Sunday, July 8, 2012

Blavatsky in Canada

The National Post, a Canadian conservative newspaper, carries in its July 6th issue a fairly favorable review by Philip Marchand of Gillian McCann’s Vanguard of the New Age: the Toronto Theosophical Society. 1891-1945.

What future cultural historians may find of greatest interest in the story of Canadian Theosophy is its appeal to some of the foremost artistic figures of the day. Artist Lawren Harris is the best known of these figures, but other members of the Group of Seven followed his example, as did drama critic Roy Mitchell, who sought inspiration for a new Canadian drama and thought he found it in the Irish theatre of Theosophist William Butler Yeats. 

This situation reflected wider artistic trends in the English-speaking world of the early 20th century. The two most luminous English-language poets of the era, Yeats and Ezra Pound, were both deeply interested in the occult, if not — in Pound’s case — specifically the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. In the world of visual arts, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky were committed Theosophists. Their story, and the story of Albert Ernest Stafford Smythe, himself not an inconsiderable poet, is a reminder that the arts have a need for the otherworldly in the same way that plants need moisture. If they don’t get this need fulfilled by traditional religions, they will seek such fulfillment in enterprises such as the Theosophical Society.

McCann’s study is an easy read, being just over 160 pages of text, the rest being notes and index. For some reason McCann chose not to utilize the extensive work of Ted G. Davy charting the history of Theosophy in Canada. Mr. Davy’s efforts have been published in book form as Theosophy in Canada: ‘The Split’ and other Studies in Early Canadian Theosophical History and Some Early Canadian Theosophists (2011) and covers almost 400 pages. What Davy, McCann and her reviewers are all in agreement on is the influence of Blavatsky’s ideas on Canadian society during the first half of the twentieth century, special recognition being given to figure of Albert E.S. Smythe, who guided the movement in Canada during this time, and who helped foster the Back to the Blavatsky movement in the 1920s.

The cancelled envelope to A.E.S. Smythe mailed in 1926 from the Theosophical Society in Australia comes from Australian Postal History & Social Philately.

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