Thursday, October 28, 2010

A.E.S. Smythe

The Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'├ętudes canadiennes, Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2010, contains a long overdue recognition of A.E.S. Smythe’s position in Canadian intellectual and spiritual life. The paper, "A Pilgrim Forever: The Life and Thought of Albert Smythe,” takes as its subject the life and ideas of social reformer, journalist, and occultist Albert E.S. Smythe. Placing him within the milieu of turn-of-the-century Toronto, the essay examines the evolution of his ideas on social reform, just war, and pacifism. Smythe's work is also situated within the larger sweep of Canadian social amelioration and occult movements.

While the overall focus of the paper is Smythe’s political thought, enough material is given to convey his importance to theosophy in America. Smythe (1861-1947) met another Irishman, W.Q. Judge, on his voyage to America in 1884 and that led to a lifelong commitment to theosophy. Smythe was instrumental in the formation of the Canadian Section of the Theosophical Society in 1919, becoming its General Secretary, and editor of The Canadian Theosophist, until 1947. Under his editorship the magazine became a primary source for material on H.P. Blavatsky and her work, often contributed to by many of her former students.

Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy in "Finnegans Wake"

Len Platt’s 2008 paper, “Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy in 'Finnegans Wake': An Annotated List” from the James Joyce Quarterly 45 (2), pp. 281-300, can now be accessed online. Platt writes

The central argument of my analysis of the Wake and theosophy in Joyce, Race and ‘Finnegans Wake’ is that Joyce understood theosophy not just as an insignificant absurdity that had a curious currency amongst Dublin’s Protestant intellectuals, but in a wider cultural context and as a symptomatic discourse of modernity. In this respect theosophy, like the race discourses with which it can be closely identified, demonstrated key qualities of the modern — the faddist instinct, the capacity for trickery and sensationalism and, perhaps above all for Joyce, the irrationality and the turn that contemporaneity had taken away from the egalitarian instincts of a once progressive order. The point being not to deny the importance of the Irish context — clearly the involvement of the Dublin crowd with theosophy was central to Joyce’s analysis of Irish revivalism as a faddist and conservative culture — but, rather, to recognise that Joyce’s engagement with theosophy was also part of a bigger and more complex engagement with modernity and the ‘enlightenment project’. It is against this wider backdrop that theosophy becomes of particular importance to the Wake.

Over fifty allusions to Blavatsky and theosophical concepts from Finnegan’s Wake are given and can be read here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blavatsky and the Great Year

Robert Tulip’s paper, "Blavatsky and the Great Year: Astrology in the Bible", presented at the Sydney University Conference has been posted on his website and can be accessed here.

In his abstract he notes: The Great Year is the 25,765 year long period of precession of the equinox around the zodiac, caused by the wobble of the axis of the earth. Discussed by Madame Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine, and by other modern mystics such as Carl Jung in his book Aion, the Great Year provides a unifying cosmic framework for the esoteric wisdom of the perennial philosophy, summarized in the axiom ‘as above so below’. This paper analyses references in the Bible to show how the Great Year underpins Theosophy as a discipline that bridges theology, astrology and science, pointing to a new philosophical synthesis for a New Age.

Gurdjieff and Blavatsky

While the majority of papers at the Sydney Conference covered areas of general theosophical influence, especially in the arts, Johanna Petsche’s “Gurdjieff and Blavatsky” focused on the trajectories of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff.

G.I. Gurdjieff rebukes any direct connection to Theosophy, yet has been quoted as declaring that he laboured to obtain “the erroneous statements of Mme. Blavatsky’s ‘The Secret Doctrine’”, and that Mme. Blavatsky fell in love with him. Similarities between the lives, teachings, sensationalist claims and mysterious personas of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff are striking. Both born in southern Russia and exposed to the diverse religions and cultures of the Caucasus, H.P. Blavatsky (1831-1891) and G.I. Gurdjieff (c. 1866-1949) claimed to have accessed hidden sources of esoteric knowledge, preserved for millennia by secret brotherhoods. Blavatsky affirms that the Mahatmas of the Great White Brotherhood, a fraternity of ascended spiritual masters, revealed this knowledge to her, whereas Gurdjieff claims that he found this knowledge through a series of “remarkable men” that he met during a twenty-year search across Central Asia and the Middle East. Gurdjieff’s teachings were formed in Russia in the early part of the twentieth century during the Occult Revival when Theosophical ideas were widely available. Some of his closest pupils had backgrounds in Theosophy such as P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage, J.G. Bennett and Thomas and Olga de Hartmann. It is no surprise then that many of Blavatsky’s core ideas in The Secret Doctrine can be found in Gurdjieff’s writings. Blavatsky’s symbolism of three and seven, “four bodies of mankind”, “Ray of Creation”, four elements (“hydrogen”, “carbon”, “oxygen” and “nitrogen”), seven subtle bodies, identification of the Soul with the Over-Soul, and general merging of Western Occult Tradition with Eastern teachings, are clearly echoed in the writings and teachings of Gurdjieff. This paper explores synergies between the teachings of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, and addresses the question of whether or not Gurdjieff was directly influenced by Blavatsky’s ideas or whether they were both simply drawing on common esoteric currents prominent in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe.

Among those who visited Gurdjieff at his school at Fontainebleau, France, Johanna Petsche mentioned Maud Hoffman, A.P. Sinnett’s executor, responsible for placing the Mahatma Letters in the British Museum, and A. Trevor Barker, who transcribed and edited the letters for publication.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

H.P. Blavatsky: A Reappraisal

The University of Sydney hosted a two day Conference on The Legacies of Theosophy: Unveiling the Mysteries of the Creative Imaginary on Oct. 1-2, 2010. It drew together academics from a number of fields including Garry Trompf, Vras Karalis, Chris Hartney, Michael Gomes and others. HPB was mentioned throughout and we hope to present some of the abstracts of the papers featured, starting with Michael Gomes’ “ H.P. Blavatsky: A Reappraisal,” which was the presentation that focused most on her:

Any discussion of modern Theosophy must begin with the position of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, often referred to as the "mother of the New Age” movement, an amorphous set of practices that became popular in the 1980s and '90s. But her contribution goes deeper than this. In trying to understand her significance this paper will examine four areas where her impact can be delineated: 1, the transformation of nineteenth century spiritualism; 2, the import and export of esotericism in India; 3, the creation of a new vocabulary of the spiritual; and 4, her survival as a cultural icon. As so much contrary and conflicting information still circulates about Blavatsky, this study tries to raise the veil of mystery that too often has obscured her real influence.

Blavatsky came to public attention while involved with the spiritualist movement so prevalent in the 1870s. This movement attracted a wide range of people, including John Smith, when he was a professor at the University of Sydney. He like many others looked to spiritualism as offering scientific proof for the survival of the personality. Blavatsky’s explanation of elementals, astral bodies, and the persona of the entranced medium, did not meet with acceptance, and she transferred her sphere of action to India. Much has been made of her popularizing Indian spirituality, but she also helped bring ideas about western esotericism to India, and her Theosophical Society attained its largest membership there, one of the few non-Indian spiritual groups to be accorded such favor. Although Blavatsky's writings have been in circulation for over a century there has been no concise overview of the key philosophical points of her contribution. This paper will also provide such analysis, most important considering Blavatsky's place as a source of the modern esoteric revival.

Notable in Gomes’s presentation was his emphasis on Blavatsky’s starting her public work in Cairo. Egypt, before the foundation of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, and he gave much new material. In the discussion that followed, Vras Karalis, who is Greek, mentioned that he had discovered an account in one of the Greek newspapers dealing with the shipwreck that led to Blavatsky’s going to Cairo. The papers that were given at the Conference will eventually published in book form, and we look forward to this.