Sunday, November 28, 2010

K. Paul Johnson Needs a Clarification

All posts at Blavatsky News are vetted by those who write here. I read Harry’s piece on the references to Blavatsky at the site, History of the Adepts, before it was posted and did not regard in any way it being an attack on K. Paul Johnson or the Church of Light. More than one reader has written in asking if the “attack” was taken down, for they could not find it. No, the post is still there as written. We wonder if Mr. Johnson has ever presented a paper at an academic conference, for one of the conditions for academic progress is having your thesis questioned. Nobody ever takes it as an attack.

Since Mr. Johnson has solicited advice on “What needs to be addressed in my response to Blavatsky News?” And since he says has experienced “unpleasantness” because of it, we would earnestly ask him to take a moment to consider Dhammapada 1.3 and 1.5:

“He berated me! He hurt me!
He beat me! He deprived me!”
For those who hold such grudges,
hostility is not appeased.

In this world
hostilities are never
appeased by hostility.
But by the absence of hostility
are they appeased.
This is the interminable truth.

And then take a deep breath.

K. Paul Johnson Offers a Clarification

K. Paul Johnson has posted a clarification to his comments about Blavatsky at the site, History of the Adepts. At least we think it is Paul Johnson, as it is not given as coming from him. The person states that the posts are entirely his own and no one in the Church of Light reviews them in advance or necessarily agrees with them. This is good to know, but as all posts at that site are given under the pseudonymous “Admin,” and as Mr. Johnson’s name does not appear as their originator, and as the site still states that it is “Sponsored by the Church of Light,” this may lead to the conclusion that somehow the Church of Light sanctions what is given there. Perhaps they need to add a disclaimer that the opinions reflected in the posts of the pseudonymous “Admin” do not necessarily reflect the views of that organization.

We were somewhat surprised to see Mr. Johnson state in his blog that our review of his piece was considered an “attack” on him and the Church of Light, and an “outrageous” one at that. We fear he has misconstrued our remarks and intent. Perhaps, because he has been in the defensive mode for so long because of his writings and has been dealt with so harshly by some leading Theosophists, he has become overly sensitive and sees an “attack” (a word we never used in our piece, though often used by Theosophists in regard to his contention that Blavatsky faked the Mahatmas. Readers outside of the country should note that the word “attack” is used more freely in America than elsewhere: “out Constitution is under attack,” “our family values are under attack,” which translated into plain speak means that someone has disagreed with your viewpoint) where none is meant.

Surely Mr. Johnson is not saying that his writings are above critical inquiry? Or that any comment or criticism that may even suggest any other explanation than the one he gives is an “attack”? Over the past year and almost 150 posts, Blavatsky News has critiqued for our readers a number of academic and commercial publications mentioning Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Some of the authors have actually written to thank us for our suggestions and the recognition we have given their work. Mr. Johnson is the only person who has reacted with such hostility. Though he has noted that his statement about the Varleys belonging to HPB’s “Inner Group” needs clarification. And if this needed reconsideration after being pointed out by us, why not look at other areas?

But this is really not about Mr. Johnson or the Church of Light but about our observation that his portrayal of Blavatsky in the piece reviewed left out “any exculpatory evidence on her [HPB’s] behalf.” By playing the victim card and claiming that he (and the Church of Light) has been attacked, “outrageously” attacked, Mr. Johnson adroitly attempts to shift the conversation away from the fact that his piece bashes Blavatsky to himself personally. It is somewhat ludicrous though for someone whose name appears nowhere as the originator of the posts on the site, History of the Adepts, and who uses the pseudonymous cover “Admin,” to be telling us what we should or should not be doing at here.

K. Paul Johnson points out that elsewhere at Blavatsky News he was quoted with approvingly. So, obviously, he was known and wasn’t “attacked” then. Mr. Johnson would be surprised at the range of opinion by those who write for this site. We are not all idolaters here, Mr. Johnson, but we are united by the belief that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky had a remarkable cultural impact which is worth reporting on, and during the past year we have covered a wide spectrum of opinion on our subject. But any site aspiring to giving news instead of just repeating what people have said must ask those tough questions of “What about…” when other view points are possible.

Anyway, taking his clarification at face value, we are happy to amend the headline of our post from “The Church of Light Bashes Blavatsky” to “Church of Light [Member] Bashes Blavatsky,” for as long as the site says it is “sponsored by the Church of Light” with no disclaimer of the contents then there is some connection. No one would have had much to say if he posted this material on his own blog (a headline of “K. Paul Johnson Continues to Bash Blavatsky” really isn’t “news,” it is a view held by many theosophists. He may not think his presentation is so but the perception exists). And to make it clearer that our comments are referring to the post by “Admin” in the link given to History of the Adepts, we have indicated so in brackets. Our comments relate to this piece and not to the whole of Johnson’s writings, which are a challenging contribution to theosophical history.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Church of Light [Member] Bashes Blavatsky

We thought the era of purportedly esoteric groups trashing the reputations of the leaders of other groups had passed, but a new blog shows that tradition is still alive and well. The blog, History of the Adepts, though “sponsored by the Church of Light” is really the mouthpiece of K. Paul Johnson. Paul Johnson has been struggling for relevancy in the theosophical world for some time, and having gone through a number of groups has now found a home at the Church of Light. While giving a lot of material that may bias the reader against Blavatsky’s claims [at the link above] he does not cite any exculpatory evidence on her behalf. Using Marion Meade as his authority (!), he quotes her saying that during a visit by C.C. Massey to Blavatsky and Olcott while in England in 1879,“as Massey was preparing to depart, she told him to reach into his overcoat pocket. To his amazed delight, he withdrew an inlaid Indian card case.” What he doesn’t tell is that Massey had suggested the item, “and this I can state positively—that no one but myself left the room after I had asked for the card-case.” (Massey, Light, August 30, 1884, p. 360.)

Johnson is also wrong when he states that the artist John “Varley and his wife Isabella (aunt of William Butler Yeats) were members of Blavatsky’s Inner Group.” For years Johnson has been defending his theory that Blavatsky’s Masters were a mask for Indian insurrectionists. This drew a strong rebuttal from Daniel Caldwell—K. Paul Johnson's House of Cards? The writer Beatrice Hastings was also incredulous about the claim that Blavatsky was sending letters encouraging deception while in India. Speaking of the correspondence attributed to her by the Coulombs, Hastings writes: It must be admitted that by producing these letters, if genuine, Madame and Monsieur Coulomb conclusively prove that both Mr. Hogg [Post-Master General of India], and Major Henderson, Chief of Police, with the whole Indian C.I.D at his orders, were criminally below their appointments. Here was a highly suspected Russian woman sending conspiratorial letters galore, and this during the years when we were fearing a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. And nobody “pinched” her! (The “Coulomb Pamphlet”, p. 69.)

Perhaps there is also an element of professional jealousy. Blavatsky was a great critic of T.H. Burgoyne, the alias of Thomas Henry Dalton (1855?-1895?), who was jailed in Leeds, England, and fled to America, and who figures in the transmission of the Church of Light. The sordid story is told in Godwin, Chanel, and Deveney’s The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, pp. 33-39 (Dalton’s mug shot and police record is given on p. 351). Attempts like Johnson’s ultimately fail to satisfy for they do not answer the question that even Richard Hodgson had to acknowledge in his Report: “what has induced Madame Blavatsky to live so many laborious days in such a fantastic work of imposture?” (Hodgson, Report, p. 313.) Whatever it was, it wasn’t financial extortion.

The Maya of Imri

Imri, following the path, entered the fog of bewilderment. This is always a place where two roads meet. One road seemed the most inviting. It stretched away, smooth and fair, mounting evenly to brilliant skies, and at the summit line he could vision, glorified, Imri jeweled with light, beacon of guidance for the multitudes of men. (—From the Book of Images, p. 29.)

These words came to mind while looking at the newly uploaded text of The Secret Doctrines Commentaries here. Theosophists are always telling the world about their exalted code of conduct, but when a book still in copyright is put online by a third party not involved with the publishing and without the permission of the publishers, even copyright law says halt. We fear this may put a chill on the publishing of financially dubious projects like this one. Why bother going through the cost and energy of printing a book when anyone can pirate it if they feel like it.

What also needs to be considered is how much of what is esoteric should be made so easily available to the casual reader, to the curious, and to those who will take a passage out of context. Throughout HPB’s system is the notion that the prize must be won by effort and is not easily given. And those who betray those laws should be aware of the karmic price they must pay.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cenotaphs in Sound

Volume Two of the Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics for 2010 carries a paper by James Schmidt of Boston University on “Cenotaphs in Sound: Catastrophe, Memory, and Musical Memorials.” This paper examines the peculiar status of musical compositions that are intended to serve as memorials of victims of political violence. It considers four examples of this genre: John Foulds; World Requiem (1923), Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), Steve Reich's Different Trains (1988), and John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls (2002).

Foulds [1880-1939] had a long-standing involvement in the various spiritualist and occultist movements that flourished in England during the first quarter of the twentieth century. His interests were shared by Maud MacCarthy [1882-1967], who had been a close associate of Annie Besant, the former socialist and feminist activist who, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, was a central figure in the dissemination of the ideas of Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of Theosophy.

Theosophy offered a non-denominational form of spirituality coupled with an allegedly scientific approach to occult phenomena that proved attractive to a broad spectrum of British intellectuals and artists during the period. Because of the prominence it gave to music as a means of apprehending higher spiritual truths, it held a particular appeal for musicians including, most famously, the composer Gustav Holst.

The paper can be read here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

135 Years of Theosophy

Radha Burnier, President of Theosophical Society, speaks at the
commemoration of the 135 anniversary of the Society held at its headquarters at Adyar,
Chennai, India, on Wednesday. In the background are statues of Blavatsky and Olcott.

Theosophical events may not be news elsewhere in the world, but in India it can still make the papers. The Hindu newspaper for November 18 carries a report of an event at the International Headquarters of the Theosophical Society at Adyar in Chennai (Madras). November 17 was the 135 anniversary of the Theosophical Society, and after mentioning the words of Radha Burnier on the unity and brotherhood the organization stood for, the paper noted: Over a hundred theosophists paid floral tribute to the statues of the founders, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, at the Headquarters Hall in the society's premises in Adyar. The rest of the article can be read here.

Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography

Due April 2011 from Princeton University Press: The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the most famous Buddhist text in the West, having sold more than a million copies since it was first published in English in 1927. Carl Jung wrote a commentary on it, Timothy Leary redesigned it as a guidebook for an acid trip, and the Beatles quoted Leary's version in their song “Tomorrow Never Knows.” More recently, the book has been adopted by the hospice movement, enshrined by Penguin Classics, and made into an audiobook read by Richard Gere. Yet, as acclaimed writer and scholar of Buddhism Donald Lopez writes, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, it is not really a book, and it is not really about death.” In this compelling introduction and short history, Lopez tells the strange story of how a relatively obscure and malleable collection of Buddhist texts of uncertain origin came to be so revered—and so misunderstood—in the West.

The central character in this story is Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965), an eccentric scholar and spiritual seeker from Trenton, New Jersey, who, despite not knowing the Tibetan language and never visiting the country, crafted and named The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In fact, Lopez argues, Evans-Wentz's book is much more American than Tibetan, owing a greater debt to Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky than to the lamas of the Land of Snows. Indeed, Lopez suggests that the book's perennial appeal stems not only from its origins in magical and mysterious Tibet, but also from the way Evans-Wentz translated the text into the language of a very American spirituality.

Return to Oz

The mention of the connection between Blavatsky and Frank L. Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz, seems to have become mandatory.

In a recent review of two books about Baum, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, and, The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, Michael Patrick Hearn, the author of The Annotated Wizard of Oz, found it necessary to cite the author’s assertion that "the name of Dorothy’s 'spiritual guide dog,' Toto, came from Madame Blavatsky's phrase 'the Eternity of the Universe in toto as a boundless plane.' (Loncraine, too, believes it comes from 'in toto.)"Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 35, Number 3, Fall 2010.

Chelsea House Publishers, a leading nonfiction publisher of curriculum-oriented books for children and young adults, in the life of Baum published this year in their Who Wrote That series add a explanatory note headed “Did You Know”: Theosophy is a doctrine of religious philosophy and metaphysics that originated with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Frank and Maud Baum had long been intrigued by Madam Blavatsky’s ideas, and on September4, 1892, the couple was admitted to the Ramayana Theosophical Society. —L. Frank Baum by Dennis Abrams, p. 52.

Now comes news that Warner Brothers pictures is in talks with Robert Zemeckis, the director of Forest Gump, to direct a live-action remake of The Wizard of Oz and plans to use the original script from the 1939 classic (Warner Bros owns the screenplay). Disney is also in development for 2013 with Oz: The Great And Powerful, which will focus on the exploits of the wizard. Recent attempts at remaking the story for film have been far from memorable: 1978’s The Wiz (Diana Ross who played Dorothy was 33), Disney's 1985 Return to Oz (dreadful), and Tin Man a 2007 Sci Fi version (why?). Still, this will no doubt add to the ongoing commentary about Blavatsky and Baum.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Blavatsky in the news

* One would not usually find Blavatsky’s name connected with sports news, but here it is. HPB is mentioned in passing on the “College Sports Newswire” Boxscore News in a November 11 piece on “Canadian Hockey At War 1914-18.” Attention is given to Conn Smythe and his role in making hockey Canada’s national sport. His father, A.E.S. Smythe, General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Canada, was recently the focus of an article in The Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'├ętudes canadiennes, Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2010.

Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe was born on February 1, 1895 in Toronto to Albert and Amelia Smythe, a pair of Northern Irish immigrants who had arrived in Canada in 1889. Albert Smythe was a devoted member of the Theosophy Sect, a religious movement whose ideas of spiritualism and reincarnation were based upon the books of Madame Helene Blavatsky. The Smythes were not wealthy, though Mr. Smythe became editor of The Toronto World newspaper. His father ensured that Conn would mix in the best circles of Ontario society, having him educated at the elite private school, Upper Canada College, and then at the University of Toronto. Conn Smythe was an outstanding schoolboy and athlete, excelling at hockey.

* The name of Alexander Scriabin has been a source of renewed interest in Blavatsky. A Ph.D dissertation from Yale University this year, “Alexander Scriabin's theurgy in blue: Esotericism and the analysis of 'Prometheus: Poem of Fire' op. 60” by Anna Gawboy looks at this connection a little closer:

This dissertation relates Prometheus to three source texts known to have inspired the composer. Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and Viacheslav Ivanov's symbolist essays collected in By the Stars provide insight into the work's theurgic function, and Helena Blavatsky's Theosophical magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, supplies the work's esoteric narrative. The seven slow color stages in the luce [a lightboard created by Scriabin to accompany his music] correspond to Blavatsky's seven-stage conception of human evolution.

* The Albuquerque Museum's exhibition “Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art,” on till January 11, 2011, takes a look at how that Russian attitude impacted American art. One reviewer notes that

such synesthesia, the urge to paint sound and compose with color - as well as to taste shapes, smell light, etc. - seems a particularly Russian thing, or did at least in the pre-Soviet era. Scriabin's color-symphonies, Kandinsky's “improvisations,” and all manner of elaborate invention—not to mention neo-spiritual movements such as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy—spurred experiment in cross-media artwork throughout the western world about a hundred years ago.

Charles Burchfield, The Moth and the Thunderclap, 1961

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Secret Doctrine Commentaries Reviewed

Katinka Hesselink reviews The Secret Doctrine Commentaries:

Blavatsky had her own Secret Doctrine study-group in London in 1889. They discussed her Magnum Opus pretty much as we do today. With tangents, questions, and lots of discussion of terminology. This book is the best record we have of that and it is simply fun to read. For me it brings back the fascination I had with theosophy 15 years ago when I first picked up The Secret Doctrine.

From the perspective of theosophical history this is an important work as well. It shows the limitations of the previously published “Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge.” That book was much more edited than this one is. In this one we get a feel for Blavatsky the human being: funny, not all-knowing, yet deeply profound. Like one would expect from Michael Gomes, this book has a good historical introduction, footnotes to clarify the conversation and a copious index.

The rest of her review can be read here. As usual there are a few theosophists, self-appointed nags, who gripe that the book was not published according to their liking or wishes, that it should have been done this way or that way, not dealing with the reality of what is. Greeted in this way it is no wonder that they have not received any new material over the years.

A Conference is Announced

Erica Georgiades has sent out an announcement and call for papers for a Conference on Esoteric Traditions in the Ancient and Modern World to be held in Alexandria, Egypt, July 12-24, 2012.

The purpose of the Conference will be to examine the source and foundations of the mystery and esoteric traditions; their expressions and nuances in the ancient and contemporary world along with the interface between ancient wisdom and modern scientific paradigms. As we will be returning to the cradle of so-called ‘Western Esotericism’ for this event, the Conference will be focusing upon the Hermeticism of Alexandria, neo-Platonism, former ancient Mysteries, and the modern Theosophical Movement; in view of their phenomenology, social impact, and nuances in the shaping of cultural and spiritual aspects of the contemporary western world. Special emphasis will be given to the Theosophical Society; its foundational structures and orientation, successions, impact, and its role as an artery in the continuation of esoteric culture and Higher Age teachings within the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Suggested topics include:  Ancient Mystery Traditions, The Hermeticism of Alexandria, Neo-Platonism, The Star-Lore of Ancient Egypt, Theosophical Connections with Egyptian Traditions, The Brotherhood of Luxor and its influence on the Theosophical Society, Successions in the Theosophical Society [The Judge Case, etc.], The Theosophical Movement in the 3rd Millennium, Ancient Wisdom & Modern Science, Modern Physics & the Secret Doctrine.

The announcement can be read here.

The Alexandria-Mediterranean Research Center at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in conjunction with the New York Open Center has also announced a Conference in Alexandria for June 12-17, 2011, titled An Esoteric Quest for Ancient Alexandria, Greco-Egyptian Birthplace of the Western Mind. Meetings will at the Bibliotheca, on the site of the ancient library, with its state-of-the-art lecture halls and seminar rooms.

Conference presenters include David Fideler, “The Golden Thread of the Muses,” Scott Olsen, “The Philosopher Mathematicians of Alexandria,” Christopher Bamford, “At the Crossroads of Judaism, Platonism and Christianity,” Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, “The Church of the East,” Clare Goodrick-Clarke, “Gnosticism and Hermeticism,” and John Dillon, “Alexandrian Quartet: Callimachus, Philo, Origen and Cavafy,” among others.

Further information about this Conference can be found here.

Olcott Oration 2010

This year’s Olcott Oration was given by Ravinatha Pandukabhaya Aryasinha, Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union, at the Kularatne Hall, Ananda College, Colombo, on November 6, 2010. Sponsored by the Ananda College Old Boys’ Association, the yearly event commemorates the founders of Ananda College. Ambassador Aryasinha spoke on the theme, “Moderating competing narratives: the challenge of recasting Sri Lanka’s image abroad,” and began by acknowledging the work of Olcott and Blavatsky in Sri Lanka.

In the years that followed, Col. Olcott, in addition to being responsible for the revival of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, was instrumental in founding “the Buddhist English Academy,” what we today call Ananda College, with the stated intention—to provide English language education to Buddhist students, who would otherwise have had to go to a missionary school in order to get education in the English medium. This was a time, according to Agarwal, when the British colonial administration was supporting some 805 missionary schools, as against only 2 Buddhist schools. Given the solidarity he built with Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala, Anagarika Dharmapala, D.B.Jayatilake, it could be argued that by the time of his death on 17 February 1907, he had ignited among Sri Lankans, both the passion and the organization required to struggle for independence.

The rest of his talk can be read here. Last year the Olcott Oration was delivered by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Beatrice Hastings

The New York Times of November 2th reports the sale of a 1917 portrait by Amedeo Modigliani at Sotheby’s auction house for $68.9 million, which was well above the $40. million estimated for it. This brought to mind another painting by Modigliani from the same period, “Beatrice Hastings in Front of a Door,”1915, shown here. According to the brochure notes for the exhibition, “Modigliani and His Models,” at the London Royal Academy of Arts, "Between 1914 and 1916 Modigliani’s chief muse, model and mistress was the South African born British poet and critic Beatrice Hastings who modelled for at least fourteen of the artist’s portraits. From 1914 Hastings was the Paris correspondent of the English periodical New Age, to which she contributed a column entitled ‘Impressions de Paris’ until 1916." Their relationship was described as “tempestuous.”

If this was all that Beatrice Hastings had achieved, she would have attained a certain status and immortality. But this was not all that we know her for. She was an accomplished editor in her own right, having the published writers like T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound.

And yet there was more to her than this. In 1937 Beatrice Hastings began the publication of her Defence of Madame Blavatsky series, small booklets that would reexamine the case for Mme. Blavatsky. One volume dealt with the Mahatma Letters and another with the Coulomb pamphlet, a third on the “shrine” at Adyar was announced and a fourth intended on Vsevolod Solovyov’s 1895 book, A Modern Priestess of Isis. She died in 1943 without anything being published. Fortunately, her notes on Solovyov’s book survived and were issued serially in The Canadian Theosophist, 1943-44, and can be read online here.

In the Introduction to her text, Michael Gomes writes: Beatrice Hastings brought a new impetus to the field of Theosophical research, and in the decades following her death, her insistence on thorough documentation proved a marked influence on other writers.

Yes, and Modigliani thought her interesting enough to immortalize her.