Thursday, January 30, 2014

Charles Johnston Online

The name of Charles Johnston (1867-1931) may not be as well-known as that of other nineteenth century theosophists, yet to his contemporaries he was considered a main conduit for translations of Hindu religious scriptures, having become proficient in Sanskrit during his stay in India. The site Universal Theosophy has put up what must be the most comprehensive compilation of his writings: 265 items culled from turn of the century theosophical journals. The material is sorted by title, by type (book, pamphlet), and in chronological order, which allows a year by year indicator of his output, starting in 1886 and ending with his death in 1931.

Johnston, born in Ireland, was part of the Dublin theosophical scene of the 1880s that included George W. Russell (Æ) and W.B. Yeats among others. He married Blavatsky’s niece Vera Zhelihovsky in London in 1888, and in 1896 the couple moved to the U.S. where they would spend the rest of their lives. The Johnstons became actively involved in the cause of Russian refugees at the outbreak of World War I. Johnston is listed as “Teacher of English Language” at the New Jersey Seminary of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1918. Among his written pieces are a number of interesting pen-portraits of his visits with Mme. Blavatsky.

Seated:  Mme. Blavatsky and her sister, Vera Zhelihovsky
Standing:  Vera Zhelihovsky Johnston, Charles Johnston, and Col. Olcott
London  1888

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Blavatsky and Pompeii

One of the crazier things written about H.P. Blavatsky was that her first book, Isis Unveiled, was derived from Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii. A very learned and reasoned study by S.B. Liljegren, Bulwer-Lytton’s Novels and Isis Unveiled, was published in Upsala, Sweden, in 1957; in it he argues that since part of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel describes the cult of Isis, and since Blavatsky’s book was titled Isis Unveiled, there is an obvious influence. No matter that the book’s title was chosen by the publisher, or that it’s editor could note that this choice was singularly unfortunate (“This work of Madam Blavatsky is largely based upon the hypothesis of a prehistoric period of the Aryan people in India, and in such a period the veil or the unveiling of Isis can hardly be said to constitute any part”), for Liljegren Bulwer-Lytton was her inspiration. Unfortunately in emphasizing this idea he diminishes or simply ignores the possibility of other possible influences.

The story of Pompeii, the Roman city near modern Naples, destroyed and preserved in volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, has been a familiar motif in European literature and the arts since its rediscovery and subsequent excavation at the end of the eighteenth century. Bulwer-Lytton’s contribution, The Last Days of Pompeii, with its recreation of the life of an ancient Roman city broadened its popularity. Film has been especially kind to it with almost a dozen adaptations of the story of the doomed city and love amid the ruins. The news of still another recreation, Pompeii, to be released at the end of February 2014, shows that its charm has not lessened.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  The Economist of London for January 18, 2014, reviews Wendy Lesser’s new book Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The reviewer mentions in passing:

James Wood, a British critic, fell in love with Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary…Henry Miller, though born to Lutheran parents in New York, had a liking for Plutarch, Petronius, Marcel Proust and that dotty Russian theosophist, Madame Blavatsky, the original New Ager. How do people know this? Because both authors came clean about their literary passions. Writers are made by their reading, which is why it is such fun to peer at their bookshelves and inspect the dog-eared pages, the turned-down corners.

*  The London Spectator of January 18, 2014, in its review of Helen Trinca's biography of the Australian writer Madeleine St John (1941-2006) published last year, draws our attention to the following: 

It took her a long time to become a published writer, and she only started writing fiction after spending almost ten years in the 1970s and 1980s  struggling with a biography (unpublished) of Madame Blavatsky.

It would have been an interesting combination. Helen Trinca writes that someone who saw the manuscript recalled that it was “a critical look at Blavatsky.…Little was known of Blavatsky’s childhood, and Madeleine had opted to write a ‘creative’ version of her early years. She had written a ‘tremendously sensitive picture of what it was like to emerge as a little girl in such a world, at such a time’. But merging that story with factual narrative was difficult, and Madeline had not managed to tie the threads of the book together.”

Apparently, the book had failed to excite a publisher and the author eventually destroyed the manuscript, but it spurred her to become the literary sensation that she was.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Madame Blavatsky and the Astral Light

This year’s New Zealand Fringe Festival in Wellington runs from February 4 to March 4. Among the myriad assortment of events offered will be a theatre piece “Madame Blavatsky and the Astral Light,” directed by Julia Campbell and Catherine Swallow and written by Renee Gerlich. The play will be staged atop the Wellington Botanic Gardens, in a marquee in partnership with Carter Observatory. According to the Festival’s Press Release for it:

Occultist and mystic Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891) sought to unify scientific and spiritual investigation in an attempt to reach a universal brotherhood of followers. Contemporary and historic interpretations paint a divisive picture of this formidable woman, who shunned Darwin and predicted the divisibility of the atom. This new work focuses on Blavatsky’s life and character in parallel with significant developments in the physics of the time, particularly the distribution of electricity by Thomas Edison and his contemporaries. She was the co-founder of the Theosophical Society which still exists today.

Performers use puppets, physical theatre, music and human generated electrical sources to explore Blavatsky’s influence on significant thinkers of the time, including the poet WB Yeats. Using a variety of nontraditional effects, Campbell and Swallow will explore what it may have been like for nineteenth century travelling players.

Performance dates: February 13 to 16, 2 PM and 7 PM. Duration 60 minutes. Since this will be an outdoor performance, warm clothing and something to sit on is recommended.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  The mixed martial arts site, MMA Fighting, provides an indicator of another level of diffusion of Blavatsky’s name recognition. Reporting on the results of a fight, the writer, Chuck Mindenhall, says that one of the veterans of this sprawl-and-brawl scene, correctly predicting the outcome of the game, had “turned into the Madame Blavatsky of the fight game.”  !

*   The Atlantic for December 30 looks at the results of a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. “Across five experiments, 701 participants ‘were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus.’”

The emotions were generated by having the subjects read short stories or watch movies. On a blank, computerized figurine, they were then asked to color in the areas of their body where sensations became stronger (the red and yellow) or weaker (blue and black) when they felt a certain way.

These color equations of emotions offer a curious illustration to Blavatsky’s color scheme taught to her esoteric students and the later work of Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater’s influential books on the color of thought forms.