Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Hermaphrodite Satanist

“The Hermaphrodite Satanist: Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Subversion of Gender Categories and Christian Misogynist Mythology” was the subject of a presentation by Per Faxneld at the 4th Global Conference: Evil, Women and the Feminine held in Prague, May 6 to 8. Per Faxneld’s paper was given as part of the session A Different Monstrous Mother, which included papers on Lady Gaga and Lady Macbeth. Faxneld, who is a doctoral research fellow in the History of Religions at Stockholm University, Sweden, says

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) was the chief ideologist of the Theosophical Society – around the turn of the century the most influential international movement in the realm of alternative spirituality. Her books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and in 1889 the society had 227 sections all over the world. Theosophy can be considered part of a broad counter culture, which included socialists, vegetarians and feminists. While Blavatsky did not self-designate as a feminist, she nonetheless made several contributions to the feminist struggle. A celebration in her esoteric system of the “divine hermaphrodite”, along with an insistence on the uselessness of the soul, made it clear that in her opinion no individual ought to be subjugated because of what flesh their spirit was temporarily housed in. Her public rejection of “proper” Victorian womanhood – traveling extensively on her own, occasionally dressing up in men’s clothing, swearing and smoking profusely, reviling marriage – also helped destabilize gender categories. It has further been suggested she herself was a physical hermaphrodite, though this theory is mere speculation. This paper focuses on Blavatsky’s reinterpretation of the story of the Fall of man in Genesis 3, where she lauds Satan as a helper of mankind. Since Genesis 3 has traditionally been used in Christian culture to legitimise the subordination of woman (wicked Eve being the one to first eat of the forbidden fruit), Blavatsky’s counter-hegemonic reading has far-reaching implications. As will be demonstrated, some theosophist women incorporated Blavatsky’s Satanist Bible interpretation in their polemics against the Christian patriarchy, while others engaged in a feminizing of the cherished figure of Satan. Using Satan as a symbol of liberation in this manner was, the paper shows, an established part of many types of anti-clerical and progressive discourse at the time, and theosophical feminist Satanism thus becomes culturally logical in its specific political context.

Though not related, the paper presented by Krishna Menon, an Associate Professor in the Department of Science, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi, India, on “The Construction of Gender and Music in modern South India,” which detailed “the re-invention of new hegemonic tradition of classical music in south India” at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, is also worth mentioning here.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Laura Holloway-Langford

Although H. P. Blavatsky has received numerous biographical studies (mostly critical), none of the other leading Theosophists of her time have been so covered. The sole exception is Annie Besant, but mainly for her involvement in the Indian Freedom Movement. The President-Founder, Col. Olcott, is the subject of two books. W. Q. Judge still awaits a book length study. Over the past decade Kim Farnell produced two monographs, one on Walter Gorn Old, and one on Mabel Collins.

So we are encouraged to see publication of a book length biographical study on Laura Holloway-Langford (1843-1930), Yearning for the New Age: Laura Holloway-Langford and Late Victorian Spirituality, as part of Indiana University Press’s series Religion in North America. The writer is Diane Sasson, a professor at Vanderbilt University, who fortuitously received the remaining books and other papers of LCH while on a research trip. (Our pre-publication notice of the book can be seen here.)

Laura Holloway-Langford’s transit through the Theosophical Society was brief, coming from Brooklyn, New York, to meet Olcott and Blavatsky in London during their visit of 1884. She co-wrote, Man: Fragments of Forgotten History (1885), an attempt at elucidating Theosophical principles with Mohin Chatterji, who had come from India with Olcott and Blavatsky. Yet these events form the major part of Sasson’s book. Blavatsky is depicted as a “puppet-master, manipulating the strings from behind the stage” (p. 76), but aside from simplifications like this Sasson tells her story well. She laments the loss of the manuscript of Holloway-Langford’s reminiscences of this period written in the 1920s. “If this manuscript is indeed extant, it has not been made public so that it can be inspected by scholars,” noting it has been cited by Daniel Caldwell in his online “Mrs. Holloway and the Mahatmas,” which reprints the Mahatma Letters received by Holloway. Perhaps this has prodded Mr. Caldwell to finally release the manuscript, for he announces it will be available through for $39.95.

In this book Mrs. Holloway tells the story of her association with H.P. Blavatsky and other leading Theosophists of the day and about her encounters and relationship with Madame Blavatsky’s Masters. This book includes numerous published and unpublished letters written by the Mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya to Mrs. Holloway, H.P. Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott. Almost 60 pages of full color photographic reproductions of letters from the Masters K.H. and M. (plus a few photographs of Mrs. Holloway, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott never before published) make this book a unique volume in Theosophical literature.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Blavatsky News

* Gary Lachman spoke to a sold out event at Tredwell’s book store in Bloomsbury, London on Wednesday May 9. His subject was “Madame Blavatsky: Magician, Radical, Feminist,” which he amply expounded on, talking about the difficulties that face a biographer of her. Mr. Lachman, who has authored a number of spiritual biographies, including of Rudolf Steiner, C.G. Jung, and more recently, Emanuel Swedenborg, announced his newest addition, a biography of Blavatsky to be published in October by Tarcher in New York. It will be over 200 pages. The cover can be seen here.

* Marking the centenary of Penn State professor and author Warren Sylvester Smith (1912-1984), a dramatic reading of his one-woman play, “Blavatsky,” will be performed at the State Theatre on campus in University Park, Pennsylvania, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. “In the play, the life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a 19th-century spiritualist and founder of the Theosophist movement, is shown in six conversations set at various points in her controversial career.…Well-read, well-traveled and a prolific writer, Blavatsky is portrayed as both charismatic and crude, a true believer in the spiritual entities she called ‘the Masters,’ but not above using conjurers’ tricks to convince her followers and skeptics.”

Warren Sylvester Smith, who taught in Penn State’s Department of Theatre Arts, is remembered in connection with our subject for his 1968 book, The London Heretics, 1870-1914, which looks at the reactions to the growing climate of Victorian doubt through a number of Christian, nonconformist, and non-Christian groups that arose. He gives an extended, if somewhat skeptical, survey of Blavatsky’s life with special emphasis on Annie Besant’s joining the movement, which, he says, “tends to make the power of Helena Petrovna seem more potent than ever.”

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Visit to the House Where H.P. Blavatsky was Born

The Theosophist, the journal founded by Mme. Blavatsky in 1879 and still published at Adyar, Chennai, India, carries an account in its May issue of a recent “Visit to the House Where H.P. Blavatsky was Born.” The travelogue by Jan Jelle Keppler, General Secretary of the Belgian Section of the Theosophical Society, begins at the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. “It was well after midnight when we arrived at the building [where he was staying], where it appeared that the elevator did not work, so we had to carry our luggage to the fourth floor ourselves. This was a good introduction to the general state of affairs in the country.”

Dnepropetrovsk, Blavatsky’s birth place (then known as Ekaterinoslav), is reached by train from Kiev. “The area around the house has become industrialized and most of the old buildings have been demolished.” But Blavatsky’s birthplace, near the centre of the old part of the town, has survived. The ground floor includes a large entrance room, followed by a smaller room, another large room, where Blavatsky’s grandmother, the Princess Dolgoruki, resided, and then a smaller one in the back of the house that contained the library of her uncle, Prince Pavel Dolgoruki, famed for its rich collection of occult books.

There was a big garden at the back of the house, where HPB’s grandmother had a vast collection of plant species. Her family had some fourteen servants, some of whom belonged to a family of serfs, who had been there for generations.” The building was bought by Blavatsky’s grandfather, Andrei de Fadeyev, when he became head of the Bureau for Foreign Colonists in 1815.

The HPB Museum Centre is open to the public two days a week during the summer. The building, parts of which are in disrepair, it is under the authority of the Literature Museum, which in turn is under the authority of the Historical Museum. “We were told that in the Literature Museum were stored some 5,000 objects of HPB and her family, waiting to be put on display.” The piece is illustrated by a photograph of the house (a better picture was given in a previous post) and a colour reproduction of a portrait of “the fourteen-year-old Helena with her mother, painted after the death of the latter” seen here. At one time it was credited to Blavatsky herself. It appears this is no longer part of the official story.

The May issue of The Theosophist also carries a short piece by Patrizia Moschin Calvi on “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Italy.” It is an English extension of her article published in Italian, and covered here in October 2011.