Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reginald Machell

The American Center for Craft, Creativity and Design posts some background on Theosophist Reginald Machell not used in the book Makers: A History of American Studio Craft by Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf published by the University of North Carolina Press, July 2010. Machell, who was born in England in 1854, died at Point Loma, California, in 1927. He met Blavatsky in London and did some of the designs at the Theosophical Hall that was opened in 1890 at the Headquarters at 19 Avenue Road. In 1900 he moved to Point Loma, California, where he arrived on December 28. “At Point Loma, he carved chairs, screens and stools decorated with forms reminiscent of Art Nouveau, Celtic interlace, Gothic tracery, flames and wings. They are wonderfully inventive, completely unlike any other furniture made in America.”

The post, which can be read here, explains: Theosophy was created in 1875 by a charismatic Russian occultist named Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), who melded elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and sheer invention into a quasi-religion that drew numerous followers around the turn of the century. Blavatsky held that anyone could attain a higher level of consciousness, and that this spiritual work was a matter of direct experience, not requiring the mediation of any church. Theosophy attracted people troubled by the materialism of the age and hungry for a more personal experience of the spiritual.

Machell is best remembered for his painting, “The Path” (6’2” x 7’5”), which is housed at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society, in Pasadena, California. The frame, made by him, is another example of his ornate woodwork. Reginald Machell’s output as part of the Theosophical experience is documented in Bruce Kamerling’s essay, “Theosophy and Symbolist Art: the Point Loma Art School” in The Journal of San Diego History, Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 1980, which can be seen here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

At the Feet of the Master

The Spring Program for the Krotona School of Theosophy in Ojai, California, offers a four-part series with Michael Gomes titled “HPB Teaches: A Comprehensive Guide to the Writings of Helena P Blavatsky.” The sessions will go from May 3–6, Tuesday–Friday, 10AM–noon. The course description says:

Although the name of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky is familiar to many, the content of her literary output, aside from her main works, remains less known. Michael Gomes, editor of a number of her works, offers an intensive seminar for those who want a more complete overview of her writings. Using his anthology, HPB Teaches, as the sourcebook, participants will have the opportunity of accessing HPB’s writings firsthand with him.

Over the past few years Michael Gomes has been giving a weeklong seminar somewhere on an aspect of HPB’s work. In 2010 it was at the Springbrook Centre in the Australian rainforest, in 2009 it was in Budapest, Hungary, and in 2008 with Joscelyn Godwin in Venice, Italy. This year it will be in Ojai, California. His long expertise—forty years of research and a quarter century of publishing—makes him a reliable guide for understanding Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and no doubt what he has to say on the subject will be of interest.

Other presenters for the Krotona Spring session include the physicist, Amit Goswami, and his wife, Uma Krishnamurthy, who will give a performance of Bharatanatyam, classical Indian dance, and the Gnostic scholar, Stephan A Hoeller, who will have a program on “C.G. Jung’s Red Book and Alchemy.” Information about registering for the course can be found here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Centenary of ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’

Wassily Kandinsky II by Jacques Moitoret

The journal Theology from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge carries an article in its January-February 2011 issue on “A theology of abstraction: Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’” by Charles Pickstone, St Laurence Church, Catford, England. It looks at Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, “the first theoretical work on abstract art, and now a standard work for all 20th- and even 21st-century artists,” which will be having its centenary this year.

The book was hugely influential both at the time and subsequently. The Modern
Movement was about to sweep Europe in all the arts (Pierrot Lunaire 1912, Ulysses
1918, The Waste Land 1922), and many artists and general readers, puzzled by the
“missing subject” of abstract art, found Kandinsky’s rationale persuasive.

The influences shaping Kandinsky’s ideas about the spiritual in art are noted: Russian Orthodox Church; the works of Schopenhauer, whose World as Will and Representation was particularly noted in this work; “Madame Blavatsky’s colour mysticism in her theosophical writings (an unlikely but now well-documented influence)”; and Goethe’s writings on the philosophy of colour, from a hundred years before. The source for the information of Blavatsky's influence comes from Sixten Ringbom’s 1986 study “Transcending the Visible: The Generation of the Abstract Pioneers” in Maurice Tuchman, ed., The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986), which good as it is, a lot has been done since then, as the Legacies of Theosophy Conference at the University of Sydney and the recent Colloquium in Liverpool on “Enchanting Modernity: Theosophy and the Arts in the Making of Early Twentieth-Century Culture” show.

According to the author: “Kandinsky realised that all effects are relative. Each rhythmic stroke, each adjacent colour, is part of a dynamic system of pulsing interaction.” How Blavatskian.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Natacha Rambova

The blog French Sampler reminds us of the spiritual interests of Natacha Rambova (1897-1966) in their post of January 18. Born Winifred Shaughnessy she changed her name to Natacha Rambova at the age of seventeen and began a career in ballet, involved with a number of leading Russian performers at the time. Her interest in design led her to Hollywood where she met Rudolph Valentino, whom she married in 1922.

Both Rambova and Valentino were Spiritualists. She had been interested in ancient religions since her teen years. She believed in reincarnation and psychic powers. Later in life she became an Egyptologist, an author on astrology, and a follower of Madame Blavatsky and George Gurdjieff.

Rambova's interest in the metaphysical grew during the 1940s, with her supporting the Bollingen Foundation, which she believed help her see a past life in Egypt. She published various articles on healing and astrology during this time. Eventually she helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions which led her to edit a series of publications titled, "Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations". She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism, and comparative religion.

Her collection of Egyptian antiquities were donated to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. She willed a huge collection of Nepali and Lamaistic art to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rambova's ashes were scattered in Arizona.

The text, taken from Wikipedia, and augmented with an interesting selection of photographs, can be read here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

“What ever happened to the occult?”

The blog Twittering Machines raises the question: “What ever happened to the occult?” in a post of January 7, 2011. In trying to answer it, the writer talks about the experience of his obtaining an original 1877 edition of the two volumes of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled at a now-defunct bookshop in New York City.

I found my copy of Isis Unveiled at the Isaac Mendoza Book Company among the impossibly narrow aisles and overcrowded, crooked shelves and I found it while knee-deep in Yeats, paint and while working as an IT consultant on Wall Street. Surely a case of some sort of divine intervention. You can see that on the front free endpaper of my copy of Isis Unveiled the former owner Charles H Macy has written “Not to be loaned on account of opinions expressed herein.” Obviously this is a dangerous book. Oddly, RH Macy (yes that Macy) passed away in 1877 the same year this book was published. Coincidence? (that’s how the occult works, isn’t it?)

The full account is here.

The New Metaphysicals

The Journal of the American Academy of Religion posts an online advance of a review by Ann W. Duncan of The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination by Courtney Bender (The University of Chicago Press, 2010. 272 pages. $25.00). The book “profiles the new generation of Metaphysicals in Cambridge [Massachusetts] and, in keeping with Bender’s previous work, examines their translation of conviction into practice and constructed society.”

The “Long Shadows” cast by the early advocates of metaphysical religion of early Cambridge such as William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Helena Blavatsky, and Edgar Casey remain a palpable presence for both the author and her subjects as Bender questions how individuals become “spiritual but not religious” (3)…. In this way, the New Metaphysicals are in keeping with their historical predecessors such as Helena Blavatsky who eliminated the possibility of regression from the Hindu concept of samsara. As Blavatsky and others demonstrate, “mystical practice not only rewrites local worlds and relations. It also engages and critiques the authorities, experiences, and narratives used by others to lay claim to the past and future” (152).

The rest of the review can be read here.

Russian Women Travelers in Central Asia and India

The Russian Review for January 2011 carries a study by Katya Hokanson on “Russian Women Travelers in Central Asia and India.” She points out that as the Russian Empire enlarged to the East and to the South in the nineteenth century it brought an increase in travel writing which gained popularity with the Russian reading public.

The perspectives of three women writer-travelers of the mid to late nineteenth century, Elena Blavatskaia, Elena Apreleva, and Iuliia Golovnina, provide insight into the techniques of presenting the expansion of the empire to the public and assimilating the new territories and ideologies as part of Russian history, geography and identity. Women writers themselves were on the increase in the nineteenth century, with many establishing careers as writers and journalists, yet they were still much less common than male writers and their perspectives are valuable, since their subject position could rarely be taken for granted. They had to explain why they were writing, or resort to male pseudonyms, and the maneuvers they employed indicated how they constructed their identity as European Russians first and foremost.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Robert Duncan on Blavatsky

In The H.D. Book, published earlier this month by University of California Press, Robert Duncan gives his take on a statement in Blavatsky’s last written piece, “My Books,” dated April 27, 1891, two weeks before her death, and published in the May 1891 issue of her magazine, Lucifer. Duncan’s comments are a fine example of the poet’s style and his use of language to get beyond things that language can describe.

In 1891, a month before her death, she closed her last essay with a quotation from Montaigne: “I have here made only a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them.” The string she had brought of her own was the thread of her argument, a wish that she, and mankind with her, might be released from the contradictions of dream and fact, creative idea and actuality, volition and authority that tortured her spirit. But the string was also the quest for the end of dream, creative idea, volition—if only they could be proved to be their opposites, so that what we thought was moving would prove to be schematic and settled. The string was the obsessional winding of the thread—the double-faced words “mind” and “real,” the inversion of evolutionary theory, the perversions of geological theory, the inversion that must not be conversions, the transference of fact into fiction and fiction into the mode of fact, the subversion of accepted scientific thought, the plagiarism, the fraud—worst of all, the reasoning of a woman who knows she must be right and will take any means to prove it.

With pathos, she added: “Is anyone of my helpers prepared to say that I have not paid the full price of my string?” She had been attacked and exposed, vilified and ridiculed. Her followers had come to doubt that her Masters “really” existed. But the pathos was Mercurial, for she had meant for her followers in all the stupidity of their conscious minds, bound by chains of Theosophic belief, like her defamers, bound by the chains of scientific or religious disbelief, to pay the full price of her string.

For the price of the string, the price of the wish, the quest, the obsession, lay in an oppressive state. She had gathered a pitchblende of suggestion, once her doctrine was mixed, in which some radium lay hid. In the mess of astrology, alchemy, numerology, magic orders and disorders, neo-Platonic, Vedic, and Kabbalistic systems combined, confused, and explained, queered evolution and wishful geology, transposed heads—the fact of her charged fascination with it all remains genuine. It has the charge of a need, and her sense binds: that until man lives once more in these awes and consecrations, these obediences to what he does not know but feels, until he takes new thought in what he has discarded from thought, he will not understand what he is.

The Challenge of Madame Blavatsky

“December 2010 was a good month for Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) who co-founded the Theosophical Society (TS) in New York in 1875,” writes Leslie Price at the new independent Spiritualist newspaper Spirit of PN. “A website devoted to her influence, Blavatsky News, celebrated its first anniversary. And not one but two of the journals she started and edited were placed online.”

The accessibly of these early theosophical journals, he notes, brings alive Blavatsky’s shifting position on spiritualism, from her earlier involvement in America and then later refudiating of its theories. “Madame Blavatsky challenged the spirit communication view of mediumship. Apart from the powers latent in man, she attributed the phenomena either to elementals (non-human entities) or to astral shells, bits of the mind left over at death.” Price argues that continued investigations with mediums since her time seem to indicate “that in some communications, knowledge and purpose are shown that go beyond what might be preserved in the lifetime memories of the communicator, and offered by ‘shells’.”

The rest of his piece can be seen here.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The H.D. Book

The University of California Press has just published volume 1 of the Collected Writings of Robert Duncan (1919-1988): The H.D. Book. The reviewer in the January 4, 2011, The New Republic describes it as “a wild, dazzling, idiosyncratic magnum opus that the poet composed between 1959 and 1964 and that is only now being published in its complete form, by the University of California Press. What began with a request for a brief birthday homage to the American poet known as H.D.—she had been born Hilda Doolittle—morphed into one of the greatest of all meditations on the nature not only of modern poetry but of the modern artistic imagination in its bewitching complexity.”

There is the obligatory reference to HPB in the review: “While some readers of The H.D. Book will be put off by the seriousness with which Duncan addresses the pop-esoteric texts of another era, especially Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, Duncan is making a decisive point here, arguing that the roots of modern artistic expression are as broad as they are deep.”

Duncan’s story is unusual: he was adopted by a theosophical family (based on the time and place of his birth). He later forged an identity for himself as a contributor to the San Francisco renaissance of the 1950s. Readers of Blavatsky News were already altered to Duncan’s growing relevance in a post on June 20, 2010. In The H.D. Book there are over a dozen references to Blavatsky, including a number of pages where he describes her ideas through a poet’s eyes, with the appreciation of an image-maker. “The magic of Blavatsky,” he writes, “the fascination of her writing, was never then to be the magic of an enchanting prose, evoking its life in us to become most real in the weaving of a spell that is also a music with many images and levels of meaning—the illusion of an experience. Her magic was to be, on the contrary, the fascination of an argumentative delusion, the pursuit of proofs and laws behind appearances.”

Duncan’s best-known poem during his lifetime was “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” that begins:

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Imagination, Fiction and Faith

Carole M. Cusack, Associate Professor of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, Australia, in her book, Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, September 1, 2010, 192 pages, hardback, $99.95), investigates four new religious movements founded in the West that are intentionally fictional. Writing of the philosophical background that prepared the way for the current climate of religious development, she notes:

The academic study of religions other than Christianity began in European universities in the first half of the nineteenth century, but at that time it was assumed that the study of the Gita, the Upanishads or the Analects was a purely intellectual exercise. As Christianity was believed to be the ‘highest’ religion, the notion that Christians might want to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism was not entertained. Towards the end of the nineteenth century this situation changed; the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875 by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott marked an important transition; it was possible for modern individuals to turn away from the Judeo-Christian tradition and seek religious and spiritual satisfaction in Eastern religions. The publication of the Sacred Books of the East series, edited by Max Muller, by Oxford University Press from 1879 to 1900 greatly increased knowledge of world religions, as did popular books like Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), a biography of the Buddha that enjoyed high sales. The 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago introduced the West to Swami Vivekananda, the charismatic Hindu teacher, and Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who had worked with Colonel Olcott, and who preached Buddhism in Asia, North America, and Europe. Theosophy itself provided the inspiration and model for multiple new religious movements.

The Path Online

The Theosophical Network site has now uploaded the first ten volumes of The Path, edited in New York by W.Q. Judge from 1886-1896. Selected volumes of the journal have been available on line, but this is the first time that this much has been accessible, as can be seen here. Hopefully it will encourage further research in this area now that this source material is so readily available. The Theosophical Society in Australia has indexed the journal’s run and it can be accessed here.

Jerry Hejka-Ekins gives a long introduction to the magazine and the role of Judge in the development of the theosophical movement in America. Some of the dates are off: HPB resigned her position of Corresponding Secretary in 1885, and the SPR Committee Report was published in volume 3, 1885, not ‘86, of the S.P.R Proceedings. But these are minor. He also gives something of Judge’s later years—he died on March 21, 1896, just short of his 45th birthday. There are some issues that could be questioned but these are outside the purview of this site. After his death the magazine changed its name to Theosophy then to Universal Brotherhood Path at the beginning of the twentieth century then The Theosophical Path then The Theosophical Forum in the 1930s and ‘40s then to Sunrise in 1951 and finally ceased publication in 2007.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Blavatsky and the Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka

LankaWeb, a site with a claim of being “Sri Lanka's first Social Media website in it's true sense. It's a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologues (one to many) into dialogues (many to many) and is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers,” for January 1, 2011, and the Asian Tribune for January 2, 2011, post a July 30th 1914 speech by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam at Mahinda College, the Buddhist boys’ school in Galle, Sri Lanka, that was the result of the theosophists’ work there. He mentions his association with Col. Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky:

In Mahinda College you have the best of all memorials of my friend Colonel Olcott, and a living testimony to the beneficent activity and influence of the Theosophical Society, which he founded, and to the public spirit and piety of the Buddhists of the Province. I can well remember the inauguration of the Society in 1880 by that remarkable woman Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott. I was then Police Magistrate of Kalutara, and they visited me there. Buddhism in Ceylon was at that period at a very low ebb indeed. It had been abandoned by men of light and leading, especially among the English-educated classes. Those who remained Buddhists were too often ashamed to acknowledge it. In the Courts I was sometimes saddened to see in the witness box Buddhists pretending to be Christians, and taking their oaths on the Bible. I am not a Buddhist or a Theosophist; but I was much pleased to give Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott such help as I could in their mission to restore the influence and prestige of Buddhism in the Island. What a change they have wrought in Ceylon, and how far and wide over the earth, they have spread the influence of Buddha’s teaching!

The rest of his talk, posted as “Sinhala Buddhist Revival—Advise From A Great Tamil” is available here.

Blavatsky on Mantras

The Sikkim Chamber of Commerce site (yes, Sikkim, India) carries a short piece on the meaning and use of mantras. After noting that “Every Mantra has six aspects: a rishi or Seer, a raga or melody, the Devatha or the presiding Deity, a Bija or seed sound, the Sakthi or power and a kilaka or pillar,” it cites HPB as an authority.

OM is a powerful, simple mantra which could be recited by anybody. Mantra Sastra or Mantra Scripture says that OM could be chanted in 170 different ways.. Madam Blavatsky has quoted some ancient Indian text that it can be chanted in 250 different intonations and that the siddhis or results attained by each method is different and good.

The rest of the piece can be seen here.