Introducing "Tenacious Magic": An Emergent Serial Story About Katherine Mansfield and Me...Written by Us
For the next 6 months, I will be offering weekly installations of a story that came to me a few years ago, which remains unresolved and unfinished. I want to finish it together.
Remember the tenacious magic and poisons and dreams — you wanted to see,
you bound your two eyes shut so as to see, without knowing how to open the other.
–René Daumal, Memorables, 1942
I feel afraid, in the good way…in the way that is vulnerable, exhilarating, and critical to expanding oneself. I want to share something with you that is quite personal and unpolished…rather raw, actually.
In 2018 I wrote a story about Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand writer who made a name for herself as part of the Bloomsbury group in the early 1900s. The story came to me through a series of visions and channeled messages from about 2011-2018. During that period, I sometimes felt Katherine’s presence with me so viscerally I believed I must have been her in a previous life. Precise details of her life and experience came to me…details I was often able to confirm later. I felt her, smelled her apartment in London, understood reasons for decisions she made that historians have lost. When I read her short stories, I remembered her writing rhythm and realized I write in a similar fashion. I felt her passions and disappointments as if they were mine. It was the first time my empathic gifts had extended to someone no longer on this plane, a person from “the past.”
As soon as I “met” her, I felt a number of connections with Katherine: as women struggling with the impossible task of making meaning of modernity; as writers exploring the limits of storytelling to transform reality; as empaths obsessed with human nature and critical of social niceties; as wild, untamable women who end up causing trouble as they buck convention; and as spiritual seekers entangled with powerful male teachers. There were times our biographies overlapped so completely it seemed I was living a reverberation of her life one hundred years later. I wondered if I was there to pick up where she’d left off or if we were meant to parallel-process the trauma of being literary witches in a world without magic.
Katherine’s life was short—she died from tuberculosis at the age of 34—and well-chronicled. Her childhood in New Zealand was a common subject of her writing and her rise to fame in England was filled with the colorful characters of the time: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Lady Ottoline Morrell. But, the part of her life that spoke to me most insistently was the end. She spent the last four months of her life living and studying with the mystical teacher, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, at his newly-opened Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man (“The Prieuré”) in Fontainebleu, France. She died there in early 1923 in his care.
I wanted to know what happened between Katherine and Gurdjieff in those four months. In limited letters from that time, Katherine alluded to feeling changed completely, like she’d found the answers she’d been looking for her whole life. Though her death at a crackpot commune was sensationalized by the press, it did seem like she’d gotten what she’d gone for. And yet…here she was haunting me like she had something more to say. Was there something to reveal about her experience? Was there something unfinished?
I had dreams and visions that revealed parts of the story. The more I saw, the more I could relate. My curiosity was piqued by this final chapter of her life at the Prieuré because I was at that time, engaged in a deep spiritual communion with a Gurdjieffian man in NYC. I will call him H. Mysterious, possessed of enormous metaphysical powers, timeless in his dress and habits, I often wondered if he was even real in the material world or merely a figment of my imagination.
For three years I took the subway weekly to his office on the Upper East Side and engaged in a practice of “self mastery” that was inspired and influenced by Gurdjieff and tantra. H guided me skillfully through a Kundalini awakening, which is the mystical key to eternal life…and I think what Katherine was seeking when she went to the Prieuré, being as she was, on the verge of death and abandoned by Western doctors. Did she get it? Did her soul awaken before the body died?
There were times when H talked about The Work (Gurdjieff’s body of work) as if he’d developed it himself. It was H who planted the seed of Katherine’s consciousness within me through the power of suggestion. Eventually, I came to believe that H was Gurdjieff...maybe not literally, but in the same way I was a reverberation of Katherine.
When we met, H and I were both married and our work together was strictly, almost ridiculously platonic. He wouldn’t even touch my hand in greeting when I entered his space. While working with H, I had a child and my difficult marriage began to unravel. I knew almost nothing about H’s personal life, except that he had children and a marriage that was also on the rocks. Once the space had opened for seeing other people, our coming together felt like a refuge: affection we were both craving. It was a perfectly fine impulse between two consenting adults, but it was complicated enormously by the imbalance of spiritual power and expectations.
Looking back, I do not believe I had much choice in the matter. I was helpless to stop what was unfolding. That scares me now and I have come to regret it, though I was happy then…Briefly, I was ecstatic and felt like a queen. I loved him or thought I did. I was possessed by the intense reverence a student has for their guru. The way Rumi loved Shams, I loved H. He was a masterful teacher and he was shaping me like wet clay, changing my life forever. When he extended the offer to engage physically, I couldn’t resist. I was also confused. I believed it was the next phase of the tantric practices we’d been exploring together. I was in a mystical paradigm when we first kissed. I believe now he was in a carnal one.
That discrepancy, that lack of shared awareness, was the end of our union altogether. As soon as the relationship took this turn, it was doomed. Within a matter of weeks in the late summer of 2012 we stopped seeing each other. It was me who ended it, which felt like a trial…an initiation…a re-commitment and reconnection of myself to myself. Nonetheless, I was deeply depressed and lost for the better part of a year afterwards.
My spiritual path took many turns from there—always tantric in nature, always of the body, always with an emphasis on integrating the masculine and feminine polarity into oneness. I studied with many capable and loving teachers…still do. I was, after that, highly attuned to the risk of a male-female teaching dynamic turning towards the physical. I averted catastrophe with a bypassing Swami and discouraged the interests of young men attending my own classes.
2017 was the year the #metoo movement rocked the culture. I wondered as each corporate executive and guru—mostly, if not all, male—fell from grace, if I needed to share my story about H publicly. In some ways, it fit the complaint. I considered whether sharing would liberate me or help me reclaim the part that had felt confused and overwhelmed by the experience. But, I found the movement too oriented around shaming tactics and lacking an interest in nuance and compassion. It didn’t feel like the way I wanted to process my story, but it did bring it back into my awareness.
I don’t think it was coincidental that Katherine’s story also came back into my consciousness at that time. I had suspected from the start that Katherine and Gurdjieff had become lovers during those days at the Prieuré. He built her a special loft in the cow barn for convalescence, but it was also a place that could have been used for private rendezvous. I could find no speculation about this in written accounts of the time, but for some reason this is what she seemed to be screaming at me across the divide of time and space. This felt like a clue to the bigger puzzle we were both pieces in.
When I learned that they’d both been buried in the same cemetery in Fontainebleu, just feet apart (though 26 years apart), I knew I had to go visit. I wondered if a pilgrimage would help me reveal the truth. I wanted to reconnect with Katherine’s spirit to know more so I could serve her needs and possibly my own. In April of 2018, I took a trip with my daughter. The story I wrote on and after that trip, Tenacious Magic, is the unfinished piece I now want to finish…
…with your help.
2023 is the 100th anniversary of Katherine’s death. I feel that something is once again stirring within me, a powerful force. I believe there is an aspect of Katherine’s liberation that is being worked out through the re-telling of her story and an aspect of my integration that will happen as a result. I want to do her—and all women—this service.
We know from her journals that Katherine was yearning for deeper impact with her work. She was trying to integrate into her worldview, a spirituality of the body that her sickness had forced her to seek. For her, art and spirituality were one-and-the-same. For me, too. Art can liberate as surely as a conventional spiritual practice…maybe even more effectively for some of us. It can help us transcend, but also “descend” to be more present in our lives; healing and integrating the past; and helping us change our story of reality to a healthier, more whole one.
In 2018, during the main burst of writing, I was searching for accounts of her last days at the Prieuré and came across an essay by A.R. Orage. Orage was a close friend and literary collaborator; an editor who was always a champion of Katherine’s genius. He went to visit her in Fontainebleu and wrote a brief and moving account of their conversation that was published in his magazine, The Century, in November 1924, the year after Katherine’s death.
When I first read this essay, I felt like I was there in the room. I felt Katherine sending me a telegram from the beyond. In it, she tries to articulate to Orage the artistic and spiritual vision that is dawning on her. A great artist, she was receiving a download from the future (inspiration) and now she was sharing it back to me from "the past." She died too quickly to enact it, but in this conversation she left some instruction. She says to Orage of her old stories, “There is not one I dare show to God.” And then illuminates a way of writing that is elevating, active, transformational…I dare say, healing…a transmuting use of art to celebrate the virtues and not the vices of life. We might call this a Protopian vision (thank you). I call it alchemical. She says:
Minor literature has a didactic object. But the greatest literature of all—the literature that scarcely exists—has not merely an aesthetic object, not merely a didactic object, but, in addition, a creative object: that of subjecting its readers to a real and at the same time illuminating experience. Major literature, in short, is an initiation into Truth.
Katherine goes on to describe the limited lens of a single writer—limited to their own attitude and view of the world. She wanted to see an expansion of perspective and thereby an expansion of the impact of art/literature on the world. For her, this meant that the writer must cease to be a passive observer, conveying experiences as mere reflections of reality…cynical and subjective, and become an active creator of better worlds. She called this “a creative attitude towards life.”
Life can be made to appear anything by presenting only one aspect of it; and every attitude in us—every mood, I mean to say—sees only one aspect…[The Artist] is passively victimized by the partial vision imposed on him [by his mood or temperament or level of development] and this, in its turn, is without dynamic quality. Such reflections of life have the effect of reflections in a looking-glass of real objects; that is, none whatever.
She saw that passive writers transmit an attitude of passivity in readers; and limited views in writers make for limited experiences of what life is. She wanted this to change. She believed the change was in the hands of the writer: a kind of moral responsibility to self-improvement and development of consciousness. But standing where I am—100 years later, exactly!—I can see another piece. There is a possibility that active readership and actual participation in the co-creation of the story would widen the lens of the art enormously! Together, we take a creative attitude towards life and art—we participate in what we create and it is richer for all of the diversity of views and experiences included.
This is where I need your help, dear readers.
I want to see what is trying to emerge here through Katherine’s story and the way it interweaves through mine. I have no idea where this will go. I have thousands of words already written, so we have a scaffolding to work with.
The way I see it working is like this:
Every Friday I will release a “chapter” of the story to my paid subscribers who will be encouraged to comment, offer impressions, and make suggestions about the characters and the action. I also plan to host periodic ZOOM discussions at pivotal moments in the story so we can collectively feel into the narrative and process what is coming up. From time-to-time I might offer an update to unpaid subscribers so you can keep up with the broad strokes. If you feel like this experiment is of interest, something you’d like to be a part of, please subscribe. Your financial support will literally make this possible.
While the main protagonists are women, this is an alchemical and archetypal investigation. I’d love to have men present for the creation. It feels like the story will be most complete and balanced if both men and women work on it together. We may even try to write some of it from the perspective of the male characters. I don’t know, yet.
Here are some of my personal intentions. If this calls to you and you want to participate, I’d love to hear your intentions in the comments.
I want to get clear on how to really honor the feminine and responsibly handle the strength of the polarity between the masculine and feminine on the path to spiritual awakening.
I want to resolve unconscious missteps on both sides by understanding the cultural and historical context that created them.
I want to honor the life and work of a great woman writer by bringing to light some lesser known aspects of her search and her soul.
I want to play and open the creative process to explore what happens when a collective tunes into a story and feels their way forward towards resolution together.
I want to co-create, as Katherine says, an initiation into Truth.
It’s scary to propose a version of history that is completely speculative and possibly controversial, but it’s also fun. Why not? Katherine was an unconventional and experimental person. This was part of her art and the way she lived her life. I believe she is behind this project, encouraging me to be brave, to look deeply, to see clearly. I pray as I open the door again to the writing (her artistic gift) she will be with me, guiding me with her characteristic acerbic wit and penetrating insight.
I have never done something that might fail so blatantly and publicly. But, that’s the power of experimentation and I think we have to try. Will you join me?
The first installment of the story will be published tomorrow, Friday, to all subscribers—paid and unpaid. Thereafter, the pieces will be reserved for paid subscribers. I hope you will find it worth your time, resources, and energy. It will be what WE make it.
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Whew what I'm getting here "Is it possible to write in such a way with help from co-creators not an accounting of but a resolution of what is happening?"
Communal Healing Art!