Sunday, February 23, 2014
The University of Chicago Press has released an English translation of Gendun Chopel’s Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler. Gendun Chopel, who was born in Tibet in 1903, was recognized as an incarnate lama as a boy. He traveled in India and translated a number of Sanskrit texts, including the Bhagavad-gita into Tibetan. His Grains of Gold sought to inform Tibetans of the state of India as he found it and as it had been. Of interest is his reference to Blavatsky in Chapter 17:
I think that she was some kind of incredible self-made yogini. In any case, she was someone who had attained magical powers. When she was a child, she was blessed in a dream by two Tibetan lamas named Mura [Morya] and Gutumé [Khoot Hoomi]. Then she began experiencing a kind of vision, until in the end she actually met them, like one person talking to another. They instructed her in everything, matters both subtle and coarse. When I carefully read her extensive stories about them, sometimes it reminds me of Guhyapati (Varjapāni) that appeared to Lekyi Dorjé.…As to making an unequivocal judgment about this, I have no idea.
The story of how the manuscript survived his death in 1951 as well as incidents in Gendun Chopel’s life is told by the translators, Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr, in their Introduction. The book contains a number of surviving watercolours that the author had planned for the text.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
* Bucerius Kunst Forum in Hamburg has on view until May 11 the exhibition Mondrian. Color, which focuses on the painter’s use of colour and acknowledges the influence of Blavatsky on his theories. The exhibition includes 40 key works from the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. The German paper Weser Kurier in its review of the exhibition comments on Mondrian’s familiarity with Blavatsky:
Starken Einfluss übte auf ihn aber auch das 1888 erschienene Buch „Geheimlehre“ der deutsch-russischen Okkultistin und Gründerin der „Theosophischen Gesellschaft“, Helena Blavatsky, aus. Bilder wie das auratisch aufgeladene 1908 entstandene Mädchenporträt „Andacht“ in leuchtendem Orange huldigen der theosophischen Vorstellung eines im Universellen der Natur aufgehenden Individuums.
* “Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History” by Michael Bergunder, in the January online issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, makes a claim that is not usually stressed:
There is strong textual evidence to suggest that M. K. Gandhi's notion of Hinduism, his specific view of Christianity, and his general belief that all religions refer to the same truth were shaped by esotericism, namely the Theosophical Society and the Esoteric Christian Union.…it is argued that the impact of esotericism on global religious history, from the nineteenth century to early twentieth, needs to be investigated with more academic rigor.
Madame Blavatsky is the founder of the Theosophical society and widely regarded as the bringing new age religion to America. This colourful Russian heiress ran away from marriage to a much older politician at age 19 to travel the world. A highly accomplished and talented young woman, she met her “Master” in London and consequently followed him to India and Tibet where she studied Mysticism. Here her biography gets hazy and nobody is sure where truth meets fiction but she came to New York in 1873 to start the theosophy society.…Such an strong, defiant polarising woman should make a great subject for a show.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
The name of Charles Johnston (1867-1931) may not be as well-known as that of other nineteenth century theosophists, yet to his contemporaries he was considered a main conduit for translations of Hindu religious scriptures, having become proficient in Sanskrit during his stay in India. The site Universal Theosophy has put up what must be the most comprehensive compilation of his writings: 265 items culled from turn of the century theosophical journals. The material is sorted by title, by type (book, pamphlet), and in chronological order, which allows a year by year indicator of his output, starting in 1886 and ending with his death in 1931.
Johnston, born in Ireland, was part of the Dublin theosophical scene of the 1880s that included George W. Russell (Æ) and W.B. Yeats among others. He married Blavatsky’s niece Vera Zhelihovsky in London in 1888, and in 1896 the couple moved to the U.S. where they would spend the rest of their lives. The Johnstons became actively involved in the cause of Russian refugees at the outbreak of World War I. Johnston is listed as “Teacher of English Language” at the New Jersey Seminary of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1918. Among his written pieces are a number of interesting pen-portraits of his visits with Mme. Blavatsky.
Seated: Mme. Blavatsky and her sister, Vera Zhelihovsky
Standing: Vera Zhelihovsky Johnston, Charles Johnston, and Col. Olcott
Sunday, January 19, 2014
One of the crazier things written about H.P. Blavatsky was that her first book, Isis Unveiled, was derived from Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii. A very learned and reasoned study by S.B. Liljegren, Bulwer-Lytton’s Novels and Isis Unveiled, was published in Upsala, Sweden, in 1957; in it he argues that since part of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel describes the cult of Isis, and since Blavatsky’s book was titled Isis Unveiled, there is an obvious influence. No matter that the book’s title was chosen by the publisher, or that it’s editor could note that this choice was singularly unfortunate (“This work of Madam Blavatsky is largely based upon the hypothesis of a prehistoric period of the Aryan people in India, and in such a period the veil or the unveiling of Isis can hardly be said to constitute any part”), for Liljegren Bulwer-Lytton was her inspiration. Unfortunately in emphasizing this idea he diminishes or simply ignores the possibility of other possible influences.
The story of Pompeii, the Roman city near modern Naples, destroyed and preserved in volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, has been a familiar motif in European literature and the arts since its rediscovery and subsequent excavation at the end of the eighteenth century. Bulwer-Lytton’s contribution, The Last Days of Pompeii, with its recreation of the life of an ancient Roman city broadened its popularity. Film has been especially kind to it with almost a dozen adaptations of the story of the doomed city and love amid the ruins. The news of still another recreation, Pompeii, to be released at the end of February 2014, shows that its charm has not lessened.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
* The Economist of London for January 18, 2014, reviews Wendy Lesser’s new book Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The reviewer mentions in passing:
James Wood, a British critic, fell in love with Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary…Henry Miller, though born to Lutheran parents in New York, had a liking for Plutarch, Petronius, Marcel Proust and that dotty Russian theosophist, Madame Blavatsky, the original New Ager. How do people know this? Because both authors came clean about their literary passions. Writers are made by their reading, which is why it is such fun to peer at their bookshelves and inspect the dog-eared pages, the turned-down corners.
* The London Spectator of January 18, 2014, in its review of Helen Trinca's biography of the Australian writer Madeleine St John (1941-2006) published last year, draws our attention to the following:
It took her a long time to become a published writer, and she only started writing fiction after spending almost ten years in the 1970s and 1980s struggling with a biography (unpublished) of Madame Blavatsky.
It would have been an interesting combination. Helen Trinca writes that someone who saw the manuscript recalled that it was “a critical look at Blavatsky.…Little was known of Blavatsky’s childhood, and Madeleine had opted to write a ‘creative’ version of her early years. She had written a ‘tremendously sensitive picture of what it was like to emerge as a little girl in such a world, at such a time’. But merging that story with factual narrative was difficult, and Madeline had not managed to tie the threads of the book together.”
Apparently, the book had failed to excite a publisher and the author eventually destroyed the manuscript, but it spurred her to become the literary sensation that she was.
Thursday, January 9, 2014
This year’s New Zealand Fringe Festival in Wellington runs from February 4 to March 4. Among the myriad assortment of events offered will be a theatre piece “Madame Blavatsky and the Astral Light,” directed by Julia Campbell and Catherine Swallow and written by Renee Gerlich. The play will be staged atop the Wellington Botanic Gardens, in a marquee in partnership with Carter Observatory. According to the Festival’s Press Release for it:
Occultist and mystic Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891) sought to unify scientific and spiritual investigation in an attempt to reach a universal brotherhood of followers. Contemporary and historic interpretations paint a divisive picture of this formidable woman, who shunned Darwin and predicted the divisibility of the atom. This new work focuses on Blavatsky’s life and character in parallel with significant developments in the physics of the time, particularly the distribution of electricity by Thomas Edison and his contemporaries. She was the co-founder of the Theosophical Society which still exists today.
Performers use puppets, physical theatre, music and human generated electrical sources to explore Blavatsky’s influence on significant thinkers of the time, including the poet WB Yeats. Using a variety of nontraditional effects, Campbell and Swallow will explore what it may have been like for nineteenth century travelling players.
Performance dates: February 13 to 16, 2 PM and 7 PM. Duration 60 minutes. Since this will be an outdoor performance, warm clothing and something to sit on is recommended.
Thursday, January 2, 2014
* The mixed martial arts site, MMA Fighting, provides an indicator of another level of diffusion of Blavatsky’s name recognition. Reporting on the results of a fight, the writer, Chuck Mindenhall, says that one of the veterans of this sprawl-and-brawl scene, correctly predicting the outcome of the game, had “turned into the Madame Blavatsky of the fight game.” !
* The Atlantic for December 30 looks at the results of a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. “Across five experiments, 701 participants ‘were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus.’”
The emotions were generated by having the subjects read short stories or watch movies. On a blank, computerized figurine, they were then asked to color in the areas of their body where sensations became stronger (the red and yellow) or weaker (blue and black) when they felt a certain way.
These color equations of emotions offer a curious illustration to Blavatsky’s color scheme taught to her esoteric students and the later work of Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater’s influential books on the color of thought forms.