Sunday, December 29, 2013

Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine at 125

2013 marked the 125 anniversary of the publishing of H.P. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. Issued in 1888, it has remained in print ever since. The Theosophist, the journal founded by Mme. Blavatsky and still published monthly from Adyar, India, has been commemorating The Secret Doctrine throughout the year with a special article each month lauding the book’s greatness and exemplary philosophy. The series concludes in the December issue with Michael Gomes’ “The Secret Doctrine: Book of Books,” which takes a bibliographic view of the subject. The article looks at the extensive literature that has grown up about the book—editions, commentaries, commemorative publications, abridgements, translations, and bibliographies—estimated to be over 50. His takeaway is

The idea of seeing the universe as an organic whole is much more common today than when The Secret Doctrine was published, and the scientific worldview has come closer to it, as can be seen in a recent book, Journey of the Universe, which charts contemporary findings of science about the development of the cosmos and which reads like a commentary on Mme Blavatsky’s book. The impact of these ideas can affect us on a deeper level and translate as a beneficent force in our daily lives.

Journey of the Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker was published by Yale University Press in the USA in 2011. Gomes is the author of a number of Secret Doctrine studies, including an abridgement of the book published by Penguin in 2009, and editor of Blavatsky’s commentaries on the book, The Secret Doctrine Commentaries, published in The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2010, which the publisher has now put online here. His description of how the book was written, commemorating the centenary of The Secret Doctrine, was published in the May 1988 issue of The Theosophist and elsewhere, and can be read here.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Blavatsky, Buddhism and the Movies

The representation of Buddhism in movies is the subject of Ronald Green’s book Buddhism Goes to the Movies: Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Practice recently published by Routledge. Different aspects of Buddhism are illustrated through the content of the movies chosen. The book also supplies a selected list of films with Buddhist content. Helena Blavatsky is acknowledged as a source of influence in the chapter that deals with the 1919 silent film Broken Blossoms and Lost Horizon, 1937.

Lost Horizon, adapted from James Hilton's best-selling 1933 novel by that name, centers around Shangri-la, likely a literary adaptation of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala in Tibetan Buddhism. Madame Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society had earlier claimed that her undisclosed Tibetan Lama teacher had shown here the secret location of Shambhala. Similar to It’s a Wonderful Life [also produced by Frank Capra], Lost Horizon is about the search for what is really important in life.

The subject matter had been written about by Talbot Mundy in his 1924 Om: The Secret of Ahbor Valley. Mundy moved to San Diego, California, in early 1922, and on New Year’s Day 1923 was admitted to Katherine Tingley’s Point Loma Theosophical Society. “It was there in late 1923, and early 1924 that Mundy began writing what many believe to be his finest novel, Om, the Secret of Ahbor Valley, while a guest at Tingley's private residence in the compound.”

Both novels feature the wisdom of aged lamas as part of the plot. The source of these stories in Blavatsky’s writings was looked at in our post from 2009.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Blavatsky and Mary Poppins

London’s New Statesman for December 12 looks at “The strange life of the creator of Mary Poppins,” P. L. Travers, whose career is the subject of a new film, Saving Mr Banks, with Emma Thompson portraying Travers and Tom Hanks taking the role of Walt Disney. The film focuses on the clash of their different visions for bringing Mary Poppins to the screen. P. L. Travers was the name taken by Australian born writer Helen Lyndon Goff (1899-1996). Goff travelled to Ireland 1925, met the poet George “Æ” Russell, and “Intoxicated by Irish myths and folklore, Travers joined in the Dublin literati’s embrace of eastern philosophy, theosophy, Madame Blavatsky and other gurus.”  She met the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff, studied Zen in Japan, and “In the 1960s Travers gravitated, as Isherwood and Huxley had earlier, to Jiddu Krishnamurti.”

Travers is best known for Mary Poppins, the story of the quintessential English nanny published in London in 1934. The film that has occasioned the New Statesman piece, Saving Mr Banks, sees Walt Disney’s attempt to get the film rights for Travers’ book as a contest between entrepreneurship and rigid idealism. Travers’ concern was, as she later wrote, that “Magic conveyed in a book by words and the silence between words, inevitably, in a film, becomes trick.” The writer in the New Statesman, Valerie Grove, believes that for his 1964 movie adaptation, “Disney was right to excise from Mary Poppins the Zen mysticism and symbolism, about which academics had preposterously written lectures and learned papers.”

Manuscript page of P.L. Travers
Is there anything Theosophical about Mary Poppins? John Algeo, Professor Emeritus of English in the University of Georgia who has written on Theosophy, thinks so, and his study Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins, has just been made available as an e-book from Theosophy Forward.

H.P.B.’s friend, George Russell, said of the book: “Had [Mary Poppins] lived in another age, in the old times to which she certainly belongs, she would undoubtedly have had long golden tresses, a wreath of flowers in one hand, and perhaps a spear in the other. Her eyes would have been like the sea, her nose comely, and on her feet winged sandals. But, this age being the Kali Yuga, as the Hindus call it, . . . she comes in habiliments suited to it.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Three Lives of a Hungarian General

“Zoltán Álgya-Pap was the only Hungarian general in the Second World War who received the coveted gold medal for extraordinary courage in face of enemy fire.” The December issue of Budapest’s The Hungarian Review carries an account of a relatively unknown Theosophist, Zoltán Álgya-Pap, who played an important part in translating and transcribing unpublished Blavatsky material held in the archives at the headquarters Theosophical Society at Adyar, India.

Born in Budapest in 1895, he enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army at age of 19, moving up the ranks. In 1947 a Soviet court sentenced Álgya-Pap to 25 years of hard labour for commanding troops. In 1955 he was suddenly released and received political asylum in the Netherlands.

He met N. Sri Ram, president of the Theosophical Society, who invited him to serve as an archivist in the Society’s headquarters in Adyar, India, south of Madras now known as Chennai. His knowledge of languages came in handy, especially the Russian he picked up as a POW. Ram entrusted him to translate and systematise Blavatsky’s vast trove of notes and correspondence, much of it in her first two languages, Russian and German. Promoted as senior archivist, Álgya-Pap received kudos for his sensitive handling of the Blavatsky papers. He was also named to a key position in the theosophical hierarchy. His title was not communicated to non-members but it had to do with ceremony and magic that Madame Blavatsky summed up as “the seventh ray”.

Zoltán Álgya-Pap died in 1987, at age 92, in The Hague, the Netherlands, in an old-age home maintained by Theosophists. He had been a member of the Theosophical Society since 1936. Some of his work can be seen in the transcriptions from Blavatsky’s scrapbook in the first volume of the Blavatsky Collected Writings series.

Charles Fenyvesi, who met Zoltán Álgya-Pap in India in the 1960s, gives his story in “The Three Lives of a Hungarian General – He Received his Highest Honours from Mystic India,” which can be read here.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Lion of Light?

Victor Endersby in his 1969 study of Helena Pertrovna Blavatsky, The Hall of Magic Mirrors, saw Blavatsky as functioning as a “labyrinth of mirrors,” reflecting back in more or less distorted form the already existing impressions of those who attempted to explain her. The latest addition to H.P.B. biographies is Gordon Strong’s Lion of Light published by Axis Mundi books. Though the subtitle describes it as “the Spiritual Life of Madame Blavatsky,” not much of her inner life is revealed. Nor much on the sources that might have influenced her. The essay (a 133 pages with erratic footnotes and no index), which depicts Blavatsky in a favourable way, is peopled with much of the already known narrative. Gordon Strong, who has written on a number of New Age subjects, including on Merlin, the Arthurian legends, the Holy Grail, Stone Circles, Tarot, Magic and the Qabalah, has infused his subject with a number of contemporary concepts that were not in Blavatsky’s vocabulary. A litany of the various Masters supposedly associated with Blavatsky includes Sanctus Germanus (Saint Germain) whose incarnations included the biblical prophet Samuel, Plato, Joseph, Merlin, Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon (not the modern painter), and Christopher Columbus. Other tidbits include the revelation that “Blavatsky freely admitted to being addicted to the use of hashish at one time in her life.” In Mr. Strong's view, "Without Blavatsky, we should have no 'New Age'." One is not sure if this is to be considered a compliment. The book ends with four pages of astrological interpretation. Lion of Light sells for £9.99 in the UK, $16.95 in the U.S.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Blavatsky News

*  Tibet: an unfinished story by Lezlee Brown Halper and Stefan Halper is a 320 page study set to be released April 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press, USA. The Tibet Post International conveys the publisher’s announcement:

This book traces the origins and manifestations of the Tibetan myth, as propagated by Younghusband, Madam Blavatsky, Himmler, Acheson and Roosevelt. The authors discuss how, after WW2, Tibet — isolated, misunderstood and with a tiny elite unschooled in political–military realities –– misread the diplomacy between its two giant neighbours, India and China, forlornly hoping London or Washington might intervene.

Lord Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and former Archbishop of Canterbury, says about the book:  “The West is — understandably —deeply impressed with the spiritual energy and depth of the Dalai Lama; but we have long needed a judicious and comprehensive overview of how the current indefensible situation in Tibet arose that will take us beyond vague sympathy. This book offers just such an overview, spelling out how short-term needs of the Cold War and the tunnel-vision of pro-Taiwanese lobbyists in the USA combined with the political and moral radar of the world. It is a tragic and shameful story, told here with clarity and challenge.”

*  A Research Workshop on “Theosophical Appropriations: Kabbalah, Western Esotericism and the Transformation of Traditions” will be held December 13-18 in Beer-Sheva, Israel, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva. According to the program:

It seeks to explore the diverse and complex ways in which the Theosophical Society and related currents confronted, adapted and transformed various religious and cultural traditions. The workshop will provide a platform for high-profile international speakers and experts in Theosophy and related movements. They will address a wide range of issues, groups and individuals associated with and derived from Theosophy in a number of different countries at during different periods. Issues to be considered include the transformation of Kabbalistic doctrines in Theosophy, the nature of Theosophical doctrines, their appeal and historical and cultural contingency, the relationships and possible tensions between different elements within them and the relation between Theosophy and Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist thought.

So far some 30 participants will be presenting papers on various aspects of Theosophy, Spiritualism, and Anthroposophy. A number of the presentations reference Mme. Blavatsky, and the program can be viewed here.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Blavatsky and Buddhism in England

Mme. Blavatsky is mentioned in passing as an influence behind the reintroduction of Buddhism in Britain in the 1920s in Alison Falby’s “Buddhist Psychologies and Masculinity in Early Twentieth Century Britain.” Falby’s contribution is the opening chapter in Men, Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain edited by Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan and recently published Palgrave Macmillan (352 pages, hardcover, $92.00). The piece focuses on the interaction between two newly founded Buddhist groups in London in the 1920s and the competition and collaboration that emerged. Col. Olcott’s contribution to the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, as defined by Stephen Prothero, is referenced as a prelude to introducing his protégé Dharmapala.

Attempts had been made to form organisations for the promulgation of Buddhism in England but none had had a lasting effect until Christmas Humphreys helped form the Buddhist Lodge of the Theosophical Lodge in 1924 in London. Dharmapala’s Mahabodhi Society also established itself in London at that time and became a major contender of the Buddhist Lodge for Buddhist legitimacy. A letter published in the Mahabodhi Society’s journal, The British Buddhist, from 1927 is typical of the group’s response: “To certain members of the Buddhist Lodge it seems that Madame Blavatsky is greater than the Buddha.” Falby writes, “In claiming the legitimacy of their own knowledge [Buddhist] Lodge members indicated that they did not need bhikkhus.” 

DT Suzuki, Christmas Humphreys and Edward Conze
The Buddhist Lodge soon shed its Theosophical ties and continues as The Buddhist Society, headquartered since 1956 at 58 Eccleston Square in London. Christmas Humphreys was President of the Society he founded until his death in April 1983. Humphreys, a distinguished lawyer who was to become a High Court Judge, remained an ardent admirer of Blavatsky, including references to her and her writings in his popular 1951 paperback, Buddhism  (published by Penguin Books), which helped introduce the subject to the masses. He helped prepare the third edition The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, the famous collection of letters from Blavatsky’s teachers to A.P. Sinnett.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Blavatsky and the American West

A major exhibition on the interaction of Theosophy and the Arts will be held next year at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University. “Enchanted Modernities: Mysticism, Landscape and the American West” will be on view from April 14 to December 10, 2014. The focus will be “Theosophical thought and the western landscape.” The program explains:

 “…It is in America that the transformation will take place, and has already silently commenced.” —Madame Blavatsky. With these words, written in The Secret Doctrine in 1888, Helena Blavatsky drew a direct connection to the dynamic energy of 19th century Americanism and the Theosophical Society she founded. Later, she and her successors would specify the American West as the site for a rebirth and re-enchantment of humanity, drawing those seeking spiritual fulfillment outside of organized religion to the dramatic landscapes of California, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The syncretic nature of Theosophy encouraged individualism in belief, fitting well the generalizations of individuality and personal agency often used to characterize the American West. 

Amongst those that came to the West seeking spiritual meaning were visual artists and composers inspired both by contact with Theosophical institutions or texts and the transcendent landscapes of the West. This exhibit will take as a point of departure this intersection of influences: Theosophical thought and the western landscape, as an invitation to explore the role of Theosophy on Western American art and music in the 20th century. 

The work of the Southern California landscape school, especially that of Maurice Braun (1877-1941), awaits examination. Braun spent time at the Theosophical community at Point Loma (where is his “Portrait of Dr. Hyman Lischner” ?), as did a fellow artist, Edith White (1855-1946). While White is overshadowed by Braun’s rugged California landscapes, her studies of roses still hold a charm of their own.

Edith White,  Red Roses 1902

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Isis in America

The American publisher Tarcher will be reprinting the first volume of H.S. Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves as part of its intended Tarcher Supernatural Library. Other titles in the series will include Hans Holzer’s Ghost Hunter: The Groundbreaking Classic of Paranormal Investigation and Sax Rohmer’s Romance of Sorcery: The Famous Exploration of the World of the Supernatural. Old Diary Leaves will be retitled Isis in America: The Classic Eyewitness Account of Madame Blavatsky's Journey to America and the Occult Revolution She Ignited.

In Isis in America—one of the most unique documents of recent American spiritual history—we get a closer look at Blavatsky, through the eyes of Theosophical Society cofounder, writer, lawyer, investigator, and Blavatsky confidant Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott spent years by Blavatsky's side, witnessing acts of aura projection and spontaneously produced objects—and undergoing his own spiritual awakening—as they laid the foundations for a new era in esoteric spirituality. But this is just the thing; it is Olcott’s view of events and should be read as such. And an element of the fantastic prevails.

This first volume of Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves (covering the years 1874 to 1878) has become one of the most reprinted documents relating to the history of the early Theosophical Society. Originally serialized in the pages of The Theosophist during the 1890s, it was issued in book form in 1895 by the New York publisher G.P. Putnam after being turned down by the Theosophical Publishing Society of London as being too unflattering a portrait of H. P. Blavatsky. It was reprinted in the 1975 as Inside the Occult: the True Story of Madame H.P. Blavatsky and more recently as part of Cambridge University Press’s Cambridge Library Collection of Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge. It remains in print as a paperback from the Theosophical Publishing House at Adyar, and is available as an online book. The Tarcher edition is scheduled for release August 2014.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Radha Burnier Dead

The November 1st edition of the Indian newspaper The Hindu carries the news from Chennai of the passing of Radha Burnier on October 31st. Mrs. Burnier was President of the largest surviving block of the Theosophical Society, elected in 1980. She died on October 31 at 9 PM local time at the Adyar estate of the Theosophical Society. She was also head of Blavatsky’s Eastern (Esoteric) School of Theosophy, a role she assumed in 1978. Members of her Society will no doubt mourn her passing. She was Director of the Adyar Library from 1959 to 1980, as well as General Secretary of the Indian Section of the Theosophical Society. A graduate of Benares Hindu University, she was trained in the Indian dance form Bharatanatyam by her aunt Rukmini Devi Arundale, an example of which can be seen in her role in Jean Renoir’s 1951 film The River. The body will be on view in the Headquarters Hall at Adyar, though present monsoon conditions may delay cremation.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Blavatsky and Buddhism

Princeton University Press announces “the most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary of Buddhism ever produced in English.” With more than 5,000 entries totaling over a million words, it claims to be “the first to cover terms from all of the canonical Buddhist languages and traditions: Sanskrit, Pāli, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Unlike reference works that focus on a single Buddhist language or school, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism bridges the major Buddhist traditions to provide encyclopedic coverage of the most important terms, concepts, texts, authors, deities, schools, monasteries, and geographical sites from across the history of Buddhism.”

The entry on Blavatsky is neutral, mentioning that “Two of her most important works are The Secret Doctrine (1888) and The Voice of the Silence (1889); these provide an account of, and commentary on, the theory of spiritual evolution that she is said to have discovered in the ancient Book of Dzyan, written in the secret language of Senzar. Although this text has not been found, nor the Senzar language identified, The Voice of the Silence has been considered to be a Buddhist text by some prominent figures within the modern Buddhist tradition.”

Blavatsky is also mentioned in entries on Olcott, Dharmapala, Gunananda, W.Y. Evans-Wentz, the Roerichs, and terms such as dewachen, a phonetic rendering of the Tibetan bde be chan (the Tibetan translation of Sukhavati), popularized by Blavatsky for the after-death state, and dhyanibuddha.

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism is the project of Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. and the hardcover book runs 1304 pages and is priced at $65.00 / £44.95. It updates and expands the Oxford University Press 2003 A Dictionary of Buddhism, which had 2,000 entries. An attempt has been made to reconstruct the Tibetan sources in Blavatsky’s writings and the results can be seen at the site Prajnaquest.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blavatsky News

*  Len Platt’s “Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy in Finnegans Wake: An Annotated List” published in the Winter 2008 James Joyce Quarterly gives over a hundred citations listing terms and concepts derived from Blavatsky’s writings in Joyce’s Wake. Platt, a Faculty Member at the University of London, believes that “Joyce understood theosophy not just as an insignificant absurdity that had a curious currency amongst Dublin’s Protestant intellectuals, but in a wider cultural context and as a symptomatic discourse of modernity.” 

[M]uch of the Wake material alluding to Hinduism and Sanskrit was likely to have come from Isis Unveiled and The Mahatma Letters, rather than original religious texts like The Upanishads. The half dozen or so allusions to ‘Maya’ in the Wake, for instance, need not indicate any serious familiarity with Hindu philosophy and could easily have been generated by Isis Unveiled. This has many references to Maya, and defines the concept quite neatly — ‘everything that bears a shape was created, and thus must sooner or later perish, i.e., change that shape; therefore, as something temporary, but seeming to be permanent, it is but an illusion, Maya’ [IU, I: 290.]

The paper can now be accessed online here.

*  The new issue of the research journal Theosophical History is out, dated April 2012. The main feature is an extensive examination of “Theosophy and Anthroposophy in Italy during the First Half of the Twentieth Century” by Marco Pasi. Dr. Pasi was part of the team behind the recent Enchanted Modernities Conference in Amsterdam, and, among other things, Associate Professor in Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam.

In the same issue Dr. Tim Rudbøg, Copenhagen, Denmark, gives an in-depth review of Jeffrey D. Lavoie’s The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement coming to much the same conclusions as reached here. Taking issue with the misleading title (among other things) Rudbøg opines: “The reader is nowhere told that it is a highly specialized study limited to only one facet of the Theosophical Society or Blavatsky’s spiritual, intellectual life, The thesis of this book is no doubt historically interesting but the attempt to demonstrate it is so forcefully pressed that the end result is a historically one-sided perspective of the background, activities, sources and philosophy of Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society.”

Theosophical History is edited by Dr. James Santucci and can be obtained here.

*  Recently eBay offered for sale a bronze medal depicting a representation of Blavatsky on one side and the seal of the Theosophical Society on the other. It sold for $55.00 US. Aside from what is written in Cyrillic, any further information would be helpful.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Blavatsky as a Horror Writer, Ctd

Perhaps it’s the nature of the month, but Mme. Blavatsky’s occult fiction continues to gather attention. Paula Cappa looks at Blavatsky’s 1880 tale “The Ensouled Violin” expanded in her 1892 collection Nightmare Tales:

Mme. Blavatsky brings us a story full of musical mesmerism, and Paganini is a major character drawn in full color. Paganini’s reputation for becoming bewitched by the devil in exchange for his brilliant career holds the central theme. The Italian was revered for playing his Witches Dance “pizzicato” with the left hand directly on the gut strings—without the aid of the bow. Was his superior talent singularly human?

Blavatsky was a seductive storyteller. She became famous for being a philosopher, spiritualist, pioneer in the occult, one of the first people to coin the phrase the sixth sense, and  was co-founder of The Theosophical Society in 1875.

May I suggest, for an added appreciation of this very extraordinary short story, you listen to Paganini’s Witches Dance at Classical Music Online. What could be better than a classic horror story and a magnificent piece of classical music to complement the experience? Well, perhaps a glass of wine, preferably in a cut-glass goblet. Magnifico!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Blavatsky as a Horror Writer

Over at Monster Librarian, a site “dedicated to all the books that are creepy, scary, and give us the willies” that serves as a resource for readers and librarians on the subject of horror, Paula Cappa charts “The Literary Ladies of Horror’s Haunted Mountain.” Cappa points out that in a genre known for its male writers—Poe, James, LeFanu, Lovecraft, Stoker, King, to name a few—women played a part and made their own contribution. There was Mary Shelley, of course; but also Ann Radcliffe, “who tore open supernatural paths with The Mysteries of Udolpho as early as 1794. Radcliffe’s writing of suspense about castles and dark villains influenced Dumas, Scott, and Hugo.” 

By 1865, Amelia Edwards’ The Phantom Coach cut popular tracks across the haunted mountain. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky cleared the way for future women writers with her collection of nightmare tales, The Ensouled Violin, as did Elizabeth Gaskell with The Poor Clare, which deals with a family evil curse, complete with witches and ghosts.

Subsequent writers like Edith Wharton, Daphne du Maurier, down to Anne Rice indicate that this was not just a trend.

A seminar paper by Nico Reiher for a 2009 Popular Literature in America course at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, takes up one of Blavatsky’s tales, “The Cave of the Echoes,” “a vivid and colorful piece of occult fiction that features mysterious settings, some bizarre characters and supernatural happenings,” and submits it to literary theory. His paper, Between Occult Fiction and the Promotion of Theosophical Ideas, published this month by GRIN Verlag, looks at whether the story’s purpose was “simply to entertain its readers or does it serve other functions such as the promotion of the author's theosophical ideas and ideology,”

Blavatsky’s occult fiction was collected and published after her death as Nightmare Tales, London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1892.

Blavatsky News

Gordon Strong who has written on Merlin, the Arthurian legends, the Holy Grail, Stone Circles, Tarot, Magic and the Qabalah will be releasing a new book on Dec 13, 2013: Lion of Light: The Spiritual Life of Madame Blavatsky. Published by Axis Mundi Books, the paperback of 142 pages will sell for £9.99 / $16.95. According to the publisher:

Madame Blavatsky was a pioneering woman, and not only as a traveller, writer and spiritual teacher. She was an inspiration to men and women around the world in Victorian times who desired to follow an independent path. In our own times, the New Age owes most of its spiritual knowledge to her. Blavatsky’s travels in Russia, India and Tibet; her absorbing of many different cultures and her personal magnetism, are the stuff of celebrated legend.

*  Col. Olcott is also the subject of a new biography, this one in Sinhalese by Jayantha Wijewickrama. Olcott Charithaya is reviewed in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer by Arjuna Kurukulasuriya, who conveys the status of Olcott in Sri Lanka.

 Once I was travelling in an intercity bus where I happened to be the only passenger. The driver being in a relaxed and jovial mood, seeing the statue standing in front of the Fort railway station [Colombo, Sri Lanka], turned to the conductor and asked whose statue it was. Neither of them knew the answer. I intervened and said it is that of Olcott's. At least they knew who Olcott was. This is an indication that the memory of the great hero is gradually diminishing. Our memory of the hero is kept alive by several statues and places named after him. Therefore, writing a biography of the late Colonel Henry Steel Olcott is a timely endeavour by Jayantha Wijewickrama. Though most of us knew that Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was instrumental in opening several Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka, little is known about him, except for a few stories.

Enchanted Modernities: Blavatsky, the Aura and Colour Theory

Orélia Astraea Revol assesses the recent Enchanted Modernities Conference in her blog at the Ritman Library: “For three days last week Amsterdam was the epicentre for anyone interested in the relationship between the arts and anthroposophical and theosophical currents. From September 25th – 27th the international scholarly conference Enchanted Modernities – Theosophy, Modernism & the Arts took place on two locations, the Singelkerk and Doelenzaal, bringing together more than 150 bright minds working in the fields of art, scholarship and Western esotericism.”

The piece, “Enchanted Modernities – Some Thought-Forms on the Metaphysical in Art,” provides a useful abstract of some of the talks, beginning with the keynote address on the first day by Prof. Raphael Rosenberg of the University of Vienna entitled “Mapping the Aura in the Spirit of Art and Art Theory: Blavatsky, Leadbeater, Besant, and Steiner.”

The concept of thought-forms as formulated by theosophists Annie Besant and later Charles W. Leadbeater including its series of abstract images seems to be connected with the phenomenon of synaesthesia, Rosenberg argued. This phenomenon was also discussed by Madame Blavatsky and attracted the attention of psychologists around 1880. According to Blavatsky, synaesthesia could be understood as a form of higher perception and clairvoyance. As such she went back to Swedenborg and Oetinger and their theories on higher perception. She regarded theosophy as superior since it allowed man to see with the ‘Naked Eye’ beyond the natural object or physical world: a domain of perception regular science did not have access to. It was synaesthesia, therefore, which proved there indeed existed a world beyond the physical realm. Blavatsky connected the phenomenon with the aura, claiming that the colours seen by people susceptible to synaesthesia are auratic. People with this ability can ‘see’ an oval extra-sensory aura surrounding every human being which reveals their feelings, moods and characters.

The rest of her impressions on the Enchanted Modernities Conference can be seen here.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Allen Ginsberg and Blavatsky

Ginsberg and friend in Varanasi (formerly Benares), India, 1963.

The Allen Ginsberg Project posts a talk by the American poet Allen Ginsberg, August 8, 1976, delineating the lineage that lead to the formation of the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado:

back in the early and late (19)50’s and early  (19)60’s, many of us were experimenting with meditation, with or without teachers, (but mostly without teachers) and so exploring our own consciousness, taking peyote (as many still do – in this city tonight, in fact), working with LSD, and reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, reading the Evans-Wentz documents, and attempting to interpret them in isolation, like the old famous American isolatos of literature as portrayed by Thomas Wolfe and Sherwood Anderson and Vachel Lindsay, all the Swedenborgian mystics from small towns in Illinois, who had to explore on their own, with defective means and defective equipment, whatever they could get, through Theosophy, through Madame Blavatsky, through Timothy Leary, through Allen Ginsberg, through Beatniks, through home-made yogis, through American Indians. So there was a spiritual search, which I think was quite genuine, and in a sense has brought us all here together tonight finally, with many brothers and sisters all over the country. But what is great that’s happened here over the last few years is.. has.. it’s finally been.. like re-inforcements arrived from Tibet.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Enchanted by Lohans: Osvald Sirén’s Journey

The University of Hong Kong University Press has published an intimate study of the impact of Chinese art on the Swedish critic Osvald Sirén (1879-1966), one of the pioneers of Chinese art scholarship in the West. The book, Enchanted by Lohans: Osvald Sirén’s Journey into Chinese Art by Minna Törmä, features a number of photographs from his visit to China. (Lohans, Buddhist adepts, protectors of the teachings, were noted subjects in Chinese iconography.) 

Sirén made four voyages to East Asia: 1918, 1921–1923, 1929–1930 and 1935. He spent most of his time during these travels in China and Japan, but he visited Korea as well. In general, the period from ca. 1900–late 1930’s was an intense period of reseach and travel in China and many of the Western collections of Chinese art were formed at this time. It was also a time when archaeological excavations began in a systematic fashion in China. Sirén, among several other western scholars or dealers, was involved in this process. The growing market for ancient grave goods, especially, promoted widespread interest in China’s ancient arts and created new collectors.

Didrichsen Museum of Art and Culture, Helsinki: view of the China room with an exhibition case containing some objects which originally belonged to Sirén's personal collection (photo: Minna Törmä)

Dr. Törmä, author of a number of other studies on Sirén, is Lecturer/Tutor of Chinese Art at Christie’s Education (London) and Adjunct Professor of Art History at University of Helsinki.

She acknowledges that “Theosophy played such an important part of Sirén’s life,” although cautioning against generalizations. He became involved with the Swedish Section of Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical Society based in Point Loma, California, which claimed to carry on Blavatsky's work. “Sirén saw the role of Theosophy as practical; a Theosophist ought to bring instruction, support and comfort in people’s daily lives. This would partly be realized by transmitting knowledge about ancient beliefs to the West and about the religions and philosophies born in the East; the goal was also to teach everyone to find the source of knowledge inside themselves.” 

Dr. Törmä’s paper “In Search of Images of Religious Purity: Osvald Sirén and the Allure of Chinese Art” (delivered at the Enchanting Modernity: Theosophy and the Arts in the Making of Early Twentieth-Century Culture Conference at Liverpool Hope University in December 2010)  looked at the way theosophy played a role in Sirén’s professional and personal life.

He was internationally known historian of Italian painting and pioneering scholar of Chinese art in the West; he was institutionally placed in Stockholm, first as Professor of Art History in the University of Stockholm (1908–1923) and then as curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture in the Nationalmuseum (1926–1944). 

Theosophy played an important role in Sirén’s life, it was the basis of his world view, and he had published articles on various topics in Swedish journal Theosophia since 1900, then in 1912 appeared his first article in the English periodical The Theosophical Path, after he had visited Point Loma in California, the Theosophical Headquarters and Katherine Tingley (1847–1929), in 1911. 

Parliament of Peace Committe, Temple of Peace, Point Loma, California, 1923. 
Osvald Sirén stands fifth from the left. Katherine Tingley is seated at the center 
with Gottfried de Purucker, arms folded, standing behind her.

Blavatsky News

Blavatsky’s name appears in a number of recent titles:

*  Luke Ferretter’s new book, The Glyph and the Gramophone: D.H. Lawrence’s Religion, goes into some detail about the impact of Blavatsky’s ideas on the writing of D.H. Lawrence. It is published by Bloomsbury as part of their New Directions in Religion & Literature series. Ferretter quotes a letter from Lawrence to correspondent where he writes: “Have you read Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine? In many ways a bore, and not quite real. Yet one can glean a marvelous lot from it, enlarge the understanding immensely.”

*  Clive Bloom’s Victoria's Madmen: Revolution and Alienation recognizes some of the disparate voices and their resulting anti-establishment stances during the nineteenth century. It features a chapter on Annie Besant and the influence of Blavatsky and Theosophy on her career. It is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

*  Mary Claire Vandenburg’s MA thesis at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, “Occultism in Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy” contains a chapter on the interplay of Theosophy in the works of Canadian writer Robertson Davies. A  stamp commemorating Davis was issued in Canada on August 28 honoring his hundredth birthday.

*  Mitch Horowitz looks at How the Occult Brought Cremation to America in the Huffington Post, crediting it to Baron de Palm’s cremation organized by Olcott and the theosophists in 1876. “While New York's "pagan funeral" is long forgotten, cremations today account for about 40 percent of all American passages. This represents just one way in which ideas introduced by occult movements have transformed American life -- and death.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Transcendental Painting Group

Emil Bisttram, Psychic Sensitivity, c.1940
Art & Antiques Magazine for August 2013 carries a piece on the impact of Blavatsky’s Theosophy on the Transcendental Painting Group that flourished in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the 1930s and ‘40s. Leading lights and founders of the TPG were Emil Bisttram, a transplant from New York City, and Raymond Jonson. “The pictures they were making were completely abstract or mostly abstract, in the 'non-objective’ vein espoused by Wassily Kandinsky, who was a huge influence on them all.” 

One ingredient in that mix was a lively interest in the occult, and particularly in Theosophy, a movement founded in the late 19th century by a Russian writer and mystic, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophy, while absorbing and synthesizing a variety of ideas from European and Eastern mysticism and symbolic lore, emphasized the right of the individual to choose his or her own path to truth irrespective of dogma and tradition. This openness combined with speculative boldness naturally appealed to creative artists, prominent among them Blavatsky’s fellow-Russian Kandinsky. Another Russian, the painter and peace activist Nicholas Roerich, was also strongly influenced by Theosophy (as well as Buddhism) and had a presence in New Mexico. He visited Santa Fe in 1921, and in the ’30s a gallery based on his philosophical ideas was set up and served as a gathering place for the TPG.

Raymond Jonson,  Sphere, 1932

Other members included Lawren Harris, the Canadian Theosophist who had been a member of the Group of Seven that inaugurated modernism in Canada. “In their day, the Transcendental painters were well respected in the art world, despite their peripheral position, geographically speaking. They exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and also at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Guggenheim) in 1940. However, while the artists had long careers, their official solidarity as a group lasted only until 1942, when war duties and pressures caused them
to  disperse.”

The rest of the article, “Mystic Vistas: The Transcendental Painting Group  aimed to convey spiritual truths through abstract art,” can be read here.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Blavatsky News

*  Forbes, the business magazine, reports that “The big story here is how Apple is using color to telegraph a diversity of use cases.” The colours for the anticipated iPhone models have been leaked, and the writer sees a connection with “the color theory of early 20th century abstractionists (Kandinsky, et al.),” giving examples. He adds:

Let’s hope Madame Blavatsky is not the next member to join Apple’s board!

*  Disqualified Knowledge: Theosophy and the Revolt of the Fin de Siècle is the title of a 2013 Bachelor of Arts thesis in the Department of History by McNeil Christian Taylor of Wesleyan University, Connecticut, USA. Being a BA thesis the rigors appear not to be as exacting. While heavy on theory it errs on historical accuracy. The writer believes:

In this decentering of modernity, Blavatsky authoritatively posited a center that was feminine, irrational, non western, in short, everything lacking authority. Ultimately, it is of little importance whether Theosophy was a “true resurgence” of some ancient obscure knowledge; what is important is how Theosophists took these disqualified ideas—antiquity, obscurity—and for a brief time, made them an enticing means of knowledge in a society obsessed with progress and appearance; how they took what was previously the province of romantic poets in Europe and solitary ascetics in India and brought them together, producing an international movement of not just “occultists” but of artists, scientists, feminists, politicians. It was this movement and discourse, this communal seeking and appropriating of disparate knowledges for the reconstituting of the self, which refuses to be disqualified.

*  Publisher Insel Verlag has released a new biography of H.P. Blavatsky in German. Authors Ursula Keller and Natalya Sharandak claim to offer "a portrait of the woman who was previously hidden behind the myth," because, according to the publisher's notice: "The life of 'Madame Blavatsky' is shrouded in numerous legends. To date, the founder of Theosophy is celebrated by her admirers, however, vilified by opponents as a charlatan and impostor." It covers 357 pages and sells for 24.95 EUR.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Beatrice Hastings’ Defence of Madame Blavatsky

Beatrice Hastings examination of the case for H.P. Blavatsky marks an important milestone in the objective study of Blavatsky’s life. Previous attempts were mainly the work of Theosophists who started out from a position of defending Blavatsky. Alvin Boyd Kuhn’s 1930 Theosophy: A Modern Revival of the Ancient Wisdom, based on his PhD Thesis at New York’s Columbia University, did not devote much space to the controversies in Blavatsky’s life focusing instead of her philosophical contribution. The publication of the two volumes of Hastings’ Defence of Madame Blavatsky in 1937 showed that the historical evidence could serve to give a more accurate understanding to a story that had been left to partisans.   

The website, Theosophy Canada, has now put up most of Mrs. Hastings Defence work, including the journal she started, New Universe, to promote interest in her project. Unfortunately, further intended volumes did not appear and she later abandoned the project due to a stream of criticism from Theosophists who questioned her motivation. Responding, she wrote in 1939:

 “The situation resolves itself into something like this: 1. None of you apparently can comprehend or believe that a person can do anything for nothing: that is, nothing of the vulgar sort, a reward in money or notoriety, or both. 2. You were all at first unwarily enchanted to find someone capable of lifting the stigma from you as followers of Theosophy. 3. You became subconsciously or even consciously annoyed at its being done by an outsider. 4. Nos. 1 and 3 linked. And No. 1 grew and dominated and gave you vulgar ground for attacks on me, but yet, you wanted me to go on and finish. This, fortified by your own superficial interpretation of reincarnation and karma in which I have stated I do not concur; for, seeing that I have not even that as a hope or a fear — what can be my motives in undertaking this defence of Madame Blavatsky? Nothing is left for you to think but that I must be aiming at money and notoriety or both.

 To the latter, reply is needless for me. I have almost always written anonymously and I have nothing to gain but something to risk by being identified, however erroneously, with the T.S. So — 5: You get together and decide to ‘put me on the stand.’ I am not going to retail what I have done. The public part of it is there for everyone to see. The private part you may reflect on if you choose by rereading my letters to you all — right from the beginning with my reply to Barker’s letter to me about the Hare book, which started me along the path where I have had shock after shock at the extraordinary, incredible selfishness, greed and cruelty of Theosophists.”

An overview of Beatrice Hastings contribution to the field of Theosophical history is given by Michael Gomes in his 1987 introduction to her posthumously published volume Solovyoff's Fraud. The Wikipedia entry on her makes no mention of her foray into this area. Beatrice Hastings remarkable life before her involvement with Theosophists can be read in our previous post about her here.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Standard Spiritualist and Occult Corpus Online

The Standard Spiritualist and Occult Corpus (SSOC) is an open source text project, focused on book-length texts, in English, covering Spiritualism, the occult, New Thought and allied parasciences (mesmerism, magnetism, phrenology, alchemy, chiromancy and so forth) published between 1790 and 1940. Currently the SSOC consists of more than 2,200 book-length texts (more than 1 million pages) by over 300 authors, and includes many of the texts considered "classics" in Spiritualism and the occult. Every text in the SSOC is supplied, free of charge, in indexed PDF form, allowing it to be electronically stored, searched, printed and converted (to image, HTML or text). The outer, later bound of the corpus is limited by copyright law.

The intent behind this project is to provide, at low cost, a more or less complete document database of important primary book-length materials -- again, in English, at present -- to all academic and non-academic researchers, aficionados, and readers interested in Spiritualism, the occult and allied parasciences.

Texts are given by date of publication. When seen in the context of the vast body spiritualist literature that was being published at the time, Theosophy was hardly the dominant stream of ideas about the here and hereafter. SSOC is curated by the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals, which is another important repository developed by Marc Demarest. Enter the SSOC portal here.

The Mudaliyar Great-great grandfather meets Olcott

Dharama (sermon Hall) Salawa, Welipitiya Temple, Nalluruwa, Panadura, Sri Lanka.
Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Chulie de Silva supplies this picture of the preaching hall where Olcott addressed 4000 people during the May 1880 visit of the Theosophists to Pandure, Sri Lanka. Their host was Andris Perera who had financed the building of the Chaitya of the Welipitiya Temple there. In Old Diary Leaves (2:174-75) Olcott gives a colourful description of this gentleman and mentions that at one of his talks that day Blavatsky also spoke. Chulie de Silva writes of the impact of this meeting on her family:

Olcott and Blavatsky occupy a special affectionate niche in the family not only for the contributions they made to the renascent Buddhist movement but also for the vivid description of the meeting with Andris Perera.

The rest of her piece, “The Mudaliyar Great-great grandfather meets Olcott,” with a striking picture of Andris Perera, can be seen here.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Secret Doctrine Commentaries Online

The full text of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine Commentaries has been put online at the site of the ULT/Phoenix. The pagination differs from the 2010 edition published by the I.S.I.S. Foundation of the Hague, and the text could stand to have gone through a little more proofreading. In 2010, in response to the exorbitant price of the Dutch edition, the book was posted online by a group of students but soon removed by the publisher. It remains to be seen how long this one will stay up. The formatting is not the most elegant of layouts but it gives the reader who did not have access to the print edition a chance to see what all the fuss is about. It contains the largest amount of unpublished philosophical material by Blavatsky to appear since 1897. The text, here titled The Secret Doctrine Dialogues: H. P. Blavatsky’s Talks With Students, based on Michael Gomes’ transcription of the 1889 stenographic reports of the weekly meetings at London’s Blavatsky Lodge, January 10 to June 20, can be accessed here.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Blavatsky News

*  The news service Russia & India Report of July 19 carries an extensive piece on “Madame Blavatsky in India: A forgotten legacy.” It notes:

It is interesting to see that most people in India associate the Theosophical Society as something of the past and only with freedom fighter Anne Besant, who was actually herself inspired by the Russian mystic. It is largely forgotten that that the Theosophical Society is still very much in existence and has numerous branches all over India. What is even more fascinating is that in a country where religion plays such a dominant role there still exists an organisation which believes that “there is no religion higher than truth.”

*  The Hindu of July 20 looks at the life and legacy of the Irish critic and poet James Cousins (1873-1956). Cousins had been a member of the the Dublin Theosophical Society, read Mme. Blavatsky and moved to India in 1915 to work with Annie Bessant. He and his wife Margaret Cousins spent the rest of their lives extolling the virtues of the arts in India, education and women’s rights. The article, “An ‘Indo-Anglian’ legacy”, surmises:

James H. Cousins, sketch by Mirra Alfassa
Despite the many-sided achievements of James and Margaret Cousins in India, they are sadly 
forgotten figures today. This is both sad and puzzling: A literary critic and historian par excellence, Cousins introduced the term ‘Indo-Anglian’, perhaps for the first time, in the critical idiom of the subject in his book, New Ways in English Literature, 1917. Similarly, his contribution in the field of art history and art criticism are equally impressive, just as his understanding and appreciation of Indian mysticism and spirituality in the cross-cultural context, remains unparalleled.

Above all, Cousins would be known for the deep and abiding friendship he cherished across cultural, ideological and political barriers. The institutions that Cousins served and the founders of movements: Tagore, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and Annie Besant, with whom he shared deep affinities, are today gone. But the legacy of liberal thinking beyond the East-West boundaries that James Cousins deeply believed in and promoted would serve the contemporary world well.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography

Arvind Sharma, author of many books on various aspects of Hinduism especially that of Advaita Vedanta, has a new book scheduled for release at the end of July. This time Professor Sharma presents us with Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography. The reference to the influence of Theosophy on Gandhi’s spiritual development is perfunctory, mentioning briefly Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and that he had read Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophyat the insistence of some Theosophist friends and remarks that the book stimulated in him the desire to read books on Hinduism.” Two theosophists, “who happened to be related,” invited him toward the end of his second year in London to read the Bhagavad Gita with them in its English translation by Edwin Arnold, The Song Celestial. The book would become the cornerstone of his philosophy. Sharma comments:

Thus we encounter here once more an illustration of the archetype of the “stranger” (or in this case “strangers”), who reveals the treasure hidden at one’s own hearth.

Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography is published by Yale University Press.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Reviews are In

Reviews of Patricia Gruben’s play about H.P. Blavatsky that had its debut in Vancouver are in. The character of Richard Hodgson is changed into that of a young Canadian physicist who tries “to untangle the mysteries behind the paranormal phenomena attributed to Helena Blavatsky from a scientific perspective.” One reviewer finds this helps put the story into a larger context:

Making Hodgson a scientist was an interesting choice, because while the story is centred on Blavatsky and Hodgson, it’s really about the 19th Century as a whole: an age struggling towards reason, trying to build an understanding of the universe based on science instead of faith. Darwin killed God, so they said, or at least made Him unnecessary, but many people were still hungry for miracles and revelation. Add to that a more connected world enabling increased contact with other cultures, and it made for a strange and potent mix. Blavatsky’s Theosophy borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism and various mystery religions, but also the language of science, and tried to connect all of them into a sort of Grand Unified Spiritual Theory.

I expected [Gruben’s play] The Secret Doctrine to just be a critique of a fraud and/or the weird pseudo-scientific philosophies she [Blavatsky] preached, but it gave me a lot of food for thought. I love when that happens!

Another review is given here.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Blavatsky News

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt, 1632

*  The programme for the Enchanted Modernites Conference in Amsterdam this September is now online. Twelve sessions grouped by country are announced, covering different aspects of Theosophy’s influence on the arts. Most sessions will have four papers delivered, and there will be two sessions running concurrently. For some reason academic oriented conferences like this brings to mind Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”, where the corpse [of Theosophy] is dissected before an audience of the learned and curious. It is fitting therefore that this Conference should be held in the Netherlands.

*  Vancouver’s online journal carries a discussion with Patricia Gruben about what drew her to the subject of her play about Mme. Blavatsky "The Secret Doctrine", which will be performed at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, July 2-5.

“I was doing research on a different character,” Gruben tells the Straight, “and Blavatsky just kept showing up in every book and article that I read. At first, I tried to push her out of my mind because she wasn’t really my subject, but she was just so fascinating and compelling and charismatic that she kind of took over.”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Blavatsky at the Biennale

Much press has been generated on the subject of “Teosofi e pensiero teosofico alla Biennale di Venezia,” to use a June 19 headline in ArtinItaly, at this year’s Biennale because of the inclusion of Hilma af Klint and other artists associated with Theosophy. The piece in ArtinItaly explains:

Hilma af Klint, già ampiamente storicizzata come pioniera dell’astrazione, è un’altra artista e teosofa presente in questa mostra: la Klint si avvicinò inizialmente alla Teosofia per “disintossicarsi” dallo spiritismo, fenomeno che aveva attratto molti intellettuali dell’epoca, e per arginare il quale, tra altre e più importanti ragioni, sorse la Società Teosofica, fondata a Londra nel 1875 a New York da Helena Petrovna Blavatsky ed Henry Steel Olcott. Alfine ella ne trasse, per prima, la pittura astratta, come accadde poi a Kandinsky e Pollock. Presente, tra gli altri, anche un film breve dell’americano Harry Smith, forse un cenno al contributo che la Teosofia diede al cinema, che trovò il primo e tra i più grandi adepti il cineasta Jean Renoir. 

Marino Auriti’s Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo (The Encyclopedic Palace of the World) provides the theme for this year’s exhibition, which draws from the past 100 years, and includes Jung’s Red Book, and drawings by Rudolph Steiner. Auriti’s piece, which will be on view, is owned by the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Created in Pennsylvania in the 1950s, the structure—made of wood, plastic, metal, hair combs, and model-making kit parts—“stands 11 feet high and occupies a footprint of 7 feet by 7 feet. With a 1:200 scale, the Palazzo was imagined to be built in Washington, DC, and stand nearly 2,300 feet tall (a half mile [136 stories !]) and span 16 city blocks. Auriti affirmed that his building was ‘an entirely new concept in museums, designed to hold all the works of man in whatever field, discoveries made and those which may follow . . . everything from the wheel to the satellite.’ So dedicated was the artist to his vision that he had it patented.”  All that is needed is a model of a Keely Motor next to it.

Marino Auriti (1891–1980), Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo (c.1950s)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Play on Words

For four days only, from July 2, at 8:00 pm, to July 5, at 9:00 pm, the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, will be presenting The Secret Doctrine, “A play on the true-life exploits of the enigmatic occultist Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society.

Set in 1885 under the height of British rule in India, The Secret Doctrine follows the true-life exploits of the enigmatic occultist Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society. A powerful and charismatic adept, Blavatsky beguiled intellectuals, artists and socialites of the time, while her insights into the workings of the universe foretold discoveries in quantum physics. Themes of passion, power, loyalty, scientific exploration and the supernatural merge in a story seen through the eyes of young investigator Richard Hodgson in his journey to discover whether she’s a charlatan or a sage. 

Richard Hodgson, the Humes, Mrs. Sidgwick, Olcott, and even M. Gandhi will all be featured. Canadian actress Gabrielle Rose takes on the role of Mme. Blavatsky. According to the notice in Vancouver’s Gastown Gazette, where the full cast is given, “The Secret Doctrine is at once a character study, a critique of colonialism, an interrogation of belief, and a fantastic spectacle.Amen.

Gabrielle Rose as Mme. Blavatsky

Sunday, June 16, 2013

In the Shadow of the Enlightenment

In Blavatsky’s view of esoteric history the modern Theosophical movement was the latest manifestation of previous recurring cycles. The influence of Freemasonry on eighteenth century mores has been well-documented. Enigmatic figures like Saint-Germain, Cagliostro, and Mesmer have also received new studies. Paul Monod’s Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (Yale University Press, 2013) gives credence to a number of lesser figures who formed this pre-theosophical current. Characters range from Thomas Vaughan to Elias Ashmole, from Sigismund Bacstrom, who claimed Rosicrucian initiation as late as 1794, to the astrologer Ebenezer Sibly; even Thomas Taylor, the translator of Plato, makes an appearance. Monod, a professor of history, charts his area of study for the reader:

The winding, muddy and often submerged paths of occult thinking in the eighteenth century may not be as familiar to British historians as its more visible public byways in the late seventeenth century, but they were well travelled nonetheless. Adherents of the occult kept up a lively interaction with conventional intellectual trends, reconfiguring Hermeticism and Neoplatonism to suit the age of steam engines and revolutionary politics. As in the past, they eagerly absorbed heterodox religious ideas and maintained a keen interest in popular magic. Far from seeking to undermine the Enlightenment, they wanted to be a part of it, which should cause us to question just how far the boundaries of “thinking for oneself” might extend. Yet occult thinkers continued to lack respectability and remained vulnerable to attacks by those in authority, as well as to the vagaries of public opinion.

The reaction to the French Revolution in the 1790s proved devastating to them, because they were now associated with dangerous political ideas. But the attempt to stamp them out was not successful, and they survived long beyond the end point of this book. When the guardians of the temple of British intellectual orthodoxy, founded on the cultural values of the educated Anglican elite, reluctantly began to make room for other points of view in the course of the nineteenth century, the denizens of occult philosophy were still swarming in the shadows, perhaps more numerous than ever. They emerged into the daylight after 1875, calling themselves Theosophists, Spiritualists, Hermeticists, Rosicrucians, Druids, Wiccans, Knights of the Golden Dawn, all lending their voices to the cacophonous yet vibrant disharmony of British public culture.

This area will be revisited again with the publication of John V. Fleming’s The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, scheduled for release next month, which will bolster Monod’s contention.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Blavatsky News

*  The June 5, 2013 New York Times reports on a New York trend, space clearers:

Running off the fumes of the big four religions, with a lacing of indigenous ritual and a dash of early 20th-century palaver — Madame Blavatsky by way of L. Ron Hubbard — the shamans and healers, mystics and mediums of the last century’s not-so-New Age have become indispensable exterminators for certain homeowners in New York and other big cities, who summon these psychic scrubbers to wash their apartments and town houses (as well as their offices and even some events) with ho-hum regularity. They get more publicity than most decorators and architects, and have armfuls of testimonials from brokers at companies like Core and Corcoran.

 “last century’s not-so-New Age” !

*  The Italian website and magazine, Artribune, carries a piece on the American iconographer Harry Smith, linking him to Mme. Blavatsky. Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic, “which remains his best-known film, made in different versions between 1957 and 1962,” which be shown at the Venice Biennale until the end of November.

From Harry Smith:  Film No. 12 (Heaven and Earth Magic)

*  Jason Colavito takes Gary Lachman to task for the suggestion of Blavatsky’s influence on Einstein. He has followed this with an inquiry titled “Did Helena Blavatsky Discover the Theory of Relativity before Einstein?” We are not sure Blavatsky ever claimed such a thing, and so all such inferences must rest on those who raise such matters. But there might be some reason for thinking so. Mark Morrison, Associate Professor of English, Pennsylvania State University, in his Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory (Oxford University Press, 2007) delves into “the resurfacing of occult circles during this time period and how their interest in alchemical tropes had a substantial and traceable impact upon the science of the day.” His book “chronicles several encounters between occult conceptions of alchemy and the new science, describing how academic chemists, inspired by the alchemy revival, attempted to transmute the elements; to make gold.”

Examining scientists publications, correspondence, talks, and laboratory notebooks as well as the writings of occultists, alchemical tomes, and science-fiction stories, he argues that during the birth of modern nuclear physics, the trajectories of science and occultism—so often considered antithetical—briefly merged.

Egil Asprem has an insightful review of Modern Alchemy in ARIES 2011.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Blavatsky and Jesse Shepard

A May 29 post at Elisa-My reviews and Ramblings mentions the brief interaction between Blavatsky and the medium Jesse Shepard (1848 –1927):

Shepard returned to the US in 1871, meeting with spiritualist Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. Blavatsky became uncomfortable with Shepard after she learned about his performances at Salle Koch, a St. Petersburg dance hall frequented by “dissipated characters of both sexes.” Taking up residence in Chicago, Shepard gave "mysterious and completely unique" performances in candlelit rooms, "accompanied" by the spirits of past composers and pianists.

Detail of Villa Montezuma, San Diego, California
Far more colourful was Shepard’s later career as a composer, pianist, and novelist under the pen name of Francis Grierson. According to one writer: “From mystic and philosopher to poet and pauper, Francis Grierson lived a life so full that it took two names and two personalities to encompass them. The Villa Montezuma [that Shepard built in San Diego] remains a wonderful historic home with a dark past.” Shepard’s life with Lawrence W. Tonner, his later years, and dramatic death are given Elisa’s piece.

Blavatsky referred to him twice in her writings, taking him to task for his imaginative restorations of Russian history while he was in that country. She described him in 1881 as “a really genuine, though rather erratic, medium, a ‘trance pianist’ and singer of America, through whose marvellous windpipe, the late Mesdames Catalini, Malibran, Grisi, and the Signori Lablache, Ronconi and Co., with a host of other deceased operatic celebrities, give daily their posthumous performances.”

“Gary Lachman, Albert Einstein, and the Rehabilitation of Helena Blavatsky”

Gary Lachman sends the following comment on Jason Colavito’s “Gary Lachman, Albert Einstein, and the Rehabilitation of Helena Blavatsky”:

It is odd that a mere mention of a ‘suspicion’ that Einstein may have read HPB brings out the kind of animus that Jason Colavito directs at my Fortean Times Article. I even send the reader to the web link that traces this idea and says unambiguously that it is most likely not true. If I wanted to perpetuate an untruth, would I send the reader to a source saying the opposite? I in no way say that Einstein ‘referred continuously’ to the Secret Doctrine or any other of HPB’s writings. But I guess one can’t be ironic or write with tongue in cheek about these matters. There are too many experts on both sides waiting to pounce on the slightest inaccuracy. On a more positive note, I gave a talk on Modernity and the Occult at the Hilma Af Klint exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm this weekend - 24-25 May. The symposium I participated in was a great success and the exhibition itself was inspiring. No mention of Einstein I’m afraid...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Centenary of the Rite

The Hilma af Klint exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm serves as another reminder of Mme. Blavatsky’s subtle influence throughout Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. While Hilma af Klint was studying Blavatsky’s writings in Sweden, Kandinsky was writing in Concerning the Spiritual in Art about her contribution to an awakening sensibility. This week provides another marker on the intersection between Blavatsky and the arts.

May 29, 2013, will be the centenary of Le Sacre du printemps; performed as a ballet at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, the music was by Stravinsky, the stage design by Nicholas Roerich, the choreography by Vaslav Nijinski.

The work’s Russian title, Vesna svyashchennaya, is translated literally as “The Coronation of Spring,” and that sense is conveyed in the familiar French title Le Sacre du printemps. In English, however, there is greater impact in the single syllable Rite, which connotes no gay or festive ceremony, but evokes the stark, chilling scenario of the work, which Stravinsky labeled further with the subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia” and whose title is rendered in German as Das Frühlingsopfer, “The Spring Sacrifice.” 

Christopher Cook talked to Sarah Woodcock, curator at the Theatre Museum at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, about a neglected aspect of the performance, Roerich’s uninhibited use of colour:

Roerich’s particular speciality was the study of ancient Russia and the primitive tribes and peoples. Not much was known about them, so you have to work very imaginatively through the few facts that are left. He only really did Prince Igor and Rite of Spring for Diaghilev because they’re the two ethnic tribal ballets. 

The previous generation had been a depiction of the world, realism. Now, what you're looking at is a sort of emotional response to things. And simplification, that's the other thing. 

The assault on the senses seemed to be too much and the event reached riot proportions at times with screams and catcalls drowning out the orchestra. Carl Van Vechten, dance reviewer for the New York Times, gives the audience reaction from the viewpoint of one who was there and found, unbeknownst to him, sitting in the row in front of him Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas: The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.

Among those in the audience was twenty-year old Dane Rudhyar, who would soon move to New York and then to California, eventually writing over 40 books and hundreds of articles on aspects of occultism, astrology, and Theosophy, as well as musical compositions of his own.

Roerich credited Blavatsky as foreshadowing a new age, and though he was known for his numerous paintings of his travels in Tibet, he also produced with his wife a number of philosophical texts inspired by her writings. Another event in 1913, the founding of the Anthroposophical Society by Rudolf Steiner, would soon provide another theoretical basis for those involved in the arts.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which is still in existence in Paris, will be staging Vaslav Nijinski’s original 1913 choreography of Le Sacre du printemps on May 29.

Roerich's scenic design for Le Sacre du Printemps

Blavatsky and Albert Einstein

Jason Colavito’s “Gary Lachman, Albert Einstein, and the Rehabilitation of Helena Blavatsky” critiques a piece in the June 2013 Fortean Times by Gary Lachman on H.P. Blavatsky. He looks especially at the connection between Blavatsky and Einstein:

According to S. L. Cranston’s 1993 biography of Blavatsky, Einstein’s niece visited Theosophy headquarters in India and told Eunice Layton, a theosophical lecturer, that she had to see the place because although she knew nothing of theosophy she was driven to India by the sheer power of the book kept on her uncle’s desk. If that doesn’t sound like a myth, I don’t know what does. We can pretty much be sure it’s a myth because Einstein had no niece. His only sister had no children. Cranston’s sources were a 1974 article by theosophist Iverson Harris and a 1983 Ojai Valley News article by “Jack Brown,” a man who does not otherwise have any record of involvement with Einstein and whose article contains unproved assertions, including the claim that the otherwise unknown “Howard Rothman” was one of Einstein’s closest friends.

Somehow this original story that Einstein read Blavatsky in 1935 transformed into the modern story that he referred continuously to the book and left it open on his desk at his death.  Colavito traces its oldest reference to Boris de Zirkoff, editor of her writings.