Thursday, June 24, 2010

Books We Can't Put Down

Under this heading for its “must read” titles, Tarcher/Penguin in New York has listed Michael Gomes’ edition of The Secret Doctrine on their website with the words:

At last, an accessible, annotated version of The Secret Doctrine. Arguably the most famous and influential occult book ever written, Madame H.P. Blavatsky’s 1888 esoteric masterpiece, The Secret Doctrine, has now been annotated and abridged by historian Michael Gomes.

While Foyles, London’s mammoth bookstore, lists it in their Current Favourites section:

Previously only available as a two-volume set of 1400 unwieldy pages, this is the first annotated single-volume edition of the seminal Victorian guide to the occult. Theosophical scholar Michael Gomes analyses the famous stanzas on the genesis of life and the cosmos at the heart of Madame Blavatsky's ideas and provides literary historical context to illuminate her more arcane references.

Released at the end of July 2009, the book has been so successful that it was already reprinted this spring. Tarcher has followed this with an advertising campaign for print, radio and Internet to accompany it. A half-page ad appeared in the June 10th London Review of Books, and the one in the New York Times Book Review of June 6th is reproduced above. Another reprint of the book is scheduled before the end of the year. Who says Blavatsky is not of interest to the modern reader? It all depends how you present her, and Michael Gomes seems to have captured her essence.

The Secret Doctrine in Russian

The Secret Doctrine was translated into Russian by Helena and Nicholas Roerich and published in Riga, Latvia, in 1937. The translation was based on the 1893 Third and Revised Edition and is over 1800 pages. Copies of it are now extremely scarce. Boris de Zirkoff in Rebirth of the Occult Tradition, the booklet version of the Introduction to his 1978 edition of The Secret Doctrine, writes that “Some years after its publication most of the edition was destroyed at Riga during revolutionary uprisings.” In 1991 the Theosophical Publishing House issued a facsimile reprint of this Russian edition. Recently an original set of the two-volume 1937 Russian edition was put up for sale by the Helix Art Center of San Diego, California, which specializes in Russian art, collections, archives, and reference materials. An indication of the value of original editions of Blavatskiana can be seen by the asking price: $3,995. dollars U.S. The link to their site can be found here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Blavatsky and the Arts

The Beginning of Life (1900-1902)
by František Kupka (1871-1957)

A notice for the exhibition, Paths to Abstraction 1867-1917, on view from June 26 to September 19 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, contains the following oblique reference to the influence of HPB and shows that the media in some parts of the world still needs to be educated in this matter:

The artists who pioneered abstraction came from different intellectual positions. Malevich, Mondrian, Kupka and Kandinsky cast their experimental search in spiritual terms: they were all interested in theosophy, that mish-mash of world religions founded by the improbably named Madame Blavatsky. Malevich hung his Black Square across a corner of the show room, the position of religious icons in traditional Russian homes. Kandinsky's 1911 essay, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, is still in print. Other painters were politically motivated; others again were simply interested in the technicalities of their work. “I never never speak of mathematics,” Delaunay said, “and I never bother with spirit.”

The rest of the review, titled “Forget figures and look at the melody,” from The Australian can be read here.

Yeats Once More

An abbot and a singer walk into a library. Although it sounds like the beginning of a joke, it is a description of an event that took place at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin as part of Summer's Wreath 2010, the Library's annual June celebration of Yeats' birthday. On Tuesday, June 15, at 7:30 in the evening, Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman and Nóirín Ní Ríain hosted an evening titled: From Ballads to Byzantium. Hederman is Abbot of Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, and Nóirín Ní Riain is “an internationally acclaimed spiritual singer, a theologian and musicologist.” The event was completely pre-booked and measures had to be taken to accommodate an overflow crowd. Using Yeats’ writings, the evening alternated between Nóirín Ní Ríain’s singing and readings from Abbot Hederman The abbot told the Irish Independent newspaper:

People don't take his [Yeats] spiritual side seriously, because he wasn't interested in normal churches. Yeats was interested in things like the tarot cards, Madame Blavatsky and the Golden Dawn, in which he found his own esoteric way. Irish people thought he was a great poet, but they tended to laugh at him, thinking that he was a foolish person.

When a Roman Catholic abbot acknowledges Mme. Blavatsky an avenue of spirituality we are living in a totally new era. The review of the event from the Irish Independent can be read here.

Blavatsky News

There has been a noticeable decline of historical writing about H.P. Blavatsky in theosophical journals. This may be due in part to the diminution of existing theosophical periodicals. The Theosophist out of India, started by Blavatsky in 1879, is still around. But in America, Sunrise magazine, the successor to W.Q. Judge’s Path started in 1886, has ceased publication. As has Theosophy magazine from the United Lodge of Theosophists/Theosophy Company in Los Angeles. The once notable Canadian Theosophist has dwindled away. An attempt was tried to create a Canadian successor in Fohat, but this too has ceased publication.

Theosophical History, where one could rely on such writing, has gone from a quarterly to an occasional annual. Insight, once The Theosophical Journal of England, has recently been transformed into Esoterica, a journal that seems to be headed the way of the Quest from Wheaton, Illinois, and the Theosophical Society headquartered there, which can only be classified as Blavatsky oriented in the most general sense.

So we were pleasantly surprised to see the June 2010 Theosophy in Australia, the organ of the Theosophical Society there, and one of the few remaining readable theosophical journals in English, carrying a lengthy article by Michael Gomes on “The Making of The Secret Doctrine.” The article originally appeared in The Theosophist on the centenary of The Secret Doctrine in 1988, and has been reprinted and translated in French, Dutch, and Swedish over the years. That it appeared 22 years ago doesn’t matter at this point, because it is about the best we can expect in this day and age from a theosophical journal.

Gomes’s article holds up pretty well and conveys something of the formative events in the making of The Secret Doctrine without overwhelming the reader with dates and names. And here lies the ability of a good historian—knowing when to stop. Reading his contribution reminded us of a commentator’s remarks in recent issue of the London Review of Books:

Historians are like reliable local guides. Ideally, they will know the terrain like the backs of their hands. They recognise all the inhabitants and have a sharp eye for strangers and imposters. They may not have much sense of world geography and probably can’t even draw a map. But if you want to know how to get somewhere, they are the ones to take you.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Yeats and Theosophy

William Butler Yeats is one of the names continually trotted out by Theosophists as an example of Blavatsky’s influence on the arts. Yeats visited her in London in the late 1880s and wrote of his brief interaction with her. This in turn has yielded numerous studies on Yeats and Theosophy. One of the latest is Timothy Materer’s chapter on “Occultism” in the volume, W.B. Yeats in Context. As is usual with these attempts, it is a fount of misinformation: In 1888 Yeats helped found an Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society [wrong] to explore magical rituals and verify spiritual phenomena [wrong]…Blavatsky thought that Yeats’s magical experiments would further harm her reputation [wrong], which had been damaged earlier by her fraudulent practice of spirit communications in India [wrong]; Yeats was asked to leave the Society in 1889 [wrong].

The book that this is taken from, W.B. Yeats in Context, was published by Cambridge University Press earlier this year, and features 38 contributors who deal with the various aspects of his life and times. It sells for $110. dollars U.S. In 2007, the publisher, Routledge, issued Yeats and Theosophy by Ken Monteith. A more misleading title could not be imagined. While it gives much on Celtic folklore and William Blake, little insight is provided into what this Theosophy that so influenced him actually was. Instead the reader is treated to second hand information garnered from other books and nuggets like: Theosophy counted quite a few Irish members….G.R.S. Mead…was a member of the Hermetical Students group Yeats helped found in Dublin, and that George Russell wrote The Kabbala Unveiled [sic]. It doesn’t matter that Mead was born in England and lived his life there, this is the state of “academic” research in the 21st century, the same academic research that ridicules HPB’s inaccuracies! And the price for it is $123. dollars U.S. Most of these studies are really more about discourse analysis versus philosophic reading of a literary text. In that case, Daniel Gomes’s recent thesis on Yeats can be read on line for free here.

For anyone seeking accurate information on the subject, Jerry Hejka-Ekins' paper on “The Theosophy of William Butler Yeats” published in The Works and Influence of H.P. Blavatsky Conference Papers, 1998, remains one of the more reliable studies of Theosophy’s influence on Yeats. Perhaps Mr Hejka-Ekins will one day allow his paper, “William Butler Yeats and the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society,” presented at the Theosophy and Theosophic Thought Seminar at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in San Francisco in1997 to be published.

One statement that has been repeated over and over again in anything written about W.B. Yeats and his connection with Theosophy is that he was expelled from the Society. This calls for some clarification. Relatively few people were ever actually expelled from the Theosophical Society during Blavatsky’s lifetime, especially in England. It must be supposed that the Esoteric Section is meant, but the reasons given are always murky. The matter can be rectified by information given in a notice sent out from London by the E.S. in April 1891. Yeats’s name is given in a list of recent “Resignations” from the group. So anyone who writes that Yeats was expelled or asked to leave the T.S./E.S. is only exposing their own ignorance.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

“Blavatsky and the Geopolitics of Secret Knowledge”

Trinity College Dublin will be hosting a Symposium on “Perspectives on India and the West: Politics, Religion and Art” on Wednesday, June 23, from 5.00 to 7.30 pm. It will be held at the Synge Theatre Arts Building at Trinity College Dublin. The typical type of talk that is usually presented at this sort of event is represented by those to be given here, such as Charles Horton’s “Changed Perceptions: Western Collectors of Mughal Art” or Francis X. Clooney’s “After Post-Colonialism: the Rediscovery of Hinduism.” But an interesting change, and a sign of the times, is Gauri Viswanathan’s presentation “Colonialism’s Shadow World: Blavatsky and the Geopolitics of Secret Knowledge.” According to the Seminar announcement, her talk “will examine notions of colonialism and secrecy in 19th century India.”

The Seminar is being held in conjunction with the Trinity College Dublin Library Exhibition “Nabobs, Soldiers and Imperial Service: The Irish in India,” May 27 to October 3, 2010, which details “the links between Trinity, Ireland, Britain and Europe with India, concentrating on the wealth of printed books and other related material from the 19th and early 20th century that is held in the Library.”

Professor Viswanathan teaches at the Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University in New York and has dealt with Blavatsky in her writings, most notably in “The Ordinary Business of Occultism” in the Autumn 2000 issue of Critical Inquiry where she took on the subject of the Mahatma Letters.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The School of Disembodied Poetics

Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art is the title of a new book from Stephen Fredman published by Stanford University Press. Explaining the influence of HPB on the American poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988), who was part of the creative world of San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s with Harry Smith and Allen Ginsberg, Fredman writes:

Later, this would enable him to assert that the founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, evinced in the incredible hodge-podge of her writings an intuitive understanding of how the esoteric and avant-garde might work together. “In the mess of astrology, alchemy, numerology, magic orders, neo-Platonic, kabbalistic, and Vedic systems, combined, confused, and explained, queered evolution and wishful geology, transposed heads,” Blavatsky discovered, Duncan claims, “the collagist’s art.”

The elements of collage he discerns in Blavatsky include a “charged fascination” with the material being composed, an obedience to unknown but compelling feelings, and a new respect for discarded phenomena: “Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, midden heaps that they are of unreasonable sources, are midden heaps where, beyond the dictates of reason, as in the collagist’s art, from what has been disregarded or fallen into disregard, genres are mixed, exchanges are made, mutations begun from scraps and excerpts from different pictures…to form the figures of a new composition.”

Perhaps we have been looking at HPB’s works in the wrong way and need to see with new eyes, or rather a new way of seeing, of intuiting, what has been before us all the time. This may explain the ready acceptance HPB has had among artists, especially in the avant-garde. Perhaps through her we can trace an influence to the “Beat” writers who believed that “literature should come from the soul without conscious restrictions.”

The Book of Dzyan

Donald Tyson is an Canadian magician—not the stage version, but the occult type. His latest book, The 13 Gates of the Necronomicon: A Workbook of Magic, continues the Necronomicon mythos used by the American horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, in his stories. Tyson compares the Necronomicon with Blavatsky’s Book of Dzyan:

Lovecraft refers to the Book of Dzyan, which is part of the lore of Theosophy. Madame Blavatsky, the leader of the theosophical movement, claimed to have read the ancient and lost Book of Dzyan, and pretended that she had published stanzas from this work in her own book The Secret Doctrine. As it happens, Blavatsky invented the Book of Dzyan just as surely as Lovecraft invented the Necronomicon—or perhaps, just as surely did not invent it, as Lovecraft did not invent the Necronomicon. Blavatsky claimed the ability to read books stored in the great astral library known as the akashic records. It is very likely here that she studied the Book of Dzyan. Similarly, Lovecraft did not so much invent the Necronomicon as dream it into existence, and for Lovecraft dreams were very real.

Lovecraft’s brief references to the Book of Dzyan have nothing to do with the actual stanzas published by Blavatsky. Should the Book of Dzyan be classified as fictional or real? Blavatsky claimed it to be a real work. Certainly, a portion of it exists in her Secret Doctrine, so it is real in the sense that it has been published. It was regarded as real enough by Theosophists. Yet most scholars agree that the Book of Dzyan had no existence of any material kind before Blavatsky wrote about it.

Donald Tyson has written over twenty books on ritual magic issued mainly through Llewellyn, a New Age publisher, based in Woodbury, Minnesota. While previous practitioners of western magic were fairly sympathetic to Blavatsky—W.W. Westcott, wrote of her erudition, S.L. Mathers, who was not enthusiastic about her eastern approach, still recognized her ability, Aleister Crowley, thought enough of her Voice of the Silence to write a commentary on it, Dion Fortune’s Cosmic Doctrine follows Blavatsky’s schema in The Secret Doctrine, and Israel Regardie, responsible for much of the Golden Dawn revival in the second part of the twentieth century, quotes her approvingly throughout his writings—Tyson is openly dismissal.

The biographical sketch of her on his website claims, among other things:

There is no reason to believe that she spent any amount of time in Tibet, or in a religious retreat. It seems far more likely that she occupied this decade in her life learning the trades of confidence artist and fraudulent medium--skills that served her so well in later years. Criminal activities were probably involved, which may explain her reluctance to discuss this "veiled" time.

In December of 1875 she and Olcott founded the Theosophical Society. Olcott assumed the post of Chairman.

Speaking of the S.P.R. Committee report “exposing” her: Blavatsky's guilt was so obvious to everyone, she made no attempt to deny it.

And so on. The rest of his comments on her, unreliable as they are, can be read here. His book, The 13 Gates of the Necronomicon, will be released by Llewellyn July 1.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How Others See Us

The Observer newspaper of London for Sunday, June 6, 2010, looks at the exhibition, “Newspeak: British Art Now,” that has arrived at the Saatchi Gallery there. Blavatsky News carried an account of its showing at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg earlier this year. The reviewer, Sean O’Hagan, asks:

One cannot help but wonder at shows like this what will become the signature work – the Dead Dad or Myra of the Newspeak generation. That tainted honour might fall to Goshka Macuga's Madame Blavatsky or littlewhitehead's It Happened in the Corner. The first is a sculpture of the famous 19th-century aristocrat and theosophist suspended between two chairs, as if levitating in a hypnotic trance. It speaks of death, mysticism and illusion, not to mention charlatanism, and is compelling perhaps because we live in a supposedly post-rational age where the pseudo-spiritual blatherings of Blavatsky and her followers retain an attraction for the impressionable and the anti-scientific. It also seems oddly holy.

The rest of the review can be read here.

“Christ the Yogi”

Anti-Blasphemy Central: Documents, articles blasphemous against the christian religion, posts a piece, “Origin of Fantastical tales about Yus Asaf of Rozbal also known as Jesus of Kashmir,” suggesting that Nicolas Notovitch’s (1858-?) 1894 La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ, translated as The Unknown Life of Christ, owed its inspiration to a passage on Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, “in which a traveler with the broken leg is taken to Mount Athos in Greece where, in the monastery library, he discovers the text of Celsus’ True Doctrine. The idea of Jesus’ flight to India was also inspired by particular a statement in Isis Unveiled that alludes to his travel to the Himalayas. She wrote”:

Do what we may, we cannot deny Sakya-Muni Buddha a less remote antiquity than several centuries before the birth of Jesus. In seeking a model for his system of ethics why should Jesus have gone to the foot of the Himalayas rather than to the foot of Sinai, but that the doctrines of Manu and Gautama harmonized exactly with his own philosophy, while those of Jehovah were to him abhorrent and terrifying? The Hindus taught to return good for evil, but the Jehovistic command was: “An eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.”
Isis Unveiled
, 2:164

This is nothing new. Notovitch’s entry in Wikipedia says as much. When his book, based on a manuscript he claimed to have discovered in a monastery in Ladakh, appeared in 1894, revealing the early years of Jesus were spent in India, the Orientalist F. Max Muller denounced it as a fraud. Repeated searches for the manuscript failed to produce anything conclusive. As usual, HPB is blamed for this, that, and every other thing, without giving her qualification about Jesus—if he ever existed. Louis Jacolliot had already published his Bible dans l’Inde (vie de Iezeus Christna), suggesting Indian parallels before Blavatsky started writing her books. The mythic appeal of Jesus having been in India, like all myths, has taken on a life of its own, and books on the subject continue to be published.

Imagining Tibet

The website, Tibetan Buddhism Goes West...Problems of Adoption & Cross-Cultural Confusion, recently posted a piece by Tsering Shakya, Canadian Research Chair in Religion and Contemporary Society in Asia Institute for Asian Research University of British Columbia. Titled “The Myth of Shangri-la: Tibet and the Occident,” it raises a number of issues of interest to readers of this site.

There is the real Tibet, what I have called the geographical Tibet, and the imaginary Tibet, which has a potent force of its own. In the Western mind the distinction between the two has merged to form a particular Western perception of Tibet and Tibetanness. In the process of mythologising, the real or geographical Tibet is subservient to the imaginary Tibet. The confusion is caused by the failure to distinguish between an object and a thought about the object.

Tibet has been very useful to the West: it is a place which is being constantly discovered by the West. It has been unveiled and revealed for decades by travellers, explorers, missionaries, soldiers, scholars and colonial officers. Tibet has become a source of adventure and mystery in a world where there is little magic and mystery…. The public was satisfied by Madam Blavatsky's revelation of telepathic messages from the mystics meditating in caves in the majestic Himalayas.

In the Western mind, Tibet was mythogised precisely because it was never colonised and Tibetans were never subservient to European rule. Therefore, Tibet became Shangri-la in the Western mind…. The opening of Tibet to mass tourism in the 1980s meant that the West once again rediscovered Tibet…. Tibet has become a Disney World for the Western bourgeois. Tibet possesses all the thrills and adventure of a customised fantasy world: danger, romance, magic and cuddly natives.

The rest of the article can be read here. Although written some years ago, it surveys a wide range of concerns, better than recent books published on the subject. Only two examples need be noted. Martin Brauen’s Dreamworld Tibet: Western Illusions was initially published in German in 2000 for the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Ethnology at the University of Zurich, May 26, 2000 to June 4, 2001, and translated into English in 2004. With its hundreds of illustrations, it is a beautiful example of what the art of bookmaking is still capable of. Covering Western impressions of Tibet, the part about Blavatsky is written with the “of course she couldn’t possibly have been in Tibet” attitude and gives an account of the “strictly hierarchical system” of Masters that appears nowhere in her writings. Dibyesh Anand’s 2007 Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination, published as part of the University of Minnesota’s political series, reads like a book-length version of Tsering Shakya’s essay above. The obligatory reference to Blavatsky, though brief, is much more nuanced, and shows the current shift in attitudes about her. Fact or fiction, she was one of the first to claim Tibet as a source of enduring spirituality.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Blavatskiana: The Esoteric Papers of Mme. Blavatsky

Aside from the published writings that H.P. Blavatsky is known for, there is another corpus of material that has intrigued students for years: the papers of her esoteric school. Started as an Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society in October 1888 it became a non-affiliated body before her death (though only members of the T.S. were eligible to join). Mme. Blavatsky’s reason for initiating the group was based on her belief that by 1888 the Theosophical Society was “a dead failure,” i.e., that it had failed in its mission to become a nucleus for universal brotherhood and functioned only as an organization where comparative religion was studied not practiced. “It is through an Esoteric Section alone,” she notified members, “that the great Exoteric Society may be redeemed.”

Members of the Esoteric (later Eastern) School of Theosophy took a pledge of secrecy about the papers they received. Three instructional booklets, sent to members in 1889 and 1890, dealt with esoteric correspondences of color, number, and sound. After Blavatsky’s death in 1891 the school was carried on, at the suggestion of William Q. Judge, under the dual headship of Judge and Annie Besant. But in 1894 Judge ousted Besant from her position as co-Outer Head and removed the ban of secrecy on Blavatsky’s E.S. instructions. Besant published an edited version of this material, along with instructions given to Blavatsky’s Inner Group of students, as part of the so-called Third Volume of The Secret Doctrine in 1897.

It remained the main source for this material until Health Research, an offset reprint company in California, issued a typescript version of Blavatsky’s first three instructions in 1969. In 1980 the full text of the E.S. instructions were included in volume 12 of the Blavatsky Collected Writings series, published by the Theosophical Publishing House in Wheaton, Illinois. In 2004 Daniel Caldwell put together what he has described as the “most comprehensive collection of H.P.B.’s esoteric papers now available,” the contents of which can be seen here.

Caldwell’s The Esoteric Papers of Madame Blavatsky, available through the photocopy reprint company Kessinger of Whitefish, Montana, covers 673 pages in an 8 by 11 inch format and weighs over three pounds. Most of the documents reproduced are facsimiles of the originals, encapsulated in black borders reminiscent of Godwin, Chanel, and Deveney’s 1995 The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. It is an admirable, if bulky, attempt at presenting this material to the world. Though he gives little commentary of his own, it is interesting to note that Caldwell begins the genesis of the E.S. with Blavatsky’s statement in an 1887 letter to Countess Wachtmeister of her intention to start “a school of my own.”

For his efforts Caldwell was condemned by certain people associated with the United Lodge of Theosophists. Who was he to dare make public these documents (even though published versions had been circulating for years)? Caldwell, never one to waste an attack, responded by revealing that the ULT carried on its own esoteric group under the name of the Dzyan Esoteric School, using HPB’s E.S. instructions. By whose authority, was his rejoinder? His posts on the matter can be read here, and form a novel historical addenda to his Esoteric Papers of Madame Blavatsky.