Thursday, April 26, 2012

Blavatsky and Spiritualism, Ctd

For someone with such a reputation for being a medium and Spiritualist, Mme. Blavatsky’s involvement with the modern Spiritualist movement was remarkably slight. Accepting July 1873 as the point of her arrival in New York we hear nothing about her in connection with Spiritualism (we are not talking about posthumous accounts, which is a different kind of evidence) until her letters in the October and November 1874 New York Daily Graphic defending Col. Olcott’s account of the Eddy mediums based on what she saw during her stay there. In her Scrapbook she pens a note to this: “So much in defence of phenomena, as to whether these Spirits are ghosts is another question.”

When E.D. Babbitt introduced her to his readers in the December 5, 1874, issue of his “New York Dept” for the Religio-Philosophical Journal, it was as someone new to them. Within seven months she starts publicly adopting the occultist position, as can be seen in her July 1875 “HIRAF” article. Her visit to Hiram Corson in Ithaca in October 1875 is telling.  Corson, who had lost his daughter the year before, had hoped that Blavatsky might put him in contact with her, but as he wrote his son, “I had expected we should have some ‘sittings’ together, but she is not only disposed but is decidedly opposed to anything of the kind.” Not much of a Spiritualist who would dissuade someone from contacting a dead relative.

She spends the whole of 1876 working on Isis Unveiled, and it’s publication in 1877, marshaling as it does the evidence of antiquity against promiscuous intercourse with the dead, strains her relations with the Spiritualists. She turns her sights to India, as the repository of true spirituality (Spiritualism), and never looks back.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blavatsky and Spiritualism, Ctd

Looking back at their initial meeting in 1874 Col. Olcott records in the first volume of Old Diary Leaves that “H.P.B. tried her best to make me suspect the value of the William Eddy’s phenomena as proofs of the intelligent control of a medium by spirits, telling me that, if genuine, they must be the double of the medium escaping from his body and clothing itself with other appearances; but I would not believe.…Our disputes were quite warm on occasions.” He says that it was “only through the agency that my previous experience would make most comprehensible, a pretended medium over-shadowing spirit,” John King, that he was led out of his “spiritualistic Fool’s Paradise.” “He was at first, John King, an independent personality, then John King, messenger and servant of living adepts, and finally an elemental pure and simple, employed by H.P.B.”

Sinnett in his 1886 Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky follows much the same line. He cites a number of revealing comments by Blavatsky to a translation of her sister’s 1883 “The Truth about H.P. Blavatsky.”

Speaking of Blavatsky’s display in Russia in the late 1850s of phenomena associated with Spiritualism, her sister, Vera Zhelihovsky, adds the following footnote:

In those far off days, when Spiritualism had hardly begun in America, belief in “spirits” as the only agency at work in such raps and knocks was accepted in Russia as elsewhere, since few are acquainted even now with the theories of the occultists. The author in answer to our query whether she believed herself in spirits and mediumship, as she used the term, answered she knew of no other names to express the faculty of producing such raps and phenomena. ‘I remember,’ she [Vera] said, ‘that when addressed as a medium, she [Mime. Blavatsky] used to laugh and assure us she was no medium but only as a mediator between mortals and beings we knew nothing about’ (full text in The Theosophist, May 1991, 290 fn).

Sinnett quotes Blavatsky as writing from New York: “If we are anything, we are Spiritualists, not only of the modern American fashion but on that of ancient Alexandria with its Theodadiktoses, Hypatias and Porpheries…”

We Theosophists and especially Occultists must never lose sight of the profound axiom of the Esoteric Doctrine which teaches us that it is we, the living, who are drawn toward the Spirits—but that the latter can never, even though they would, which they would never do, descend to us, or rather into our sphere.

Explaining Blavatsky’s use of the term Spiritualist to describe herself during her New York days, Olcott, says: “to show what was true spiritualism, and how man can develop true spirituality, was plainly H.P.B.’s design and motive for declaring herself a Spiritualist.”

There was no other word in use to cover the aspirations of this growing segment of the population. By July 1875 Blavatsky had started using “occultism” and “occultist,” and though it shows up in Isis Unveiled, the Oxford English Dictionary credits Sinnett’s 1881 The Occult World, with popularizing the terms. By 1878 she was writing “Occultism is the essence of Spiritualism, while modern or popular spiritualism I cannot better characterize than as adulterated, unconscious magic.”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Blavatsky and Spiritualism, Ctd

The compiler of the 14 volumes of Blavatsky’s Collected Writings, Boris de Zirkoff, adds the following note on Blavatsky’s use of the term: “Speaking of herself as a Spiritualist and a follower of Spiritualism, H.P.B. meant what she called ‘ancient Spiritualism’ and Spiritualism according to the ‘ancient Alexandrian way’” (I:74). The following passage from Isis Unveiled (1877, I:320-21) is indicative of this.

For fear of being misunderstood, we would remark that while, as a rule, physical phenomena are produced by the nature-spirits, of their own motion and to please their own fancy, still good disembodied human spirits, under exceptional circumstances, such as the aspiration of a pure heart or the occurrence of some favoring emergency, can manifest their presence by any of the phenomena except personal materialization.  But it must be a mighty attraction indeed to draw a pure, disembodied spirit from its radiant home into the foul atmosphere from which it escaped upon leaving its earthly body.

Magi and theurgic philosophers objected most severely to the “evocation of souls.”  “Bring her (the soul) not forth, lest in departing she retain something,” says Psellus.

“It becomes you not to behold them before your body is initiated,
 Since, by always alluring, they seduce the souls of the uninitiated,”
says the same philosopher, in another passage.

They objected to it for several good reasons.  (1) “It is extremely difficult to distinguish a good daemon from a bad one,” says Iamblichus.  (2) If a human soul succeeds in penetrating the density of the earth’s atmosphere—always oppressive to her, often hateful—still there is a danger the soul is unable to come into proximity with the material world without that she cannot avoid; “departing, she retains something,” that is to say, contaminating her purity, for which she has to suffer more or less after her departure.  Therefore, the true theurgist will avoid causing any more suffering to this pure denizen of the higher sphere than is absolutely required by the interests of humanity.  It is only the practitioner of black magic who compels the presence, by the powerful incantations of necromancy, of the tainted souls of such as have lived bad lives, and are ready to aid his selfish designs.

Communication is possible, “under exceptional circumstances,” but it is not encouraged. For, “it must be a mighty attraction indeed to draw a pure, disembodied spirit from its radiant home into the foul atmosphere from which it escaped upon leaving its earthly body.” Not the chatter that is usually found in the séance room. Yet in spite of all this, “Blavatsky never clearly defined her connection and relationship to Spiritualism”!

Blavatsky and Spiritualism

One of the claims that Lavoie makes in his article about Blavatsky in Ars Historia, that “Blavatsky never clearly defined her connection and relationship to Spiritualism,” caused us to look at the evidence again.

We find that five months after the first newspaper article is published describing her as a Spiritualist, she writes in a letter:

When I became a spiritualist, it was not through the agency of the ever-lying, cheating mediums, miserable instruments of the undeveloped Spirits of the lower Sphere, the ancient Hades.

 My belief is based on something older than the Rochester knockings, and spring out from the same source of information that was used by Raymond Lully, Picus della Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa, Robert Fludd, Henry More, etc etc, all of whom have ever been searching for a system that should disclose to them the “deepest depths” of the Divine nature, and show them the real tie which binds all things together.

I found at last—and many years ago—the cravings of my mind satisfied by this theosophy taught by the Angels and communicated by them, that the protoplast might know it for the aid of the human destiny.

 The practical, however small knowledge of the Principle the Ain-Soph, or the Endless and the Boundless, with its ten Sephiroths or Emanations, goes more towards opening your eyes than all the hypothetic teachings of the leaders of Spiritualism, let them be American or European.

This was written in February 1875.

In a letter, to another spiritualist, dated November 19, 1877, she states:

Let us settle, once for all if you please, as to the word “Spiritualist.” I am not one—not at least in the modern and American sense of the word.

Then there are the letters to her family, such as this from around 1874:

The more I see of Spiritualistic séances in this cradle and hotbed of mediums, the more clearly I realize how dangerous they are for humanity.

Then there is Isis Unveiled.

Actually, Lavoie does not indicate clearly enough to the reader that Spiritualism at the time of Blavatsky’s involvement contained magical elements, along with the ideas of Mesmer, and local hoodoo, which could accommodate figures as diverse as Paschal Beverly Randolph, Emma Hardinge Britten, Frederick Hockley and others. Blavatsky’s accomplishment was to create a venue where the more philosophical elements of the movement could find an outlet as Spiritualism became more oriented to the phenomena of spirit communication.

Boris de Zirkoff includes a note on Blavatsky’s use of the term Spiritualism in Volume 1, p. 74, of his Blavatsky Collected Writings series and Michael Gomes devotes a full article to it in his 1989 study “Initial Spiritualist Response to H.P.B.”

At the time she was becoming publicly identified as a Spiritualist, Blavatsky penned the following note in one of her scrapbooks:

When I am dead and gone people will, perhaps, appreciate my disinterested motives. I have pledged my word to help people on to Truth while living and—will keep my word. Let them abuse and revile me. Let some call me a MEDIUM and a Spiritualist, and others an impostor. The day will come when posterity will learn to know me better.

Apparently that day has still not arrived.

A Question of Motive

The latest issue of Ars Historia (Volume 4, 2012), the online journal published by postgraduate history students at the University of Exeter, and contributed to by other postgraduate students, contains a long piece by Jeffrey Lavoie, “The Spiritualism of Madame Blavatsky: An Introduction to Western Esotericism and the Life and Writings of a Victorian Occultist,” arguing basically that Blavatsky was, is, and remained a spiritualist.

His thesis was summed up well by Blavatsky’s relentless critic, the spiritualist William E. Coleman in 1888:

There is not a single truth in theosophy that is not in spiritualism, and that was not stolen from spiritualism to season theosophy with a little rational truth. Madame Blavatsky was a kind of Spiritualist before she determined to be the founder of a new culte, and the few grains of truth in theosophy were stolen by her from the spiritualism which she denounces and ridicules. 

The article is a résumé of the first chapter of Lavoie's book. And while a great deal of space is given over to another telling of how it could be done, we are still no closer at arriving at the why, or any greater understanding of Blavatsky.

Even Richard Hodgson (perhaps because of his legal studies) realized that he could not just deliver a report that claimed she was a fraud, regardless of how much evidence he thought he had, to convict her. There was the question of motive. “The question which will now inevitably arise is—what has induced Madame Blavatsky to live so many laborious days in such a fantastic work of imposture?” he was forced to ask on page 313 of his report. “Laborious” would certainly be the word, for, while she was engaged in this “fantastic work of imposture,” she was also editing magazines, writing over 1,000 articles in the space of 17 years, sometimes on the most erudite philosophical principles, supporting herself by writing Russian fiction based on her travels in India, work on her famous books, keep up her correspondence, and, if we believe her critics, “fabricate” a 140 Mahatma Letters, maintain this correspondence in the face of scepticism, and develop of whole new philosophy. But they won’t tell you that.

Having met her, and interviewed her associates, Hodgson dismissed “the sordid motive of pecuniary gain” or “a morbid yearning for notoriety,” coming to the conviction as the result of his investigation that Theosophy was a ruse and that “Madame Blavatsky was a ‘Russian spy’.” It should be noted that nothing in the past 125 years has come forward to substantiate his conclusion.

These and other charges that Mr. Lavoie delineates did not seem to convince all her contemporaries or diminish her contribution in the eyes of them. William T. Stead, the pioneering journalist, observed at the time of her passing: “What Madame Blavatsky did was an immeasurably greater thing than the doubling of teacups. She made it possible for some of the most cultivated and sceptical men and women of this generation to believe—believe ardently, to the extent that made them proof against ridicule and disdainful if persecution.

We would also add that the persistence of the term “natives” in 2012 to describe the people of India unfortunate. Mr. Lavoie writes: “When Blavatsky and Olcott first arrived in India they were greeted by a group of about 300 natives.” The use of this sort of ethnophaulism does not recommend his work.