Sunday, June 17, 2012

Theosophy was a Spiritualist Movement?

The May 2012 installment of PsyPioneer, the online journal that focuses on some obscure items of Spiritualist history, has an unusually large amount of material on Blavatsky. Leslie Price provides a brief review of Jeffrey D. Lavoie’s 2012 The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement. But even Price questions the central thesis of the book: that basically Blavatsky was, is, and remained a spiritualist throughout her Theosophical career and that her Society was essentially a Spiritualist one. This allows Lavoie to post a lengthy reply commenting on Price’s comments. Garth Willey, who is connected with the journal, adds the somewhat skeptical note:

Lavoie limits his study to the period 1875 to 1891. The major national Spiritualist bodies had not been fully established during that period – conferences had been held (over a couple of decades) and principles debated: and the Spiritualists’ National Federation (UK) held its inaugural meeting in July 1890 – but ‘churches’ were somewhat ‘individualistic’ (aren’t they still!). The point is: Spiritualism had not been fully and categorically defined during the study period. The much looser terminology ‘spiritualist’ and ‘spiritualism’ may have been more appropriate throughout Lavoie’s work rather than attributing our contemporary understanding of Spiritualism to The Theosophical Society’s and Blavatsky’s origins.

Lavoie in his reply claims that Blavatsky’s description of elementals—non-human agencies as the source of much of séance-room phenomena—was not unique to her but also used by Andrew Jackson Davis’s in his 1880 book The Diakka. But with Davis the Diakka, “some of whom were Indians of every nationality” (p. 80), “were once human beings, once sons and daughters in human homes” (p. 79). It was a useful way of explaining why mediums were sometimes found cheating: it was the Diakka, these unprincipled spirits, acting through the medium (p. 80).

Mr. Price also adds a note that since “Madame Blavatsky [Radda-Bai] herself fearlessly put her name to some very outspoken criticisms,” we should do the same here. (We wonder what Adlai E. Waterman might say about this?) Perhaps it is a generational thing; but for many of those who come here, looking for accurate information on H. P. Blavatsky, it is a non-issue. The bottom line is: are the facts accurate? Do they hold up to same scrutiny that its authors judge Blavatsky by? No doubt Mr. Price knows that there has been a consistent practice in parts of the Theosophical movement (United Lodge of Theosophists, for instance) for over a century to get away from this emphasis on the authority of personalities (“Personality is the curse in the Theosophical Society, as it is everywhere,” Blavatsky once commented), believing that ideas should stand on their merit and not under the shadow of great names. “Why not follow her example?” Price asks. But if Blavatsky was really the unscrupulous lying, cheating conniver (though not embezzler) that Lavoie portrays in his writings, and which Mr. Price finds “a fine example of the new wave” (!), why would anyone want to follow her example as a moral authority in anything?

The latest issue of Theosophical History (dated October 2011!) also raises a number of concerns regarding Lavoie’s methodology in its notice of his book.

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