Saturday, September 20, 2014

Walter Mason reads Gary Lachman's superb biography of Madame Blavatsky

“While questions about whether or not HPB [Helena Petrovna Blavatsky] was ever in Tibet, ever met the “real” Masters, ever learned Senzar, and dozens of others will no doubt trouble all who take her seriously, in the end what is important now are the writings she left behind, and what we can understand about her life.” 

One of the greatest characters of the Nineteenth Century was Madame Blavatsky. Not only that, I will
always assert that she was one of the most influential. Derided in her time as a fraud and a crank, her interests, enthusiasms and visions of the world went on to shape generations of religious seekers. She was a hippy, a New Ager and a self-help freak long before those things existed. She is one of my great heroines, and Gary Lachman’s excellent biography of her is one I think everyone would enjoy reading.

The problem with writing about Blavatsky is that you will, almost from the first page, be insulting someone. She remains a polarising figure, and Lachman (also known as Gary Valentine, bassist from the legendary pop band Blondie) does his level best to tread a kind of middle ground. His admiration for Blavatsky is palpable, but he also records fairly those parts of her story that are more open to criticism. On balance I think he is probably a little too reverent, and plays down some of the outrageous campery of Blavatsky’s Victorian mysticism. But Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality is still a fun read, and will be a revelation to anyone who has yet to discover more of Blavatsky’s life.

H. P. Blavatsky was, of course, the founder of the Theosophical Society and the author of two tremendous compendiums of esoterica: the enormous Isis Unveiled and the even more enormous The Secret Doctrine. Both books are almost unreadable now (though Lachman is enthusiastic about them, while still conceding that they are best read in short bites for inspiration and stimulation), but in their day they were literary sensations, engaging the criticism and comment of some of the greatest intellectuals and thinkers of the time.

Blavatsky was herself a mysterious Russian émigré, a chain-smoking, world-travelling prophetess who exerted a tremendous charisma and eventually attracted into her orbit an American journalist and Civil War hero, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Together they formed the Theosophical Society, which would go on to become one of the most influential and energetic religious movements of the late nineteenth century (and, incidentally, a very important and powerful group in Sydney up until the late 1930s).

Madame Blavatsky

Lachman tells us of the problems with Blavatsky’s “Buddhism” in a globalised age in which we now have a very real understanding of Tibetan Buddhism and can see little of it in Blavatsky’s work. And while the early Theosophists posited themselves as Buddhists, Blavatsky herself was too much of a spiritual tourist to linger for too long with this appellation. Though she and Olcott took refuge as Buddhists in a formal ceremony in Ceylon, Blavatsky always saw her teachings as wider-ranging and more mystical. Olcott, however, became quite a serious Buddhist, designed the Buddhist flag that is used today and is still revered in Sri Lanka as one of the great revivers of the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition.

Lachman writes:
“Although HPB’s “Buddhism” was sui generis, the Gelugpa school, which demands strict celibacy, is the form of Tibetan Buddhism with which her own practice is most often related, and one occasion a Buddhist scholar is said to have remarked that HPB was a reincarnation of Tsong Khapa himself.”
Blavatsky’s personal magnetism was never in doubt, and throughout her life she attracted fervent followers and disciples, in spite of her eccentric appearance and habits and her inclination to bossiness and impatience. The book describes how she would make fun of less-than-intelligent visitors in their hearing, and would dismiss voluble acolytes as “flapdoodles.” She didn’t suffer fools gladly and was wounded when the popular press cast her as a fraud and intriguer – sometimes even a Russian spy. Her magical powers, aided and abetted by the mysterious Masters she spoke of, became legendary:
“…once, while camping in the desert, she expressed the wish for a café au lait, made in the fashion of the Café de la Paix in Paris. Serapis Bey (or possibly his “son,” Tuitit Bey, another Master) drew some water from their supply and handed the cup to HPB. It was steaming hot café, just as she ordered it.”
She also managed to materialise letters, cups, telegrams and all manner of things. Such phenomena attracted the wrong sort of attention, and eventually the Theosophical Society – and Blavatsky in particular – were investigated and found fraudulent. This caused Blavatsky a great deal of heartache, and still remains a controversial fact to this day. Some have claimed to have resurrected her and her reputation by examining the original investigation and found it wanting. Others don’t accept this revision.

Lachman reminds us that, although she is forever associated with the great mania for Spiritualism in the Victorian era and is often mistakenly referred to as a Spiritualist, Blavatsky was in fact hostile to mediumship and spirit channelling and condemned the Spiritualist movement. Lachman says that HPB saw the practise of working with spirit guides as unsophisticated and even dangerous:

“For Blavatsky, who had learned to master her own powers in Tibet, this was an abdication of one’s own freedom and responsibility, a kind of psychic slavery, especially as the spirits involved were often of a low type, the “larvae” of the astral realm, as she called them, borrowing from Bulwer-Lytton.” 

Madame Blavatsky with her friend and collaborator Col. Olcott

Nonetheless, Blavatsky’s claimed occult capacities were impressive, and her followers were all in awe of her superior powers in this regard. Almost nothing that she did – be it dressing, eating or engaging socially – was normal, and she seemed blessed with an innate theatricality that would turn anyone into a legend. In the course of composing her own enormous books, thick as they were with references, quotations and throwaway asides and citations of important literary works, she was often completely un-troubled by any kind of reference library. All she needed was her pencil, her paper and her psychic powers:
“Yet if her sheer volume of words was impressive, even more so was Blavatsky’s apparent ability to quote long passages from works neither she nor the professor possessed, and which Corson suspected were not even available in America at the time. Blavatsky explained that she saw the passages “on another plane of objective existence” and simply wrote them down – if need be, translating them from whatever language they were in into English” 
This biography is superb, and immense fun from beginning to end. Reading it, you are constantly reminded how hugely influential Blavatsky has been on our own time, and pleased at her sheer outrageousness and joie de vivre. Reading Gary Lachman’s book left me aching for more lives lived with such daring, such drama and such pleasure.

Read Gary Lachman in the Huffington Post writing about why Jung is important.
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