esoteric communication in the modernist comic-satiric novel
"First-rate scholarship not only takes no visible fact for granted, but also digs deep into the
"[Jane] Heap wrote in a letter to [Florence] Reynolds 'the intelligentsia is koo-koo and
"Look" said Insel, hurriedly reversing the lapel of his jacket. On the underside in rows as
My recognition of the importance of the modern comic novel to esotericism began when I was still writing To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance (1999), a comparative study of seventeen esoteric novels by African American writers. At the time, I did not realize it but I was still fully under the sway of the prevailing critical assumptions that had been made about the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, even though I was pursuing an argument that supposedly rejected nearly everything that had been said about that literary movement. Having found Carl Van Vechten's name on the membership list of the New York Gurdjieff group (see Woodson New Race 6-8), I was revising my understanding of Van Vechten; but like the other scholars who were writing about the Harlem group of writers, I had not visited Van Vechten's novels. Like everyone else, I did not think of Van Vechten as a novelist. In this paper, I am concerned with the esoteric novels written by A.R. Orage's followers, but such an inquiry does not require an indifference to the question of the Harlem Renaissance novel in general: for instance, in the case of Langston Hughes's novel Not Without Laughter (1930) the same question arises as confronts the reader of the esoteric novels. The same indifference to Van Vechten as a novelist enters into discussions of the development and reception of Hughes's novel as overshadows the discussions of works by Bontemps, Larsen, Thurman, Fisher, Schuyler, and the rest of the Harlem esoteric novelists. Carl Van Vechten had suggested to Hughes that he should write an autobiography, and by all accounts, Van Vechten shepherded Hughes through the writing of his only novel (Bernard Carl Van Vechten 204). Yet, when we find an account of the Van Vechten-Hughes relationship, it has nothing to do with literary influence—though perhaps the "primitivism" invoked is an implied negative influence:
In all fairness, an opposing, more positive series of effects can also be found in this primitivism vogue. Carl Van Vechten's 1926 novel Nigger Heaven made the important contribution of establishing the portrayal of black life as subject matter for popular literature. This idea could be taken a step further by suggesting that the works of the white primitivists helped to establish a sympathetic audience for black authors like Hughes who would treat the same subject matter. (Shields "Never Cross")Missing Van Vechten as a novelist meant also that I overlooked Van Vechten's centrality in the development of the novel by the considerable contingent of A.R. Orage's followers who were novelists. Research in this area is entirely lacking, but it is reasonable to estimate that between 1925 and the 1960s the writers who were directly influenced by Orage published hundreds of esoteric novels.
Amritjit Singh's Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923-1933 (1976, 2001) is one of the mainstays of the study of Harlem Renaissance fiction. There are twenty-three references to Carl Van Vechten in Singh's book. Singh quotes critics who speak of Van Vechten as being "an 'archaeologist of the exotic'" (22) and having "Warped Negro life into a fantastic barbarism" (24). My point is that the original assessments of Harlem Renaissance novels are not useful, and they are not concerned with literature per se; they are secondary symptoms of panic and hysteria about racial identity. Those critics quoted by Singh do not discuss Van Vechten as a novelist, so his novels do not register as influences on the Harlem writers. Singh's repetition of these outbursts is filler that does not advance the understanding of the novels of the Harlem Renaissance. Singh admits that his study is provisional and by no means definitive; however, there has been no follow-up to Singh's opening shot, and with nothing to challenge it, the book was reprinted. Here is Singh's assessment of the novelists of the Van Vechten school; and it is noteworthy that beyond the "European-American literary tradition" he established no linkage between the works that he lists:
The styles and techniques of Renaissance novelists establish them firmly in the European-American literary tradition. Many show literary affinities with their American contemporaries. …Nella Larsen's rendering of subtle shades of feeling and her handling of scenes indicate her closeness to the tradition of Henry James and Edith Wharton. …In The Blacker the Berry, Wallace Thurman deals with his heroine's bittersweet delusions over color in a tight, ironic prose style…. Arna Bontemps develops a style appropriate to the decadence and nostalgia that surrounds his subject in God Sends Sunday. Rudolph Fisher, who makes a masterly use of O. Henry's "sting in the tail" device in many short stories about black immigrants from the South, has written high comedy in The Walls of Jericho, which is a remarkable satirical portrait. George Schuyler takes both black and white Americans to task for their confusions over color and race in his Menckenian satire, Black No More. (Singh 130)
What it comes down to is that the Harlem Renaissance novels have never been properly contextualized or studied; one important factor contributing to the isolated treatment of the novels was the assumption that the Harlem writers had failed to develop into a cohesive group or movement (Singh 22), a fundamental assumption that removed the necessity to search for patterns and themes across the texts. At the same time, the Harlem Renaissance novels have been canonized, and an "industry" has been built up around the novels: works by Larsen, Thurman, Hurston, Schuyler, Fisher, Hughes, on down to minor and tangential figures like Bruce Nugent and Eric Walrond are all in print. Later novels by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West, who were not included in Singh's study, have been added to the ever-expanding chronology of Harlem Renaissance. Many of the Harlem writers are being taught at universities all over the world, and there are dissertations written about them in great number. Most of the critical works on this body of writing are grounded in the cultural studies by George Hutchinson (343 citations), Amritjit Singh (78 citations), D.L. Lewis (622 citations), and Ann Douglas (560 citations). By contrast, Jennifer A. Jordan's Aestheticism and decadence in four novelists of the twenties: Dell, Van Vechten, Hecht, and Fitzgerald (1984) has had one citation.
Eventually, I did come to realize that Carl Van Vechten's novels were the models for many of the Harlem Renaissance novels. And in turn I was to learn that the eight novels by British novelist Ronald Firbank were the models for Van Vechten's six best-selling novels. Reviewing a reprint of three early Firbank novels, Philip Womak comments that "they display a brittle, beautiful sensibility which is married to a mosaic approach to novel-writing. Without Ronald Firbank we would not have Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green. His ultimate descendant is William Burroughs…. His books are weirdly fluid tableaux" (Womak "Vainglory"). Thus Firbank's novels should be crucial to a comprehensive understanding of the background of the Harlem Renaissance novel. Firbank began publishing in 1915 and published eight novels between 1915 and 1926. He published a novel called Prancing Nigger in 1924; the British title of the novel was Sorrow in Sunlight, but it was changed for American publication at Van Vechten's suggestion (Coleman CVV 74). The relationship between the novels of Firbank and Van Vechten is completely unstudied. And Ronald Firbank's name does not appear in Singh's study—or in any other study of the novels of the Harlem Renaissance. I think that if anyone were to read the novels of Firbank and Van Vechten and then read Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter, one would suspect that at some point Hughes had come away from Van Vechten's apartment with not only Van Vechten's suggestion that Hughes should write a novel but with some of those very books by Firbank and Van Vechten.
Carl Van Vechten is only present in Amritjit Singh's study as the purveyor of a so-called fad of primitivism: Van Vechten had one significance—as the author of Nigger Heaven. Though Van Vechten had been a best-selling author who had influenced the novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, his several novels that preceded the notorious Nigger Heaven (1926) were of no interest to Singh, nor does any reference to them appear in his study. I suspect, though, that for Singh to have looked at the earlier novels would not have served any useful purpose. It seems that no one gets Van Vechten. Edward White's new biography of Van Vechten, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (2014), takes everything it discusses at face value. White proclaims that Van Vechten's treatment of the Gurdjieff movement in Firecrackers (1925) is a send-up and [ridicule] (166). Nevertheless, White seems to sense that something is not quite right, so that he calls Van Vechten's novel, Firecrackers, "abstruse." In short, I will just say that after 1925 all of Van Vechten's novels are esoteric: they are written in a phonetic code, the names of the characters are based on word games, and Gurdjieffian esoteric doctrines are inserted throughout the texts in a number of ways. All of this is invisible for White, since he has branded Van Vechten a skeptic, and he underestimates the complexity of the way the Gurdjieff Work is presented in Firecrackers.
As I show in To Make a New Race (1999), Van Vechten was on the membership list of the New York Gurdjieff group, Gurdjieff meetings were held at his apartment, and he associated with the Orageans for decades. As I show in Oragean Modernism (2013), the novels that Van Vechten wrote after 1925 —including Nigger Heaven— were "mystical realist" texts. And following the pattern of "role playing" that was part of the Oragean training, Van Vechten was not really an alcoholic: in Frank Yerby's novel, Judas, My Brother, a "legominism" (signaled by the phrase "citizens would bet on which leg a dog would hoist to wet a tree" [41; emphases added]) refers to Van Vechten's habit of pretending to be an alcoholic:
And I—I played it cunningly; I let myself be seen in my ususal haunts, swilling wine, gay, laughing, pinching every patrician female rump I passed. But that wine had been on my secret orders watered until the color was almost gone; I slept long hours during the day, added a stade to the distance I ran each dawn, lived, while seeming not to, the life of an Essene monk." (41)Van Vechten also faked the diaries that much Van Vechten scholarship is based on. This sort of "role playing"—a training exercise called "experiment"— was common among the followers of Orage, who had little interest in portraying themselves in simple, open, and direct ways. Dawn Powell, another follower of Orage, conformed to the same contradictory pattern of the alcoholic yet prolific novelist as did Van Vechten: it is likely that her extensive diaries are just as much falsifications as are Van Vechten's. Djuna Barnes is another candidate for the fraudulent alcoholic posture. All three of these figures lived into productive old age, and it should be noted that creative productivity is not commonly the pattern for the raging alcoholics that they were supposed to have been. Gurdjieff opened the door to this behavior: "The various roles that he played allowed Gurdjieff a certain advantageous fluidity of movement and even invisibility. While most people act or play roles with little awareness that they are doing so, Gurdjieff role-played with the conscious intent to fulfill his mission to transmit esoteric teachings to the West. Unfortunately, Gurdjieff's method frequently involved deceptive or deliberately manipulative behaviour" ("Deception and Role-Playing").
But it was in the New York school led by Orage where deceptive practices became the standard operating procedure, not in the European groups led by Gurdjieff himself. Gurdjieff did not pursue an outward political and social agenda; the New York Oragean school ran away with the idea of saving the world, so that they did develop the Gurdjieffian methods into techniques for social influence and political power. By 1931 the New York Orageans had begun to organize thousands of people around the protests for the Scottsboro Boys that covert Orageans had initiated. And in the Oragean texts they show themselves manipulating the Communist Party of the U.S.A.. It is perhaps not without cause that when Gurdjieff visited New York in 1931 he accused Orage of creating a group of "candidates for the madhouse" (Life 79) and ended Orage's leadership as a legitimate teacher of the Fourth Way. Orage had shaped Gurdjieff's ideas about higher consciousness into a program that advocated and carried out a radical intervention in history by the group of "supermen" that he believed that he himself had created: in essence Orage created a quasi-Nietzschean ideology united around the idea that only esotericists were truly human beings. Gurdjieff wrote a book that narrated his version of the events surrounding the dissolution of Orage's New York school, and his account is still controversial. Gurdjieff described the condition in which he found Orage's students in his usual circuitous style:
"To speak frankly, I am not yet convinced of the exact cause of the reawakening in me of this previously existing undesirable impulse; as yet I only know that the reaction to these data began gradually to manifest itself owing to the fact that during the reading of the last chapter of the first series of my writings, while sitting in the corner and observing out of boredom the expressions on your faces, it seemed clear to me that there stood out on the forehead now of one, now of another of you, the inscription 'candidate for the madhouse.'" (Gurdjieff Life is real only then, when 'I am', 79)
I will not attempt to delve into the controversies of the separation of the New York Oragean school from the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man headed by Gurdjieff. Those controversies had little bearing upon the literary production that followed in the aftermath of the split between Gurdjieff and Orage.
It is ascertainable from studying the novels published by Orage's students that Orage's school continued to function as a factory for esoteric modernist literature into the 1960s. How this new phase of the school was administered, and the nature of its goals are questions that will have to be determined through more research. But after 1931 the output of the Oragean Modernist literary school continued as a tremendous outpouring of comic novels, historical novels, and genre fictions, such as Westerns and mysteries—all with esoteric subtexts. Many of the Oragean Modernist writers were prolific and successful, or seemed to be prolific; for instance, Frank Yerby published thirty-three novels. However, the discovery of collaborations between Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston on Rawlings's The Sojourner and Laura and Thayer Hobson on the Peter Field Western novels suggests that in the future researchers must not assume that such an output as Yerby's is the work of one person.
One way to think of the energetic literary activity on the part of the Oragean writers is that it was a direct response to G.I. Gurdjieff as a writer. Gurdjieff suffered a near-fatal automobile accident in 1924. After he recovered from the accident, he changed the methodology of his teaching. Formerly, sacred dancing had been one of his central teaching techniques. After the accident, he became a writer, and the unpublished manuscript of his work in progress, Beelzebub's Tales, was read aloud at the meetings of his groups. Often there had been a specific monetary collection taken for the readings. Gurdjieff's text had a profound effect on his students, many of whom were writers. Even the manner in which he went about creating his book entranced his students, and his students left behind many accounts of the way in which he conducted his writing. He often wrote in cafes with a team in attendance. At times this team was simply seated nearby, and he ignored them as he wrote. At other times he worked in collaboration with the team; at times they answered matters of style, or they assisted by translating the book into various languages. Since he wrote in Armenian, there was a great effort directed toward producing translations of his writings into English and other European languages. But it must be emphasized that one important aspect of Gurdjieff's literary production is that it was in various ways quite invested in fantasy and mirth. The very title is indicative of the comedic and wondrous thrust of his writing: the first section of his trilogy was called Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson or An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man. As Gurdjieff described it, the purpose of this 1, 238 page novel was "To destroy, mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world." It cannot be emphasized enough that Gurdjieff set a monumental example for his literary followers by his authorship of a very unusual book; here is how two of his followers have described Beelzebub's Tales:
This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary books ever published. Its title is no exaggeration, for the book not only touches on all and every conceivable subject, but it also is all and everything—that is, a collection of science fiction tales, an allegory, a satire, a philosophical treatise, a sociological essay, an introduction to psychology, a cryptogram and, for those who follow Gurdjieff's teachings, a bible. It is a highly unusual mixture of entertainment and esotericism, humor and seriousness, obscurity and clarity. (Owens "All and Everything")A précis of the narrative is as follows:
The book is an allegory about an angel named Beelzebub who in his youth revolted against apparent injustices in the design and ordering of the universe. He tried to right the problems himself which resulted in terrible damage everywhere, and for his punishment he is exiled to the solar system "Ors" (our system) where he lives on Mars and is given the means for interplanetary travel.
Insofar as style is concerned, Gurdjieff's book could not be matched by his followers. But elements taken from Gurdjieff's book set the tone for the books by many of those who looked up to him, even writers from the Oragean camp who eventually came to demonize Gurdjieff in their writings. The most obvious quality of Gurdjieff's writings that carried over into Oragean Modernism was the exuberant spirit of Gurdjieff's comic satire. While language experiments could not be allowed to endanger the attraction of their writings to a popular audience, some liberties were taken. Carl Van Vechten used a demanding vocabulary in his novels—for example, in Parties (1930) we find psittacosis, sexagenarian, kohlrabi, kolossal, seneschal, semaphores, confreres, clement, contrariwise, and aldermanic. Other Oragean writers made intentional errors in spelling. The names of the characters often stretched credibility—e.g., Fodder-wing (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling), Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor [don't you know at night all cats are gray] (Djuna Barnes, Nightwood), and Old Man Junto (Petry, The Street), and Grafin Adele von Pulmernl und Stilzernl [listen and learn] (Van Vechten, Parties). Most of the novels ran off the rails through some manner of excess, and in some of the texts the fabric of reality simply disintegrated. For instance, in The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) Rudolph Fisher allowed two idiots to solve a murder mystery that the police could not solve. Many such impossibilities afflicted the texts of the Oragean Modernists. All of these elements contributed to the central effect of esoteric fiction, which according to Michael Walberg, is bewilderment:
"How does the master go about creating a state of bewilderment in his student and then prolonging that bewilderment until illumination occurs?", Waldberg asks. The answer in the case of Beelzebub's Tales is "by means of paradoxes, contradictions, repetitions, exclamations, apparently indolent answers or even refusals to reply, and with many other unexpected means"—all of which are used by Gurdjieff for the purpose of disabusing and then enlightening the readers about themselves and their existence. (Challenger)
So, we can expect that the comic-satiric novel written under these complex influences will be a demanding text indeed. Easily, the most deceptive text in the Oragean Modernist canon is Laura Hobson's comic novel in the Firbankian mode, The Celebrity (1951). Hobson's usual topics were social and religious prejudices, and The Celebrity was her only comic novel. If one did not know that Hobson had written it, the author guessed at would be Dawn Powell, though Van Vechten would be another likely guess, particularly since there is some sort of deeper relationship between Van Vechten's Spider Boy (1928) and Hobson's The Celebrity that remains to be determined. On the surface, both novels are about literary success and Hollywood celebrity. It is hard to know what to take seriously with both novels: Van Vechten's title, Spider Boy, seems to be a wordplay on the famous Manneken Pis statue—and so may be read as "piss boy"—perhaps a titillating in-joke. Hobson's novel is no less frivolous in its use of wordplay. The names of the characters are all familiar phrases (a common device in Oragean Modernist novels), and they modify the characters to whom they are attached in a literal manner—e.g., Gregory Johns ("honey jar"—he is the rainmaker), Thornton Johns ("horn in"—he usurps his brother's celebrity and then his earning power), and Cindy Johns ("no decency"—she is selfish and vicious). Van Vechten's Spider Boy concerns Ambrose Deacon whose play "The Stafford Will Case" has propelled him into "a broader celebrity" (7). Van Vechten's names are also couched in wordplay, but are less clear than Hobson's: Ambrose Deacon may be "road beacon," an allusion to a railroad lantern; there are other similar references to railroad paraphernalia in Van Vechten's novels. The problems in the Spider Boy narrative arise out of the fact that Deacon, as we are told, "…had written a play by accident" (11). This seems a harmless and preposterous premise for a comic novel. However, it has a very serious aspect to it, since the whole point of the Gurdjieff Work is to address the dominant role of "accident" in human life:
Under the law of accident there are two kinds of influences. One is 'life' influences and the other is 'outside of life', that is, esoteric, influences, created under different orders of laws. These 'conscious' influences have been created consciously by conscious men for a definite purpose. They may reach certain men and they may act on certain men and by this means, help them to awaken.("Law of Accident"; emphasis in original)Gregory Johns, the protagonist of Hobson's novel, The Celebrity, achieves the same accidental success as does Van Vechten's Ambrose Deacon. So, we may define the esotericism of these novels as their service as allegories of important esoteric ideas. In addition to illustrating esoteric conceptions, the novels preserve some of the history of the Oragean esoteric school.
Given the density of some of the codes involved, and the fact that the reader has no idea as to what the author intends to disclose, it is at times difficult to be sure of how the various levels of the texts are interelated. Often one finds that the special effects encoded into the novel do little more than to reveal that a code is present: then one can barely determine what the code means to disclose. For instance, if we examine the whole passage that establishes the theme of Spider Boy, here is what Van Vechten wrote:
He had not intended, in the beginning, to write a play. He had written a play by accident. To these interviewers who were bent on probing into his workshop, he was so completely inarticulate, so unsatisfactory in explanation that their ensuing articles hinted in some instances at mysticism— The New Mystic Realist was the engaging title of one of these—and in others authors pitilessly derided the playwright's clumsy efforts to maintain secrecy. Ambrose read these papers with growing alarm. (11; emphasis in original)The vocabulary that Van Vechten used in the above passage situates Spider Boy in the esoteric: Van Vechten introduces "secrecy," "mysticism," and alludes to the Gurdjieff Work ("workshop" and "engaging" [gag for G.I.G.])—all important indications of an interest in the esoteric, while raising these topics in such a prosaic manner that he does not seem to be speaking about the occult. At the same time, critics and biographers have never recognized that Van Vechten was a member of Orage's inner circle (not that Orage's circle has concerned anyone outside of Orage's circle), so it is clear that these inclusions have never been taken for what they are. Or to say it another way, Spider Boy has never been decoded, because it has never occurred to anyone that Van Vechten had any reason to encode his novels. Nevertheless, Van Vechten's and Hobson's novels are works of "objective" literature, or as Van Vechten calls them in the passage quoted above, they are works of "mystic realism." Van Vechten and Hobson modeled their novels on Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales, so above all they are not meant to be read by the usual rules by which novels are normally read. Thus, we can see that there must be several levels on which we can read both Spider Boy and The Celebrity.
The Celebrity is only of interest within the confines of this essay because it brings Maxwell Perkins to our attention. One of the subplots developed in Hobson's novel involves characters in the publishing industry who want to get rich by publishing best sellers. In the passage below, Luther Digby [lose your dignity], an editor in the house that published the protagonist of The Celebrity, is thinking about the role of the editor:
As if he were in his own office, Thorn rose and began to pace the room. Behind him Luther Digby sat motionless, watching the swing of his long legs, noting the tight muscles around his mouth. If this wasn't constructive, creative editorial thinking, what was? Ed Barnard hadn't the only editorial mind in the place, as Ed Barnard seemed to think. Barnard was always saying an editor shouldn't parcel out ideas; that an editor should only discuss, talk, encourage, listen, and then edit. If people like Barnard headed publishing houses, there'd be no money for editors' salaries. Barnard was forever citing Max Perkins as his ideal; yesterday Barnard came back from lunch and went around telling the whole office that Scribner was preparing a collection of the Perkins letters to Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe and everybody else. Well, Barnards [sic] and Max Perkins and all the other great editors could have their theories and try to sign cheeks [sic] with them. (The Celebrity Kindle Location 3792; emphasis added)
If "lose your dignity" seems a strained reading of "Luther Digby," it must be pointed out that upon the introduction of this character, the word "dignity" is used in conjunction with his appearance; three sentences further down, Digby goes on to completely lose his dignity: "At last, Luther Digby, in words he was mercifully never to recall, told her what she could do with Greenwich Village, Morningside Heights, East Orange, and the entire sovereign State of Connecticut" (The Celebrity Kindle Locations 503-509; emphases added). We are forced by the passage quoted above (from Kindle Location 3792) to notice the swinging of legs, since the word "legominism" is being invoked: the crucial word "legominism" is to be extracted from "legs" and "motionless"—and perhaps there are other clues to the word "legominism" in the nearby words, but I shall move on. The "legominism" is further established by an intentional error touching on Maxwell Perkins—another common clue used to indicate the presence of code in a passage. The passage presents Maxwell Perkins as an editor who did not "parcel out ideas." In The Awakening Twenties Gorham Munson described the process by which F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise came into being, and he stated that "[The manuscript] was returned to the author with a long letter of encouragement and suggestions for revision," which included "transposing it to the third person" (130). In 1938 Perkins made this suggestion to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: "I was simply going to suggest that you do a book about a child in the scrub, which would be designed for what we have come to call younger readers. . . . If you wrote about a child's life, either a girl or a boy, or both, it would certainly be a fine publication" ("The Making of a Publishing Success"). Any review of Perkins's career will afford other examples of his willingness to tell authors what to write and what do to improve their novels, so it is well established that in contrast to what Ed Barnard said about him Perkins did "parcel out ideas." In the system of the esoteric code adopted by Orage's followers, intentional errors ("lawful inexactitudes" in Gurdjieff's jargon) pointed to an esoteric meaning for the passage. What we read about Maxwell Perkins in The Celebrity as a hands-off editor is an intentional error used to point to Maxwell Perkins as an important member of the Oragean network. Additionally, Orage's name is coded into the passage quoted above as "encourage." The concentration on the subject of editors in the passage is another clue pointing to Orage, who was an editor of great renown. The digital copy of the novel that was used in this research was corrupt, so the mistakes in the final sentence in the quote above, "Barnards" for Barnard's and "cheeks" for checks, cannot be evaluated for intentionality. If the mistakes were introduced by Hobson, as happens in the works of other Oragean Modernists, then they are further indications of Hobson's investment in esoteric signaling. The use of mistakes by the Oragean writers is an important but troubling feature of their works. We are used to the convention of initial letters at the beginnings of chapters, but what are we to make of T.S. Matthews's novel, To the Gallows I Must Go, where chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 11 are commenced with lower-case letters? This series 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 11—not 12—represents an intentional mistake within an intentional mistake (the lower-case initials); To the Gallows I Must Go is dedicated to A.R. Orage, so it seems that To the Gallows I Must Go is the "key of keys" for Oragean Modernist comic novels. To the Gallows I Must Go is the only novel expressly identified by the Oragean Modernists as having been initiated by Orage (Munson 280). So, elements of The Celebrity that seem to be corruptions may have been provided by the author.
2. The Oragean Network in Hobson's The Trespassers
Outwardly, there seems little to connect Laura Hobson to John Dos Passos. Despite this impression, it may have been that Hobson's unsuccessful novel, The Trespassers (1943), was poorly received because of its allegiance to the compositional strategies that John Dos Passos used in the USA trilogy, an affiliation that was suggested by her reviewers. Dos Passos kept the narrative and documentary elements of his novels separate: "The novels revolve mainly around twelve characters of different social and geographical extraction whose stories are told in an eminently realistic manner. Intercut with the personal narratives, some of which spill over more than one volume, there are sixty-eight "Newsreel" and fifty-one "Camera Eye" sections, all of them written in a fairly experimental style" (Suarez 2). Hobson's The Trespassers describes the flight of refugees from Nazism; however, the novel is more a psychological than a political treatment, and one major character is a psychoanalyst. Where each novel in Dos Passos's trilogy follows several principal characters, Hobson's novel has but two story lines and is not structurally committed to documentary materials. However, the submerged documentary sections in Hobson's novel are sufficient to strain the limits of the conventional realistic novel and to bring Dos Passos to mind. It is all the more tempting to compare these texts, given that both Hobson and Dos Passos were Oragean Modernists, so they are united behind the scenes by a common cause.
The narrative, in The Trespassers, shifts back and forth between the Vederle family in Austria and Switzerland and Vera Marriner, an American socialite in New York, who is dedicated to bringing the Vederle family to America. While the tension in the European sections results from the Vederles's struggles with the Nazis and with the bureaucracy of the U.S. State Department, Vera Marriner is brought to a point of crisis and breakdown through her love affair with Jasper Crown. Through its depiction of Jasper Crown, the novel moves into its most interesting material; Jasper Crown, a radio magnate in the familiar genius-egotist mold, is reminiscent of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark (The Fountainhead ). Jasper Crown is responsible for the personal crisis that nearly destroys Vera Marriner. After reluctantly undergoing fertility treatments, Jasper Crown achieves fertility and impregnates Vera Marriner. When his radio empire is threatened, Jasper Crown decides that it is not possible for him to both run his business and to parent a child, and he orders Vera Marriner to have an abortion. While listening to the broadcast of an editorial by Crown, Vera Marriner becomes overwrought, and she has a miscarriage.
In The Trespassers Hobson has interrupted the two narratives to insert documentary materials without providing the transitional indications used by Dos Passos—the titled Newsreel and Camera Eye sections. Chapter fifteen of The Trespassers directly takes up the plight of the European exiles. The narrative begins with Vera Marriner thinking of the Verdele family, but like a cinematic shot, the scope widens to cover the entire earth, and the narrator runs through an exhaustive list of every nation that might have served as a sanctuary, ending with the elimination of every possible nation. In concluding this long section, the narrator assumes the collective voice of the unwelcoming nations to intone, "So keep moving, keep searching. Trespassers are forbidden here. We cannot let you in; it is the law, the new immigration law. Once this was a generous country, open as a meadow to any good and honest man who came to our boundaries. But not now, not today" (The Trespassers [Kindle Locations 3916-3918]). Chapter seventeen offers another documentary treatment of the processing of the appeals of the refugees by committees. In chapter nineteen there is a documentary treatment of the effects of the Spanish Civil War on displaced persons and refugees. These documentary elements break out of the two narratives that comprise the bulk of the novel, and though they serve as background to the action, they are not integrated beyond being brought in by the same omniscient narrator.
The Trespassers is an esoteric novel that follows the conventions of the Oragean Modernist design for fictional works of "objective" literature: it is over-written in the phonetic-anagrammatic code called the cabala, and it uses the cabala to allow the insertion of material taken from the Gurdjieff Work. The presence of the code in the text is signaled in the first usage of the word "cable" in the novel, "cable" being the coded rendering of "cabala." The passage that points out the use of the cabala code through the word "cable" also reinforces the identification of the cryptic nature of the language in the novel by demonstrating the phonetic nature of the cabala. Hobson inserts a phonetic-anagrammatic decipherment of the name of the Austrian psychoanalyst, Dr. Franz Vederle, who is Vera Marriner's opposite number: "You know—when your cable came," Vee confessed, "I wondered for a minute whom you meant. I'd never seen their name spelled. I guess I expected it to be F-a-y-d-e-r-l-y, the way you say it." (Trespassers Kindle Locations 591-592). By calling attention to the disparity between the pronunciation and the spelling of "Vederle," Hobson demonstrates the difference between the phonetic and written qualities of language that make the cabala code possible. In other words, this passage is the key to the coded level of the novel, alerting the reader that the novel must be read phonetically. The title, The Trespassers, is a confirmation of the phonetic key, for it informs the reader who can read the words "The Trespassers" as cabala that "[you] passed the test." If the reader can derive "[you] passed the test" from the title, then the title confirms that the inner text of the novel is now open to the reader. This device is common to many of the Oragean Modernist's texts—so that Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse says "Morse telly," a reference to the Morse telegraphic code; similarly, the tile of Hurston's play, Cold Keener, says "code key." At the next level of difficulty, the names of all of the characters in Hobson's novels may be read by means of the cabala. Vera Marriner and Jasper Crown have names that parallel their roles in the narrative. Vera Marriner decodes as "never marry," since she refuses to marry Jasper Crown. Jasper Crown —who demonstrates the traits of megalomania and narcissistic personality disorder—decodes as "no grasp," for he has no grasp of the meaning of life. The cabala is at times ambiguous, so "Franz Vederle" is something of a problem to decode: with the character's role as an exile as a guide, the name probably means "fatherlands." Inserted as more remote subtexts, the concepts of the Gurdjieff Work also inhabit the novel: these concepts include the names of the teachers Orage, Ouspensky, and Gurdjieff; concepts such as "shocks," "the laws of three and seven," and "self-observation;" and secret information about the conduct of the Oragean esoteric school.
All of the documentary and narrative materials in The Trespassers are supports for an esoteric intertext; without the motive of esotericism, the surface text would not exist, and its eccentricities are generated by Hobson's need to signal the presence of the esoteric subtext. This mode of writing is not without consequences. Those who reviewed the novel in 1943 complained about the artificiality of Hobson's characters, particularly Jasper Crown. Writing in The American Mercury, Philip Rahv stated that "One wishes, however, that Jasper Crown not quite so finished a villain" (633). Writing in The Saturday Review, G.G. Bates observes that "And Jasper Crown…a man of such vehemence, contradiction, power and weakness could never actually exist" (18). From the esoteric perspective, The Trespassers is not so much a novel as it is staging for the Oragean message: the whole apparatus of the narratives and the political interludes are but set dressing that make it possible for Jasper Crown to make a speech about his plans:
"Can't you see, it would be better? Can't you understand? I've told you before that the network is bigger than anything else, bigger than individuals, bigger than being happy. It's doing a job that must go on, it's doing it better than anybody else is doing it, when the world has got to know—" (The Trespassers [Kindle Locations 4279-4282]; emphasis added).
In simple terms, there are two networks in The Trespassers, Jasper Crowns's international radio news network and the Oragen network: while Crown seems to be speaking about the radio network, he is really speaking about the Oragean network. The Oragean network has but a vague appearance in The Trespassers, for all that Hobson allows Crown to impart is that the network exists and that the network is vitally important. We know from other texts that the ultimate goal of the Oragean network was to save the Earth from destruction, but how the network operated, and how it was organized remains mysterious. In fact, it appears that much of the time and energy of those involved in the Oragean network was spent merely alerting humanity to its existence through the obscure measures taken in the many novels written by the Oragean authors. In the passage quoted above, Hobson connects the idea of the network to the Orageans through the triple repetition of the word "bigger." This is an obscure clue for the uninitiated reader to handle, for how is the reader to understand that "bigger" is a presentation of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff's initials, G.I.G. The use of the letters g, i, and g in any order to indicate Gurdjieff is a common feature in Oragean texts, but it is of course very obscure. But this arcane level of wordplay probably accounts for Van Vechten's notorious title, Nigger Heaven. Keeping to the same idea, we can understand the esoteric import of the first sentence of Zora Neale Hurston's short story, "The Gilded Six-Bits" (1933)—"It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support." Note that the word "works" is attached to "G. and G," so that the Gurdjieff work is further emphasized. Hurston also matches Gurdjieff's name with Orages's in the same sentence, for "a Negro yard" is cabala for "Orage." In any case, Jasper Crown's "network," is the Oragean underground, so to speak: through Jasper Crown, Hobson expresses the Oragean belief that the Oragean "inner circle of humanity" is the only force in place to save the Earth from destruction by the planetary forces that are causing the catastrophes that beset the modern world.
3. The Oragean "Network" in Dos Passos's U.S.A.
I have associated Laura Hobson's The Trespassers with the style of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, and it is to Dos Passos that we must turn to see a more complete treatment of the Oragean network. Before moving into specifics, I must point out that Dos Passos joins Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, John O'Hara, Thornton Wilder, and Nathaniel West in belonging to the category of modernist writers who followed Orage and were important despite the fact that their work was never really understood. E.L. Doctorow observes that
Malcolm Cowley thought of it as a "collectivist novel" perversely lacking the celebrations of common humanity that would be expected from a collectivist novel. Edmund Wilson wondered why every one of the ordinary characters of the book went down to failure, why nobody took root, raised a family, established a worthwhile career, or found any of the satisfactions that were undeniably visible in actual middle-class American life. Others objected to the characters' lack of ideas, Dos Passos's refusal to give them any consequential thought or reflection not connected with their appetites. (Foreword to The 42nd Parallel)This is not the place for a study of the reception of Dos Passos's novels, so I will briefly quote a comment on the problems that were encountered by critics who addressed the difficulties of the Dos Passos style:
In general, critics could not help pointing out that both "Newsreels" and "Camera Eye" interludes added a certain "strangeness" to the novel. These devices made the trilogy "kaleidoscopic," wrote Upton Sinclair, with the "Camera Eye" sections as "queer glimpses of almost anything, having nothing to do with the story or stories," and the Newsreels as ""vaudeville material', some of it interesting, some funny, some just plain puzzling." (Suarez U.S.A.)Suarez goes on to point out that when they were faced with an inability to read Dos Passos, critics concerned themselves with resolving questions about narratology and sources rather than placing Dos Passos in a context that brought his texts into focus. What Dos Passos was doing could not be dismantled, because the occult is not a topic for conversation in literary studies, and thus critics remained on the outside of the Dos Passos novels.
In the vastness of the U.S.A. trilogy Dos Passos used the word "network" only one time, in "Newsreel LXI" of The Big Money (1936). The status of the word "network" as a so-called hapax legomenon ("said only once") is suggestive of its importance in the Oragean conception of the world. A close reading of "Newsreel LXI" eventually brings one to a realization of the intricate and complex manner of its composition. While "Newsreel LXI" seems to be a collage of disparate materials, it actually has narrow concerns and presents nothing that is outside of the contrivances of the Oragean Modernists. Dos Passos uses "Newsreel LXI" to relate the 1931 breakup of the Gurdjieff esoteric school into two camps—the Europeans headed by Gurdjieff and the Americans headed by Orage. In effect, Dos Passos ignores any Americans who may have remained loyal to Gurdjieff. This fracture of the Gurdjieff organization was an event that was inserted obsessively into many of the texts of Orage's followers; for instance, it takes up nearly the whole of Nathaniel West's novel, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), and it is a subplot in Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery. Once this organizational fracture has been recognized as being the real subject of Newsreel LXI, the contents of the text fall logically into place.
"Newsreel LXI" consists of snatches of four songs, four headlines, excerpts from a real estate prospectus for properties in Florida, and the description of a parade of unionized workers. In the first section of the prospectus, the name of the town, "Coral Gables," is comparable to the word "cable" in Hobson's The Trespassers: both "Coral Gables" and "cable" are ciphers that inform the reader that the text is written in the cabala code. (Right from the beginning of The 42nd Parallel Dos Passos sets up a catalog of clues to the use of the cabala: cabbage…washboilers, cabbage…smell, and "cabbage and lettuce.") More cryptographic help is given in the fourth section of the prospectus where Dos Passos describes Jupiter, Florida:
"like Aladdin with his magic lamp, the Capitalist, the Investor and the Builder converted what was once a desolate swamp into a wonderful city with a network of glistening boulevards" (Dos Passos 272; emphasis added).In the typical, exoteric way of reading Dos Passos, Rebecca Blauvelt comments that "These headlines take on special meaning for the reader who has learned that these real estate dealings are tainted by political corruption and price manipulation. He used lyrics from songs or advertisements to chronicle shifting social attitudes and set the tone for the text" ("Formalist Influence"). If instead of justifying Dos Passos's innovations through social protest and satire, we pay attention to the text as cabala—which it says it is—, it is possible to enter into a new relationship with Newsreel LXI. The real estate prospectus directs the reader to "listen," just as Van Vechten does in the Grafin's name: the instruction is present in the word "glistening." The Oragean writers must constantly urge their readers to "listen," because no one reads phonetically and anagrammatically; it is difficult to read phonetically even when one intends to do so, for it is difficult to reverse a lifetime of reading habits. Furthermore, because no one reads this way, the song lyric—that supposedly chronicles social attitudes—urges the reader to "Open your eyes." So, the reader of the text written in cabala must listen and have open eyes. The word that follows "glistening" in "Newsreel LXI" is "boulevards." The instruction is to listen and look at "boulevards." "Boulevards" is derived from "bulwark," where "wark" is the Old German word for "work." So, Dos Passos has emphasized the code in his text by bringing the reader's attention to focus on language not only as phonetics (sound) but as sight and sense. It takes sight, sound, and sense—active, analytical reading— to derive "work" from "boulevards."
The most important idea in the Gurdjieff Work is that humanity is asleep. This is, in a sense, the most radical idea that can be formulated, since in effect it outdistances the very possibility of radical action. According to the Gurdjieff Work (and Orage), the meaning of "sleep" is that if you are a radical Communist revolutionary prepared to do anything to liberate humanity, you are thereby asleep,—because your Communist beliefs have put you to sleep. Your revolution is a delusion. You can do nothing. You are not even really alive. Your revolution will conform to the Law of Eight, and in the end you will pursue a course opposite to your original goals:
In literature, science, art, philosophy, religion, in individual and above all in social and political life, we can observe how the line of the development of forces deviates from its original direction and goes, after a certain time, in a diametrically opposite direction, still preserving its former name. (Ouspensky Search 129; emphasis in the original)According to the Gurdjieffian and Oragean theory, the Law of Eight predicts that the inevitable course of activities carried out in sleep is that you will begin by demanding freedom, and in due course you will advocate for freedom under the slogan "Freedom is Slavery" without noticing the contradiction. The third section of lyrics in "Newsreel LXI" says, "Sleepy head sleepy head / Open your eyes." The paradox that the Orageans were dealing with was that people do not believe that they are asleep, so it is impossible to awaken them: thus, the truly radical idea of universal sleep is the real subject of Newsreel LXI.
As the Orageans viewed the world, the only hope for humanity was the salvation offered by the esotericists, the inner circle of humanity. But their esoteric rescue of humanity had suffered a catastrophe, or as Dos Passos puts it in "Newsreel LXI" —"GIANT AIRSHIP BREAKS IN TWO IN MIDFLIGHT." Dos Passos used the crash of the USS Macon in 1935 as a screen to allude to the split between Orage and Gurdjieff. However, the USS Macon did not break in two in mid-flight as Dos Passos states, and there does not seem to be any real crash of an airship that happened as Dos Passos described it in the Newsreel. Gurdjieff's allegorical novel Beelzebub's Tales is entirely narrated during a voyage across the universe on the "transspace" ship Karnak, so it is likely that initiates will read the airship as the Karnak. The two sections of the broken "airship" may be understood to represent Gurdjieff's Paris school—The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man— and the Oragean school in America. Dos Passos alludes to Gurdjieff's school in Paris in the Florida real estate prospectus section of "Newsreel LXI," for the phrase "Characterful Development" is a parody of Gurdjieff's "Harmonious Development":
It Is the Early Investor Who Will Share to the FullestThe overblown rhetoric of the prospectus dimly recapitulates the excesses of the style of Gurdjieff's magnum opus, Beelzebub's Tales.
"But later on, when thanks as always to the same conditions of ordinary being-existence abnormally established by them, every property inherent in the presence of three-brained beings gradually deteriorated, this 'beingableness' also deteriorated and at such a rate that the beings of the Babylonian period could use for their conversation only seventy-seven definite sounds And thereafter the deterioration continued so rapidly that five centuries later your favorites could pronounce at most only thirty-six different 'letters,' and the beings of certain communities could not articulate even this small number of separate sounds." (Tales 454)In "Newsreel LXI" Gurdjieff is "the big man with gold in his mouth." The portrayal of Gurdjieff as a villainous figure was a common feature of many Oragean Modernists texts: for instance, in Ellison's Invisible Man Gurdjieff is Brother Jack; in Tolson's Harlem Gallery he is Mr. Guy Delaporte III, the tycoon of Bola Boa Enterprises, Inc.; in Nightwood he is Count Onatorio Altamonte (cabala for "notorious cunt tamer"), a child molester; and in Larsen's Quicksand he is Rore, a cross-dressing murderer posing as his murdered wife, Mrs. Hayes-Rore [he is Rore], a prominent lecturer on "the race problem."
Dos Passos has depicted the American branch of the Gurdjieff Institute (the Oragean school) in the parade of "unionists"—a very serious pun, since according to Gurdjieff and Orage the reason man is asleep is because he lacks unity:
A detachment of motorcycle police led the line of march and cleared the way for the white-clad columns. Behind the police rose A. P. Schneider, grand marshal. He was followed by Mr. Sparrow's band and members of the painters' union. The motion picture operators were next in line and the cigar workers, the glaziers, the musicians, the signpainters and the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen followed in the order named. The meat cutters brought up the rear of the first division.The parade, then, stands not so much for the Oragean Network as for an announcement of the fact that there is an Oragean Network. The catalog of unions uses the cabala phonetic code to rather crudely present the names of the teachers—Ouspensky (musicians painters) and Orage (cigar workers order engineers). Dos Passos has inserted the names of some of the Orageans in U.S.A. but apparently not in "Newsreel LXI."
Finally, it must be pointed out that the lyric about Lulu, material that seems not to belong in "Newsreel LXI" (let us recall that the Newsreels have been said to be strange), is yet another esoteric allusion. The Lulu lyric comes in first following two headlines—one about a double suicide and the other about "drug-crazed killers"; "Newsreel LXI" concludes with another two lines about Lulu, lending the song a degree of mysterious prominence. The issue is one of control: "Lulu always wants to do / What we boys don't want her to." In the Gurdjieff Work the entity that is in control is the Moon. The Moon keeps man asleep, at war, and without a soul. Lulu is not an unlikely name for the Moon, since it is also called Luna. And, clearly, the Lulu in the song is a lunatic:
You can bring Pearl, she's a darn nice girl,
4. Maxwell Perkins and the dissemination of Oragean texts
In Oragean Modernism (2013), I point out that both Dawn Powell and Dos Passos allude to Maxwell Perkins in their novels. At that time, I was not aware of the existence of the Oragean network, as such, so I stopped short of identifying the significance of Maxwell Perkins in those texts. In Nineteen Nineteen Dos Passos revisits the split-up of the Gurdjieff work into the European and American camps using the familiar device of writing Gurdjieff's name as a variation of G.I.G.: "Joe nodded. "Took a load a molasses out on the Henry B. Higginbotham . . . Piginbottom we called her. Well, she's layin' easy now on the bottom awright ... on the bottom of the Grand Banks" (Location 5606). Maxwell Perkins is implicated by the dispute over the ownership of the Henry B. Higginbotham and the use of the name Perkins as one of the owners, not as an agent—thus an instance of an intentional mistake that lends esoteric significance:
Next morning Joe and the mate went to the office of the agent of Perkins and Ellerman, the owners, to see about getting themselves and the crew paid off. There was some kind of damn monkeydoodle business about the vessel's having changed owners in midAtlantic, a man named Rosenberg had bought her on a speculation and now he couldn't be found and the Chase National Bank was claiming ownership and the underwriters were raising cain. The agent said he was sure they'd be paid all right, because Rosenberg had posted bond, but it would be some time. (Nineteen Nineteen Location 9257; emphases added)It is hard to get used to the idea that we are to read "Perkins and Ellerman" as Maxwell Perkins, but such are the challenges of texts written in the cabala. To comment briefly, of course, "Perkins" is not in question; all that is lacking between "Ellerman" and Maxwell is the letter x. As I will show directly below, Dos Passos allows for this type of difficulty by providing the rules for reading this way in the novel itself. Rosenberg is a moderately indistinct anagram of "Orage": Orege (rsnb). The assignment of Rosenberg for Orage is confirmed by what the passage says, for the statement that "Rosenberg had posted bond" is an allusion to the incident in which Gurdjieff insisted that Orage's students sign a document in which they renounced Orage, and Orage also signed the document—thus he "posted bond." Briefly, the incident is as follows. In 1930 Orage had gone to England for a year. Late in the year, Gurdjieff arrived in New York. Orage returned to New York in January of 1931:
Before going to Chicago to visit Toomer and his group at the end of the year, Gurdjieff had re-organized the New York pupils into exoteric, mesoteric, and esoteric categories, and set a joining fee for new persons of $1.00 and $2.50 for former Orage pupils. When Orage arrived in January, the two staged a curious public drama in the form of a logomachia. or battle of words. Orage's renunciation of himself won the second round, after Gurdjieff's won the opening round by his demand that the New York Groups deny their leader" (Taylor 142).The "esoteric" purpose of the legal dispute over the sunken Higginbotham is that it allows Dos Passos to associate Maxwell Perkins with Orage. By surrounding this revelation with the history of the Gurdjieff-Orage school in New York, Dos Passos makes it possible for the reader to have some corroboration of the material that is being set forth through the veils of cabala, allusion, and wordplay.
Maxwell Perkins is met with at the beginning of The 42nd Parallel (1929)—the first volume of the U.S.A. trilogy—, when Fainy (Fenian O'Hara McCreary—though his narrative sections are given the title "Mac") turns up for an interview with Dr. Emmanuel Bingham for a job at "Truthseeker Inc." Fainy-Mac reads the doors that he passes on the way to his interview: the first door bears a strange legend and a ciphered version of Maxwell Perkins's name:
He was breathless and his heart was pounding to beat the cars when he reached the top of the fourth flight of stairs. He studied the groundglass doors on the landing:"Assurance" is the wrong word to appear on an American door; the word should be "insurance." The intentionally mistaken British term recontextualizes the information on the door as being esoteric. The Gurdjieff Work was also called the Fourth Way, because it differs from the methods for spiritual development of the fakir, the yogi and the monk. But the four doors on the fourth landing represent an order of occult methods that do not directly confront spiritual development—spiritualism ("CONTACT" with the dead), magic (Windy City Magic and Novelty company), and alchemy (Dr. Noble; alchemy was called the Noble Art). Since these methods are not the three methods (fakir, yogi, and monk) that the Fourth Way rejects, the information on the doors constitutes yet another set of intentional mistakes, further emphasizing the esoteric nature of the passage.
Dos Passos has chosen an elaborate means of signaling to the reader that the real subject of U.S.A. is the occult; but at the same time, the "legominism" is imparted through a mistaken assignment of the categories of the occult. The reader will not only have to recognize that the occult is being presented, the reader will have to work out the real contents behind the doors on the fourth landing. If we think of F. W. Perkins as Frederick William Perkins, then there is not much distance from William and Ellerman in the reconstruction of Maxwell Perkins out of F. W. Perkins through cabala. However, this "intentional mistake" is also associated with the idea of Perkins as an assurance agent—though an assurance / insurance agent—, so the associations all line up to implicate Maxwell Perkins. The idea that F.W. Perkins operates The Universal Contact Company underscores the idea of the Oragean Network, but it also casts doubt on the reality of the "insurance" company run under such a name: what sort of "insurance" might be proffered through "universal contact"?
Certainly, Orage is behind the fourth door:
The last one was a grimy door in the back beside the toilet. The goldleaf had come off the letters, but he was able to spell out from the outlines:Gurdjieff's first foray into the esoteric was as a member of a group of explorers called "The Seekers after Truth," so it is telling that the card on the door bears the name "Truthseeker Inc," since Gurdjieff is the source of the Oragean teachings. It should be noted that before reaching the final door, Mac has to undergo a reading lesson in order to decode the original name on the fourth door: he finds that it is necessary to "fill in" the peeling letters in order to make out the name of THE GENERAL OUTFITTING AND MERCHANTIZING CORPORATION—another Oragean parody of Gurdjieff's pretentious Harmonious Institute for the Development of Man. Here the symbolism is somewhat vague. Mac finds that the door bypasses the company with the name on the door and takes him to another company: this suggests that the original proprietor, Gurdjieff, is no longer present, and Orage is within. Gurdjieff's method—the Fourth Way— was distinct from the ways of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi, because it was the way of the sly man (Ouspensky 50). As such, Gurdjieff was in many intentional aspects a confidence trickster; thus it is not surprising that Mac finds Doc Bingham behind the door of "Truthseeker Inc." Wesley Beal—a critic who has no idea that Bingham is Orage—observes that
…let us consider the case of one of the trilogy's most colorful characters, Doc Bingham. Never does Bingham enjoy the spotlight of a chapter titled after his name; instead, we only see him through the character-threads "Mac" in The 42nd Parallel and "Richard Ellsworth Savage" in The Big Money. His appearance alongside Fenian "Mac" McCreary is brief, but memorable. Mac answers a want-ad listed for The Truthseeker Literary Distributing Co., Inc. by Emmanuel R. Bingham, D.D. They travel the countryside, posing as purveyors of moral pamphlets but are quick to advertise other, less pious wares: Bingham stocks such scandalous tracts as The Queen of the White Slaves and tells one mark, "We have a number of very interesting books stating the facts of life frankly and freely, describing the deplorable licentiousness of life in the big cities, ranging from a dollar to five dollars. The Complete Sexology of Dr. Burnside, is six fifty" (32). The con is up, however, when Bingham is caught in bed with a patron's wife and abandons Mac to fend for himself. He does not resurface until deep into The Big Money, when Dick Savage is assigned to handle a public relations account for Bingham, now going by "E.R. Bingham," whose latest scam involves alternative medication and diets — regimes we might label "new age" today. Again, the appearance is fleeting. Bingham, the advocate of clean living, convinces Savage to escort him around some of the city's seedy sex districts and eventually grants him the account. His only subsequent appearance in the text is indirect, as Savage and the Moorehouse PR firm lobby food legislation on his behalf and arrange favorable publicity on radio and newsreels. (Beal Network Narration)
I have given the above quote from Beal in order to provide some separation between my argument and previous interpretations of the text of U.S.A. As Beal shows, Dos Passos treats Bingham in a markedly different manner than he does the other characters in the novel. As I have stated, Beal has no idea that Dos Passos's novel is a roman a clef and that Bingham is Orage. But if we factor in what Beal contributes about Bingham as, in the first place, an oddly indistinct character and, secondly, a character with a connection to the "new age," it is possible to learn a number of important things from Beal's treatment of Bingham. Beal has indeed disclosed the centrality of the "network" in Dos Passos's conception of the novel. However, it is not the network in some general societal mode of modernity as Beal argues in his study, Network Narrative, it is the esoteric network of the so-called Truthseeker Literary Distributing Co., Inc. The entire Bingham episode must be read with a reversed polarity. Bingham has long hair and a large hat: Gurdjieff was bald and wore the fez: thus, Bingham is a presentation of Orage disguised as a Gurdjieffian con-man. Admittedly, this seems a wild conjecture. However, it must be pointed out that across the span of the dozens of Oragean Modernist novels, there are many characters who wear disguises. What definitively identifies Doc Bingham as Orage is that to test Mac, Bingham asks him to spell the word "experience," a word that was intimately connected to Orage's teaching. One of Orage's most important teachings was stated in the aphorism "Experience is another form of food" (Morris Force 5). As if the substitution of Orage for Gurdjieff were not sufficiently a joke, the name Emmanuel Bingham is a cabala-anagram for "human being." As I have stated above, according to the Orageans only esoteric initiates where truly human beings. By offering this moderately readable cipher (Emmanuel Bingham —human being [ham-man B-E-ing]) to the reader, Dos Passos hoped to coax the reader to see past the surface of the text and to read it as a series of ciphers.
In yet another reversal, the Truthseeker Literary Distributing Co., Inc. promises enlightenment and provides smut, while the coded texts of the Oragean literary network promise entertainment and provide enlightenment. It is important to realize that the Orageans passed off some of their deepest truths in such pulp effusions as the Western novels of Peter Field, novels that were actually authored by Laura and Thayer Hobson. Similarly, there are the detective thrillers of C. Daly King and the faintly prurient bodice rippers by Frank Yerby—though nothing to equal The Queen of the White Slaves (which was the title of a real melodrama by Charles Alonzo Taylor [1863 — 1942] staged on Broadway in 1903). Doubtless more research will reveal other such examples of pulp literature by the Orageans that is invested with an esoteric content. Though Dos Passos has borrowed the title The Queen of the White Slaves from a Broadway play, the esoteric meaning is quite serious. The white queen is the Moon. The whole of the Oragean doctrine was based on the idea that the Moon controls everything that happens on the Earth:
Everything living on the Earth, people, animals, plants, is food for the moon…. All movements, actions, and manifestations of people, animals, and plants depend upon the moon and are controlled by the moon…. The mechanical part of our life depends upon the moon, is subject to the moon. If we develop in ourselves consciousness and will, and subject our mechanical life and all our mechanical manifestations to them, we shall escape from the power of the moon. (Myers "Moon")It was the mission of what Dos Passos called The Truthseeker Literary Distributing Co., Inc. to liberate humanity from the pull of the Moon. Nowhere is this activity more evident than in the relationship of Maxwell Perkins and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in the writing of South Moon Under. The correspondence between Rawlings and Perkins has been published, but it betrays no interest in esotericism by either of them; as in all of the communications between the Orageans, as well as their manuscripts, the signs of their real concerns have been carefully removed. But when we look into South Moon Under, we find that the novel was specific with regard to the doctrine on the power and influence of the Moon—"He knows the deer feeds on the moon like most ary wild creeter" (Chapter XI). The doctrine is stated in reverse in accordance with the rules about writing about esoteric ideas, for the esoteric idea is that it is the Moon that feeds on the deer. What is particularly interesting about this passage is that it has always been taken at face value as though Rawlings's novel is an anthropological report on the culture of Northern Florida; many commentators assume that Rawlings is recording folklore when in reality she is disguising esoteric ideas as folklore. There is no scientific evidence that animals react to the daily movements of the Moon. Moreover, it is impossible for humans to hunt in accordance with these cycles, as Rawlings portrays them in South Moon Under. The daily movements of the Moon can only be followed through the complex calculations of highly-trained astronomers; Rawlings depicts the Florida hunters tracking the Moon by some sixth sense that has no scientific reality. It is tempting to point to this feature of Rawlings's South Moon Under as another example of an intentional mistake, but it is a very complex mistake, and because it has been entirely misunderstood, it has gone wrong (Bowles "Alligators").
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was ultimately to win the Pulitzer Prize through The Yearling, a novel that was guided through publication by Maxwell Perkins. Through Rawlings's novels the Oragean ideas were put into a wide circulation. Later, Rawlings seems to have found the writing of another esoteric novel too taxing, and she was joined in the project by Zora Neale Hurston, another Scribner's novelist that Perkins had worked with. Once the eventuality of collaborations among writers involved in "The Truthseeker Literary Distributing Co., Inc." is taken seriously, very little can be ruled out. The Orageans did not ascribe to any sort of a familiar morality, and they routinely operated through deception, trickery, and disguise. It is entirely possible that the works by such prolific writers as Frank Yerby were group efforts. This is not a random suggestion, for a preliminary study of Frank Yerby's novel Judas, My Brother suggests that it is in some measure Zora Neale Hurston's unfinished novel, "Herod the Great." The Orageans believed that they were modern day Essenes, and the Essenses play a major role in both Yerby's Judas and Hurston's Herod.
5. The "Network" in Ellison's Invisible Man
In comparison to Dos Passos's treatment of the Oragean literary network, Ralph Ellison's treatment of the network in chapter sixteen of Invisible Man is quite sharp:
"Ah, here we are, Brother Jack said, leading the way through a dark rear door to a dressing room lighted by naked low-hanging bulbs—a small room with wooden benches and a row of steel lockers with a network of names scratched on the doors. (325)However sharply presented this is, it is difficult to know what Ellison is getting at. Ellison is quite free in his use of the cabala code, so the phrase "dressing room lighted" is very likely his way of writing "legominism" and the entrance through the rear door is a comment that the word is given in reverse. (As abstruse as this is, it is in keeping with what may be found in many other Oragean Modernist texts. And of course, this was all learned from the European alchemists, so the examples go back hundreds of years.) Ellison goes so far as to use the words "steel," "locker," and "scratched" (ker—ch—ee) to phonetically encode Gurdjieff's name using the pronunciation more common in Europe—one that rhymes with kerchief. The clues are somewhat vague, so it is possible that Ellison has also sounded out Orage's name in the sentence. Invisible Man is a roman a clef, wherein the major characters are important members of the Oragean network. Curiously, Maxwell Perkins is absent from Ellison's novel, but he does include John Hall Wheelock, the senior editor who followed Perkins at Charles Scribner and Sons after Perkins died in 1947.
Finally, I will point out that the Orageans Modernists were able to produce Thornton Wilder, the only figure to win a Pulitzer prize in drama and another in fiction. Another of their number, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, won the Pulitzer prize. Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award. The prolific and financially successful Frank Yerby wrote thirty-three novels with sales during his career of sixty-two million books. This degree of literary success was accomplished because of the large number of talented writers who were producing texts within the Oragean Modernist literary system as well as the large number of Orageans who were present in the American publishing industry, many of whom owned publishing houses or were prominent editors. The presence of Maxwell Perkins in Oragean Modernist novels seems to have been a device by which they intended to signal the literary power of the Oragean Modernist literary network. In fact there were more Oragean novelists than the publishing system could (or would) accommodate. One striking example of an Oragean Modernist writer whose novels remained unpublished until very recently was Mina Loy. Loy's novels are only recently coming into print and are approaching canonization. Elizabeth Arnold describes Loy's posthumously published comic novel, Insel (written in 1931), as "byzantine and unapproachable" (179), but the text submits to analysis when it is read according to the rules of the cabala and when its wordplay is recognized as esotericism. Insel is the German word for a small island—a cay or key. This makes the word a dual language pun, for a "key" is also the means of entry to a locked container. The novel contains many occasions of wordplay with keys. The name Insel is also the key to the code in the novel. The title is the same ciphered imperative to Listen that I have demonstrated above in connection with Van Vechten ("Stilzernl") and Dos Passos ("glistening'). Once all of the novelists in the Oragean Modernist network have been identified, it will be possible to read the entire textuality as a metatext that will divulge a picture of the entire enterprise. In this way it will perhaps be possible to recover some understanding of the totality of the Oragean Modernist literary movement.
Bates, Gladys Graham. "Modern Mixture" [a review of Laura Hobson's The Trespassers]. The Saturday Review. Sept. 18, 1943: 18.
Beal, Wesley. "Network Narration in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy." Digital Humanities Quarterly.
Bernard, Emily. Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: a portrait in black and white. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012.
Blauvelt, Rebecca. "Formalist Influence on American Modernism and Modern America."
Bowles, Richard. "Alligators may help you find, catch fish." Outdoor Journal. Gainesville Sun. Oct. 18, 1987. 11D.
Bygraves, Max. "Don't Bring Lulu."
Challenger, Anna. "The Tales Themselves, An Overview." Gurdjieff International Review.
Connelly, Joan Breton, "The Parthenon Enigma," New York Times, Sunday Book Review, Jan. 23, 2014.
Doctorow, E.L. Foreword. New York: Mariner Book, 2000. Kindle Edition.
Dos Passos, John. U.S.A. New York: The Modern Library, 1937. [Online Digital Edition from Osmania University Library. Read as a Kindle.]
Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920's New York: Farrar, Straus, 1995.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1972
Heap, Jane. "Dear Tiny Heart," the letters of Jane Heap and Florence Reynolds.
Hobson, Laura. The Celebrity. New York: Open Road. Kindle Edition. ND.
Hurston, Zora Neale Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (2009-03-17).
Hurston, Zora Neale. "The Gilded Six-Bits."
Hutchinson, George. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Jordan, Jennifer Ann. Aestheticism and Decadence in Four Novelists of the Twenties: Dell, Van Vechten, Hecht, and Fitzgerald. "Law of Accident." [Fourth Way Gurdjieff Ouspensky School].
Lewis, David L. When Harlem Was In Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Loy, Mina. Insel. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1991.
Mistleberger, P.T. "Gurdjieff, Beelzebub, and Zecharia Sitchin", The Vatic Project.
Morris, L. S. and B. B. Grant. The Force Of Gurdjieff, A. R. Orage's group talks (Volume 1). Printed by CreateSpace, 2013.
Munson, Gorham. The Awakening Twenties. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.
Myers, Richard. "Gurdjieff, the Moon & Organic Life." The Gurdjieff Journal. 2009. http://gurdjiefflegacy.wordpress.com/article/gurdjieff-the-moon-organic-life-rwersjeofjp9-11/
Ouspensky, P.D. In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. http://www.gurdjieff.am/in-search/index.pdf
Owens, Terry Winter. [Commentary on] "All and Everything Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson." Gurdjieff International Review.
Rahv, Philip. "Four New Novels." The American Mercury, November 1943. 629-634.
Shields, John P. "'Never cross the divide': Reconstructing Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter. African American Review. 1994. 28. 4: 601-13.
Singh, Amritjit. The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923-1933. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Univ Press, 1976, 2010.
Taylor, Paul Beekman. Gurdjieff's America. London: Lighthouse, 2004
Woodson, Jon. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.
Jon Woodson is a Graduate Professor of English at Howard University. His critical studies include Oragean Modernism: A lost literary movement, 1924-1953 (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissnce (University Press of Mississippi, 1999), Anthems, Sonnets, and Chants: Recovering the African-American Poetry of the 1930s (Ohio State University Press, 2010), and A Study of Joseph Heller's Catch-22: Going Around Twice (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001). He has also written a comic novel, Endowed (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012). More can be found at Prof. Woodson's Amazon.com page. A related essay can be found at "Anthroparody: Zora Neale Hurston's 'The Characteristics of Negro Expression' and the Real Characteristics of Black Expression."