With a once oracular aphorism that has been diminished to a tragic commonplace, W. E. B. Du Bois stated in 1903 that "The problem of the twentieth Century is the problem of the color line" (The Souls of Black Folk 239). I have recalled Du Bois's poignant assessment to place in perspective the careers of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (mystic, psychologist, writer, composer, and teacher of sacred dance) and Jean Toomer (African-American avant-garde writer, social visionary, and disciple of Gurdjieff). A contemporary reading of Du Bois's statement is likely to overlook its implication of the imperiled nature of modern life that was becoming apparent at the turn of the century. Only against the background of widespread belief in imminent social collapse can modernist activities be effectively grasped. The essence of Gurdjieff's message and the agitated reaction of Jean Toomer and Gurdjieff's many other disciples reveal a meaningful pattern in which we see people embracing ideas, methods, and solutions to problems that in retrospect may appear absurd. However, at the time these reactions seemed to be appropriate to people engaged in a desperate search for some means of saving themselves and the world.
Gurdjieff came to America on a mission to save the world. His slow passage began with arduous and mysterious studies in central Asia and moved to the formation of his early esoteric schools in Czarist Russia and Turkey and finally to Europe during the tumultuous years after World War I. Only after harrowing experiences in postwar Germany, a failed attempt to resettle in England, and the establishment of a permanent school in France was Gurdjieff was able to launch his American campaign in 1923. He traveled to the industrialized nations of Europe and America to introduce and establish a new teaching, one that would keep the world from destroying itself. He was in search of students to help him achieve this aim. In no way seeking to disguise the desperation that propelled his efforts, Gurdjieff declared: "Unless the 'wisdom' of the East and the 'energy' of the West could be harnessed and used harmoniously, the world would be destroyed" (Patterson xv).
Gurdjieff's assessment of the course of the historical period in which he lived clearly categorizes his response to the cultural matrix as modernist. Peter Fritzsche (10) states that
The epistemological and aesthetic dimensions of modernism signal the discontinuous nature of social experience in the last centuries. Rather than a progressive articulation of power and possibility, civilization records the merely tentative security achieved in the face . . .