Sunday, July 31, 2011

Theosophy and Kabbalah in the 20th century

The Emily Sellon Memorial Library in New York City will be hosting a talk by Prof. Boaz Huss of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, on Saturday, August 6, 2011, 2-3 PM, on “The Association of Hebrew Theosophists: an unknown chapter in the history of Theosophy and Kabbalah in the 20th century.”

The lecture will discuss the foundation of the Association of Hebrew Theosophists and the activities of Jewish Theosophical associations in England, Iraq, and especially, the United States. As part of his ongoing research, Boaz Huss will examine the interest of Jewish Theosophists in Kabbalah, and the contribution of the Theosophical Society to the renewed interest in Kabbalah in the early 20th century.

Boaz Huss is professor of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, where he is currently serving as chair of the department. His research interests include the Zohar and it reception, the genealogies of Jewish Mysticism and the history of Kabbalah Studies, Kabbalah and the Theosophical Society and Contemporary Kabbalah.

Prof. Huss’s paper, “‘The Sufi Society from America’: Theosophy and Kabbalah in Poona in the Late Nineteenth Century,” was mentioned in a September 10th post last year. It is a model of forensic research, being able to deduct so much from so little available material, and whatever he has to say on the matter will no doubt be of interest.

Magnificent Obsession

The last 25 years of the 20th century can be characterized as having something of a Blavatsky renaissance. The trend seems to have no intention of letting up, and the first decade of the 21st century has seen a rise in scholarly papers and references in numerous books and conferences to H.P. Blavatsky. The same cannot be said of the modern Theosophical movement. Joy Dixon’s Divine Feminine (2001), which dealt with the interaction of women’s rights and Theosophy in the early part of the 20th century, and Michael Ashcraft’s Dawn of the New Cycle (2002) on theosophical educational life at Point Loma, California, still hold the field. So, the five volumes published by Joseph Ross since 1989 are valuable additions. His books, comprised of extensive quotes from relevant documents, including letters from Besant, Leadbeater, Krishnamurti and others, tell the tale of Krotona, the Theosophical community established in the Hollywood Hills in 1912 and later moved to Ojai, California, where it still exists. It is like have an extensive archive delivered to your door.

Joseph Ross at work

Yet as valuable a record as his books are, they have not really been welcome by the Theosophical Society in America. Perhaps it is because they contain the inclusion of material from the Society’s Esoteric School, which no one would have access to otherwise. Perhaps it is because the Theosophical Society in America does not have the reputation of being a gay friendly organization (there are tales of certain office holders going out of their way to demean and denigrate those who are perceived to be gay).

Still Mr. Ross continues on and has just released the fifth volume in his Krotona series, which takes the story from 1927 to 1931. A sample of the book can be read here. While it is good to get such things without charge, it is also good to support such work by buying the book, for like all collectibles issued by individuals, the run is limited, they are rarely reprinted and existing copies end up being priced out of accessibility. The book and other volumes in the series can be ordered from Joseph Ross’s site Krotona Archives.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Blavatsky and Astrology

The Swedish astrologer Martin Gansten has posted a paper of his from the Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Sophia Centre Conference, published by last year by Nicholas Campion.  His paper, “Reshaping karma: an Indic metaphysical paradigm in traditional and modern astrology,” contains a description of the development of modern astrology from Theosophical circles, especially through the figure of Alan Leo.

With the introduction of new scientific paradigms, interest in astrology declined drastically on the European Continent during the 17th century. At the same time, the art was enjoying an unprecedented popularity in England; but a few decades into the next century, fashions had changed even here, and only the occasional enthusiast was left. It was not until the late 1880s that the first stirrings of a movement to popularize astrology were felt, a movement which was largely the creation of one man: William Frederick Allen, soon to be better known as Alan Leo (1860 – 1917). Leo’s efforts proved successful in the way so common to popularizing ventures: by altering the thing popularized to the point where one has to ask whether it is, in any meaningful sense, the same thing at all, or rather a new product marketed under an old label.

Astrology was only one of Leo’s two great enthusiasms, the other being Theosophy as taught by Helena Blavatsky and, later, Annie Besant – teachings which in themselves were intended as a popularization of the esoteric or ‘occult’ truths supposedly contained in all ancient religious traditions, although couched mainly in eastern terminology. Leo’s life project was to unite the two by reinterpreting astrology as a spiritual doctrine, or, in the words of Wilhelm Knappich, to strip it of its scholastic-Aristotelic dress and shroud it in ‘the shimmering magic cloak of Indian Theosophy’ instead.

The work of another influential Theosophical astrologer, Dane Rudhyar, is also credited. Gansten, who also teaches at Lund University, points out that Blavatsky’s ideas “contrast sharply, however, with the ideas of karman and transmigration present in the Indic religions,” which should come as no surprise as she rules out metempsychosis, the going backward into an animal form by a human, and that karma cannot be propitiated by rituals and priests. The rest of Martin Gansten’s paper can be read here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Emma Hardinge Britten and Blavatsky

Marc Demarest looks at the relationship between the medium Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), an early councilor of the Theosophical Society, and Blavatsky, in a July 15 post on his blog Chasing Down Emma.

However committed Emma was to the mission of the First Theosophical Society (and there's plenty of evidence that she was committed), by the time she founds The Two Worlds her occultism is of a purely theoretical and historical variety, and after Olcott brings Theosophy into Emma's backyard in the late 1880s, her position is an uncompromisingly Spiritual (and anti-TS) one -- right down to her repudiation of that which she alleged, from time to time, in the 1870s: that elemental spirits could obsess mortals, and so produce fraudulent communications through mediums.

Demarest has also announced his forthcoming edition of Art Magic, an early attempt to introduce the public to the ideas of occultism, edited by Emma in 1876, which should give us some new insights into this forgotten text.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Making of British Socialism

No subject now appears immune to a reference of Blavatsky. Mark Bevir’s new book, The Making of British Socialism, contains the passing nod.

Evolutionary theory unsettled many Victorians not only because the language of development raised the possibility of backsliding but also because scientific discoveries provided a contrast to older religious truths.…The age included extensive discussions of the apparent conflict between faith and reason and of how the two might be reconciled with one another. The attempt to bridge faith and reason energized quasi-scientific approaches to the soul, death, the afterlife, and the divine. The Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Blavatsky, was just one of many organizations to use the language of science and evolution to discuss paranormal and mystical experiences.

Mark Bevir, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches political theory and philosophy, and public policy and organization, is no stranger to Blavatsky having authored of a number of previous articles mentioning her, including “The West turns Eastward: Madame Blavatsky and the Transformation of the Occult Tradition,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1994; “Annie Besant's Quest for Truth: Christianity, Secularism and New Age Thought,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 1999; “In Opposition to the Raj: Annie Besant and the Dialectic of Empire,” History of Political Thought, 1998, “Theosophy and the Origins of the Indian National Congress,” International Journal of Hindu Studies, 2003. His book, The Making of British Socialism, will be published September 4 by Princeton University Press.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Blavatsky News

* The latest issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, for March 2011, contains an article by Gauri Viswanathan titled “‘Have Animals Souls?”: Theosophy and the Suffering Body,” which continues her recent work on Blavatsky, memory, and history, theories and methodologies.

* There is an interesting, if brief, video that looks at Mme. Blavatsky’s Philadelphia address on 3420 Sansom Street that is now the home of the White Dog Cafe. Unfortunately, other than showing the address above the door, it gives no real idea of the building or location. It is posted on the iGeneralist site, which describes it as: “The home of Madame Blavatsky while she lived in Philadelphia. Not an adherent to her field of study, but I thought this video might be interesting to those fascinated by her life.”

* George M. Young looks at “Esoteric Elements In Russian Cosmism” in the 2011 issue of The Rose+Croix Journal, a yearly publication from AMORC. “Russian Cosmism is a lively and still productive tendency in the history of Russian esoteric thought, important but little known outside Russia. This paper presents a brief introduction to the ideas of several of the major figures in this tendency. From Nikolai Fedorov, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, to Svetlana Semenova, today’s leading Cosmist, the emphasis of this movement has been on the human role in shaping and directing future human evolution, in all its physical, social, and spiritual manifestations.” As Young notes: “Since the late nineteenth century, more than a few notable contributions to international esoteric doctrine have come west with a strong Russian accent: H. P. Blavatsky, George Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, Nicholas and Helena Roerich are names that immediately come to mind.” The rest of the article can be read here.