Aphorisms by Jean Toomer

Yesterday came across a copy of Essentials, self-published by Jean Toomer (Geary’s Guide, pp. 203-204) in 1931. Toomer was of mixed racial descent and as a child attended both all–white and all–black schools. His most famous book is Cane, a series of poems and stories about African–Americans and the experience of racism in the U.S. Toomer penned one of my all-time favorite aphorisms:

Man is a nerve of the cosmos, dislocated, trying to quiver into place.

In the mid–1920s, Toomer traveled to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fountainbleau, France to study with the Greek–Armenian mystic Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff was in the habit of inscribing his aphorisms on the walls of the Institute, and it is there that Toomer came across this saying: “Remember you come here having already understood the necessity of struggling with yourself—only with yourself. Therefore thank everyone who gives you the opportunity.” “The saying took hold of me,” Toomer wrote afterward, “found purchase in my very roots … Thank everyone who calls out your faults, your anger, your impatience, your egotism; do this consciously, voluntarily.”

During his own lectures on Gurdjieff’s teachings, Toomer wrote aphorisms on index cards and passed them through the audience, asking participants to discuss the meaning of the sayings. In the late 1930s, Toomer founded his own alternative community, the Mill House Experiment, modeled on Gurdjieff’s Fountainbleau institute, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Here is a selection of aphorisms from Essentials not included in Geary’s Guide

Science is a system of exact mysteries.

Do now what you won’t be doing an hour from now.

Those who seek peace too often find comfort.

Men are inclined either to work without hope, or to hope without work.

All our lives we have been waiting to live.

Tell me the person’s strongest resistance and I will tell you what he most wants.

Two asses do not make an owl.

Whatever stands between you and that person stands between you and yourself.

Each of us has in himself a fool who says I’m wise.

People are stupid not because they do a thing but because they repeat it.