Thursday, March 24, 2011

Misinformation Files

Later this month the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. will be releasing The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray, Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics (not to be confused with John Gray, the U.S. self-help author). The book is already out in the U.K. from the publisher Allen Lane. Publisher’s Weekly, in its review of the book, calls it: “a nakedly scornful, fatalistic attack on human efforts to avoid extinction, both individual (cryonic preservation) and collective (anti–global warming initiatives). The historical underpinnings of Gray’s argument are rickety, especially the confused God-builder section, which swirls pointlessly around the story of H.G. Wells and a beautiful Russian spy. His argument that Soviet atrocities flowed from a mad longing to transcend death is free-associated rather than reasoned, and his implicit yoking of dotty British psychics with Stalin’s executioners reveals little.”

In the section on Henry Sidgwick, F.W.H. Myers, and the Society for Psychical Research, Gray writes:

The arrival of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in Cambridge [in 1884] seems to have been one of the episodes that led Sidgwick to conclude that proof might never be found [for post-mortem survival]. Initially Sidgwick welcomed Madame Blavatsky, a former circus equestrienne, entrepreneur (earlier in her career she founded an ink factory and an artificial flower shop, both of which failed) and sometime informant of the Tsarist secret police and nightclub singer who had taken up the profession of medium. Founding the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky published one of the canonical texts of Western occultism, Isis Unveiled. The earnest Cambridge philosopher found Blavatsky ‘a genuine being, with a vigorous nature intellectual as well as emotional and a real desire for the good of mankind’. He seemed unfazed by her claim to be receiving letters of esoteric wisdom from mysterious Tibetan masters. It was only after a thoroughgoing SPR [Society for Psychical Research] investigation that Sidgwick recognized that Blavatsky was a charlatan and an imposter.

If his mythologizing of Mme. Blavatsky is any indication of the accuracy of the rest of the book, then we must agree with Publisher’s Weekly: “The historical underpinnings of Gray’s argument are [extremely] rickety.”

This can be attributed to the sloppiness one occasionally finds in academic writing by authors who are out of their league and who expect the reader to take their words as ipse dixit, but what can one think when a theosophical publisher puts out the following:

According to Blavatsky and Olcott, ancient Europe had inherited pieces of a unified tradition that had originated in the far reaches of Asia. The source was still intact, and core teachings concerning the spiritual evolution of humankind were still kept secret by this “Great White Lodge” in the vastness of the Himalayas. Blavatsky claimed that she in particular had been contacted by the hidden adepts, or “Mahatmas,” of this lodge in mediumistic trance and that they had tasked her with now revealing their teachings. Apparently Blavatsky’s form of communication with the Mahatmas was insufficient, for she, Olcott, and many other Theosophists would journey for years throughout the Middle East and most of South Asia to meet them.

Modern studies about Blavatsky would have been greatly enriched if the author, Yannis Toussulis, had provided the source of Blavatsky’s “claim.” But to no avail, and the book, Sufism and the Way of Blame, from Quest Books from the Theosophical Society headquartered in Wheaton, Illinois, leaves us unenlightened. The book is appropriately scheduled for an April 1st release. Blavatsky herself never used the term “Great White Lodge.”

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