Thursday, August 30, 2012

Enchanted Modernities: Blavatsky and the Arts

The Leverhulme Trust in England has announced its new series of grants for 2012, among them £124,356 for Enchanted Modernities: theosophy, modernism and the arts, c. 1875-1960, a project that will bring together specialists from a number of institutions. “As well as a series of academic conferences and workshops in Amsterdam and New York, the Network’s research will be made available to international audiences through two exhibitions, a series of musical performances and a website.”

Founded in 1875 in New York, the Theosophical Society quickly went global, attracting a cosmopolitan community of adherents worldwide. Often treated as a footnote in modern cultural history, there has been very little research [!] about why this esoteric organisation was so popular with artists, musicians and writers in this period and, furthermore, what impact it had on their artistic endeavours. The Enchanted Modernities International Network will bring together scholars who are experts in the visual arts, music and sound, and literature from all over the world to explore what the visual, material and performing arts can tell us about the relationships between theosophy, modernity and mysticism c. 1875-1960. The research carried out by the Network’s partners will examine where and how artists, writers and performers came into contact with theosophy and other mystical practices, and how theosophical ideas, especially those of key figures in the society in this period – such as Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant – were given material, visual and audible form and shape.

Lee Mullican, The Ninnekah, 1951, oil on linen. The Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Blavatsky and Buddhism in America

A new book, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media edited by Diane Winston, has a brief mention of Mme. Blavatsky in Nick Street’s chapter “American Press Coverage of Buddhism from the 1870s to the Present.” He cites a reference to Col. Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky in the New York Times of August 30, 1877 describing the visit of the Chinese missionary Wong Chin Foo. According to Street, “At this point in American history, media coverage of Buddhism—of most non-Christian religious practice, for that matter—was not so much a window into the unknown as a mirror reflecting the familiar and reassuring biases of America’s Protestant majority.”

From Madame Blavatsky’s bohemian apartment to Japanese American internment camps and from the Parliament of the World’s Religions to Veteran’s Administration hospitals, mainstream media in the United States have depicted Buddhism as a folly, a scourge, a fad, and a source of salvation. Journalism itself has been pinned with those labels at various times. At their best, Buddhist practice and reporting are pursuing the same end: to see things as they really are.

The book will be published August 29, 2012 by Oxford University Press, USA at $150.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Blavatsky News

* The Enochian Frequency podcast #007: 2012-08-19 starts out with hosts Petter Mårtensson, Rodney Orpheus, and Paul Baker discussing latest developments in the gaming industry.

This time things don’t really follow the usual format, and our hosts actually start out early with discussing lore. Shambhala, an area in the game that turns up during the storyline and that contains a currently inactive battleground, is the topic at hand this episode. Expect a lot of talk about Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy and the fabled Secret Chiefs that according to some occult literature direct the evolution of mankind. Recommended reading this week is Karl von Eckhartshausen’s The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary and Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled.

Enochian Frequency podcasts can be found at CSICON, The Committee for the Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal, a site that focuses on the latest news and opinions regarding movies, television, gaming, tech, society, comics and other things that may or may not fall into the convenient umbrella term of “geek culture”.  

* An August 19 post on Mahesh’s blog, Maheshcorner, gives 10 places in London connected with Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhi made five visits to London, spanning 43 years of his life; from young law student in 1888, to representative of the Indian National Congress in 1931. If you are going on a trip to London and want to follow in Gandhi's footsteps to gain an insight into his life, then take a look at these 10 places the great man visited.” Among them, the Blavatsky Lodge:

Through his newfound vegetarian friends, Gandhi was introduced to the Theosophical Society in 1890 and there he met Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky; two key members of the Society whose writings he keenly studied. The teachings of Theosophy struck a chord with Gandhi, who was particularly interested in its call for "universal brotherhood and consequent toleration". Blavatsky Lodge can still be visited in London if you want to find out more about Theosophy and the effect it had on Gandhi.

* The site People of Shambhala looks at the historical development of “Muslim-Buddhist Conflict in Asia: and how to understand it.” Pointing to the situation in Sri Lanka, it says:

The indigenous religion had virtually died out, but was revived with the help of Henry Steel Olcott, who had been one of the primary investigators of the Lincoln assassination, and a major player in the Theosophical Society (a semi-mystical organization that had been founded in New York by Russian émigré Mme Blavatsky). Olcott lobbied the British on behalf of the Buddhists, helped revive the Buddhist school system, wrote a Buddhist catechism (which is still in use), and helped to design the universal Buddhist flag.

Who Was Madame Blavatsky?

The Autumn 2012 issue of Esoterica, the journal of the Foundation for Theosophical Studies (for the Theosophical Society in England), has an excerpt from Gary Lachman’s forthcoming book on Blavatsky due in October. Prefacing the excerpt titled “Who Was Madame Blavatsky?”, Lachman says:

In it, I pose a question that runs throughout the book: why is that, although she was enormously influential, both in the esoteric worlds and in mainstream culture, to the wider public Madame Blavatsky still remains relatively unknown? One answer is that even within the spiritual and esoteric community she is not really well-known, by which I mean ‘accurately known. If anything, what most people know of her is the ‘Blavatsky legend,’ a collection of myths and misconceptions that she herself contributed to greatly.

The printed excerpt in Esoterica cites a lot of opinions on Blavatsky but does not answer the question. Perhaps Mr. Lachman is saving it for his book. As Blavatsky News has shown, scarcely a week goes by without some reference to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the media. Part of the problem is that too many “experts” have helped obfuscate the matter with disinformation.

Gary Lachman will be talking on “Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality” (the title of his book), at the Foundation for Theosophical Studies (the Theosophical Society in England) in London on Sunday September 30 at 6 PM.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Blavatsky’s Lost Continents

The publisher Brill in the Netherlands has added a new volume to their high-priced series of books. The Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (!), edited by Carole M. Cusack and Alex Norman of the University of Sydney, contains a section on the Theosophical Society, along with others on Mormonism, Anthroposophy, Gurdjeff groups, modern paganism, and Afro-Caribbean new religions. Three chapters comprise the Theosophical section: “Producing Lost Civilisations: Theosophical Concepts in Literature, Visual Media and Popular Culture” by Garry Trompf and Lauren Bernauer, “The Agency of the Object: Leadbeater and the Pectoral Cross” by Jenny McFarlane, and “Theosophical Bodies: Colour, Shape and Emotion from Modern Aesthetics to Healing Therapies” by Jay Johnston.

McFarlane’s chapter looks at the significance of a Pectoral Cross made for C.W. Leadbeater in 1917 for use in the Liberal Catholic Church, while Jay Johnston takes on the Theosophical concept of the sevenfold human temperaments, classified in Blavatsky’s writings as “principles” and in later Theosophical works as “bodies.”

The chapter by Garry Trompf and Lauren Bernauer provides an extensive chronicling of the impact of Blavatsky’s concept of previous continents and civilizations, primarily Atlantis and Lemuria. Its coverage of film and other digital media is especially current. The authors write:

Our concern is with images of a mysterious past, and more particularly with how the Theosophical Society, as a new religious movement, has sparked a whole range of cultural and material productions evoking or playing on the theme of forgotten truths, far distant achievements, and lost worlds….[Blavatsky] was seminal for endowing the key lost worlds of Hyperborea, Lemuria and Atlantis, with a chronological ordering. 

The book, 790 pages plus a thirty page introduction, sells for €217.00 or $298.00 US.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Blavatsky and Scriabin, Again

Research into the influence of Blavatsky on the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) continues. The current issue of the Music Theory Online, the journal of the Society for Music Theory, contains an in-depth analysis of Scriabin’s symphony Prometheus: The Poem of Fire by Anna M. Gawboy and Justin Townsend titled “Scriabin and the Possible.”

The original program for Prometheus printed in the booklet at the 1911 Moscow premiere revealed the work’s connection to Blavatsky. The text begins, “Prometheus, Satanas [sic], and Lucifer all meet in ancient myth. They represent the active energy of the universe, its creative principle. The fire is light, life, struggle, increase, abundance, thought” (translated in Bowers 1996, 206–7). This closely paraphrases Blavatsky’s description of the Lucifer/Prometheus figure from The Secret Doctrine: “Satan, or Lucifer, represents the active, or . . . the ‘Centrifugal Energy of the Universe’ in a cosmic sense. He is Fire, Light, Life, Struggle, Effort, Thought, Consciousness, Progress, Civilization, Liberty, Independence” (Blavatsky 1888, vol. 2, 245).

For Blavatsky, Prometheus’s theft of fire was an allegory for the acquisition of human intellect, a pivotal moment in the theosophic narrative of human evolution (Blavatsky 1888, vol. 2, 519–28). The Secret Doctrine described how the human soul began as an emanation of the divine spirit, a primal thrill of vibration that Blavatsky conceptualized variously as a breath, a sound, and a light. Like a dividing cell, this emanation underwent a process of differentiation over many eons, eventually resulting in a physically embodied being. Although humans had achieved full materialization at the midpoint of the cycle, they still lacked the “sacred spark which burns and expands into the flower of human reason and self-consciousness” (vol. 2, 95). The Promethean enlightenment would eventually allow humans to transcend their base material existence and begin the journey toward divine spiritual reunification.

Dramatic trajectory of the slow luce part.
a. Blavatsky’s diagram of involution and evolution (1888/2, 300)
b. The slow luce of Prometheus

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Blavatsky News

* Imagine doing a critical survey (published in two parts!) of an influential philosophical movement and relying only on one source. But this is what Michael Barker has done in his two part investigation, “The Roots of Theosophy,” at the online site Swans. And when the source is such a highly contested book, Peter Washington’s 1994 Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, one would expect at least an attempt at some sort of verification. Unfortunately Barker ends up serving Washington’s errors as fact: “Anna’s early death in 1885” [Anna Kingsford died in 1888].

According Michael Barker’s version, “when the full Society for Psychical Research report was released—[Blavatsky] was effectively forced by Olcott to leave her own Society, thereby ending their friendship. She traveled back to Europe in March 1885, eventually settling in London (in the spring of 1887). Here, cut off from the Adyar [sic] she was ‘supported by the rich and aristocratic friends who helped to sustain her last years,’ and they ‘helped to set up her journal’” [was she supposed to edit it for free?]. Unfortunately for Barker’s timeline, “the full Society for Psychical Research [Committee] report” was only released long after Blavatsky left Adyar.

Or his statement: “Hodgson’s ‘report has not gone unchallenged by Theosophists, but their defense consists of arguments ad hominem, and Hodgson’s basic findings have not been refuted,’” all the while showing no familiarity with what has been published by even non-theosophists on the matter.

* The online newsletter Hermes carries an article by Jeffrey Lavoie where he argues that in Isis Unveiled Blavatsky plagiarized from the antiquarian Isaac Preston Cory’s compendium Ancient Fragments, a book made up of translations taken by Cory from diverse sources. In “Isaac Preston Cory, Isis Unveiled (1877) and Cosmology” he says:

Shortly after its publication in 1877, a source analysis of Isis Unveiled was performed by one of Blavatsky’s contemporaries- a disgruntled Spiritualist named William Emmette Coleman. Coleman concluded that while Blavatsky cited close to a thousand individual sources it seemed more probable that she had only consulted about a hundred separate works in compiling this work (Blavatsky seemingly conceded this point in a final article entitled ‘My Books’ written shortly before her demise in 1891).

Despite his harsh conclusion, the only proof Coleman offered for evidence was in the form of a short article published as an appendix to Vsevolod Solovyoff’s A Modern Priestess of Isis (1895) which listed some of the sources from which Blavatsky had allegedly borrowed (though in some cases Coleman was mistaken as Blavatsky used and cited these sources properly). Regardless of the veracity of Coleman’s conclusion one thing remains known- one of the sources that Coleman ‘revealed’ was Isaac Preston Cory and his Ancient Fragments.

“Shortly after” is stretching it. According to the material on Coleman given in Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century his earliest detailed attempt at refuting Blavatsky’s books appears in 1889, and here he is contrasting the shift in teachings from Isis Unveiled to The Secret Doctrine.

Although Lavoie says “the only proof Coleman offered for evidence was in the form of a short article published as an appendix to Vsevolod Solovyoff’s A Modern Priestess of Isis (1895),” this is not so. Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century shows that he had an extended series from April to October 1891 in a small Spiritualist monthly (and to which HPB wrote her last article, “My Books”) where he listed passages in corresponding books. But even here he gave only 32 books, including the Bible.

* John L. Crow has an article in the September 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion on “Taming the Astral Body: The Theosophical Society's Ongoing Problem of Emotion and Control.” Understanding the praxis of nineteenth century Theosophy seems to be much under discussion at present, and Crow, a graduate student of American Religious History at Florida State University, adds his views.

In New York City in 1875, a group interested in Spiritualism and occult science founded what would become the Theosophical Society. Primarily the creation of Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society went through a number of early incarnations. One original version promised to teach occult powers. After Blavatsky found that she could not honor earlier promises to teach occultism, she shifted the focus of the Society to one that promoted Universal Brotherhood instead, highlighting notions of the body and demanding the control of emotion as a means to rebuff demands for training. With this refocusing, Blavatsky reestablished control of the Society and asserted herself as the central channel of esoteric knowledge. Thus, by shifting the focus from the attainment of occult powers to the more ambiguous “spiritual enlightenment,” Blavatsky erected an elaborate, centralized system of delayed spiritual gratification, a system contingent upon the individual's adoption of specific morals and values, while simultaneously maintaining control of the human body on all its levels: spiritual, social, physical, mental, and especially emotional.

* Vogue Australia in its July 27 online edition carries an interview with the creative minds behind Maniamania, accessories label known for its designs (typically of silver, bronze and crystals). They have just launched a new line, the Astral plane Collection:

This range is inspired by the symbols and visions of dreaming, and the notion of other planes of existence, and the film is a moving representation of that idea. It combines our stylistic influences of Art Nouveau and 60s iconography with the spiritual developments of dream philosophy. It is directly inspired by the visual devices of Jean Cocteau, as well as an homage to the concepts of Carl Jung and Helena Blavatsky.