Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Question of Motive

The latest issue of Ars Historia (Volume 4, 2012), the online journal published by postgraduate history students at the University of Exeter, and contributed to by other postgraduate students, contains a long piece by Jeffrey Lavoie, “The Spiritualism of Madame Blavatsky: An Introduction to Western Esotericism and the Life and Writings of a Victorian Occultist,” arguing basically that Blavatsky was, is, and remained a spiritualist.

His thesis was summed up well by Blavatsky’s relentless critic, the spiritualist William E. Coleman in 1888:

There is not a single truth in theosophy that is not in spiritualism, and that was not stolen from spiritualism to season theosophy with a little rational truth. Madame Blavatsky was a kind of Spiritualist before she determined to be the founder of a new culte, and the few grains of truth in theosophy were stolen by her from the spiritualism which she denounces and ridicules. 

The article is a résumé of the first chapter of Lavoie's book. And while a great deal of space is given over to another telling of how it could be done, we are still no closer at arriving at the why, or any greater understanding of Blavatsky.

Even Richard Hodgson (perhaps because of his legal studies) realized that he could not just deliver a report that claimed she was a fraud, regardless of how much evidence he thought he had, to convict her. There was the question of motive. “The question which will now inevitably arise is—what has induced Madame Blavatsky to live so many laborious days in such a fantastic work of imposture?” he was forced to ask on page 313 of his report. “Laborious” would certainly be the word, for, while she was engaged in this “fantastic work of imposture,” she was also editing magazines, writing over 1,000 articles in the space of 17 years, sometimes on the most erudite philosophical principles, supporting herself by writing Russian fiction based on her travels in India, work on her famous books, keep up her correspondence, and, if we believe her critics, “fabricate” a 140 Mahatma Letters, maintain this correspondence in the face of scepticism, and develop of whole new philosophy. But they won’t tell you that.

Having met her, and interviewed her associates, Hodgson dismissed “the sordid motive of pecuniary gain” or “a morbid yearning for notoriety,” coming to the conviction as the result of his investigation that Theosophy was a ruse and that “Madame Blavatsky was a ‘Russian spy’.” It should be noted that nothing in the past 125 years has come forward to substantiate his conclusion.

These and other charges that Mr. Lavoie delineates did not seem to convince all her contemporaries or diminish her contribution in the eyes of them. William T. Stead, the pioneering journalist, observed at the time of her passing: “What Madame Blavatsky did was an immeasurably greater thing than the doubling of teacups. She made it possible for some of the most cultivated and sceptical men and women of this generation to believe—believe ardently, to the extent that made them proof against ridicule and disdainful if persecution.

We would also add that the persistence of the term “natives” in 2012 to describe the people of India unfortunate. Mr. Lavoie writes: “When Blavatsky and Olcott first arrived in India they were greeted by a group of about 300 natives.” The use of this sort of ethnophaulism does not recommend his work.

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