Sunday, December 25, 2011

Blavatsky, Tibet and the Occult, Ctd

In connection with its exhibition, “Hero, Villain, Yeti,” illustrating our perceptions of Tibet as an occult place as conveyed through comic books, the Rubin Museum in New York will be offering a number of related talks and programs, including orchestrated scores based the exhibition’s themes, screenings of the 1937 and 1973 versions of Lost Horizon, and a discussion on January 18 with Michael Gomes and Mitch Horowitz on the extent of Madame Blavatsky’s contribution to the appreciation of Eastern ideas.

The program notes: A source of both inspiration and scandal, Madame Blavatsky’s interpretation of Asian philosophies provided to be a fundamental turning point in the West’s approach to the ‘mysteries’ of the East. Here contemporary writers discuss Blavatsky’s influence and the origins of the occult in America.

Ticket includes a tour at 6:15 p.m. of the exhibition Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics, in which Helena Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine is on display, as are Madame Blavatsky, Medium & Magician by John Seymour and The Morning of the Magicians: Secret Societies, Conspiracies and Vanished Civilizations by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. There will be a book-signing session after the program.

Michael Gomes is the author of numerous works on Blavatsky and Mitch Horowitz is the author of Occult America: White Séances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation, published in 2010. Having researched the subject so thoroughly, no doubt they have thought deeply on this matter and will have some insight to share.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blavatsky, Tibet and the Occult

The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City recently opened an exhibition, “Hero, Villain, Yeti,” which traces the image of Tibet through one of the most popular mediums of our time: comic books. The collection, which is on view from December 9, 2011 to June 11, 2012, is curated by Martin Brauen. According to the catalog notes:

Characters as diverse as Mickey Mouse, the historical Buddha, Tomb Raider Lara Croft, and the Green Lama have something in common: Tibet. For more than sixty years Tibet has figured in comic books from around the world, at times creating and at times perpetuating notions of an otherworldly land roamed by the yeti, inhabited by wise and powerful lamas, or full of dark magic.

Hero, Villain, Yeti features the most complete collection of comics related to Tibet ever assembled, with examples ranging from the 1940s to the present. More than fifty comic books from the Belgium, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, and the United States reflect on the depiction of Tibet, tracing the historical roots of prevailing perceptions and stereotypes and their visual and narrative evolution over time.

Brauen was the curator of the 2000 exhibition, Dreamworld Tibet, in Zurich, and a beautifully illustrated book based on it was published in English in 2004. His feelings about Blavatsky are summed up in a December 11th interview with him in Salon:

Another person who influenced our notion of Tibet very much was a half-Russian lady called Helena Blavatsky. She was the founder of the Theosophical Society, and she had quite weird ideas about Tibet (for instance, she claimed she had been in Tibet, which is quite clearly not true). She said she had telepathic relationships with two so-called Mahatmas — sages living in Tibet — and that they would tell her what to do. Interestingly, these two Mahatmas were not Tibetans, but were Indians of Aryan origin. This is a subject that comes up in many comics again: a superhero or a “lama” who is very powerful, but in most cases — actually in all cases — is not Tibetan but white.

The segment of his book dealing with the influence of Mme. Blavatsky on our imaging of Tibet is online. Dr. Brauen comes down on the side of those who believe that she never went to Tibet and that her knowledge of its religion was a distortion. His reasoning can be seen here. Yet two of the highest religious figures of Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen and the Dalai Lama, have penned forewords to editions of her book The Voice the Silence, ethical injunctions used by the school she claimed to have belonged to.

In the foreword to the centenary edition of Blavatsky’s Voice the Silence the Dalai Lama wrote: “I believe that this book has strongly influenced many sincere seekers and aspirants to the wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattva Path.”

And Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, a prodigious translator of Tibetan texts, including the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was of the opinion that, “despite the adverse criticisms directed against H.P. Blavatsky’s works, there is adequate internal evidence in them of their author’s intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings, into which she claimed to have been initiated.”

So, we suppose, it is a matter of whose opinion carries more weight. Though it may be just a difference of perspective. In Europe and America Indic and Tibetan studies have been textually based; proficiency was shown by one’s ability to learn a language in one’s discipline, and translate a text.
Blavatsky was among the first to go to the countries she wrote about and study their philosophies as they were lived and practiced. As another traveler through that area, Alexandra David-Neel (whose narratives of her Tibetan journey were at first questioned by the experts of her time) wrote: “Who knows the flower best—the one who reads about it in a book, or the one who finds it wild on the mountainside?

Of course, it should be noted that Blavatsky never claimed that the esoteric school that she belonged to represented orthodox Tibetan Buddhism. “Our Mahatmas…are neither ‘Hermits’ (now), for they are done with their ‘practice’ of Yoga; nor ‘Wanderers,’ nor ‘Monks,’ since they tolerate, but would never practice, exoteric, or popular, Buddhist rites.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Misinformation Files

With alarming regularity people seem to feel the need to write about and interpret the life of H.P. Blavatsky. It only takes a few sentences to show an unfamiliarity with the subject. In a recent post about “Madame Blavatsky and the New Age” at the site Unexplained Mysteries, William B. Stoecker writes:

She claimed to have occult powers, but the Society for Psychical Research claimed to have exposed her as a fraud,” and, “she said that she met her ‘ascended master’ in London when she was twenty.” Both statements are untrue. The Society for Psychical Research never “claimed” such a thing (as Leslie Price, a long time member of the SPR, has written: “any writer or speaker who says the S.P.R exposed Madame Blavatsky is only exposing his own ignorance”). And Blavatsky never used the term “ascended master.”

Such statements can be credited to a too ready reliance on second hand sources, but what is one to make of this: “she also claimed that the bringer of enlightenment was a spirit called Lucifer; the name literally means ‘light bearer,’ but Christians believe that this refers to Satan, a bringer of a false enlightenment,” which certainly is a misrepresentation of her ideas?

And then this gets thrown in for good measure: “Some researchers also claim that Hitler was personally influenced by Blavatsky, and kept a copy of The Secret Doctrine near him at all times. This, too, is impossible to verify.” Nothing is harder to verify than a fact. But any “researcher” who makes such a claim is writing fiction not providing factual evidence. It shows a remarkable naivety not only for what happened to theosophists and Blavatsky’s writings under the Third Reich but also about the nature of Blavatsky’s work (as if it can be boiled down to the use of a swastika).

This latest contribution to Blavatsky studies ends with: “But of course, Madame Blavatsky can hardly be held responsible for what even some of her followers did after her death, let alone a woman [Alice Bailey] who was expelled from the society. So we are left pretty much where we started: Blavatsky was an ambiguous person, probably something of a charlatan, but not necessarily evil. Yet, overall, her legacy has been a destructive one.” So, let’s see if we get this piece of logic right: the Gospels portray Jesus as saying many exemplary things but because the churches created things like the Inquisition we are accurate in saying:
Yet, overall, her [His] legacy has been a destructive one. Right?

No one is denying the ability of people to pen such things but asking us to take them seriously is another matter.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Olcott Honored

Col. Henry Steel Olcott has been much in the news this season. A life-size statue was raised on the grounds of the New Jersey Buddhist Vihara near Princeton (though Olcott was born in Orange New Jersey) on September 10. The member of the American Congress for this district, Rush Holt, in his greeting noted: “Although British rule limited options for Sri Lankans, Clonel Olcott’s schools made it possible for students to seek strong academic instruction while learning and practicing their faith. It is a tribute to Colonel Olcott’s commitment to culture and the pursuit of knowledge that he is being honored today.

A souvenir booklet, Henry Steel Olcott and the Revival of Buddhist Education, was issued in connection with the event by the Ananda College Old Boys’ Association—EastCoast. At 85 pages it contains a number of contributions focusing on Olcott’s work in the development of education in Sri Lanka and features some attractive color photographs of the schools (now colleges) established by him. While many of the testimonials offer nothing new they show Olcott’s memory is still warm in the hearts of many Sri Lankans. Sunil J. Wimalawansa who has a piece in the collection has also issued a short monograph, The American who revived Buddhism in Asia: Legacy of Colonel Steel Olcott. At 84 pages, it is also benefited by some attractive color photographs.

This year’s Olcott Oration delivered November 12 at the Auditorium of Ananda College, Colombo, by Professor Chandana Wirasinghe, Founding Dean (Emeritus), Schulich School of Engineering, University of Calgary, Canada, on the “Role of the Individual in National Development - Ananda Can Show the Way”, received much coverage as it coincided with the 125th anniversary celebrations of Ananda College, founded by Col. Olcott. In his address Professor Wirasinghe looked at Olcott’s life and the lessons that could be drawn from it for today’s world. Blavatsky is mentioned briefly in passing: “He came under the influence of a Russian woman called Helena Blavatsky who claimed many super natural powers. More than a decade later, The Society for Psychical Research who investigated her called her an ‘imposter’.”

Of course, in this he is in error, as the Society for Psychical Research has always claimed that the responsibly for the report rests with the Committee that issued it and not the Society. Perhaps as a nod to his audience and alma mater, Professor Wirasinghe concludes: “Having studied Olcott’s life in some detail, from birth to death, I can say to you today that he had many accomplishments, but the establishment of Ananda College is without any doubt his greatest achievement.”

The Olcott Oration for 2011 is now online and can be read here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

On Certainty

African Athena: New Agendas is the title of a forthcoming book this December from Oxford University Press. It contains a number of articles by various authors, most dealing with the impact of Martin Bernal’s 1987 Black Athena. Chapter 18, “Lay in Egypt’s lap each borrowed crown’: Gerald Massey and Late-Victorian Afrocentrism,” by Brian H. Murray contains the following mention of Blavatsky:

Perhaps the most influential esoteric of the day, and another Egyptophile, was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder the Theosophical Society and self-proclaimed mouthpiece of the Egyptian Goddess Isis. Blavatsky cited Massey twenty-four times in her esoteric epic the Secret Doctrine and wrote an appreciate letter to him in November 1887, claiming to have ‘read and re-read’ his lectures. Massey would have certainly been familiar with Massey’s work, which like his own, portrayed Christianity as a literalized pseudo-history based on earlier Gnostic philosophy. Though Massey contributed some review articles to the Theosophical magazine Lucifer, he wrote a series of letters to the same publication in 1888 criticizing an article by Blavatsky on the ‘Esoteric Character of the Gospels’. By the 1880s Blavatsky had moved from an Egyptocentric model of religion and was increasingly promoting Tibetan and Sanskrit texts as the purest form of divine wisdom.

Brian H. Murray is completing his doctoral dissertation at King’s College, London, but he will not have much credibility if he continues to promulgate fictions such as Blavatsky was a “self-proclaimed mouthpiece of the Egyptian Goddess Isis.”

And that “By the 1880s Blavatsky had moved from an Egyptocentric model of religion and was increasingly promoting Tibetan and Sanskrit texts as the purest form of divine wisdom,” when, in her first book, Isis Unveiled (which was the publisher’s title), from 1877, in the last chapter of volume 1, headed “India: the Cradle of the Race,” she writes: “we affirm that, if Egypt furnished Greece with her civilization, and the latter bequeathed hers to Rome, Egypt herself had, in those unknown ages when Menes reigned, received her laws, her social institutions, her arts and her sciences, from pre-Vedic India; and that therefore, it is in that old initiatrix of the priests—adepts of all the other countries—we must seek for the key to the great mysteries of humanity.”

And yet Blavatsky is the one ridiculed for shoddy methodology!

Blavatsky and Fiction, Ctd

Spiritualism, Science and Suspense: Theosophy and the Supernatural Adventure Story is the subject of a recently completed PhD dissertation by Richard Michael Caputo at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Caputo states:

With Darwin’s publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859, the validity of the three major Western religions was called into serious question by science. In the wake of the scientific progress, made at breakneck speed in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, it seemed as if science and spirituality were increasingly becoming mutually exclusive. However, Theosophy, a hybrid science-religion founded by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1875, sought to reconcile science and the supernatural by using the former to explain the latter. For Blavatsky, the miraculous and the paranormal did not defy scientific explanation; they simply could not be explained through a contemporary understanding of science. Blavatsky’s Theosophy was predicated on belief in a secret knowledge, known to ancient civilizations but lost to modern man that represented a deep, true understanding of nature. When realized, this insight allowed for the accomplishment of the seemingly miraculous, not by magic but by science.

Theosophy’s influence on canonical, highbrow modernists such as James Joyce and W.B. Yeats is well known. However, its impact on the more widely read novelists of the day has been less studied and this dissertation in part fills that critical void. After an introduction to Blavatsky’s Theosophy, this project moves into a discussion of Dracula. An understanding of Theosophy provides new insight into the novel's conflict between science and the supernatural. It also provides a new way to view Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, who embraces both the scientific and the unexplainable in much the same way Theosophy did. This project also includes a chapter on H. Rider Haggards most enduring literary creation, the femme fatale Ayesha. By examining, through the lens of Theosophy, all four Haggard novels in which “She” appears, I offer a new interpretation of this enigmatic character. Specifically, I argue that Ayesha is a fallen Theosophical adept. The final author included in this project is Marie Corelli, one of the worlds first bestselling authors. Much of her fiction seeks to reconcile spiritualist beliefs with traditional Christianity. She does so using science, and I argue that she borrows heavily from Blavatsky and Theosophy.

At 176 pages it runs a little thin.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blavatsky and Fairies

Volume 22, Issue 1, of The Australian Journal of Anthropology for April 2011 carries a paper by Anna Branford on “Gould and the fairies.” “This paper examines Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of science and religion as ‘non overlapping magisteria’ with reference to Spiritualism, specifically the case of the Cottingley fairies.…This paper offers discussion of the relationship between religion and science. In doing so, it problematises the common use of the terms ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ to characterise the experience of religious conviction.

In 1873, a Russian traveller, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, arrived in New York and is said to have demonstrated considerable skills in clairvoyance, telekinesis and mediumship. There she met with Colonel Henry S. Olcott, editor for the New York Tribune and a keen Spiritualist. With his assistance, she founded a system of belief, thought and investigation called Theosophy, guided by the central tenet that ‘There is no religion higher than truth’. Blavatsky reworked concepts such as reincarnation, karma and meditation, which she presented with the authority of having been taught by masters during travels through Asia, particularly Tibet. She formulated an ‘integration of Eastern mysticism with traditions of Western Spirituality’ (Weisberg 2004: 263). Historian of religion, David S. Katz, identifies her as among the greatest of the ‘entrepreneurial professional occultists’ (2005: 169). Beginning with Blavatsky’s establishment of an independent ‘Theosophical Society’ in New York City in 1875, Theosophy flourished in the United States, India, Germany and Austria, with many branches also operating across the United Kingdom. It was at one such branch, the Bradford Theosophical Society, that Polly Wright, mother of one of the young fairy photographers, had first crossed paths with Edward L. Gardner, president of the Blavatsky Lodge in London.

The paper, which is now available online, also gives some background of the Cottingley fairies and can be read here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Laura Holloway-Langford

Indiana University Press announces the publication next year of Diane Sasson’s Yearning for the New Age: Laura Holloway-Langford and Late Victorian Spirituality as part of its Religion in North America series. It is scheduled for release May 31, 2012, and will sell for $35.00. According to the publisher’s blurb:

This biography of an unconventional woman in late 19th-century America is a study of a search for individual autonomy and spiritual growth. Laura Holloway-Langford, a “rebel girl” from Tennessee, moved to New York City, where she supported her family as a journalist. She soon became famous as the author of Ladies of the White House, which secured her financial independence. Promoted to associate editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, she gave readings and lectures and became involved in progressive women’s causes, the temperance movement, and theosophy—even traveling to Europe to meet Madame Blavatsky, the movement’s leader, and writing for the theosophist newspaper The Word. In the early 1870s, she began a correspondence with Eldress Anna White of the Mount Lebanon, New York, Shaker community, with whom she shared belief in pacifism, feminism, vegetarianism, and cremation. Attracted by the simplicity of Shaker life, she eventually bought a farm from the Canaan Shakers, where she lived and continued to write until her death in 1930. In tracing the life of this spiritual seeker, Diane Sasson underscores the significant role played by cultural mediators like Holloway-Langford in bringing new religious ideas to the American public and contributing to a growing interest in eastern religions and alternative approaches to health and spirituality that would alter the cultural landscape of the nation.

The book contains a number of new Mahatma letters to Holloway based on Sasson’s research.

Blavatsky in Fiction, Ctd

Jess Nevins continues his look at the most noteworthy science fiction and fantasy works from 1885 to 1930. The year under review is 1886 and the works chosen are F. Anstey’s A Fallen Idol, Marie Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds, Rosa Praed’s The Brother of the Shadow, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and H. Rider Haggard’s She.

Two of the books mentioned referenced Theosophists as part of their plot. F. Anstey’s A Fallen Idol features the effect on a number of lives of an ill-fated Eastern idol brought to London. This period piece by Anstey (Thomas Anstey Guthrie, 1856-1934) remains an entertaining and insightful read.

Mrs. Praed appears on the list again with The Brother of the Shadow. Nevins says: Despite the much greater use of Theosophical ideology —Praed was involved with Madame Blavatasky and the Theosophist Society almost from the beginning —Brother is a moderately fun late Victorian romantic occult fantasy. Brother has good characterization (especially for the doctor), an agreeably smooth style, hidden Tibetan occult masters, psychic death rituals, and a pleasant lack of racism in its treatment of Indians. One might describe Brother as Bulwer-Lytton without his bombast, straining for affect, or moments of genius.

Links for the novels noted are given at the io9 site.

Edith Nesbit

The English children’s writer Edith Nesbit is the subject of an extensive biographical sketch by Leslie Evans in a Nov. 1st post at the Boryana books website. Referring to Julia Briggs’ 1987 biography A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit, 1858-1924, Evans says: “Briggs quotes a March 1884 letter from Edith to Ada Breakell listing several books she is reading. These include, Edith writes, ‘an intensely interesting book which Harry [her brother, married to Ada Breakell] would like called Esoteric Buddhism by Sinnett.’

A. P. Sinnett was a recently converted disciple of the Russian mystic Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of the occult Theosophical Society. Sinnett’s book had little to do with any recognized school of Buddhism but was devoted to Blavatsky’s schema of world evolution from the mythical continents of Lemuria and Atlantis, and the teachings of her claimed Mahatmas or Ascended Masters of Tibet, essentially all-wise spirit guides who live on the Astral Plane and from there influence the course of human history. Sinnett was the recipient of a series of alleged letters from the Mahatmas, the question of their authenticity raising a heated controversy even in circles sympathetic to the idea of spirit communication.

Now Blavatsky’s Mahatmas are “Ascended Masters of Tibet, essentially all-wise spirit guides who live on the Astral Plane and from there influence the course of human history” !

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Where the East grimaced at the West

The Whiter Lotus: Asian Religions and Reform Movements in America, 1836-1933, is the title of Edgar A. Weir Jr.’s PhD dissertation toward the completion of his degree, which was awarded in May 2011 by the University of Nevada. Though it breaks no new ground, it is a reminder of the influence of Asian religions and thought on various reform movements in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Percival Lowell, William Sturgis Bigelow, Paul Carus, and Dyer Daniel Lum are among some of the people that Weir looks at. Chapter 2, “Transcending The World: Transcendentalists And Theosophists,” has 14 pages on the activities of Olcott and Blavatsky, but little of the philosophy that motivated them. There is too great a reliance on second, and in this case third, hand sources when he says:

Another scandal was to occur while Blavatsky and Olcott were in India in 1883. Blavatsky claimed that she had received letters from the “spirit world” from two Tibetan Mahatmas. Yet it was soon discovered that the letters were taken verbatim from an American spiritualist. This scandal caused many to leave the Theosophical branch in London prompting Blavatsky and Olcott to set sail for England to attempt to mitigate the disaster. As soon as they left India, however, residents of the Theosophical society in India began to accuse Blavatsky of being a charlatan. The accusations were published in the Christian College Magazine in Madras, India, and Olcott and Blavatsky were forced to return quickly to India to attempt to douse another fire. Following close behind the two was an investigator from England, Richard Hodgson, who doggedly investigated the Society for three months and finally determined that the fraud accusations were indeed true. Blavatsky immediately quit her position as corresponding secretary and fled to Europe.

In spite of Weir’s assurances, Blavatsky never “claimed that she had received letters from the ‘spirit world’ from two Tibetan Mahatmas.” The famous letters, now in the British Library in London, to A.P. Sinnett were not from “Tibetan Mahatmas.” The writers were living self-described Indians. The letters were not discovered to have been “taken verbatim from an American spiritualist” but the portion of a letter reflects the ideas of a lecture given by an American Spiritualist. This “scandal” did not cause “many to leave the Theosophical branch in London”; in fact, membership grew at this time. Olcott had been deputed by the Buddhists of Ceylon to present their case at the Home Office in London and so was not prompted “to set sail for England to attempt to mitigate the disaster.” “As soon as they left India, however, residents of the Theosophical society in India began to accuse Blavatsky of being a charlatan.” The “residents” were two employees who had been dismissed on charges of fraud. It is surprising, at this late date, to see Richard Hodgson’s report unquestionably accepted as the final world on the subject, as if nothing had been written about it over the past hundred years. Blavatsky did not flee to Europe; if anything, she was shipped off against her will, as her letters to Olcott show.

Considering that the main source of quotes about Blavatsky’s character in this dissertation comes from a 1929 Dictionary of Biography, this sort of slipshod writing comes as no surprise. It risks the disadvantage, however, of being compared to the already existing exemplary work of Carl T. Jackson, Thomas Tweed, Robert Ellwood and others on the East/West interchange in America.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blavatsky and Shambhala

The History of Shambhala, a blog started this year posting parts of Don Croner’s travel writing from Central Asia, carries a lengthy evaluation of Blavatsky’s use of the term Shambhala. This piece was originally posted on one of Croner’s travel blogs two years ago, but it is worth a second look.

There is little if any evidence to suggest that even in her own lifetime she did anything to promote the legend of Shambhala. In fact, as we shall see, in the entire fifteen volumes of her collected writing she mentions Shambhala only a couple of times, and this Shambhala was quite different from the Tibetan version of Shambhala which would later be disseminated in the West.

Those who first learned about Shambhala from Neo-Theosophists like Leadbeater, Bailey, and others might naturally assume that their conception of Shambhala originated with Blavatsky, the founder and guiding light behind the Theosophical Society. This would not seem to be the case.

Blavatsky News

* Patrick Brantlinger’s Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians (Cornell University Press, October 13, 2011) looks at a number of Victorian writers who used occult motifs in their writing. “[Rider] Haggard did not become a convert to Madame Blavatsky’s new religion, but he was intrigued by Theosophy, as he was by other late Victorian manifestations of interest in the occult.”

* Michael Broyles’ Beethoven in America (Indiana University Press, October 27, 2011) contains a surprising amount of references to Blavatsky and Theosophy. “By far the most important religious movement in regard to both Beethoven and its impact on the arts was Theosophy, which originated in the nineteenth century and which found a sympathetic audience with artists and intellectuals in the United States after World War I.” Four pages follow giving background on Blavatsky and developments in the Theosophical Society. Naming composers like Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, Carl Ruggles, Aaron Copland, Dane Rudhyar, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Broyles says “many were drawn to seeking some sort of spiritual dimension in their lives. More than any other movement or religion, Theosophy filled that purpose.”

What did these musicians find in Theosophy that drew them to the movement? For the most part it was the Olcott, not the Blavatsky wing, that appealed to them.…The scientific bent of Theosophy, which Olcott stressed, and the interest in world religions, particularly those of Asia, which was at the heart of both Olcott’s and Blavatsky’s views, appealed immensely to these composers.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Blavatsky and New York

Gothamist, the “website about New York City and everything that happens in it”, talks with Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America, in its October 21st issue. Horowitz sees early 19th century central New York State as “a hotbed of avant-garde, religious and social thought and activities.”

This chapter in religious history took another turn by the 1870s when New York became home to a Russian migrant named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, or typically known as Madame Blavatsky. Blavatsky was a Russian spiritual adventurer, she was in search of hidden and esoteric knowledge. She came to America, she said, because she wanted to visit the birthplace of spiritualism. She settled in New York City and in 1875, she and some over her colleagues founded the Theosophical Society in the neighborhood of what is now Hell’s Kitchen. That organization became hugely influential—it actually reintroduced the word occult into common use as the word had fallen into disuse—and Blavatsky very convincingly spoke of her search for an occult or hidden philosophy from which all the modern religious sprang. She called it a “Secret Doctrine.” She spoke of traditions emanating out of Buddhism and Hinduism and said that she was under the guidance of hidden spiritual masters who were helping her bring this liberalizing religious revolution to the West. People were enchanted with her, enthralled with her, and it was probably the figure of Blavatsky, more than anybody else, who helped ignite this revolution in alternative spirituality that began to sweep through the West, the effects of which we’re still feeling today. New York played a very special role as a “new age,” and that’s certainly true in terms of recent decades, but in the 19th century New York was this avant-garde religious capital.

The rest of the interview, with a guide to some historic places of occult New York and thoughts about Halloween, can be read here.

Blavatsky in Fiction

Over the next several months the Book Section of the site io9, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future, will be looking at the most noteworthy science fiction and fantasy works from 1885 to 1930. The writer of the piece, Jess Nevins, draws our attention to Rosa Campbell Praed’s 1885 novel Affinities that featured Theosophists as part of plot.

Like many Victorian women writers, Rosa Praed was prolific, skilled, successful, popular, and forgotten much more quickly than her male counterparts. Praed made her name with romances and stories of her native Australia, but became much better known in the 1880s as a writer of occult fantasies. Affinities was her first novel of the fantastic. It's a roman a clef-society novel-occult horror about the threat posed to a young womaby a decadent poet and black magician (who is clearly meant to be Oscar Wilde). Praed has an easy, readable style that has aged only a little, and the proselytizing on behalf of Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy is much less obvious in Affinities than in Praed's later work. Affinities isn’t as good as Praed’s The Brother of the Shadow (1886), but nonetheless it's entertaining, found many fans, and is well deserving of the Hugo nomination it would have undoubtedly received.

Praed (1851-1935) had met Mme. Blavatsky and Col. Olcott during their visit to England in 1884. According to the bibliography Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century, Blavatsky appears as Mme. Tamvaco in Affinities. The book is online in a number of editions, including an 1886 edition on the Yellowback site, which contains a list of all the women writers and their works in the Emory University Online Yellowbacks collection. (“yellowbacks are books that were sold in England during the late 19th-century at railway stations.”)

Andrew McCannin adds:

Rosa Campbell Praed left Australia for London in 1876. In the decade or so subsequent to her arrival in the metropolis she forged a successful career as a writer of occult-inspired novels that drew on both theosophical doctrine and a nineteenth-century tradition of popular fiction that included Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. A string of novels published in the 1880s and the early 1890s, including Nadine: the Study of a Woman (1882), Affinities: A Romance of Today (1885), The Brother of the Shadow: A Mystery of Today (1886), and The Soul of Countess Adrian: A Romance (1891), produced a sort of popular aestheticism that melded an interest in fashionable society, a market-oriented Gothicism, and speculations on the philosophy of art that were indicative of Praed’s relationship to a fin-de-siècle Bohemia and its literary circles.

—“Rosa Praed and the Vampire Aesthete,” Victorian Literature and Culture (2007), 35: 175-187.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine Commentaries Reviewed

Aries, the Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism published by Brill in the Netherlands, has a review of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine Commentaries from Gary W. Trompf in its recently released Volume 11, Number 2, 2011. Trompf, Honorary Professor in the History of Ideas in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, presented a groundbreaking paper at last year’s Legacies of Theosophy Conference at the University of Sydney on the subject of macrohistory, so whatever he has to say about the cosmogonies in The Secret Doctrine will be of interest. The review (3 pages) is too long to print in full here, but concludes by saying:

Michael Gomes, who has already published an abridgement of both Isis Unveiled (in 1997) and The Secret Doctrine (in 2009), is well known as historian and bibliographer of the Theosophical Movement, and he has done a painstaking and reliable job with this new production. It is a work beautifully presented, supplemented by a listing of those attending the meetings, an index almost amounting to a glossary. The Introduction is somewhat thin (and does not touch on the sensitive context I have just detailed) with the footnotes throughout kept to a minimum; but the service is done and we now have at our disposal for further research previously inaccessible materials of great value concerning Blavatsky and influential figures in the Theosophical Society surrounding her. With this work before us, various enigmas referred to at the beginning of our review can now be better addressed and hopefully resolved.

The journal can be ordered here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blavatsky, Garibaldi, and Mazzini

The August-September 2011 issue of Rivista italiana di teosofia, the journal of the Theosophical Society in Italy, carries an article on “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky e l’Italia” by Patrizia Moschin Calvi. The writer informs us that as 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy, H.P. Blavatsky has come into the news there, together with Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, who were the well-known protagonists and heroes in the fight for unification. Blavatsky’s different statements about her presence at the Battle of Mentana, Italy, in November 1867, are referred to, though the writer is forced to mention:  it is difficult to make rational sense of her movements, as AP Sinnett explains “We rarely find any logical meaning which might explain her actions and often even she found herself in the position of not understanding ‘why’ at any given moment she was preparing to go here or there. The true reasons for these movements were the orders she received through occult channels.” Obviously another area that needs further research.

Olcott says she was still wearing her red Garibaldian shirt when they met in rural Vermont in October 1874: she told me many incidents of her past life, among others, her having been present as a volunteer, with a number of other European ladies, with Garibaldi at the bloody battle of Mentana. In proof of her story she showed me where her left arm had been broken in two places by a sabre-stroke, and made me feel in her right shoulder a musket-bullet, still imbedded in the muscle, and another in her leg. She also showed me a scar just below the heart where she had been stabbed with a stiletto.

Garibaldi was also shot and wounded at the Battle of Mentana, which occurred on November 3, 1867. Garibaldi’s army was routed by the Papal troops.

Liberation Theosophy

Anindita Banerjee, who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University, contributes an interesting article on the Russian poet and writer Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) titled “Liberation Theosophy: Discovering India and Orienting Russia between Velimir Khlebnikov and Helena Blavatsky” in the latest issue of PMLA, Vol. 126, No. 3, May 2011, pp. 610–624. According to her theory:

Between the Volga and the Ganges lies a vast yet little-examined zone of linguistic, religious, ethnoracial, and political contact shaped over many centuries by mobile communities of traders, saints, soldiers, and rebels. This is the space from which Velimir Khlebnikov, modernist poet and philosopher of history, articulates a vision of revolutionary internationalism. Khlebnikov’s quasi-fictional journey from Russia’s Islamic borderlands to the Indian subcontinent “in search of an idea that will free all oppressed people” transforms Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical interpretation of ancient Indian religious philosophy into a cornerstone of political resistance against global imperialism in the twentieth century. The intersectional history of violence through which Khlebnikov imagines a community of minorities, misfits, and mystics wandering between the peripheries of the Russian and British Empires challenges monolithic constructs of the Orient as well as dominant discourses of Russian and Indian national identity.

The Missing Mondrian Archive

The Art Science Research Laboratory (ASRL) carries the news of the recently rescued Piet Mondrian Archive: “A Lost Collection emerges for Scholars.”

Known as “the father of geometric abstraction,” Piet Mondrian (1877-1944) was a pivotal figure in the revolution of Modern Art that began with Cubism in the early 20th century. In 1940, the great artist fled the war in Europe to New York City. At his death in 1944, all that was found in his apartment was a cache of personal papers. He had pared down his few possessions to some postcards, cablegrams, address-book pages, a notebook, an important unpublished essay, and his horoscope readings, all of which provide an intimate glimpse of a significant artist. The correspondence details his fears and anxieties elicited by the war. Personal photographs include old-style cabinet cards depicting his parents, candid shots of his early studio in Holland, and a wallet-size photo of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. These items were held, unseen and unpublished, by Mondrian's estate until a buyer for them could be found.    

Thanks to the Director of the ASRL, it was arranged to purchase the collection and secure the copyrights to display the documents online, free of charge, and the staff of ASRL will be working with Stanford University Library to scan and digitize online the entire Mondrian collection. The digitalized Mondrian Archive will be available on the Internet and in a CD format for the use of scholars and students.

Mondrian’s membership card in the Theosophical Society is in the archives at Yale University, and the wallet size photo of Mme. Blavatsky found among his papers “suggests that Theosophy was more than a passing fancy but continued to the end of his life.” The photograph of Blavatsky that Mondrian kept among his few possessions can be viewed here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Einstein and Blavatsky

The Hill, a congressional newspaper published daily when the U.S. Congress is in session, carries a piece by Bernie Quigley titled “Einstein Revisited.” The writer wonders whether recent challenges to Einstein’s theory of the speed of light may end up challenging the world’s god-like faith in him, adding:

Rumor from his niece had it that he got it all from Madame Blavatsky and her book The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888, incomprehensible to all but the best mathematicians. “There is no religion higher than truth,” the Russian savant wrote in her introduction.

Which would be an excellent slogan for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland.

Einstein’s familiarity with Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine remains to be decisively proved. The rest of the piece can be read here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Theosophical History

The journal Theosophical History has released its issues for January and April 2011. Vol. XV, No. 1, for January 2011 has some reminiscences by Stephan Hoeller on Ernest Wood in the 1950s. Michael Gomes contributes Col. Olcott’s annotations to an 1892 translation of Blavatsky’s Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, containing his observations on the events narrated. Marc Demarest comments on a November 13, 1875 newspaper article about the Theosophical Society stressing its occult interests. Of interest to us is the newspaper’s assertion that “Madame Blavatsky says that she saw in India marvels that convinced her beyond the possibility of doubt that magic was a genuine art, and that unearthly beings can be invoked by men.” This would make it one of her earliest statements about being in India. The volume closes with reviews of books related to René Guénon.

Vol. XV, No. 2 for January 2011, includes a stinging reply to Stephan Hoeller’s memories of Ernest Wood, an article on “Frank Lloyd Wright, Theosophy and Modern Conceptions of Space,” and reviews by John Patrick Deveney and John Algeo. Issues can be ordered here from Theosophical History, a worthy enterprise deserving of support by all those who have an interest in Mme. Blavatsky.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Dharmapala Anniversary

The Sunday Times newspaper in Sri Lanka carries a lengthy biographical sketch on September 18 honouring Anagarika Dharmapala’s 147th birth anniversary, which fell on September 17. Titled “I have work to do in bringing the peace of the Buddha westward,” it notes the influence of Blavatsky on his life:

When Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky revisited Sri Lanka, enroute to India in 1884, Anagarika had already expressed to Madame Blavatsky his desire to study theosophy and occultism from Himalyan spiritualists.

His father and elders objected but Madame Blavatsky persuaded them to give their consent. Once in Adyar in India, she also convinced the young Anagarika, that rather than studying theosophy and occultism, learning the Pali language would enhance his future aspirations.

This is followed by an equally eulogistic piece announcing “Today’s generation should honour him for his contribution to Buddhist education,” both of which can be read here.

Dharmapala on stage at the 1893 Parliament of Religions
seated next to Swami Vivekananda

Blavatsky News

* The International Business Times of September 17 has an article about the proposed Passenger Terminal Building that will link Hong Kong and Shengzen in Mainland China. The writer says: Hong Kong and Shengzen are two leading cities growing with a common destiny. The two entities are related to one another and both incorporated under the People’s Republic of China, with borders defining geographic boundaries of political entities and legal jurisdictions. A symbol: Two major cities growing as one, and together becoming truly “the parts of a part.” There are no symbols, without a deep and philosophical meaning attached to them, “nothing could be preserved in human memory without some outward symbol.” (Madame Blavatsky).

* The Journal of World History for September 2011 has a study by Vahid Fozdar on the function of Freemasonry in India: “‘That Grand Primeval and Fundamental Religion’: The Transformation of Freemasonry into a British Imperial Cult.” Fozdar notes: The Historians of the Raj have usually given the role of validating Hinduism and other Indian religions—and, consequently, in contributing to Indian nationalism—to another Western organization: the Theosophical Society (TS), founded by Helena P. Blavatsky and Henry Olcott.

In light of recent research on the role of Protestant Christianity in the British Empire, this article explores the possibility that the British actually carried to India a “religion” besides Protestantism, something that mimicked a religion so closely that it could virtually serve as an alternative to Christianity for purposes of imperial consolidation—namely, Freemasonry. The article posits that British Freemasonry, although it emerged from a Christian environment, progressively de-Christianized itself in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and increasingly espoused a religious universalism, which in turn allowed it to serve as an institutionalized, quasi-official, and de facto “civil religion” for the British Empire in India.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Soul Inspirations

Wes Davis, editor of An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, reviews R.F. Foster’s new book on Yeats, Words Alone: Yeats and his inheritances, just published from Oxford University Press. Titled “Putting Sweet Sounds Together,” it appears in the September 1 Wall Street Journal. Davis says: “Mr. Foster, an Oxford historian whose two-volume biography of Yeats has become the standard of reference, is less occupied with tracking particular lines of literary influence in Words Alone than in capturing the mindset to which Yeats was heir. Along the way, however, he does highlight instances of direct inspiration.”

One of those inspirations being Mme. Blavatsky. “Yeats’s fascination with occult oddities like the psychic Madame Blavatsky and the secretive group known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn accords more easily with his nationalist ideals. What looks like a flight from history simply underlines the presence of the past.

Like most of his generation who were drawn to Theosophy, Yeats drew on a number of sources: William Blake and his visionary poetry, the fairy tales and ghost lore of rural Ireland, Mme. Blavatsky’s Theosophy with its stress on Eastern scriptures, the hermetic kabbalah and ritual of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the works of Plato and the Neoplatonists as translated by Thomas Taylor, G.R.S. Mead’s works on gnosticism, and more. Foster’s new book, Words Alone, “draws out themes which had particular resonance for Yeats, offering a new interpretation of the influences surrounding the young poet as he began to ‘hammer his thoughts into a unity.’”

Wes Davis’s review can be read here.

The Parable of the Sower

A reader suggests that Osho’s reference to Mme. Blavatsky as a seed-sower may have a grain of truth in it in spite of his flowery language. In the Preliminary Explanation to E.S. Instruction 3, speaking of her work, H.P.B. writes:

It is the parable of the Sower put once more into practice, and a fresh lesson to be derived from its new application. The seeds that fall into good ground will bring forth fruit an hundredfold, and thus repay in each case the waste of those seeds which will have fallen by the wayside, on stony hearts and among the thorns of human passions. It is the duty of the Sower to choose the best soil for the future crops. But he is held responsible only so far as that ability is directly connected with the failures, and that such are solely due to it; it is the Karma of the individuals who receive the seeds by asking for them, that will repay or punish those who fail in their duties to their HIGHER SELF.

They are simply the seeds in which lurks the potentiality of every truth, the germ of that progress which will be the heirloom of only the seventh perfect Race. A handful of such seeds was entrusted to me by the keepers of these truths, and it is my duty to sow them there, where I perceive a possibility of growth.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Osho on Blavatsky

The Times of India for August 15 carries this apocryphal tale about Mme. Blavatsky from a talk given by Osho (1931-1990):

Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society used to carry two bags in her hands, always. Either going for a morning walk or traveling in a train—those two bags were always in her hands. And she was throwing something out of those bags—from the window while sitting in the train—onto the side of the train.

People would ask, “Why do you do this?”

She would say, “This has been my whole life's habit. These are seasonal flower seeds. I may not come back on this route again, but that does not matter. When the season comes and the flowers will blossom, thousands of people who pass every day in this line of railway trains will see those flowers, those colors. They will not know me. That does not matter.

“One thing is certain: I am making a few people happy somewhere. That much I know. It does not matter whether they know it or not. What matters is that I have been doing something which will make somebody happy. Some children may come and pluck a few flowers and go home. Some lovers may come and make garlands for each other. And without their knowing, I will be part of their love. And I will be part of the joy of children. And I will be part of those who will be simply passing by the path, seeing the beautiful flowers.”

Osho’s record on Blavatsky is mixed, sometimes he ridicules, sometimes he references her favorably as in the piece of folklore he transmits above.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Blavatsky on EsoClassics Plus

Simon Matts, the developer of EsoClassics, informs us of some new developments with this product:

EsoClassics is now available for Android too. It’s free! I’ve developed a new version with English texts: its name is EsoClassics Plus and you can find it in both Android Market and Apple App Store. There are a lot of books (more than 90!) and the job has been hard, so the app is priced US 0.99 or EUR 0.79.

Included among the more than 90 books, pamphlets, documents, conferences, letters, etc., are some of the most important authors in the history of esoteric sciences: Paracelsus, Alice Bailey, H.P. Blavatsky, H.C. Agrippa, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, Eliphas Levi, Rudolf Steiner,...and so on! An effort that deserves much respect. This app is designed for both iPhone and iPad and can be downloaded here.

Pitching the Sacred: Art and Spirituality

The Prague Summer Program for 2012, hosted by Western Michigan University and the Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague, has been announced. The theme will be “Pitching the Sacred: Art and Spirituality.”

From Swedenborg to Madame Blavatsky, over the past couple of centuries the fringe of secular western culture has had a spooky aspect. The disassociation of spirituality from organized religion proceeded from Romanticism and its Yankee cousin Transcendentalism, and was a defining feature of Modernism. “New Age” is not just Shirley Maclaine and ancient aliens. It permeates both “low” and “high” culture, and though in the former it is often silly, in the latter it often seems the very essence of what is vital in contemporary art. In this nineteenth year of the Prague Summer Program, we will consider the influence of Eastern thought and traditions on popular and serious culture alike, and how that influence is tinged with an idealization of “primitive” cultures, from pre-Christian European to pre-Columbian.

Courses will include Creative Writing, Literature and Jewish Studies, and Photography, and will run from June 30 to July 27, 2012 in Prague, Czech Republic. The program is be available here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Theosophy, Cultural Nationalism, and Home Rule

Prof. Mark Bevir of the University of California, Berkeley, will be presenting a paper on “Theosophy, Cultural Nationalism, and Home Rule” at this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Seattle, Washington, Sept. 1-4. He says:

This essay contains three sections. The first shows how western theosophists simplified and appropriated Indian thought, deploying it to resolve dilemmas confronting occult and other religious traditions. The second section explores how theosophical ideas then provided one inspiration for a tradition of cultural nationalism within India itself. Finally, the third section examines how this cultural nationalism transformed Congress in the years immediately surrounding Gandhi’s return from South Africa.

Bevir, who is Professor of Political History, looks at Blavatsky’s work as part of the response to the problems facing contemporary Christians. He advances the theory that “In defending Hinduism, theosophy idealized Indian culture and society,” and charts the rise and influence of Annie Besant in the Home Rule Movement.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Péladan Project

The Péladan Project is a new website by Sasha Chaitow, a PhD candidate at EXESESO (Centre for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism) at the University of Exeter, England, based on the work for her PhD thesis on the life and work of the French novelist Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918). “The purpose of this website is to provide bibliographical data, a repository of all public domain works by (or related to) Joséphin Péladan, as well as a gallery of Symbolist artwork from the artists who exhibited in the Salons de Rose+Croix that Péladan organised between 1892-1897.”

Wherever art and esotericism overlap, Péladan’s influence may also be considered as a parallel, though more practically and socially oriented current, to Helena Blavatsky’s contemporary Theosophical Society (est. 1875 in New York, with further societies in Greece, London and Paris by the 1880s).  Peladan’s unique cosmology and synthesis of esoteric thought was influenced by his reading of Fabre d’Olivet, among numerous other contemporary occultists, and found fertile ground in the French occult revival inspired by Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) and his popularization of magic, Kabbalah and Tarot in England and France, while the artists belonging to the Salon d’Art Idéaliste founded 1896 by Jean Delville (1867-1953), the mirror of Péladan’s Salon in neighbouring Belgium, drew on the ideas of the Theosophists Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934), as well as Péladan’s work.

The rest of the piece, and further information about Péladan, can be accessed here.

Blavatsky, Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal

University of Chicago Press has announced a new book from Jeffrey Kripal coming in November. Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal looks at how comic book heroes have helped their creators and fans alike explore and express a wealth of paranormal experiences ignored by mainstream science. Delving deeply into the work of major figures in the field—from Jack Kirby’s cosmic superhero sagas and Philip K. Dick’s futuristic head-trips to Alan Moore’s sex magic and Whitley Strieber’s communion with visitors—Kripal shows how creators turned to science fiction to convey the reality of the inexplicable and the paranormal they experienced in their lives. Expanded consciousness found its language in the metaphors of sci-fi—incredible powers, unprecedented mutations, time-loops and vast intergalactic intelligences—and the deeper influences of mythology and religion that these in turn drew from; the wildly creative work that followed caught the imaginations of millions.

Noting the work of Blavatsky and others, the author says: The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York City by an eccentric Russian woman named Helena P. Blavatsky, an American journalist who had been reporting on Spiritualism under the name of Henry Steel Olcott, and the Irish American occultist William Quan Judge. Through its many sectarian splits and cultural transformations, Theosophy played a key historical role in garnering public enthusiasm for the comparative study of religion, promoting the early study of “the powers latent in man,” and opening Western culture up to an early appreciation of “Eastern religions. In short, Theosophy was a major, maybe the major promoter of the mytheme of Orientation.

Kirpal gives a brief resumé of the theory of the seven races in The Secret Doctrine, focusing on the idea of Lemuria and its survival as a cultural influence. Along the way he covers many other tales derived from these sources as they emerge through the lens of the comic book. Blavatsky News covered his last book in a July 11, 2010 post.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Blavatsky and the Pineal Gland

The journal, Neurosurgery Clinics of North America, for July 2011 carries an interesting paper “On the Surgery of the Seat of the Soul: The Pineal Gland and the History of its Surgical Approaches” by O. Choudhry, G. Gupta and C. J. Prestigiacomo.

The pineal gland has been studied through philosophy and science for thousands of years. Its role in human physiology was not well understood until the scientific community first started to report on pineal pathology in the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reports on pineal tumors and the emergence of comparative anatomy allowed more complete understanding of pineal function. Neurosurgical methods of treating pineal pathology first emerged in the early twentieth century. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the emergence of microsurgical technique allowed for excellent outcomes with minimal morbidity and mortality.

The place of the pineal gland in occult anatomy was one of Mme. Blavatsky’s favorite subjects, for it suggested the remnant of what had been the “third eye” of primeval humanity. And her ideas are duly noted: For Madame Blavatsky, humans received this divine inspiration not through a figurative third eye but literally through the pineal gland itself. It was an “organ of spiritual vision.”

W.Q. Judge Writings Online

The newly reissued volumes of William Q. Judge’s writings, Echoes of the Orient, compiled by Dara Eklund, has been put online by the publisher, Theosophical University Press. Two volumes cover Judge’s magazine output, mainly from his journal The Path and other theosophical journals. Volume three is taken from various tracts and pamphlets bearing his name, newspaper articles, and his Suggestions and Aids to the American members of the Esoteric School of Theosophy, which for some reason does not include one of his most famous pieces issued to his Esoteric School, his November 1894 notice By Master’s Direction, deposing Annie Besant as co-head of the school. The volumes, which come to some 500 pages each, can be accessed as an E-book here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Art Magic

Marc Demarest’s long awaited annotated edition of Emma Hardinge Britten’s Art Magic is finally available. The publisher is Typhon Press, a specialty publishing house focused on scholarly editions of spiritualist and occult works, and the announcement for the book says:

First published in 1876, Art Magic is one of the founding documents of the Victorian occult revival. Published under mysterious circumstances, the book was controversial in its own day, and has intrigued and infuriated students of the occult for nearly 150 years. Regarded for years merely as a supplement to the more famous Ghost Land (1876), this new edition of Art Magic demonstrates clearly that Art Magic is actually the more important work: closely connected to the founding and early teachings of the Theosophical Society, to Helena Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (1877), and to the teachings of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, as well as to the work of J. C. Street, R. Swinburne Clymer and other occult figures.

This definitive, corrected edition of the text fixes errors in the first edition text, and includes an in-depth bibliographical and historical introduction, as well as extensive annotations to the text by Marc Demarest, the curator of the Emma Hardinge Britten Archive.

Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899) was one of the most influential spiritualist and occult propagandists of the nineteenth century. Her work informs modern-day organizations as diverse as the international spiritualist movement, the Theosophical Society, esoteric Freemasonry, and the Church of Light.

Mr. Demarest’s notes will no doubt make this “forgotten classic” much more accessible than it has been. The 546 page paperback is now available from Amazon.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Theosophy and Kabbalah in the 20th century

The Emily Sellon Memorial Library in New York City will be hosting a talk by Prof. Boaz Huss of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, on Saturday, August 6, 2011, 2-3 PM, on “The Association of Hebrew Theosophists: an unknown chapter in the history of Theosophy and Kabbalah in the 20th century.”

The lecture will discuss the foundation of the Association of Hebrew Theosophists and the activities of Jewish Theosophical associations in England, Iraq, and especially, the United States. As part of his ongoing research, Boaz Huss will examine the interest of Jewish Theosophists in Kabbalah, and the contribution of the Theosophical Society to the renewed interest in Kabbalah in the early 20th century.

Boaz Huss is professor of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, where he is currently serving as chair of the department. His research interests include the Zohar and it reception, the genealogies of Jewish Mysticism and the history of Kabbalah Studies, Kabbalah and the Theosophical Society and Contemporary Kabbalah.

Prof. Huss’s paper, “‘The Sufi Society from America’: Theosophy and Kabbalah in Poona in the Late Nineteenth Century,” was mentioned in a September 10th post last year. It is a model of forensic research, being able to deduct so much from so little available material, and whatever he has to say on the matter will no doubt be of interest.

Magnificent Obsession

The last 25 years of the 20th century can be characterized as having something of a Blavatsky renaissance. The trend seems to have no intention of letting up, and the first decade of the 21st century has seen a rise in scholarly papers and references in numerous books and conferences to H.P. Blavatsky. The same cannot be said of the modern Theosophical movement. Joy Dixon’s Divine Feminine (2001), which dealt with the interaction of women’s rights and Theosophy in the early part of the 20th century, and Michael Ashcraft’s Dawn of the New Cycle (2002) on theosophical educational life at Point Loma, California, still hold the field. So, the five volumes published by Joseph Ross since 1989 are valuable additions. His books, comprised of extensive quotes from relevant documents, including letters from Besant, Leadbeater, Krishnamurti and others, tell the tale of Krotona, the Theosophical community established in the Hollywood Hills in 1912 and later moved to Ojai, California, where it still exists. It is like have an extensive archive delivered to your door.

Joseph Ross at work

Yet as valuable a record as his books are, they have not really been welcome by the Theosophical Society in America. Perhaps it is because they contain the inclusion of material from the Society’s Esoteric School, which no one would have access to otherwise. Perhaps it is because the Theosophical Society in America does not have the reputation of being a gay friendly organization (there are tales of certain office holders going out of their way to demean and denigrate those who are perceived to be gay).

Still Mr. Ross continues on and has just released the fifth volume in his Krotona series, which takes the story from 1927 to 1931. A sample of the book can be read here. While it is good to get such things without charge, it is also good to support such work by buying the book, for like all collectibles issued by individuals, the run is limited, they are rarely reprinted and existing copies end up being priced out of accessibility. The book and other volumes in the series can be ordered from Joseph Ross’s site Krotona Archives.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Blavatsky and Astrology

The Swedish astrologer Martin Gansten has posted a paper of his from the Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Sophia Centre Conference, published by last year by Nicholas Campion.  His paper, “Reshaping karma: an Indic metaphysical paradigm in traditional and modern astrology,” contains a description of the development of modern astrology from Theosophical circles, especially through the figure of Alan Leo.

With the introduction of new scientific paradigms, interest in astrology declined drastically on the European Continent during the 17th century. At the same time, the art was enjoying an unprecedented popularity in England; but a few decades into the next century, fashions had changed even here, and only the occasional enthusiast was left. It was not until the late 1880s that the first stirrings of a movement to popularize astrology were felt, a movement which was largely the creation of one man: William Frederick Allen, soon to be better known as Alan Leo (1860 – 1917). Leo’s efforts proved successful in the way so common to popularizing ventures: by altering the thing popularized to the point where one has to ask whether it is, in any meaningful sense, the same thing at all, or rather a new product marketed under an old label.

Astrology was only one of Leo’s two great enthusiasms, the other being Theosophy as taught by Helena Blavatsky and, later, Annie Besant – teachings which in themselves were intended as a popularization of the esoteric or ‘occult’ truths supposedly contained in all ancient religious traditions, although couched mainly in eastern terminology. Leo’s life project was to unite the two by reinterpreting astrology as a spiritual doctrine, or, in the words of Wilhelm Knappich, to strip it of its scholastic-Aristotelic dress and shroud it in ‘the shimmering magic cloak of Indian Theosophy’ instead.

The work of another influential Theosophical astrologer, Dane Rudhyar, is also credited. Gansten, who also teaches at Lund University, points out that Blavatsky’s ideas “contrast sharply, however, with the ideas of karman and transmigration present in the Indic religions,” which should come as no surprise as she rules out metempsychosis, the going backward into an animal form by a human, and that karma cannot be propitiated by rituals and priests. The rest of Martin Gansten’s paper can be read here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Emma Hardinge Britten and Blavatsky

Marc Demarest looks at the relationship between the medium Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), an early councilor of the Theosophical Society, and Blavatsky, in a July 15 post on his blog Chasing Down Emma.

However committed Emma was to the mission of the First Theosophical Society (and there's plenty of evidence that she was committed), by the time she founds The Two Worlds her occultism is of a purely theoretical and historical variety, and after Olcott brings Theosophy into Emma's backyard in the late 1880s, her position is an uncompromisingly Spiritual (and anti-TS) one -- right down to her repudiation of that which she alleged, from time to time, in the 1870s: that elemental spirits could obsess mortals, and so produce fraudulent communications through mediums.

Demarest has also announced his forthcoming edition of Art Magic, an early attempt to introduce the public to the ideas of occultism, edited by Emma in 1876, which should give us some new insights into this forgotten text.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Making of British Socialism

No subject now appears immune to a reference of Blavatsky. Mark Bevir’s new book, The Making of British Socialism, contains the passing nod.

Evolutionary theory unsettled many Victorians not only because the language of development raised the possibility of backsliding but also because scientific discoveries provided a contrast to older religious truths.…The age included extensive discussions of the apparent conflict between faith and reason and of how the two might be reconciled with one another. The attempt to bridge faith and reason energized quasi-scientific approaches to the soul, death, the afterlife, and the divine. The Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Blavatsky, was just one of many organizations to use the language of science and evolution to discuss paranormal and mystical experiences.

Mark Bevir, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches political theory and philosophy, and public policy and organization, is no stranger to Blavatsky having authored of a number of previous articles mentioning her, including “The West turns Eastward: Madame Blavatsky and the Transformation of the Occult Tradition,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1994; “Annie Besant's Quest for Truth: Christianity, Secularism and New Age Thought,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 1999; “In Opposition to the Raj: Annie Besant and the Dialectic of Empire,” History of Political Thought, 1998, “Theosophy and the Origins of the Indian National Congress,” International Journal of Hindu Studies, 2003. His book, The Making of British Socialism, will be published September 4 by Princeton University Press.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Blavatsky News

* The latest issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, for March 2011, contains an article by Gauri Viswanathan titled “‘Have Animals Souls?”: Theosophy and the Suffering Body,” which continues her recent work on Blavatsky, memory, and history, theories and methodologies.

* There is an interesting, if brief, video that looks at Mme. Blavatsky’s Philadelphia address on 3420 Sansom Street that is now the home of the White Dog Cafe. Unfortunately, other than showing the address above the door, it gives no real idea of the building or location. It is posted on the iGeneralist site, which describes it as: “The home of Madame Blavatsky while she lived in Philadelphia. Not an adherent to her field of study, but I thought this video might be interesting to those fascinated by her life.”

* George M. Young looks at “Esoteric Elements In Russian Cosmism” in the 2011 issue of The Rose+Croix Journal, a yearly publication from AMORC. “Russian Cosmism is a lively and still productive tendency in the history of Russian esoteric thought, important but little known outside Russia. This paper presents a brief introduction to the ideas of several of the major figures in this tendency. From Nikolai Fedorov, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, to Svetlana Semenova, today’s leading Cosmist, the emphasis of this movement has been on the human role in shaping and directing future human evolution, in all its physical, social, and spiritual manifestations.” As Young notes: “Since the late nineteenth century, more than a few notable contributions to international esoteric doctrine have come west with a strong Russian accent: H. P. Blavatsky, George Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, Nicholas and Helena Roerich are names that immediately come to mind.” The rest of the article can be read here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Constance Wilde and Blavatsky

The London Express of Friday, June 24, carries a review of Fanny Moyle’s biography, Constance, about Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar Wilde, published in the U.K. by John Murray. The reviewer says:

There is a wonderful episode which brings the whole era alive. She and Oscar are at the opening of Dorothy’s, a restaurant exclusively for women in Oxford Street and they are at Madame Blavatsky’s table talking theosophy. Soon after, Constance joins the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The Dorothy restaurants were the project of a pupil of Mme. Blavatsky’s, Isabel Cooper-Oakley, who operated two Dorothy restaurants in London, one for West End working girls and one for ladies, which opened until 10 PM with good food “in secure surroundings.” HPB had wanted Oscar Wilde to review her Key to Theosophy, but nothing came of this.

Constance Wilde and her son, Cyril, in 1889

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blavatsky in Adelaide, Australia

ABC Adelaide reports: The Art Gallery of South Australia is undergoing a vast transformation ahead of hosting its largest ever exhibition in July. The “Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide: British Art Now” exhibit is not only exceptional because of its size, it is also the first collection of work from London's acclaimed Saatchi Gallery ever to be shown in Australia.

The record display is comprised of 150 pieces from 42 artists and will cover 3,000 square metres of the South Australian gallery. This is the first Saatchi exhibition to come to Australia and will be open to the public exclusively at the Art Gallery of SA from the 30th of July until the 23rd of October.
Among the pieces shown will be Goshka Macuga’s 2007 “Madame Blavatsky.”

Esotericism of the iPhone

The site of iPhoneitalia carries the news of a new app available, so far, only in Italy: “Esotericism of the iPhone app with free EsoClassics.”

EsoClassics is the first collection of Italian classic texts of the esoteric tradition, which is available free on the App Store.

In this first edition all texts are in Italian only, but the next update also adds international texts.

In EsoClassics you will find information, treatises, tips, aphorisms to always carry and read in every spare moment. The topics covered range from hermeticism, alchemy, theosophy, anthroposophy to the cabbala, and many others. Among the authors, Kremmerz, Bailey, Blavatsky, Steiner and many others.


     * More than 50 books, notebooks, handouts, lectures, treatises.
     * Theosophy, Kabbalah, Alchemy, Archeosofica, Anthroposophy, Hermeticism, etc.
     * The most important authors of the esoteric tradition.

The app is available for free on the App Store.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Blavatsky and W. Evans-Wentz

This week’s Times Literary Supplement of London carries a review by Mark Vernon, the English writer, journalist, and author, of Donald S. Lopez, Jr’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead, A Biography. Speaking of W. Evans-Wentz’s edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead published in 1927, Vernon upholds Lopez’s conclusion:

It is the product of the creative editing of Walter Evans-Wentz, a Victorian Theosophist. His literary assembly owes as much to the doctrines of Madame Blavatsky as the purported author, Padmasambhava, the eight century Buddhist saint who is said to have buried a series of ‘treasures’ in the form of teachings to aid future, troubled generations...

Evans-Wentz was able to use the book to vest his version of Theosophy with all the authority of ancient wisdom, newly discovered. Interestingly, Lopez argues, the same pattern of scriptural recovery is manifest in Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon. So, although it is undoubtedly the combination of Tibetan esotericism and mortal anxiety that has led to the tremendous success of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is better placed within the American millenarian tradition that includes Theosophy, Mormonism and Spiritualism too.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Investigating the Supernatural in France

Mme. Blavatsky and Theosophy get a brief mention in Sofie Lachapelle’s book,
Investigating the Supernatural: From Spiritism and Occultism to Psychical Research and Metapsychics in France, 1853–1931, published in April by John Hopkins University Press.

In 1875, the same year that [Eliphas] Lévi died, a new occultist movement building on this enthusiasm for things Eastern was created in New York when Helena Petrovna Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society with the help of lawyer and journalist Henry Steel Olcott. Theosophy consisted of a set of mystical teachings inspired by esoteric traditions of the East. In its aims, the Theosophical Society demarcated itself from other occult groups by its discussion of universal fraternity and its focus on a set of Aryan and Eastern teachings.

While noting that “Theosophy was never as popular in France as in the Anglo-Saxon world, but it introduced many to occultist traditions and functioned as a catalyst to the larger movement,” the author says, “For most of the 1880s, the occultist revival taking a hold of France centered on the Theosophical doctrine.” Le Lotus Bleu, the theosophical journal started in 1890 in France, did not, as the author claims, survive until 1986, but is still published.

Gandhi, Again

The July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine contains an examination of Gandhi’s image by Christopher Hitchens, using Joseph Lelyveld’s recent study of Gandhi’s life, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India (mentioned in a March 27 Blavatsky News post), for his template.

The word Mahatma (often employed in ordinary journalistic usage without any definite article, as if it were Mohandas Gandhi’s first name) is actually the Sanskrit word for “Great Soul.” It is a religio-spiritual honorific, to be assumed or awarded only by acclaim, and it achieved most of its currency in the West by association with Madame Blavatsky’s somewhat risible “Theosophy” movement, forerunner of many American and European tendencies to be found in writers, as discrepant as Annie Besant and T. S. Eliot, who nurture themselves on the supposedly holy character of the subcontinent.

Hitchens has taken on the claims of a number of prominent individuals over the years, including Mother Theresa. The rest of his comments can be read here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Blavatsky, Landscape Painting and The Forest

Dainis Dauksta in his contribution, “Landscape Painting and The Forest—The Influence of Cultural Factors in the Depiction of Trees and Forests,” in the volume New Perspectives on People and Forests edited by him and Eva Ritter (Springer, May 2011) looks at “two twentieth century painters [who] worked extensively, although not exclusively, on images of trees throughout their lives,” and who shared an interest in the ideas of H.P. Blavatsky. “They left in their work progressive series of compositions whereby their developing philosophies can be tracked through the changes in their imagery.”

Writing of Mondrian, Dauksta says: “He was searching for an entry to the world of spirit rather than of surfaces, and in 1909 he joined the Theosophical Society founded by Russian psychic Helena Blavatsky in 1875. This group had as its mission three objects: first to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, second to encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy and science, and third to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in human beings. His work became saturated with spiritual metaphor.” The book—267 pages, hardcover—was published by the German conglomerate Springer in May and sells for $189.00 U.S.

The Yost Typewriter

The Australian blog Oz.Typewriter for June 10 carries a long description of the Yost typewriter invented by George Washington Newton Yost, an American Spiritualist who used his machine to take down the autobiography of the late H.P. Blavatsky. It was published in Boston in 1896 as Posthumous Memoirs of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Dictated from the spirit-world, upon the typewriter, independent of all human contact, under the supervision of G. W. N. Yost, to bring to light the things of truth, and affirm the continuity of life and the eternal activity of the soul immortal.

This obscure book belongs to that remote area of Blavatskiana—Posthumous memoirs dictated from the spirit-world—of which it must hold the sole place. The entry for it in Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography (1994) gives a brief overview of its contents. It should come as no surprise that the book, which purports to give Blavatsky’s life history as told by herself, upholds the reality of spirit communication. Robert Messenger, who writes the piece, notes that “Yost had died in New York on September 26, 1895, aged 64, and appears not to have made any further contact with the world from the hereafter thereafter.” The post includes a picture of a Yost typewriter.