Sunday, October 30, 2011

Where the East grimaced at the West

The Whiter Lotus: Asian Religions and Reform Movements in America, 1836-1933, is the title of Edgar A. Weir Jr.’s PhD dissertation toward the completion of his degree, which was awarded in May 2011 by the University of Nevada. Though it breaks no new ground, it is a reminder of the influence of Asian religions and thought on various reform movements in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Percival Lowell, William Sturgis Bigelow, Paul Carus, and Dyer Daniel Lum are among some of the people that Weir looks at. Chapter 2, “Transcending The World: Transcendentalists And Theosophists,” has 14 pages on the activities of Olcott and Blavatsky, but little of the philosophy that motivated them. There is too great a reliance on second, and in this case third, hand sources when he says:

Another scandal was to occur while Blavatsky and Olcott were in India in 1883. Blavatsky claimed that she had received letters from the “spirit world” from two Tibetan Mahatmas. Yet it was soon discovered that the letters were taken verbatim from an American spiritualist. This scandal caused many to leave the Theosophical branch in London prompting Blavatsky and Olcott to set sail for England to attempt to mitigate the disaster. As soon as they left India, however, residents of the Theosophical society in India began to accuse Blavatsky of being a charlatan. The accusations were published in the Christian College Magazine in Madras, India, and Olcott and Blavatsky were forced to return quickly to India to attempt to douse another fire. Following close behind the two was an investigator from England, Richard Hodgson, who doggedly investigated the Society for three months and finally determined that the fraud accusations were indeed true. Blavatsky immediately quit her position as corresponding secretary and fled to Europe.

In spite of Weir’s assurances, Blavatsky never “claimed that she had received letters from the ‘spirit world’ from two Tibetan Mahatmas.” The famous letters, now in the British Library in London, to A.P. Sinnett were not from “Tibetan Mahatmas.” The writers were living self-described Indians. The letters were not discovered to have been “taken verbatim from an American spiritualist” but the portion of a letter reflects the ideas of a lecture given by an American Spiritualist. This “scandal” did not cause “many to leave the Theosophical branch in London”; in fact, membership grew at this time. Olcott had been deputed by the Buddhists of Ceylon to present their case at the Home Office in London and so was not prompted “to set sail for England to attempt to mitigate the disaster.” “As soon as they left India, however, residents of the Theosophical society in India began to accuse Blavatsky of being a charlatan.” The “residents” were two employees who had been dismissed on charges of fraud. It is surprising, at this late date, to see Richard Hodgson’s report unquestionably accepted as the final world on the subject, as if nothing had been written about it over the past hundred years. Blavatsky did not flee to Europe; if anything, she was shipped off against her will, as her letters to Olcott show.

Considering that the main source of quotes about Blavatsky’s character in this dissertation comes from a 1929 Dictionary of Biography, this sort of slipshod writing comes as no surprise. It risks the disadvantage, however, of being compared to the already existing exemplary work of Carl T. Jackson, Thomas Tweed, Robert Ellwood and others on the East/West interchange in America.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blavatsky and Shambhala

The History of Shambhala, a blog started this year posting parts of Don Croner’s travel writing from Central Asia, carries a lengthy evaluation of Blavatsky’s use of the term Shambhala. This piece was originally posted on one of Croner’s travel blogs two years ago, but it is worth a second look.

There is little if any evidence to suggest that even in her own lifetime she did anything to promote the legend of Shambhala. In fact, as we shall see, in the entire fifteen volumes of her collected writing she mentions Shambhala only a couple of times, and this Shambhala was quite different from the Tibetan version of Shambhala which would later be disseminated in the West.

Those who first learned about Shambhala from Neo-Theosophists like Leadbeater, Bailey, and others might naturally assume that their conception of Shambhala originated with Blavatsky, the founder and guiding light behind the Theosophical Society. This would not seem to be the case.

Blavatsky News

* Patrick Brantlinger’s Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians (Cornell University Press, October 13, 2011) looks at a number of Victorian writers who used occult motifs in their writing. “[Rider] Haggard did not become a convert to Madame Blavatsky’s new religion, but he was intrigued by Theosophy, as he was by other late Victorian manifestations of interest in the occult.”

* Michael Broyles’ Beethoven in America (Indiana University Press, October 27, 2011) contains a surprising amount of references to Blavatsky and Theosophy. “By far the most important religious movement in regard to both Beethoven and its impact on the arts was Theosophy, which originated in the nineteenth century and which found a sympathetic audience with artists and intellectuals in the United States after World War I.” Four pages follow giving background on Blavatsky and developments in the Theosophical Society. Naming composers like Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, Carl Ruggles, Aaron Copland, Dane Rudhyar, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Broyles says “many were drawn to seeking some sort of spiritual dimension in their lives. More than any other movement or religion, Theosophy filled that purpose.”

What did these musicians find in Theosophy that drew them to the movement? For the most part it was the Olcott, not the Blavatsky wing, that appealed to them.…The scientific bent of Theosophy, which Olcott stressed, and the interest in world religions, particularly those of Asia, which was at the heart of both Olcott’s and Blavatsky’s views, appealed immensely to these composers.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Blavatsky and New York

Gothamist, the “website about New York City and everything that happens in it”, talks with Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America, in its October 21st issue. Horowitz sees early 19th century central New York State as “a hotbed of avant-garde, religious and social thought and activities.”

This chapter in religious history took another turn by the 1870s when New York became home to a Russian migrant named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, or typically known as Madame Blavatsky. Blavatsky was a Russian spiritual adventurer, she was in search of hidden and esoteric knowledge. She came to America, she said, because she wanted to visit the birthplace of spiritualism. She settled in New York City and in 1875, she and some over her colleagues founded the Theosophical Society in the neighborhood of what is now Hell’s Kitchen. That organization became hugely influential—it actually reintroduced the word occult into common use as the word had fallen into disuse—and Blavatsky very convincingly spoke of her search for an occult or hidden philosophy from which all the modern religious sprang. She called it a “Secret Doctrine.” She spoke of traditions emanating out of Buddhism and Hinduism and said that she was under the guidance of hidden spiritual masters who were helping her bring this liberalizing religious revolution to the West. People were enchanted with her, enthralled with her, and it was probably the figure of Blavatsky, more than anybody else, who helped ignite this revolution in alternative spirituality that began to sweep through the West, the effects of which we’re still feeling today. New York played a very special role as a “new age,” and that’s certainly true in terms of recent decades, but in the 19th century New York was this avant-garde religious capital.

The rest of the interview, with a guide to some historic places of occult New York and thoughts about Halloween, can be read here.

Blavatsky in Fiction

Over the next several months the Book Section of the site io9, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future, will be looking at the most noteworthy science fiction and fantasy works from 1885 to 1930. The writer of the piece, Jess Nevins, draws our attention to Rosa Campbell Praed’s 1885 novel Affinities that featured Theosophists as part of plot.

Like many Victorian women writers, Rosa Praed was prolific, skilled, successful, popular, and forgotten much more quickly than her male counterparts. Praed made her name with romances and stories of her native Australia, but became much better known in the 1880s as a writer of occult fantasies. Affinities was her first novel of the fantastic. It's a roman a clef-society novel-occult horror about the threat posed to a young womaby a decadent poet and black magician (who is clearly meant to be Oscar Wilde). Praed has an easy, readable style that has aged only a little, and the proselytizing on behalf of Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy is much less obvious in Affinities than in Praed's later work. Affinities isn’t as good as Praed’s The Brother of the Shadow (1886), but nonetheless it's entertaining, found many fans, and is well deserving of the Hugo nomination it would have undoubtedly received.

Praed (1851-1935) had met Mme. Blavatsky and Col. Olcott during their visit to England in 1884. According to the bibliography Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century, Blavatsky appears as Mme. Tamvaco in Affinities. The book is online in a number of editions, including an 1886 edition on the Yellowback site, which contains a list of all the women writers and their works in the Emory University Online Yellowbacks collection. (“yellowbacks are books that were sold in England during the late 19th-century at railway stations.”)

Andrew McCannin adds:

Rosa Campbell Praed left Australia for London in 1876. In the decade or so subsequent to her arrival in the metropolis she forged a successful career as a writer of occult-inspired novels that drew on both theosophical doctrine and a nineteenth-century tradition of popular fiction that included Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. A string of novels published in the 1880s and the early 1890s, including Nadine: the Study of a Woman (1882), Affinities: A Romance of Today (1885), The Brother of the Shadow: A Mystery of Today (1886), and The Soul of Countess Adrian: A Romance (1891), produced a sort of popular aestheticism that melded an interest in fashionable society, a market-oriented Gothicism, and speculations on the philosophy of art that were indicative of Praed’s relationship to a fin-de-siècle Bohemia and its literary circles.

—“Rosa Praed and the Vampire Aesthete,” Victorian Literature and Culture (2007), 35: 175-187.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine Commentaries Reviewed

Aries, the Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism published by Brill in the Netherlands, has a review of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine Commentaries from Gary W. Trompf in its recently released Volume 11, Number 2, 2011. Trompf, Honorary Professor in the History of Ideas in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, presented a groundbreaking paper at last year’s Legacies of Theosophy Conference at the University of Sydney on the subject of macrohistory, so whatever he has to say about the cosmogonies in The Secret Doctrine will be of interest. The review (3 pages) is too long to print in full here, but concludes by saying:

Michael Gomes, who has already published an abridgement of both Isis Unveiled (in 1997) and The Secret Doctrine (in 2009), is well known as historian and bibliographer of the Theosophical Movement, and he has done a painstaking and reliable job with this new production. It is a work beautifully presented, supplemented by a listing of those attending the meetings, an index almost amounting to a glossary. The Introduction is somewhat thin (and does not touch on the sensitive context I have just detailed) with the footnotes throughout kept to a minimum; but the service is done and we now have at our disposal for further research previously inaccessible materials of great value concerning Blavatsky and influential figures in the Theosophical Society surrounding her. With this work before us, various enigmas referred to at the beginning of our review can now be better addressed and hopefully resolved.

The journal can be ordered here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blavatsky, Garibaldi, and Mazzini

The August-September 2011 issue of Rivista italiana di teosofia, the journal of the Theosophical Society in Italy, carries an article on “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky e l’Italia” by Patrizia Moschin Calvi. The writer informs us that as 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy, H.P. Blavatsky has come into the news there, together with Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, who were the well-known protagonists and heroes in the fight for unification. Blavatsky’s different statements about her presence at the Battle of Mentana, Italy, in November 1867, are referred to, though the writer is forced to mention:  it is difficult to make rational sense of her movements, as AP Sinnett explains “We rarely find any logical meaning which might explain her actions and often even she found herself in the position of not understanding ‘why’ at any given moment she was preparing to go here or there. The true reasons for these movements were the orders she received through occult channels.” Obviously another area that needs further research.

Olcott says she was still wearing her red Garibaldian shirt when they met in rural Vermont in October 1874: she told me many incidents of her past life, among others, her having been present as a volunteer, with a number of other European ladies, with Garibaldi at the bloody battle of Mentana. In proof of her story she showed me where her left arm had been broken in two places by a sabre-stroke, and made me feel in her right shoulder a musket-bullet, still imbedded in the muscle, and another in her leg. She also showed me a scar just below the heart where she had been stabbed with a stiletto.

Garibaldi was also shot and wounded at the Battle of Mentana, which occurred on November 3, 1867. Garibaldi’s army was routed by the Papal troops.

Liberation Theosophy

Anindita Banerjee, who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University, contributes an interesting article on the Russian poet and writer Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) titled “Liberation Theosophy: Discovering India and Orienting Russia between Velimir Khlebnikov and Helena Blavatsky” in the latest issue of PMLA, Vol. 126, No. 3, May 2011, pp. 610–624. According to her theory:

Between the Volga and the Ganges lies a vast yet little-examined zone of linguistic, religious, ethnoracial, and political contact shaped over many centuries by mobile communities of traders, saints, soldiers, and rebels. This is the space from which Velimir Khlebnikov, modernist poet and philosopher of history, articulates a vision of revolutionary internationalism. Khlebnikov’s quasi-fictional journey from Russia’s Islamic borderlands to the Indian subcontinent “in search of an idea that will free all oppressed people” transforms Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical interpretation of ancient Indian religious philosophy into a cornerstone of political resistance against global imperialism in the twentieth century. The intersectional history of violence through which Khlebnikov imagines a community of minorities, misfits, and mystics wandering between the peripheries of the Russian and British Empires challenges monolithic constructs of the Orient as well as dominant discourses of Russian and Indian national identity.

The Missing Mondrian Archive

The Art Science Research Laboratory (ASRL) carries the news of the recently rescued Piet Mondrian Archive: “A Lost Collection emerges for Scholars.”

Known as “the father of geometric abstraction,” Piet Mondrian (1877-1944) was a pivotal figure in the revolution of Modern Art that began with Cubism in the early 20th century. In 1940, the great artist fled the war in Europe to New York City. At his death in 1944, all that was found in his apartment was a cache of personal papers. He had pared down his few possessions to some postcards, cablegrams, address-book pages, a notebook, an important unpublished essay, and his horoscope readings, all of which provide an intimate glimpse of a significant artist. The correspondence details his fears and anxieties elicited by the war. Personal photographs include old-style cabinet cards depicting his parents, candid shots of his early studio in Holland, and a wallet-size photo of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. These items were held, unseen and unpublished, by Mondrian's estate until a buyer for them could be found.    

Thanks to the Director of the ASRL, it was arranged to purchase the collection and secure the copyrights to display the documents online, free of charge, and the staff of ASRL will be working with Stanford University Library to scan and digitize online the entire Mondrian collection. The digitalized Mondrian Archive will be available on the Internet and in a CD format for the use of scholars and students.

Mondrian’s membership card in the Theosophical Society is in the archives at Yale University, and the wallet size photo of Mme. Blavatsky found among his papers “suggests that Theosophy was more than a passing fancy but continued to the end of his life.” The photograph of Blavatsky that Mondrian kept among his few possessions can be viewed here.