Sunday, June 24, 2012

Annie Besant on the Radio

Radio personality Melvyn Bragg discussed the life of Annie Besant with Lawrence Goldman, Fellow in Modern History at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford, David Stack, Reader in History at the University of Reading, and Yasmin Khan, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, on a recent episode of his BBC Radio 4 show, In Our Time.

The broadcast, which runs 43 minutes, can be downloaded here. The discussion focused on her early life and work in social reform, but there is an attempt to unravel the change in her life caused by meeting Blavatsky in 1889 and Besant’s allegiance to Theosophy. For those unfamiliar with Besant the programme offered a rational attempt to place her in the context of her time.

Blavatsky News

* The Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, the literary magazine published by the American Agora Foundation in New York, is titled Magic Shows, and the opinions of a wide array of authors, from antiquity to the present, are cited throughout the volume’s 225 pages. Among them Mme. Blavatsky, who is pictured as one of the contributors, along with Euripides, H.P. Lovecraft, J.R. R. Tolkien, Lucius Apuleius, and others. The passage from Blavatsky is taken from her 1886 piece, “Ancient Egyptian Magic.” There is also an article by Jamie James on “W.B. Yeats, Magus,” which is marred by his statement that “the Theosophists expelled him [Yeats] in 1890.” Though this keeps being erroneously repeated as fact, it has already been shown that it was not the case.

James offers an insightful observation by the author Helen Vendler, who has written on Yeats. “Our present discomfort in imagining Yeats at Madame Blavatsky’s arises from our feeling that there are more respectful ways of approaching the esoteric, forgetting that a concrete encounter is the only one likely to appeal to a mind peculiarly attuned to words and visual symbols.”

The back cover of this issue, shown here, features Blavatsky prominently.

* The Summer 2012 issue of Quest magazine from the American Branch of the Theosophical Society at Adyar contains an interesting interview with Theosophical historian Michael Gomes, where he talks above his work over the past 45 years. Interviewed by the magazine’s editor, Richard Smoley, he was asked: “What advice would you give to someone interested in researching this field?

His reply is worth noting: To be aware that aside from accessing the mental world that the people around Blavatsky existed in, there is a temporal aspect of the lives. The physicality of it, the place itself. This is why I have always stressed the value of on-the-ground research. Finding A.O. Hume’s home in Simla, India, walking through its grounds, gave a spatial understand about the events that had occurred when Blavatsky was his guest there. In knowing the limitations and extremes of these situations, one begins to understand and appreciate the remarkable contribution of these early members, who risked ridicule and scorn so we could enjoy freedom of belief.

The issue also includes a posthumous piece by Sri Madhava Ashish giving the history of “Mirtola: a Himalayan Ashram with Theosophical Roots.” Mirtola, near Almora in India, was established by Sri Yashoda Ma, the wife of Gyanendra Nath Chakravarti. The article looks at the Theosophists who were connected with its work, including Bertam Keightley, who helped edit The Secret Doctrine.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Theosophy was a Spiritualist Movement?

The May 2012 installment of PsyPioneer, the online journal that focuses on some obscure items of Spiritualist history, has an unusually large amount of material on Blavatsky. Leslie Price provides a brief review of Jeffrey D. Lavoie’s 2012 The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement. But even Price questions the central thesis of the book: that basically Blavatsky was, is, and remained a spiritualist throughout her Theosophical career and that her Society was essentially a Spiritualist one. This allows Lavoie to post a lengthy reply commenting on Price’s comments. Garth Willey, who is connected with the journal, adds the somewhat skeptical note:

Lavoie limits his study to the period 1875 to 1891. The major national Spiritualist bodies had not been fully established during that period – conferences had been held (over a couple of decades) and principles debated: and the Spiritualists’ National Federation (UK) held its inaugural meeting in July 1890 – but ‘churches’ were somewhat ‘individualistic’ (aren’t they still!). The point is: Spiritualism had not been fully and categorically defined during the study period. The much looser terminology ‘spiritualist’ and ‘spiritualism’ may have been more appropriate throughout Lavoie’s work rather than attributing our contemporary understanding of Spiritualism to The Theosophical Society’s and Blavatsky’s origins.

Lavoie in his reply claims that Blavatsky’s description of elementals—non-human agencies as the source of much of séance-room phenomena—was not unique to her but also used by Andrew Jackson Davis’s in his 1880 book The Diakka. But with Davis the Diakka, “some of whom were Indians of every nationality” (p. 80), “were once human beings, once sons and daughters in human homes” (p. 79). It was a useful way of explaining why mediums were sometimes found cheating: it was the Diakka, these unprincipled spirits, acting through the medium (p. 80).

Mr. Price also adds a note that since “Madame Blavatsky [Radda-Bai] herself fearlessly put her name to some very outspoken criticisms,” we should do the same here. (We wonder what Adlai E. Waterman might say about this?) Perhaps it is a generational thing; but for many of those who come here, looking for accurate information on H. P. Blavatsky, it is a non-issue. The bottom line is: are the facts accurate? Do they hold up to same scrutiny that its authors judge Blavatsky by? No doubt Mr. Price knows that there has been a consistent practice in parts of the Theosophical movement (United Lodge of Theosophists, for instance) for over a century to get away from this emphasis on the authority of personalities (“Personality is the curse in the Theosophical Society, as it is everywhere,” Blavatsky once commented), believing that ideas should stand on their merit and not under the shadow of great names. “Why not follow her example?” Price asks. But if Blavatsky was really the unscrupulous lying, cheating conniver (though not embezzler) that Lavoie portrays in his writings, and which Mr. Price finds “a fine example of the new wave” (!), why would anyone want to follow her example as a moral authority in anything?

The latest issue of Theosophical History (dated October 2011!) also raises a number of concerns regarding Lavoie’s methodology in its notice of his book.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lost in Translation

Blavatsky News alerted readers in a December 9 posting about Isaac Lubelsky’s Celestial India: Madame Blavatsky and the Birth of Indian Nationalism due in May of this year. With such a provocative title we had hoped that it would offer some new insights into the part played by Theosophists in the development of Indian nationalism. Alas, we were misled. The first 76 pages are a straightforward retelling of “the birth of Orientalist study,” focusing on F. Max Müller. Another hundred pages are devoted to a straightforward retelling of Theosophical history until the time of Blavatsky’s death in 1891. There is a chapter on “The Sources of Theosophical Doctrine,” which seems to regard every esoteric text ever published as an influence on the development of modern Theosophy. The rest of the book deals with Annie Besant, especially in regard to J. Krishnamurti and the World Teacher movement, though without comment that sizable portions of the organization looked askance on the project. There is the brief mention of Besant’s tenure as President of the Indian National Congress, though next to nothing about her Home Rule movement at the beginning of the twentieth century.

We learn that the author first heard about the Theosophical Society in 1999. “I quickly learned of the ‘historian’s paradise’, awaiting in the relatively unexplored body of Theosophical writings, and in the personal stories of the Society’s leaders.” We suppose works like Alvin Boyd Kuhn’s thesis at Columbia University, published in 1930 as Theosophy: a Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom by Henry Holt and Company as part of their Religion in America series, don’t count for much, or the numerous studies done by Theosophists. We also learn that Lubelsky’s book was translated from the Hebrew of his unpublished thesis, so perhaps something is lost in translation.

There are some things that can’t be attributed to faulty translation. On page 109 Lubelsky makes the claim that “Emma Coulomb maintained that Blavatsky had abandoned a baby she bore during her stay in Cairo.” Unfortunately no source is given for this addition to Theosophical lore. While he may have read that someone attributed this statement to her, it does not appear in Emma Coulomb’s 1884/1885 tell-all pamphlet, nor in the two major sources of dirt gathered about Blavatsky, Elliott Coues’ 1890 newspaper piece and W. Emmette Coleman’s 1893 Critical Historical Review of the movement. Nor does Richard Hodgson bring this up in his 1893 “Defence of the Theosophists.”

What about his claim that Blavatsky received the “book of Dzian” from Swami Dayananda (p. 127)? Or the mixing up of the Theosophical Congress held during the 1893 World‘s Parliament of Religions with the Parliament itself? What a disappointment, for there is really nothing on what the book’s title suggests: “Madame Blavatsky and the Birth of Indian Nationalism”, especially since the hardcover version sells for £60. in the UK ($95.00 US) and £19.99 ($34.95 US) for the paperback. The book itself seems like some curious relic from the 1990s than from something one would expect today.