Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Secret Doctrine Reviewed

The April-June 2010 Beacon magazine from the Lucis Trust carries a perceptive review of Michael Gomes’ edition of The Secret Doctrine. Gomes “brings a fresh and clearer insight to this important work,” says the reviewer who goes on to write:

many will find this annotated abridgement a useful primer for the original Secret Doctrine, for having grasped the basic ideas, the details and finer points presented in the original become easier to comprehend. Mr. Gomes has done a service in presenting the essence of The Secret Doctrine with this abridgement. By scaling back The Secret Doctrine, not only do the core teachings become more readily accessible, but potentially this abridgement provides a clearer access to the intuitive and transforming experience in consciousness, at the core of the original, as well.

Theosophy in Australia announced it in the November 2009 issue under the heading, “Major Publishing Event,” noting “To have had The Secret Doctrine published by Penguin is a major achievement in itself, but the present work also manages to make accessible to the reader of today a nineteenth century classic of esoteric literature, that was itself based on arcane all-but-incomprehensible texts.”

The End of the World as We Know It

Sooner or later anyone doing research on Helena Petrovna Blavatsky will come across the website Blavatsky Archives. Started by Daniel Caldwell of Tucson, Arizona, in the U.S., it is a massive collection of historical material about HPB, primarily 19th century and often from hard to find sources, as well as a lengthy selection of Mr. Caldwell’s self-published writings. Critics have assailed him since some items are not HPB-friendly. One thing is certain, Blavatsky Archives, now part of the larger Blavatsky Study Center, has changed the way people do research on the subject.

In response to our query about this, an old-timer replied:

You can’t imagine how different it was just some forty years ago. So little was available. Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves was out of print till 1975. One read through the available sources, digested it, and was spurred on to the next layer of hard-to-find material, often having to travel to libraries and out-of-the-way places. It was almost like an archeological dig, sifting layer by layer. Now all this has changed and there is a surplus of material, good, bad, and unoriginal, available at the click of a mouse. So the ability one developed through this sifting process is lost, and the discernment that comes with it, as well as the breath of scope from actually interacting with the documents, magazines, journals, as opposed to extracted material. People may know more but be less insightful in their opinions.

Perhaps new skills will develop from trying to make all the disparate images of HPB now so abundantly available fit. It is doubtful that anyone will want to go back to those days of effort and enquiry now that everything is so easily accessible thanks to Daniel Caldwell’s brainchild. If you don’t know it by now, Blavatsky Archives can be accessed here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Future of Theosophical Publishing

A reader sent the following video with this note:

Here’s an adorable, tricky and clever video on the future of publishing, courtesy of the Penguin folks, who produced it for an internal presentation and then released it into the wild after everyone loved it. Be sure to watch to at least halfway, when the clever gets visible.

Add “theosophical” before “publishing” and “books” and it becomes an even more accurate representation of the state of affairs. The 2:26 minute video can be seen here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

When Academics get it Wrong

Here is a sampling of references to Blavatsky in a few recently published books by people who make their living teaching at American colleges.

* Mark Singleton’s thesis in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, February 10, 2010. 272 p. hardback, $99.00) is that “yoga as it is popularly practiced today owes a greater debt to modern Indian nationalism and, even more surprisingly, to the spiritual aspirations of European bodybuilding and early 20th-century women's gymnastic movements of Europe and America, than it does to any ancient Indian yoga tradition.”

Blavatsky (and Swami Vivekananda) are held up as the authorities who helped fuel the initial “distain and distrust” for hatha yoga practices. Page 77 briefly explores HPB’s views on the subject. “Baleful propaganda such as this from the doyenne of late nineteenth-century Asian esoterica substantially contributed to shaping the attitudes that show up in contemporaneous translations of hatha texts…” There is an interesting bit of information about Dr. N.C. Paul (Navīna Candra Pāla), whose 1850 A Treatise on Yoga Philosophy was reprinted in 1888 as part of Tukaram Tatya’s theosophical series, and whom HPB cites, but not much else for readers of this site to pay $99.00 for.

Mark Singleton teaches at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

* In chapter 2, “Laying the Foundation for American-Style Hinduism,” of Lola Williamson’s Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion (New York: NYU Press, January 1, 2010. 272 p. hardback, $75.00, paper, $23.00) there is mention of the contribution of the Theosophical Society, along with Emerson and New Thought, preparing Americans for “Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements”. Williamson’s statement that Blavatsky “claimed to have received written communications from two dead Tibetan mahatmas (p. 29) is simply misinformation, as Blavatsky claimed no such thing.

Lola Williamson is assistant professor of religious studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

* “A self-christened ‘countess,’ Blavatsky began her career as a Spiritualist medium and esoteric omnivore.…Blavatsky’s writing is generally divided into two periods, the so-called ‘Egyptian’ period and the Buddhist one”, writes Cathy Gutierrez in Plato's Ghost: Spiritualism in the American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, September 3, 2009. 232 p. hardback, $55.00). Gutierrez gives no sources for these claims, and it is left to the reader to accept her imaginative interpretation as fact.

“[Isis Unveiled] is perhaps America’s greatest conspiracy theory and is characterized by Blavatsky’s paranoid tone.” What can one say after this but that Cathy Gutierrez is an associate professor of religion at Sweet Briar College, Virginia.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Roy Mitchell, 1884-1944

Mitchell by Canadian illustrator Arthur Lismer
courtesy of the Arts and Letters Club, Toronto

The piece on “Blavatsky in Canada” evoked requests for more information on Roy Mitchell, the dramatist who sought to find expression of his theosophical principles through his work. The catalog for his theater papers at York University in Toronto, Canada, provides the following biographical sketch:

Roy Matthews Mitchell was a dramatist and educator; he was born on February 4, 1884 in Fort Gratiot, Michigan, but was educated in Canada where he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto in 1906. After a period working as a journalist and press agent in Canada and the United States, he moved to New York City in 1915 to study theatrical design. From 1917-1918, he was director of the Greenwich Village Theatre in Sheridan Square. From 1918 to 1919, he was director of motion pictures for the Canadian Department of Public Information. From 1919 to 1930, he was director of the Hart House Theatre, University of Toronto. After his return to Toronto, he produced experimental plays for the Arts and Letters Club; he also became involved with the Toronto Theosophical Society. In 1930 he was appointed professor of dramatic arts at the School of Education in New York University. Mitchell was the author of Shakespeare for Community Players (1919), The School Theatre (1925) and Creative Theatre (1929), the last considered one of the most important books on the subject. He died in Canaan, Connecticut on July 27, 1944.

In the 1920s in Toronto Mitchell started the Blavatsky Institute (not to be confused with the earlier English institution of the same name) to reissue small theosophical books that had gone out-of-print. After his death it became the main source for his theosophical writings, the best known being Theosophy in Action, and his lecture The Use of The Secret Doctrine.

The impact of Theosophy on his career is presented by Renate Usmiani, “Roy Mitchell: Prophet in our Past,” Theatre Research in Canada 8:2 (1987): 147-168, here, and Scott Duchesne’s response, “The Impossible Theatre: Roy Mitchell and The Chester Mysteries: Experience, Initiation and Brotherhood,” Theatre Research in Canada 27:2 (2006): 227-244, here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sun Ra and HPB

D. Green in his blog for March 13 at the British music magazine, The Word, reminds us of the connection of the African-American composer Sun Ra (1914-1993) with HPB.

In early 1971 Sun Ra was artist-in-residence at University of California, Berkeley, teaching a course called “The Black Man In the Cosmos.” Rather few students enrolled but the classes were often full of curious persons from the surrounding community. One half-hour of each class was devoted to a lecture (complete with handouts and homework assignments), the other half-hour to an Arkestra performance or Sun Ra keyboard solo. Reading lists included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas, the Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons, The Book of Oahspe and assorted volumes concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, African American folklore, and other topics.

The citation also appears in Sun Ra’s profile in Wikipedia here.

Kurt Vonnegut on Blavatsky

Lapham's Quarterly, “a magazine of history and ideas,” for March 13, 2010, has a piece, “Kurt Vonnegut at the Blackboard,” where the writer gives a lesson in creative writing. Dealing with Hamlet’s soliloquy with the ghost of his father, Vonnegut (1922-2007) adds:

To this day we don’t know if that ghost was really Hamlet’s father. If you have messed around with Ouija boards, you know there are malicious spirits floating around, liable to tell you anything, and you shouldn’t believe them. Madame Blavatsky, who knew more about the spirit world than anybody else, said you are a fool to take any apparition seriously, because they are often malicious and they are frequently the souls of people who were murdered, were suicides, or were terribly cheated in life in one way or another, and they are out for revenge.

Lapham's Quarterly is published by the American Agora Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to fostering interest in, and developing an acquaintance with, history.” The rest of the article can be read here.

Rudolf Steiner on HPB

For the past hundred years the St. Mark’s group in New York City has been meeting to study Rudolf Steiner’s writings. Earlier this month the NY Branch of the Antroposophical Society hosted a weeklong series of lectures to commemorate this centenary. Speakers included Robert McDermott, president emeritus of California Institute of Integral Studies, Christopher Bamford, editor of Steiner Books, Ralph White, creative director of the New York Open Center, and Michael Gomes, who wrote the entry on Theosophy in The Encyclopedia of New York State.

Gomes’ talk on “The NYC Spiritual Landscape in 1910” mentioned something of Steiner’s ambivalence about HPB. A whole book was published in 2002 on the subject, Spiritualism, Madame Blavatsky, and Theosophy: An Eyewitness View of Occult History, extracted from Dr. Steiner’s lectures. The following quote illustrates the complex character of HPB that those who studied with her had to interact with and the powerful bond that this created. Steiner says:

The Secret Doctrine is a weird mixture of themes, some of which should be eliminated, while others contain the highest wisdom. All this becomes comprehensible when we consider what was said by one of H. P. Blavatsky’s friends who had deep insight into her character. He said that Madame Blavatsky was really a threefold phenomenon. Firstly she was a dumpy, plain woman with a magical mind and a passionate nature, always losing her temper. To be sure, she was good-natured, affectionate, and compassionate, but she was certainly not what one calls a gifted woman. Secondly, when the great truths became articulated through her, she was the pupil of the great Masters. Then her facial expression and her gestures changed; she became a different person and the spiritual worlds spoke through her. Finally, there was a third, awe-inspiring, supreme, regal figure. This occurred in the rare moments when the Masters themselves spoke through her.

White Lotus Day Talk, May 8, 1912.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Evolution & the Occult

David Klinghoffer, a conservative writer who is connected with the Discovery Institute, “the organization that is the driving force behind the intelligent design movement,” has a piece on Beliefnet, March 4, 2010, titled “Darwin at the Mountains of Madness: Evolution & the Occult,” implicating HPB’s ideas in The Secret Doctrine about the races as an influence on Nazi development of the Aryan ideal.

By decapitating—so he thought—any rational case for belief in a divine or any other designer, Darwin created a gaping wound at the center of the Western soul. Something had to come along and fill that hole and it had to be, so to speak, Darwin-shaped. It had to speak in evolutionary terms, about races and competition. Madame Blavatsky happened to be the person who came up with an influential modern Darwinian myth that filled that role, disastrously.

“Disastrously” for evolutionism because it offered a successful alternative view. It was the esotericist reply to Darwin and those who would speak in his name. The rest can be read here.

The Darwinist blog The Sensuous Curmudgeon is appalled at the idea of any connection of HPB with Darwin and responds: If you’re sane and familiar with Darwin’s work, you’ll see nothing that even remotely connects his thinking with her ravings. But Klinghoffer somehow sees Madame Blavatsky as Darwin’s intellectual love-child.

“Ravings,” so no need to point out any error in her model, just dismiss it. The writer’s “ravings” continue here.

Blavatsky in Harper’s Magazine

In an interview in Harpers Magazine, March 4, 2010, with James Palmer, the British author of the biography, The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia (Basic Books, 2009), he is asked: “How did the popular occultism of the early twentieth century influence Ungern-Sternberg and drive him towards his mission to Mongolia?”

Palmer replies: Popular occultism was fascinated by Asia. Much of it was second-hand Buddhist or Hindu ideas, like a lot of “New Age” thought today. The archetypal example is the hugely influential Helena Blavatsky, a Russian émigré and fantasist who travelled widely in Asia and created Theosophy, which to us looks like a ridiculous hodge-podge of Buddhism, Hinduism, Western occultism, pseudo-evolutionary theory, and wild dreams, but was popular and influential on various subcultures from the 1880s to the 1930s.

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg (1886-1921) is described as “a Baltic nobleman who fought in the service of the Russian tsar in World War I. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Ungern led a ragtag White army to capture Mongolia, where he styled himself the human manifestation of a Buddhist god of war.” The rest of the interview is here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

“Helena Blavatsky and the Mystery in the Soap”

“Perhaps no one person has contributed so much to the archetype of the shrouded, thickly-accented Eastern-European mystic as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.” So posts The Condenser—a blog that “roots through the flotsam of antiquity and clips out only the most entertaining, bizarre and obscure morsels”—under the above heading. It offers up an out-of-the-ordinary event narrated by Countess Wachtmeister in her 1893 Reminiscences of H.P. Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine that took place independently of HPB’s agency. It is one of those unusual incidents that challenges the way we see the world. The Countess was HPB's sole companion during her writing The Secret Doctrine, and reading her account of the events of that time one can only conclude that she was either dissembling, delusional, or something unusual did happen. The extract is given here.

Olcott Day, Sri Lanka, 2010

The Daily News from Colombo, Sri Lanka, for February 18, 2010, commemorating Olcott Day (February 17—the day of his passing) carries an article by C.V. Agarwal about Col. Olcott that mentions HPB. Dr. Agarwal, a former General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in India, who died at the Society’s international headquarters at Adyar, Chennai, India, last summer, worked to bring about a greater interaction between the Theosophical and Buddhist movements in India and Sri Lanka. The article had been published previously in the Daily News and was reprinted in part as recognition of his work. His article can be read here.

Rather than illustrate this piece with a photo of Olcott or even the stamp issued by Ceylon in 1967 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of his passing, this picture of the Ananda Viharaya at Ananda College in Colombo serves as a better fit. In 1886 Olcott founded the school that became Ananda College, and it has gone on to become one of the leading Buddhist colleges in South Asia, providing a number of Sri Lankan members of Parliament, journalists, and cricketers! The Viharaya at the College opened in 1969 and recently completed renovations in time for its fortieth anniversary.

Blavatsky and Art, Again

“Divine Abstractions: Spiritual Expressions in Art” is an exhibition touring the state of Nebraska in the U.S. Sponsored by the Sheldon Museum of Art there and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it is presently at the Columbus Art Gallery, in Columbus, Nebraska, and ends on July 9 at the West Nebraska Arts Center, Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

In the catalog of the exhibition, Susan J. Soriente, Sheldon Statewide Curator, noting the influence of HPB’s ideas, adds:

Not every abstract work of art is a divine abstraction, but the spiritual dimension has been an influential factor in determining the look and purpose of much of the world’s art, including contemporary art. The challenge is to become sensitive to abstract art’s spiritual interests, to keep an open mind about its possible presence and how it may work in abstract art.

The catalog can be seen here.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Blavatsky in Canada

The Walrus, “Canada’s best magazine,” has an insightful piece on the influence that a group of Canadian Theosophists exercised on the arts in the 1920s and 30s. Under the headline of “The Secret: The Group of Seven’s infatuation with the occult mysticism of Madame Blavatsky,” Brett Grainger writes:

While current debates over the role of religion in public life are flush with hostile caricature and mutual mistrust, few realize that previous generations brought spiritual resources to bear on questions of national identity without succumbing to either the xenophobia of fundamentalism or the wan procedural pieties of the secular nation-state.

Theosophy has had a long and distinguished history in Canada. Its first Lodge, the Toronto Theosophical Society, whose 1891 charter was one of the last to bear HPB’s signature, included the first woman to practice medicine in Canada and her daughter, the first woman to gain a medical degree in Canada, along with the writer, Algernon Blackwood, Roy Mitchell, who helped develop Canadian theater, Albert E.S. Smythe, whose son Connie (also a member) built Maple Leaf Gardens that helped make hockey Canada’s most familiar sport. Theosophy even has its own entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia, as can be seen here.

Through the artists known as The Group of Seven, Theosophy, or more accurately HPB’s ideas (as Theosophy in Canada favored the Blavatskian type), entered into the national dialogue. “And artists like Lawren Harris and Emily Carr were Canada’s answer to Emerson — homegrown prophets who glimpsed in the country’s vast landscapes a faint evocation of Nature’s nation,” says Grainger. The rest of the article can be read here.

Pine Tree and Red House, Winter, 1924, by Lawren Harris
sold for $2.8 million in 2007