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.