributed by Anthony Blake, which concludes with this insight: “It is plausible to regard every manifestation of Gurdjieff, including the events of his own life, actual or invented, no matter in what medium, as part of his marvellous world of language.”

Chapter 11, the final formal chapter, examines Gurdjieff’s command of the English language, both spoken and written. The Interwar Years in Europe were characterized by polyglot, linguistic-minded writers who left their mark, notably James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, and generations later the tradition is continued by Jorge Luis Borges, George Steiner, Alberto Manguel, and others. To the list should be added Gurdjieff. Professor Taylor, a polyglot himself, draws the reader’s attention to meanings of words that intrigued Gurdjieff, oddly enough everyday expressions like “plat du jour” and “cocktail.” Humour is not evident in the earlier chapters, but it does appear in this one. The author agrees with the statement about Gurdjieff “that philology was a better route to Truth than philosophy.” Then there is that statement “one must bury the dog deeper.” Professor Taylor writes, “I cannot find it in any of his published writings but many who knew him repeat it. He offers various interpretations rather than definitions of it. I could go on … but I will not.

Remember what Professor Tahylor wrote? “Last proves best.” The Epilogue is more concerned with the book’s title “Gurdjieff’s Worlds of Words” and less with its subtitle “A Methodological Reading,” for it focuses on Gurdjieff’s linguistic fluency, aided and abetted by his youth spent in the Caucasus, where from his earliest years he “spoke all languages” – or he “spoke one that included all the others,” the author has added. “He had the skills of an orator who knows how [to] make an audience pay attention to what he says.” Mr. G. was wont to describe himself as “a teacher of dancing,” but he might equally well have described himself as “a teacher of language.”

As well as a linguistic flair, Gurdjieff had “a philological bent,” his philosophy being the subject of one of Professor Taylor’s lesser-known books. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gurdjieff distinguished between subjective language with its associations and objective language with its deep meanings. For instance, he preferred the verb “to exist” to the verb “to live,” noting that the former is active and dynamic whereas the latter is passive and static.

Words have roots: some bear fruit above ground; others bear vegetables below ground. Like roots, words may be shallow or deep, and there are levels of communication that are entirely free from the contexts and constraints of language. There are accounts of the man communicating in words with other men in a manner that seems best described as telepathic. He advised his readers to read his principal book three times, in three different ways, and inevitably on three different levels.

Gurdjieff had the reputation of garbling the language, but those men and women who knew him personally (and Taylor as a youngster was one of them) attest to his precise and often devastating use of words, largely in English, but also in French, Russian, Georgian, and Armenian. “He invented a large repository of words and assured their integrity free of the confusion of tongues. A study of that vocabulary would require another book and another author better equipped than I am for the task.”

Nevertheless Professor Taylor’s achievement is likely to remain unsurpassed, for he recognized that Gurdjieff created what he called “worlds of words” – a “universe of discourse” might be another way to express it; Northrop Frye would have called his achievement “the order of words” – the way a scientist adheres to a vocabulary of agreed-upon terminology for each discipline. One also thinks of “evidence-based medicine” versus “eminence-based medicine,” where the vocabulary is controlled and the lexicon is limited. Without an agreement on terms, there is no understanding at all. “Gurdjieff strained to create worlds of words that could be explored subjectively.” I might add, “objectively as well.”

The Epilogue – and hence the book itself – ends on a rousing note, referring as it does to Gurdjieff’s decision to close the gates of the Priory and to open notebooks in which to write the books that he eventually produced – to preserve the Special Doctrine in the formof script: “After that moment of kairos in 1927, he wrote himself into volumes in which we can read him.” An evocative phrase from another discipline comes to mind, one associated with the Haida myth-teller known as Skaay. His verbally inventive narratives of deep time are best described as “being in being.”

Professor Taylor “covers the waterfront,” to employ an inelegant expression. Yet, in reading the chapters and all the preliminary and end-matter, I have kept a “weather-eye” open (to use another inelegant expression) for one of the phrases that I most associate with Gurdjieff when he was faced with speech or script, an expression that he used on numerous occasions. Yet the phrase fails to appear in these pages. The phrase is “bon-ton.” The words are French for “high-toned,” but they carry undertones or undertones of facetiousness or derisiveness. Nowhere in these pages did I find the French expression used. While there is nothing bon-ton about Professor Taylor’s treatment of his subject, his readers would have found it enlightening had the author discussed the characteristics of bon-ton expressions (the high style) and the “wiseacering” (low style) that those words may imply.

The reader who tries to read Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson will likely be perplexed to encounter tongue-testing neologisms, like the three that appear on the first page of its Prologue – Assooparatsata, Karatas, Pandetznokh. The reader would be well advised to turn to the well-known Guide and Index (2nd edition, 2003) and then to Sophia Wellbeloved’s valuable Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts (2003). Gurdjieff’s Worlds of Words will not help that reader, as the book was written to assist students with more experience. But it does suggest that Gurdjieff, with his surprising OULIPO-like focus on the insights and idiocies of language, rightly saw himself as the author of the world’s first postmodern books of sacred writings.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist. His latest books are A World of Differences (a volume of poems) and A Sax Rohmer Miscellany (an account of a lifelong appreciation of the writings of the British author of the Fu Manchu novels). The latter is available in a print edition and an ebook edition through Amazon Kindle. JRC’s website is < www.colombo.ca > .

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Slideshow with music bed

This is a collection of covers for books published relatively recently by authors John Robert Colombo and Ruth Colombo. (In the case of the Sax Rohmer’s Sumuru, JRC contributed the foreword.)

The covers were designed by Bill Andersen, in collaboration with the authors. The music bed is sampled from this album, if you wish to purchase it online. John Robert Colombo has an extensive list of titles now available as Kindle ebooks.

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Uncommonplaces

uncommonplaces-300pxThe subtitle of Uncommonplaces is “New Aphorisms of John Robert Colombo.” There are more than 3,400 original aphorisms and surprising aphoristic expressions, as well as a separate section which offers close to 300 more aphorisms which attempt to describe those men and women the aphorist has met. All the contents have been arranged in alphabetical order by subject, so they range from Abilities to Zombies, or in the case of the personalities, from Acorn to Zukofsky. Colombo writes, “There are words around us that we resist using at our pleasure or peril, and these words are the most common ones.” By and large these commonplaces (or platitudes) whirl about like dervishes until they become uncommonplaces, remarks worth pondering. 400 pages. Now available as an Amazon Kindle at US $6.99.

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Sisters Agonistes

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Sisters Agonistes is the overall title of a trilogy of three volumes of dramatic poetry written in epic vein by Ruth Colombo. The individual titles of the volumes in the trilogy are Sisters of Elysium, Sisters of Earth, and Sisters of Olympus. They describe the struggles of women both mortal and immortal through the ages and stages of life from girlhood as kore, through maturity as corona, and through old age as crone. The immortal players are the goddesses of Ancient Greece and there is much debate among the goddesses. The mortal players are the defeated Trojan women and the depleted Greek women of the House of Atreus. There is also much debate between mortal sisters, immortal sisters, and between mortal sisters and certain immortal archetypes.

The trilogy will be published in a limited edition in August 2014 by Colombo & Company. Email for complete details.

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Ghosts Over Canada now on Kindle

Ghosts-colombo-blog-300John Robert Colombo has been called “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for such publications as Mysterious Canada. Over the years he has edited three dozen compilations of descriptions of weird events and odd experiences recorded by Canadians of all walks of life, from all parts of the country, and from the days of Samuel de Champlain to the era of Stephen Harper. Ghosts over Canada is the latest in this series; it consists of more than 30 brand-new, told-as-true accounts of ghosts and spirits, poltergeists and hauntings, in the words of the informants themselves. This scary book, with a ghostly cover specially designed by Bill Andersen, is available as an Amazon ebook for Kindle readers.

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A Rohmer Miscellany

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My latest publication is titled A Rohmer Miscellany and it is a modest contribution to the study of popular fiction, to the appreciation of mystery and detective fiction, and to the enjoyment of the seventy-odd books written by Sax Rohmer, the once-popular novelist who 101 years ago created the arch-villain Dr. Fu Manchu.

The present book, 116 pages in length, collects the thoughts and the research of John Robert Colombo who became enamoured of this author’s writings in May of 1950. It includes an original letter written by Rohmer to Colombo. An unusual publication: Colombo & Company , 6″ x 9″, 116 pages, ISBN 978-1-894-540-72-8. Cover design by Bill Andersen. $30.00 plus postage and handling.

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A One-Volume-Frye

northrop-frye-cover-300For the last ten years friends of mine have been listening to me describe this “work in progress.” The work is The Northrop Frye Quote Book, and while it took a decade to research and compile, it has finally appeared in this handsome, trade paperback edition published by Dundurn. The text consists of 3,600 “quotable quotes” from the writings of the country’s and one of the world’s leading literary critics and scholars. I selected the quotations, complete with their sources, to illuminate 1,100 subject-headings which range from Abortion to Zodiac. There are 356 double-columned pages and the volume includes my Introduction as well as a Biographical Appreciation written by Jean O’Grady of the Northrop Frye Centre of Victoria College, University of Toronto. Here is an ideal book for browsing and reference. It may be described as “a one-volume Frye.” After reading Northrop Frye’s “quotable quotes,” the world will appear more wondrous than ever!

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Colombo’s Latest Book of Poems

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front+backA World of Differences is the title of the latest collection of poetry written by John Robert Colombo. It is a trade paperback, 6″ x 9″, 300 pages in length. It brings together the “poems and effects” composed by this busy author during the calendar year 2013. Some poems are playful, others solemn. The volume has an unusual neo-noir cover, the work of designer Bill Andersen, and another notable feature of this publication is that the entire text, cover and all, is offered on a complimentary basis (no charges at all) to the readers of this website.

All you have to do is CLICK HERE for the download link to the free, complete PDF version of A World of Differences. (6.1MB)

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Three Videos of Poems

I am grateful to Kristin Somborac of Somborac Productions, an independent film and television production company based in Toronto, for commissioning, on behalf of the Bravo specialty network (owned by Bell Media), animated versions of three of my poems. (This happened three years ago when they were initially telecast; I am only now sharing them with friends and fans. Viewing time is about six minutes in all.)

The titles of the three poems (which appear below) are “Recipe for a Canadian Novel,” “Domestic Weaponry,” and “If the Rest of the World.” (Technically, the first two videos are animated short features, whereas third video is an instance of “pixillation,” a term identified with Norman McLaren, one of my idols.) Kristin is very imaginative, as are members of her crew. Thank you, Kristin!

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Jon Woodson’s “Oragean Modernism”

A Review by John Robert Colombo

oragean300In some ways I am the ideal person to review this book. In other ways I am the least equipped person to review it. So let me draw attention to my strengths and then to my weaknesses before summarizing the author’s argument and then assessing its merits. But before doing so, here is a physical description of the book itself.

The title and subtitle are the first unusual features of this publication. The title is a mouthful: Oragean Modernism: A Lost Literary Movement, 1924-1953. The author is a retired academic named Jon Woodson. The volume, a trade paperback with a black-and-white cover, measures 6 inches by 9 inches. The pagination is viii+204+iv. The print is large enough to be read with ease and there are seven black-and-white illustrations; except for one illustration (which will be described shortly), they make no specific point. The name of no publisher is listed on either the title page or the copyright page. I purchased my copy through Amazon.com at the all-in price of US $18.93.

The book begins with “Chart of the Oragean Modernist Network” (which is the illustration of genuine interest that I mentioned) which is a “sociogram” that offers links between and among people mentioned in the text. It continues with three chapters: “Oragean Modernism,” “Representative Works of Oragean Modernism,” and “A Lost Modernism.” The chapters are followed by the Conclusion: “Oragean Modernism as Psychohistory.” What follows those chapters are Endnotes, Works Cited, and Index.

diagram

The Endnotes are interesting, being in the nature of asides, but the section Works Cited is skimpy. For instance, the citation for a good many works is simply “Web.” At first I thought this was an acknowledgement of the contribution of James Webb, the historian of “rejected knowledge.” Then I realized that the author was referring generally to the World Wide Web, with little or no documentation and no date of “accession.” In these six pages, I counted over forty-five uses of “Web.” The Index, however, is nine pages long, double-columned, and quite substantial.

I am the ideal person to review this book because as an author and an editor who has copy edited a couple of hundred books for trade and educational publishers over the last fifty years, I automatically respond to the text on the page. The text of “Oragean Modernism” is not up to scratch in two ways. It would have benefited from the input of both a copy editor and a layout artist or designer. New sections begin at the tops of pages rather than lower down on the pages. The treatment of subsections and quotations is varied. There are numerous stylistic infelicities but, more importantly, spelling errors abound. Rather than blame the author for these, I suggest it was a mistake to “go-it-alone” without editorial input and typographical support.

I am also a reader of books devoted to the Fourth Way, so I have a fair knowledge of the characters and personalities involved in the Work. I know about the contributions made by A.R. Orage. Indeed, I knew Louise Welch, his biographer; I am familiar with her book Orage with Gurdjieff in America, which is cited here and there. I have read C. Daly King’s The Oragean Version, a very useful and often overlooked text, which is frequently mentioned.

Yet I am not an ideal reader of this book in the sense that I know little about its author, Jon Woodson, or his previous publications in this field. According to the author’s note on the book’s back cover, Jon Woodson is an emeritus Professor of English at Howard University. Howard is historically a Black university that is located in Washington, D.C., where Professor Woodson was born in 1944. He has described his sensibility as that of an “innate surrealist,” an interesting label. He is a recognized specialist in the field of African American expression.

Well received was his study To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance which was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1999. He is knowledgeable about a whole raft of writers whose names are familiar but whose writings are not as familiar as they should be. He makes out that the texts of these books, mainly novels, are inherently interesting but also relevant here for reasons that have less to do with literature and more to do with what he has dubbed “Oragean Modernism.”

A.R. Orage (1873-1934), whose last name is now an adjective, was the brilliant editor of The New Age in London. He devoted the last decade of his life to assisting G.I. Gurdjieff in his work in France and the United States. In essence, he formed a variety of study groups in New York City, some devoted to the craft of writing, others to the study of the Work. This work brought him to the attention of some of America’s leading writers, notably those located in Greenwich Village and Harlem. With them he shared his views on the value of traditional principles and practices, and Orage’s own sense of “modernism” is the subject of the present book. I can do no better than to quote Woodson’s account of this own discovery of the importance of Orage’s work. The text comes from the biographical note that he wrote for his entry on Amazon.com, accessed 12 Oct. 2013. Here it is:

“After publishing a poem in an important anthology of African-American literature in 1971, I turned away from poetry, since it was impossible to stomach the ruinous course of American literary culture. I wrote a dissertation that read Melvin B. Tolson’s poetry through the lens of Gurdjieff’s esotericism, a view that was immediately rejected by other scholars. I have since worked to explore the esoteric cast of American modernism and have published To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance (1999), an account of how Tolson was introduced to esotericism by contact with the members of the Harlem Renaissance, many of whom were writing coded esoteric fiction and poetry.

“I have continued to write and to publish on this topic, showing that other major figures were also involved in this tendency – James Agee, Djuna Barnes, Dawn Powell, and Ralph Ellison. I have taught at Towson University and at Howard University. As a Fulbright lecturer in American Literature, I taught at two Hungarian universities in 2006. I now am at work on a series of comic novels.”

In essence, the argument of the present book is that Orage opened the eyes of more than thirty writers, a good many of them African Americans, to the absence of esoteric ideas in the literature of the period and to the need for such ideas and the requirement that they be expressed in secrecy, in veiled or “coded” references, in their works of fiction, in order to save the world from self-destruction. To make his point, Woodson has examined the texts of a number these writers and found instances of “legominisms” and “lawful inexactitudes,” the presence of which, once discerned, may be readily explained in no other way.

Has he been successful in realizing this aim and objective? Paul Beekman Taylor, the redoubtable historian of the Work, is quoted on the cover of the present book as saying yes: “This is the best scan of what was going on in those crucial years, 1924-1953. Your book is a major contribution to the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual history of the Harlem Renaissance and all the wells it drew from.”

I am not about to argue with Professor Taylor, or with Professor Woodson for that matter, and while I think and feel that Oragean Modernism has drawn useful attention to Orage’s work and its reverberations in the pages of a large number of important though often overlooked works of fiction, I believe Professor Woodson has overstated his case and in doing so has tested the patience of even the most patient of readers. Perhaps it is necessary these days to overstate one’s case in order to state anything at all, there being so much background noise and nonsense in the air.

Earlier I mentioned there is a useful illustration in the book. It is called the “Chart of the Oragean Modernist Network” and it is a sociogram which shows lines of influence emanating from Gurdjieff (top) and Orage (left) to embrace a “network” of writers and other influential men and women who are part of this “movement” led by Orage. Some names are household names, largely from Greenwich Village: James Agee, Djuna Barnes, Ralph Ellison, Walker Evans, Alfred A. Knopf, John O’Hara, John Dos Passos, Nathaniel West, Lincoln Kirstein, John Hall, Wheelock, etc. Other names are those of respected writers, many identified with the Harlem Renaissance: Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Nella Lawson, George Schuyler, Wallace Thurman, Melvin B. Tolson, Jean Toomer, Carl Van Vechten, Elinor Wylie, etc.

In the past it occurred to no one to search for esoteric influences or hermetic references in the works of Agee, Ellison, Dos Passos, West, for instance. Are there any? And how about Alfred A. Knopf who is included in this group? He and his wife Blanche established the most distinguished literary publishing imprint in the United States, largely by translating and issuing the cream of European literature of the Interwar Years. I know little about Knopf, but fresh from reading descriptions of him and his milieu written by fellow publisher and personal friend Bennett Cerf of Random House, I find myself doubting that there were any esoteric influences at all to be laid to the door of the publisher of “Borzoi Books.”

The argument that Knopf was subjected to Orage’s influence is based on the fact that he published one book by Orage and numerous books by Carl Van Vechten with whom the Knopfs socialized. This is thin gruel. I found myself thinking of the methods of Joe McCarthy, the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, who perfected the technique of finding Communist influences everywhere by declaring innocent people, in the absence of other evidence, “guilty by association.”

In the years ahead there may be readers and researchers who, following the lead of Professor Woodson, will devote time and energy to tracing the evidence for such influences. In the meantime, here are some of the author’s insights. Professor Woodson devoted his doctoral dissertation to the writings of Melvin B. Tolson whose “poetry showed outward signs of a significant interest in the occult, though this was not acknowledged by the few critics who at that early stage had published on Tolson. But there were significant tokens of a deep concern with the occult in Tolson’s poetry, and belong long, I could see that Tolson had drawn deeply on the writings of P.D. Ouspensky in order to shape his poems, and that Tolson was nothing less than a follower of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Though I was successful in earning a Ph.D. with my dissertation on Tolson, because of my view of Tolson as an occultist, my findings were summarily dismissed by the critics who began in the late 1970s to publish studies of Tolson.”

Fair enough so far. He further explains, “My interest in occultism was a matter of intellectual curiosity. I was never a follower of Gurdjieff or a member of any esoteric group. I am a literary scholar who happened to acquire a general acquaintance with the literature of esotericism – a body of knowledge that few literary scholars come into contact with.” Thereafter he began to track other writers of the Harlem Renaissance and note their interconnections and the fact that many of them attended meetings with Orage and met Gurdjieff himself, largely though the good offices of Gurdjieff’s secretary at the time, Muriel Draper.

Professor Woodson’s frustration has been experienced by other scholars and readers. I have on my bookshelf a copy of Joseph Hone’s early biography of W.B. Yeats which offers an analysis of his poetry that makes light the Irish poet’s interest in magic, theosophy, occultism, etc. Yet time passes and these days there are biographical and critical studies that focus on little else. There are even departments in major universities devoted to the influence of occult ideas on mainstream subjects.

“Finally, the breakthrough came wherein I realized the scope of Oragean Modernism. A scholar who had read my book To Make New Race wrote to me and told me that James Agee’s book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was the same sort of Gurdjieffian literary construction that I had been writing about in connection with Tolson, Hurston, Larsen, Fisher, Thurman, and Schuyler. This was a surprise to me …. ”

In a nutshell, here is what he concluded: “The Oragean Modernists subscribed to an unfamiliar ethos. As they saw their role on the planet, it was a given that they were above all supermen, and as such they may not have seen fit to reveal any more of their arrangements than they felt obliged to. Secrecy was important to the Oragean Modernists.” Names of writers so influenced by this form of modernism are given on pages 21-3. Pages 32-3 refer to Gurdjieffian ideas like the Law of Three, the Law of Seven, the Fourth Way, that found their way into fiction in non-realistic ways. This was accomplished ingeniously through the “phonetic cabala.”

The so-called “phonetic cabala” is not to be confused with the Hebrew kabbalah. The latter has for ages served as a way of wresting meaning from obscure and not so obscure passages of the “Torah.” The former consists of finding hidden meanings in letters of the alphabet and the words that they form. It was employed by the mysterious French alchemist and hermeticist who is known as Fulcanelli. In literary circles this pursuit is known as “lettrism,” and the arithmetical version is called “numerology.”

One morning I decided to try lettrism out for myself. That noon I was meeting with Barbara Wright and James George for lunch. Mr. George, a former diplomat and a present-day group leader, is familiarly known familiarly as “Jim,” so I decided to see what I could do with the letters of his name. To my surprise I discovered that “JIMGEORGE” lends itself to this treatment. The combined words contain the letters IMG, and in this context they obviously mean “I am Gurdjieff.”

A paragraph from a novel written by Zora Neale Hurston describes a room in a house and it yields two words that catch Professor Woodson’s eye: “gaudy” and “chiff.” They are said to sound out the name “Gurdjieff” – despite the fact that no fewer than eighty-three words separate these two key words. Astronomers have a term to describe a pattern or a shape that is more apparent than real, so the Big Dipper is described as an “asterism.” Psychologists refer to this activity as pareidolia. The term that crops up in psychical research is apophenia.

It is known that Louise Welch of the New York Foundation, who led the Toronto group for many years, had earlier in her career as a journalist contributed an “agony column” to The New York American. (As the newspaper was published by William Randolph Hearst, one observer noted that in accepting this assignment “she went from bad to Hearst.”) She wrote as Louise Michel, her name before her marriage to the noted physician William Welch. According to Professor Woodson, her name appears encoded in Nathaniel West’s well-known novel Miss Lonelyhearts which is about “agony aunts” or “gossip columnists.”

No one could imagine a more acerbic novel this side of French literature, one that is less likely to be a repository of “rejected knowledge.” The satire describes the ordeals of a journalist who is assigned to write the “agony column” for his newspaper. “West has inserted Louise Michel’s name at the beginning of his text using the phonetic ‘cabala.’” Professor Woodson explains, adding, “The name ‘Louise Michel’ is somewhat indistinct.”

Yes, it is “indistinct.” The passage from the novel which he quotes includes these italicized words in the following order: “clue,” “Miss,” “kill myself my.” The author explains that “Michel” must be read in reverse. Try as I might, I cannot figure out how this reading is plausible or even possible, but readers of this review who are intrigued with linguistic literalism are free to try for themselves by turning to pages 97-8 of the present text and puzzling out the sounds. Readers so inclined should watch out for eight other legominisms in Miss Lonelyhearts, all of them helpfully preceded by the use of the word “leg” in various formations and combinations.

What I have discussed up to this point are the points made by Professor Woodson in chapters one and two. The third chapter discusses the writers of this “lost generation” in considerable detail. I have nothing useful to add in this regard, as I am unfamiliar with these novels, and the author has a deep knowledge and appreciation of them. But the Conclusion takes the book’s argument into the field of science fiction, a subject I do know quite well, specifically the writings of Isaac Asimov (regarding the “Foundation Trilogy”).

Asimov coined the term “psychohistory” to refer to a meta-science, one by which statistical or stochastic analyses combine the insights offered by the hard physical sciences and the soft social sciences. Professor Woodson equates this with Orage’s “practical application of the laws that make up part of the Hidden Learning.” The argument here is suggestive and associative, rather than assertive and logical, but that approach should not be held against it, as the possibilities are intriguing.

These days most aficionados of science fiction view Asimov’s “psychohistory” as a dated plot-device, one that is on the same level as the philosophy of “nexialism” which guides the science officer aboard the space ship “Beagle” in a series of intergalactic stories written by A.E. van Vogt. These two pseudo-sciences probably owe much to the popularity at the time of Dianetics (the precursor of Scientology), the “General Semantics” of Count Korzybski, very popular in those days, Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History,” and even “The Decline of the West” by Oswald Spengler.

I am not sure, even after reading Oragean Modernism, what such “total systems” (which seek to explain the totality of history) have in common with “Hidden Learning,” but discussing the latter in light of the former is not necessarily an unrewarding endeavour. It is a task that the late historian and scholar James Webb would have undertaken in earnestness, but I doubt that even he would have found links between these “total systems,” secular as they are, with what evidence exists for the non-secular “Hidden Learning.”

Oragean Modernism concentrates on some of the writers who created the movement known as “literary modernism” in the 1920s and 1930s and on Orage’s unquestionable influence on these writers. What occurs to me is that Professor Woodson’s own book has been written not so much in the spirit of “modernism” as in the spirit of “post-modernism.” The “modernist” approach has been one of “structuralism,” whereas the “post-modernist” aesthetic has been one of “deconstruction.” In the first instance, the text points to the real world; in the second instance, the text points only to itself. Indeed, Jacques Derrida, a leading proponent of this approach, famously wrote, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (There is no such thing as outside-of-the-text).

I would pursue this notion further, given more space and time, but for now I believe a better title for Professor Woodson’s book would be Oragean Post-modernism.

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist with a special interest in Canadiana and occult thought who lives in Toronto. The latest of his many publications is The Big Book of Canadian Jokes. In July 2013, he delivered an invited address at the three-day conference on science fiction sponsored by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which was held in honour of author Robert J. Sawyer. The text of the address may be found on JRC’s website < www. colombo.ca > .

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Four Hundred Years of Rob Sawyer

McMaster-conference---Colombo-Hartwell-Vonarburg-Sawyer

Three guest speakers — author/anthologist John Robert Colombo, Quebec novelist Elisabeth Vonarburg, and New York editor Robert G. Hartwell — pose with celebrated, Toronto-based author Robert J. Sawyer at the conference held in his honour and titled “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre.” It was sponsored by McMaster University, Sept. 13-14, 2013. Reproduced here is the text of Colombo’s tribute to “Rob” Sawyer who donated his archives to McMaster’s Mills Memorial Library.

Invited Talk, Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre,
An International Conference Featuring Robert J. Sawyer,
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario,
September 13-15, 2013; delivered September 14, 2013

No doubt you are as pleased as I am to be participating in this conference. I am particularly pleased to be invited to deliver one of its opening addresses. On this occasion what I have to offer is not scholarship or analysis but some perceptions and appreciation. I hope you will keep these words in mind, if only because I will do the same … and I would not want you to be led astray, expecting forceful Final Words on our subject. Instead, expect some suggestive First Words!

The acquisition of Robert J. Sawyers literary papers reflects well on McMaster University, as does the sponsorship of this conference to celebrate at midpoint the career and accomplishment of this remarkable writer. His fonds reside in Mills Memorial Library, not far from where we are meeting, where they will resist the incursions and erosions of time, alongside papers by Bertrand Russell and J.R.R. Tolkien and other writers of note. (Let me add that they also reside alongside the papers of John Robert Colombo, which the library acquired in 1969. I am still awaiting the conference to mark that occasion!) Continue reading

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The Road to Mecca

John Robert Colombo offers some comments on Muhammad Asad’s “The Road to Mecca”

The books that I review are generally newly published, current titles. Yet it is often forgotten that books constitute news, and the novelty of interesting books and their newsworthy value that have an attraction for me (and probably for the readers of these reviews). It is also true, as publishers and editors like to remind us, that a “new book” is one that is “new to the reader” and not necessarily one that has been newly published. It may well be a book published decades or centuries in the past that is worth a passing glance, if not a close reading.

“The past is prologue,” the Bard wrote, and the paragraph that you have just read is a prologue to the fact that I going to write about a book that was originally published almost sixty years ago, a book that has attained the status of a classic, though it is a classic title that may well be all but unknown to the majority of the readers of this column. I am referring to “The Road to Mecca” which is the memoirs of a correspondent and diplomat named Muhammad Asad.

Its popularity over the years is attested by details that appear on its copyright page. Originally published by Simon & Schuster in New York in 1954, a company known for the eclectic nature of its “list,” the memoir went through four editions; the fourth edition appeared in 1981 and was reprinted in 1985 and 1993, and possibly subsequently. The edition that I own is the last one, as I bought it as a new book more than one dozen years ago. It bears the imprint of Dar Al-Andalus, Gibraltar.

“The Road to Mecca” is a handsome, sturdy, hard-cover edition, with end-sheets, stitched pages, a dozen black-and-white photographs, and with a dark green dust-jacket. The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches and the pagination is xiv+375+ii, so it is quite long. The text includes a three-page glossary of Arabic and Persian Terms, an introductory chapter from the author himself, and twelve chapters (with such titles as “Beginning of the Road,” “Spirit and Flesh,” “Jihad,” “Persian Letter,” and “End of the Road”).

I am not offering the reader a review or a critique of Muhammad Asad’s book. That would take many words, many pages, and many screens. Whoever is interested in the contents of the volume should check the Wikipedia site for Muhammad Asad. Here and now I will allude to the book’s contents and offer some remarks about the author of these memoirs, with special reference to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Muhammad Asad was born Leopold Weiss (1900-1992) in Lemberg, Galicia – now Liviv, Ukraine – into a family noted for its long line of rabbis. He was trained to read Hebrew and Aramaic, and he spoke German, Arabic, Urdu, English, and no doubt other European languages. He eschewed formal education but he was adept at observation and expression and so was hired as a “stringer” for “Frankfurter Zeitung,” then as now one of Europe’s major newspapers and one with a chain of affiliate papers.

For much of his life he was a bachelor and he was drawn to the Middle East so he specialized in political coverage of the events in that part of the world during the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, he was drawn by the Arab temperament and by the bedouins of the Maghreb, and he was attracted to Islam proper. In his memoirs he wrote, “Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other; nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking; and the result is a structure of absolute balance and solid composure.”

Leopold had always had difficulties with his father and while in Arab lands he converted to Islam, taking the name by which he is now known. He spent much time with Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and was something of his protege. In India he met Muhammad Iqbal, one of the intellectual founders of the state of Pakistan, and in later years he was designated one of Pakistan’s “first citizens.” In time this led to his appointment as that country’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

The Wikipedia entry on the stringer, traveller, correspondent, writer, diplomat, memoirist, etc., lists thirty-six of his publications in English, as well as other interesting information about him. But his current interest rests on his masterpiece “The Road to Mecca” and it is a masterful piece of writing. I found it difficult to skim the text of the book written by this Haji because it is composed with his conviction that the West with its values is the mortal and spiritual enemy of Islam with and values. Even back in 1954, the author was unaware of the irony that the Muslim countries were in such disarray, especially compared with the Christian countries of the West, but he does not hold Islam to account for this. Instead, he holds to account the followers of Islam who have failed to realize their potential as human beings, that is as a sensual, social, and spiritual people. To him the Muslims are the most rational of men, and so deep is his conviction and so vital is his sense of style that he argues this point with great conviction. The reader blinks, as if to question whether it could be true!

What I want to do is to focus on two observations that he makes, two ideas that he presents that were new to me, and discuss these to the exclusion of the rest of the text. Both ideas concern Iran. If Islam is the faith above all faiths that extols reason, what should a good Muslim make of Sufism? I have long wondered about the Sufis and their fables, parables, and poets. Some years ago I came to my own conclusion that “Sufism exists because Salafism exists” – it exists to serve as a counterpoison to the poison of fundamentalist literalism.

In other words, Sufism may act as a purgative, the way Zen dissolves the categories of Buddhism. The notion was noted by Czeslaw Milosz in “The Captive Mind” in 1953 when he introduced the term “kitman” to refer to the dissimulation permitted by Sufis in dealing with authoritarian people, public hypocrisy, a version of “the noble lie.”

That is not the view of Muhammud Asad who devotes only one paragraph to the subject in his memoirs but that paragraph is a perceptive one. His opinion is that Sufism is un-Islam and he identifies its tendencies with Persia or present-day Iran where the Sufis are part of the warp and woof of the Shiites. After observing the so-called whirling dervishes of Scutari, he felt “somehow bothered.” Here is what he wrote:

“The esoteric rites of this religious order – one of the many I had encountered in various Muslim countries – did not seem to fit into the picture of Islam that was slowly forming in my mind. I requested my Azhari friend to bring me some orientalist works on the subject; and, through them, my instinctive suspicion that esoterism of this kind had intruded into the Muslim orbit from non-Islamic sources was confirmed. The speculation of the _sufis_, as the Muslim mystics were called, betrayed Gnostic, Indian and occasionally even Christian influences which had brought in ascetic concepts and practices entirely alien to the message of the Arabian Prophet.”

He alludes to the mission of the Prophet. “In his message, _reason_ was stressed as the only real way to faith. While the validity of mystical experience was not necessarily precluded in this approach, Islam was primarily an intellectual and not an emotional proposition. Although, naturally enough, it produced a strong emotional attachment in its followers, Muhammad’s teaching did not accord to emotion as such any independent role in religious _perceptions_: for emotions, however profound, are far more liable to be swayed by subjective desires and fears than reason, with all its fallibility, could ever be.”

It is apparent that the years he spent close to Ibn Saud, in what became Saudi Arabia with its Sunni Islam, had left their mark on Muhammud Asad. So the Sufi, so honoured in the West, is an ambiguous figure, to say the least, in the Sunni Middle East. Rumi may be “the most read poet in the United States,” as one poll determined, but that does not measure his standing in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

The chapter titled “Persian Letter” is the one that dismisses Iran, one of the countries that the author says he knew best. He refers to “Riza Shah Pahlavi, who ascended the Peacock Throne in 1925 … the king who has given up all pretence of humility and now seeks to emulate Kemal Ataturk in building a vainglorious Western facade onto his ancient Eastern land.” He paints a gloomy picture of the first Iran town he visited, the town of Kirmanshah:

“A strange, faded, opaque atmosphere lay about it, muffled, subdued – not to say shabby. No doubt, in every Eastern city poverty lies close to the surface, much more visible than in any European city – but to that I was already accustomed. It was not just poverty in an economic sense which thrust itself upon me, for Kirmanshah was said to be a prosperous town. It was rather a kind of depression that lay over the people, something that was directly connected with them and seemed to have hardly anything to do with economic circumstances.”

The inhabitants of this town are painted in even darker colours: “All these people had large, black eyes under thick, black brows that often met over the bridge of the nose, weighted by heavy lids like veils. Most of the men were slim (I hardly remember having seen a fat man in Iran); they never laughed aloud, and in their silent smiles lurked a faint irony which seemed to conceal more than it revealed. No mobility of features, no gesticulations, only quiet, measured movements: as if they wore masks.” The author has nothing to say about Kirmanshah’s women, though he was later to marry at least three time (serially not simultaneously). Indeed, hearsay has it that Iranian women are among the most glamorous in the world; it is only the men who seem in this book to be lacking in stature and grace.

Paragraph after paragraph follows: “And then I knew what had moved me so strongly when I first beheld the melancholy eyes of the Iranians: the sign of a tragic destiny in them.” The author is a man of perceptions but also a man of concepts, and his conception of the cause of this melancholy is rivetting: behind it is “a never-healed schism in the world of Islam: the division of the Muslim community into Sunnites, who form the bulk of the Muslim peoples and stand firm on the principle of an _elective_ succession to the Caliphate, and the Shiites, who maintain that the Prophet designated Ali, his son-in-law, as his rightful heir and successor.”

“It was not their assumption of power but rather Ali’s and his followers’ unwillingness to accept wholeheartedly the results of those popular elections that led to the subsequent struggles for power, to Ali’s death, and to the transformation – under the fifth Caliph, Mu’awiyya – of the original, republican form of the Islamic State into a hereditary kingship, and, ultimately, to Husayn’s death at Karbala.”

Ali, Hsan, Husayn … Companions of the Prophet, heroes in Persia/Iran. “I began to wonder: Was it the innate melancholy of the Iranians and their sense of the dramatic that had caused them to embrace the _Shia_ doctrine? – or was it the tragic quality of the latter’s origin that had led to the intense Iranian melancholy?” He continues, “By degrees, over a number of months, a startling answer took shape in my mind.”

There is neither time nor space to follow the author’s argument, but in capsule form it runs like this: The conquest of Persia by Muslims was a catastrophic blow to the psyche of the Persian or Iranian people. The way to recover was for the Iranians to reform and reclaim Islam.

“The transition was too sharp and painful to allow the Iranians to subordinate their deeply rooted national consciousness to the supranational concept of Islam. In spite of their speedy and apparently voluntary acceptance of the new religion, they subconsciously equated the victory of the Islamic idea with Iran’s national defeat; and the feeling of having been defeated and irrevocably torn out of the context of their ancient cultural heritage – a feeling desperately intense for all its vagueness – was destined to corrode their national self-confidence for centuries to come. Unlike so many other nations to whom the acceptance of Islam gave almost immediately a most positive impulse to further cultural development, the Iranians’ first – and, in a way, most durable – reaction to it was one of deep humiliation and repressed resentment.”

“They began to regard the faith brought to them by their Arabian conquerors as something that was exclusively their own. They did it by subtly transforming the rational, unmystical God-consciousness of the Arabs into its very opposite: mystical fanaticism and sombre emotion. A faith which to the Arab was presence and reality and a source of composure and freedom, evolved, in the Iranian mind, into a dark longing for the supernatural and symbolic.”

He adds, “To such a tendency, an espousal of the _Shia_ doctrine offered a most welcome channel: for there could be no doubt that the Shiite veneration, almost deification, of Ali and his descendants concealed the germ of the idea of God’s incarnation and continual reincarnation – an idea entirely alien to Islam but very close to the Iranian heart.”

“If Ali was the rightful heir and successor of the Prophet, the three Caliphs who preceded him must obviously have been usurpers – and among them had been Umar, that same Umar who had conquered Iran! The national hatred of the conqueror of the Sasanian Empire could now be rationalized in terms of religion – the religion that had become Iran’s own: Umar had ‘deprived’ Ali and his sons Hasan and Husayn of their divinely ordained right of succession to the Caliphate of Islam and, thus, had opposed the will of God; consequently, in obedience to the will of God, Ali’s party was to be supported. Out of a national antagonism, a religious doctrine was born.”

“This, then, was the reason for the strange intensity with which the House of Ali was venerated in Iran. Its cult represented a symbolic act of Iranian revenge on Arabian Islam (which stood so uncompromisingly against the deification of any human personality including that of Muhammad). True, the _Shia_ doctrine had not originated in Iran; there were Shiite groups in other Muslim lands as well: but nowhere else had it achieved so complete a hold over the people’s emotions and imagination. When the Iranians vent to their mourning over the deaths of Ali, Hasan and Husayn, they wept not merely over the destruction of the House of Ali but also over themselves and the loss of their ancient glory.”

The condemnation of Iran is one theme among a great many themes to characterize these memoirs, for most of its pages are dedicated to finding excellence in the people of the “orthodox” countries who keep the faith alive. But for some reason or other – a reason that has more to do with human nature than specifically with the historic Shia-Shite schism and the present-day chasm – when I think of Ali, I think of that haunting line from Rudyard Kipling’s verse called “Vampire.” Kipling’s line could refer to Ali, for it goes like this:

“So some of him lived but most of him died – (Even as you and I).”

Written 5 July 2013. Posted 13 Aug. 2013

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The largest collection of its kind ever published

big-joke-book-250There are over 1,000 jokes and anecdotes in John Robert Colombo’s latest book. So it’s a big tome, over 450 pages in length, and the compilation is entirely devoted to Canadian humour and lore. The jokes are arranged by topic – hockey, Newfies, weather, multiculturalism, etc. – so the book is an ideal and funny way to spend the rest of summer, fall, winter, and spring! The title is The Big Book of Canadian Jokes. Jump to the publisher’s site – The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box – to order your copy.

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The Eighth Volume!

standing-wave-smallFor the last seven years I have been issuing “poetry annuals.” (An “annual” is a collection of all the “poems and effects” that I wrote the previous year.) A Standing Wave is the title of the eighth volume in this series. It collects over 170 “poems and effects” composed during the calendar year 2012, along with the relevant entries from the year’s “Dream Diary.” The volume a straight-forward compilation of inventive, imaginative, innovative, and ingenious poems, works that may take the reader by surprise. Here are some details: A Standing Wave: Poems and Effects of 2012, Toronto, Ont.: Colombo & Company, 2012. ISBN-10 1894540-70-0. 5.5″ x 8.8″. xi+181+i. $30.00. Trade paperback, with Bill Andersen’s striking cover design.

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Two New Books

2-rohmers

I am often asked, “Who is your favourite author?” I try to avoid a direct answer to this question because like the sultan in his harem I have “many favourites.” Yet I especially favour one prolific writer. Way back in the 1950s, I began to I collect his books, and by now I have copies of his seventy-odd novels and story collections.

The author is Sax Rohmer, and he is remembered these days – when at all – as the creator of the arch-villain Dr. Fu Manchu. My good luck is to be involved in the publication of first editions of two new works by the British author. They are appearing 54 years after his death.

Pipe Dreams brings together Rohmer’s “occasional writings” – 35 articles, sketches, and memoirs that shed light on his interest in sorcery, occultism, music hall personalities, Harry Houdini, writing, etc. The Crime Magnet consists of a series of 16 crime-detection stories originally issued between 1937 and 1945. They feature the eccentric Major Bernard de Treville and his sidekick Digger. They are collected here for the first time.

I have introduced both volumes. The first one bears a foreword by Lawrence Knapp, the second one a foreword by Gene Christie, both gentlemen recognized as commentators on crime fiction. The publisher of trade paperback editions of these titles is The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box.

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