Sunday, November 25, 2012

Madame Blavatsky Reviewed, Ctd

* Nicholas Colloff at his blog Golgonooza calls Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spiritualitya measured, intelligent account of this extraordinary (and controversial) woman. Even if we discount what she believed - revealed in the dense, extravagant, compelling and long texts that are Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine - and the accounts of the paranormal phenomena that controversially accompanied her life, her life deserves both acknowledgement and gratitude for what it inspired on our usual (mundane) temporal plane.

* Lachman’s book stirs up an extended rumination at the New York based Paris Review on Blavatsky, described as a “fat, chain-smoking Russian noblewoman with a profane vocabulary and reputation for occult powers.”

But Blavatsky’s presentation appealed to the needs of her time. The concept of an evolving universe seemed to square Darwinism with religion, and the emphasis on an individual’s ability to propel herself upwards echoed an Emersonian ethos of self-improvement. Blavatsky also had a penchant for a social progressivism, as expressed in the first principle of the Theosophical Society: “To form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” For educated, liberal, middle-class people disillusioned with Christianity and disappointed by Darwin, she was an attractive alternative.

* Theosophists are already irate. Under the headline, “New Book is Good for Recycling. Recent H.P.B. Biography Is Not Totally Useless,” the November issue of The Aquarian Theosophist tells its readers:  “A new biography of Helena P. Blavatsky has been published which seems (from its cover) to be theosophical. A warning should be made for people not to waste money,” it continues. “In spite of its nice title, the book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, by Gary Lachman, is useful mainly as raw material for those who recycle paper. The good news is that it has not been published by any theosophical publishing house. It has not been confirmed whether Vatican-related institutions are sponsoring this sort of ‘literature’.

* While at the website Theos-talk Daniel Caldwell says in a Nov. 23 post: “In my opinion, Mr. Lachman relies too heavily on K. Paul Johnson's books about HPB and the Masters. These books are filled with far too many vague speculations without any good evidential substantiation. Unfortunately, Mr Lachman does NOT refer the reader to any of the critiques of Johnson's books.” 

More is sure to follow.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bulwer-Lytton and Blavatsky

“Musings on Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni, and Fiction as a Source of Theosophical Beliefs” is the title of a recent post by John L Crow, a grad student at the Department of Religions at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. Among other things he poses the question:

Do we simply claim she was myth-making based on Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction? Okay, maybe that is true. But so what? Blavatsky’s assertion informs Theosophical Doctrine and many Theosophists take these statements as fact. [C. Nelson] Stewart claims that Zicci and A Strange Story “were based rather upon what we should now call ‘astral experiences’ beginning in [Bulwer-Lytton’s] early youth.” In all these Theosophical assertions, fiction acts to reveal and conceal what Theosophists see as occult truth. Those who have the eyes to see and can read between the lines see in Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction the truth of occultism and the works become manuals. Terms such as “The Dweller on the Threshold” enter occultism and become topics of Theosophical doctrine. Fiction becomes the seeds that sprout into assertions about occult truth. So what?

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s occult fiction is outlined in John Henry Montgomery’s 2000 Masters Dissertation “Bulwer Lytton’s Mystic Novels: On the Margins of the Invisible” at Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg). Unfortunately he repeats statements like “Madame Blavatsky would shamelessly plagiarise him [Bulwer Lytton] in her Isis Unveiled,” without giving the slightest evidence.

R.A. Gilbert reminds us in his chapter “‘The Supposed Rosy Crucian Society’ Bulwer-Lytton and the S.R.I.A.” in Ésotérisme, Gnosis & Imaginaire Symbolique (2001) that “Joscelyn Godwin rightly points out that ‘There is nothing in Zanoni that a voracious reader of occult literature could not have learned at second hand.’”

Certainly Mejnour and Zanoni, the adepts of the novel Zanoni (1843), are not creations unique to Bulwer-Lytton, who died the same year Blavatsky arrived in America, 1873. They owe something to their predecessors depicted in earlier novels like Vathek (1786) and Sethos (1731) and one of Blavatsky’s personal favourites, Le Comte de Gabalis (1670). In her childhood Blavatsky would already have been familiar with the volkhv, wizard, of Russian folklore, a word used to describe the Three Kings in Russian translations of the gospel of Matthew.

The mahatmas have also commented on this identification of their roles:

I hope that at least you will understand that we (or most of us) are far from being the heartless, morally dried up mummies some would fancy us to be. “Mejnour” is very well where he is — as an ideal character of a thrilling — in many respects truthful story. Yet, believe me, few of us would care to play the part in life of a desiccated pansy between the leaves of a volume of solemn poetry. We may not be quite the “boys” — to quote Olcott’s irreverent expression when speaking of us — yet none of our degree are like the stern hero of Bulwer’s romance.

Vathek, 1815, from the 2004 exhibition 
Les livres anglais du duc d’Aumale
at the Bibliothèque et Archives du Château de Chantilly

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Blavatsky in Hong Kong

A recent post at the blog The Dark World’s Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War is a good example of the sort of writing that only blogs can provide. Though somewhat afield of our subject (Mme. Blavatsky is mentioned), “Herbert Edward Lanepart (1): Theosophy in Old Hong Kong” opens up like never before the development of Theosophy in Hong Kong in the early part of the twentieth century. The account focuses on Herbert Edward Lanepart, who after being a devoted worker for Theosophy in Hong Kong, became a Nazi sympathizer. The author warns against jumping to unwarranted conclusions:

In fact, as every writer acknowledges, Nazism had many sources, and one of these was Christian anti-Semitism – even if, as Zygmunt Bauman has argued Nazi anti-Semitism is significantly different from ‘traditional’ European anti-Semitism it is impossible to imagine it coming in to being and so quickly taking hold of so much of German society without the ‘preparation’ of centuries of religious anti-Semitism (and those who like to point to Hitler’s interest in Blavatsky’s works might remember that Luther’s anti-Semitic ravings were amongst the most quoted ‘authorities’ in Nazi Germany). It would, of course, be obvious nonsense to suggest that someone became a Nazi because they had previously been a Christian.

When you see statements like: “The origin of Nazism can be traced back directly to Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society,” you immediately know that the writer does not read German. The Nazis hardly had to go to Blavatsky for racial theories; there were more than enough home-grown sources.

Madame Blavatsky Reviewed

Reviews are starting to come in for Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality.  London’s Magonia Blog and Review of Books, which favors anomalous literature, carries a laudatory review. As an aside, it adds:

Not only does this landmark book rehabilitate the Madame herself, but it also casts a completely new light on her close associate Colonel Olcott, traditionally thought of little more than her dupe and lap dog. Yet consider this:  

He was an astonishing healer, using the even then outmoded technique of making ‘passes’ with his hands over the sick, but it certainly worked. He cured at least 8000 Indians in a year, only stopping because the Masters told him to, as his own health was at risk. He devoted every ounce of his strength – and not just psychically - on behalf of the people he lived among, and in 1967 Sri Lanka issued a stamp in his honour. As Lachman also notes: ‘Streets in Colombo and Galle are named after him, and a statue of him stands outside Columbo Fort Railway Station. Olcott’s work inspired the Buddhist nationalist efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala, the great Sinhalese religious reformer…’ Some lap dog.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky

Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864.
One of the things Helena Petrovna Blavatsky has been called (and she has been called many things) is the Sphinx of the Nineteenth Century. Like the sphinx she had an aura of mystery, ageless wisdom, and perhaps holding answers to the riddles of life. And like the sphinx in Greek mythology who destroyed those who unsuccessfully tried to resolve her riddle, the approach to Mme. Blavatsky is littered with the ruined reputations of those who have rashly tried to explain her. Time will tell if Gary Lachman’s recent attempt, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (Tarcher 2012), will fare any better.

The book’s cover describes it as a biography, but more accurately it should have been titled “an account of Mme. Blavatsky in relation to the esoteric tradition,” as Lachman’s scope is wide enough to place her in the context of modern esotericism. Here his other biographies serve him well, Swedenborg, Steiner, Ouspensky, Jung, even Hermes Trismegistus, are cited to give relevance to Blavatsky’s experiences. But the book fails as a biography, for in spite of giving so much attention to the details in her life we are still no closer to understanding the mysterious Mme. Blavatsky, who is made a little more mysterious by this book.

Part of the problem lies in Lachman’s trying to accommodate all versions of her story, though the pros win out over the cons. Blavatsky’s first book, Isis Unveiled, gets a fair amount of attention but The Secret Doctrine that she is more famous for gets a two page digest. There is nothing on her voluminous magazine output or her Russian fiction, so that the reader is left not really knowing what she stood for.

Perhaps this is due to an undue reliance on second hand sources, for the book offers no new research material. His last chapter, “The Masters Revealed?”, references Paul Johnson’s 1994 book of the same title where Johnson concludes that Blavatsky’s Masters were a front for real Indian insurrectionists of her time. As interesting as this theory is, Johnson also gives no motive for Blavatsky’s actions. What caused Mme. Blavatsky to spend so many laborious days in this supposed expenditure which her writing and editing was a cover for? Until that is answered these speculations must remain in the realm of theory.

Lachman writes that Johnson’s book, perhaps more than anything else, is responsible for a kind of ‘Blavatsky revival’ taking place on the Internet, with scholars, Theosophists, and simply interested readers…” But the late Dr. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (an academic whom Lachman quotes approvingly) has more accurately pinpointed the “ Blavatsky revival” to the founding by Leslie Price of the journal Theosophical History, which in those pre-Internet days became the main means of exchange for a budding generation of theosophical scholars. This was in 1985 well before any version of Johnson’s book (Goodrick-Clarke, Theosophical History, Vol. XI July 2005, p. 23).

Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality offers a useful retelling of a story that needs to be told, especially coming from Mr. Lachman who has written so extensively on the subject of the modern esoteric. It serves as a welcome continuation of Joscelyn Godwin’s earlier book The Theosophical Enlightenment, taking up where the latter leaves off.  Gary Lachman is now working on a biography of the British magician Aleister Crowley.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Blavatsky, the Swastika and the Nazis

Replying to some online critics of his new book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (Tarcher 2012), Gary Lachman posts the following in the comment section of the web magazine Reality Sandwich:

It’s a shame that much of the conversation about HPB in this thread has been devoted to the musty old myths about her links to National Socialism. They are very tenuous indeed, and in many ways amount to the fact that she used the swastika and wrote about race. The swastika we know has been in use for millennia, by peoples as far apart as North America and India; we may as well say that Native American Indians were proto-Nazis because they used it. More to the point, some - and I repeat some - of HPB’s ideas were co-opted and embellished by undeniably creepy people in Austria and Germany in the early part of the last century. HPB did indeed write about race, but so did Francis Galton and his cousin Charles Darwin, and later people like H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Rudolf Steiner, and many others did as well - very nice and intelligent people in fact. In the vast corpus of Blavatsky’s writings - and just having written a book about her I have become quite familiar with them - race plays a relatively small part, and the tiny fraction she devotes to it has sadly become inflated to gargantuan proportions by hyper-sensitive and sensational attacks on her.