Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Inimitable Madame B.

EnlightenNext is the journal of American self-styled guru and “twenty-first century spiritual teacher,” Andrew Cohen. Issue 47 (no months are given) just out contains a nine-page article by Gary Lachman titled “The Inimitable Madame B.” It begins:

New York’s Irving Place isn’t a place we’d usually associate with the start of a new spiritual movement, but on September 13, 1875, that’s exactly what it was. In a room cluttered with oriental bric-a-brac in Manhattan’s bustling and often dangerous East Side, three people came together then to form an occult society that would have a profound influence.

Where to begin? Irving Place is not a location we’d usually “associate” anything with. At the time of Blavatsky’s brief stay the street was one of residential houses, with exclusive clubs at the north end where the street joined Gramercy Park (Col. Olcott’s Lotos Club was there). On September 13 a committee of four, which had been appointed at the September 8 meeting to draft a constitution and by-laws of what would become the Theosophical Society, reported progress. This was done after the conclusion of George H. Felt’s lecture telling of his discoveries on the Cabbala, but neither Blavatsky nor Judge, as the writer adds, were part of it. As far as the room being “cluttered with oriental bric-a-brac,” this is just imagination expressing itself in speculation.

In a number of places Lachman refers to H.P. Blavatsky’s mother as a “princess,” this is not so—it was her grandmother who had the title. Nor has the Society for Psychical Research ever “retracted Hodgson’s report a century later,” as he states. He gives as his source for this statement, Sylvia Cranston’s 1993 biography, H.P.B., page xvi, but in checking it we find she does not make that claim. “She [HPB] washed ashore in Cairo” in 1871 when the ship she was on, the S.S. Eumonia [sic], blew up. But as the explosion took place off the coast of Greece, it must have been a big bang and a mighty wave to send her across the Mediterranean and inland to Cairo.

The article is illustrated by garish depictions of events in Blavatsky’s life, including one of her sitting at a table, apparently in a trance, while the rest of the circle look up at letters falling from above.

Lachman tries to present a sympathetic portrait, though burdened with the usual stereotypes about Blavatsky—weight, madcap ways, hashish smoking, etc. His sources are all the usual suspects and he adds nothing new, except, perhaps, when he writes things like: “the Christian College Magazine was only too happy to blow the whistle on the Madame.”

Lachman, an American living in England, is writing a biography of Blavatsky, though, if this is any indication of what is to come, those wanting an accurate portrayal of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky may have to look elsewhere.

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