Discussed in this essay:
Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, by Gary Lachman. Tarcher/Penguin. 352 pages. $16.95.
Last things first: How did the avocado come to its present prominence in the agriculture of California? It happened just about a hundred years ago and belongs to the history of the syncretic occult system called “theosophy” and the life of its creator, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Madame Blavatsky, or HPB, as she preferred to call herself, passed from the earthly plane in 1891; her death caused upheaval in the Theosophical Society she created, dividing the loyalties of its many Orders, Sections, and Lodges among several successors. Katherine Tingley, a strong-willed woman of the type important to the spread of organized theosophy, renamed her American partition of HPB’s empire the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society and established its headquarters at Point Loma, California, in San Diego. With donations from wealthy devotees she created Lomaland, a spread of farms and orchards that also featured schools, theaters, and temples in a mélange of styles — Hindu, Muslim, Greek, Egyptian. The Purple Mother, as Tingley chose to be called, had a great fondness for ritual and regalia, but she was also a successful educational and agricultural entrepreneur, installing an innovative irrigation system on her grounds and undertaking the first large-scale cultivation of avocados in California.
What was once Lomaland is today the Point Loma Nazarene University. HPB ignored Christianity when she didn’t despise it, but she appreciated cosmic jokes.
The second half of the nineteenth century — the period when natural science came to maturity, setting standards for practice and verification that are still followed — also saw a renewal of spiritual enthusiasms and systems. There was widespread interest in spiritualism, which posited that the dead persist in a realm of their own from which they can transmit messages through mediums to tell us of their present and our future states. The newfound prestige of science perhaps encouraged the creators of some of these spiritualistic systems to claim the name for themselves (one thinks of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science); others explicitly rejected scientific naturalism in favor of the transcendental. Some turned both ways: there were, and still are, both spiritualist churches and a Society for Psychical Research; Arthur Conan Doyle and William James were among the committed rationalists intrigued by spiritualism; even Charles Darwin attended a séance.
This was Blavatsky’s era. Gary Lachman, in his new biography, calls her the mother of modern spirituality, though a less mothering personality can hardly be imagined. She considered revelation — her kind was brought on by hidden “Masters” — a spiritual science, and her followers assembled from the resulting cloth more than one religion, not only the Purple Mother’s but that of the late Elizabeth Clare Prophet, whose mesmeric gaze could once be found on Larry King Live and Donahue. In HPB’s own lifetime her magnetism drew tens of thousands; hardheaded Thomas Edison was a follower, as was the former Dakota newspaperman L. Frank Baum. Abner Doubleday, Union general and mythical inventor of baseball, for a time directed the Theosophical Society’s American branch. Occultists of today who ponder Atlantis and the number of the pyramids or speculate on the wisdom of lost races and the passage of world ages are indeed her children, even if they’ve forgotten her name. Lachman doesn’t overstate by much when he calls the founding of the Theosophical Society the “starting point of the modern spiritual revival” and writes that “practically all modern occultism and esotericism emerged from [HPB’s] ample bosom.”
A Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the former bassist for Blondie, Lachman has written about other esoteric figures, including Emanuel Swedenborg, the Scandinavian mystic whose accounts of his talks with angels and visits to heaven and hell influenced Emerson, Henry James Sr., and other progenitors of a distinctive American Christianity. Lachman’s telling of the Blavatsky story is somehow at once extravagant and deadpan. His favorite word is “mysterious,” which he applies generously to persons, things, events, and places, deploying it sometimes twice or even three times on a page to mean variously “unrevealed,” “unaccounted for,” “secretive,” “deep,” “far-off,” “out of the ordinary,” “possibly nonexistent or illusory,” “wondrous,” “obscure” — everything, indeed, but mysterious. Though Helena Petrovna and what she was within must remain irreducibly mysterious, the story of HPB and theosophy as Lachman tells it often seems the opposite.
There are people whose life stories resemble novels, replete with adventures, wild coincidences, struggles, and happy (or tragic) endings. Then there are people whose life stories are novels, at least effectually: to read accounts of their lives requires suspension of disbelief and the sense of something unfolding that is imagined and constructed rather than discovered, something to which documentary sourcing, the establishing of facts and timelines, and the sifting of truth from imposture or myth are irrelevant or impossible. The life of HPB as she presented it and as her followers witnessed it is certainly one of these. It would be as pointless to complain that Madame Blavatsky’s life tale is in large part dubious, unsupported, untrue, as it would be to say that Madame Bovary’s is.
HPB’s tale begins when she encounters the first of the Secret Masters who will be her lifetime spiritual guides. Born in 1831 the daughter of a Russianized German army officer and an aristocratic writer, Helena Petrovna is nearly eleven years old when her mother dies; she’s brought to Saratov on the Volga to live with her grandparents in their old mansion, a rambling pile full of underground tunnels and hidden passages where a lonely girl can hide from her nurses and tutors. Headstrong, generous, bold, she prefers the servants’ children and the street kids to her upper-class peers and rules them with stories about the conscious lives of pebbles and stones and with her weird ability to put pigeons to sleep with “Solomon’s wisdom.” (This term puzzles Lachman, but surely it derives from the ring that allowed King Solomon to talk to the birds and the beasts.) She visits an old serf, a healer and holy man, who knows the hidden properties of plants and teaches her the language of the bees. At night she dreams of a Protector. Thinking he must have some family connection, she searches for his face among the old portraits on the walls. One portrait, high up, is covered with a curtain — no one will tell her who it is. Helena makes a pile of furniture, climbs up, and pulls back the curtain . . . then she tumbles down in shock. The next thing she remembers is lying on the floor, all the furniture restored to where it was, the face again covered. A dream? But her handprint is there, high up on the dusty wall.
Who has she seen? In 1851 she encounters him in person, in London, where (in one of her many differing accounts) he saves her from jumping in a fit of depression into the Thames. He is Master Morya. He has sought her out for a tremendous mission. In preparation for it she must spend three years in Tibet. Heading for Asia along Columbus’s route, she goes west rather than east, an extraordinary multiyear journey that involves Mormons in Nauvoo, voodoo in New Orleans (where she is warned away from the Dark Arts), Indian bandits in Quebec, and lost Incan temples. She crosses the Pacific to India. After two years, she returns to Europe by way of Russia, fighting in Garibaldi’s army at the Battle of Mentana in 1867 (she has the scars to prove it), and then, directed by a letter from her Master, to Constantinople and back to India, at length reaching Tibet. She — a lone European woman — breaches the borders of a land closed to Westerners, passes as a (male) native, and spends not three but seven years in study and meditation at various mountain lamaseries.
The dates HPB later gave for these Wanderjahre are not impossibly contradictory, but as Lachman says, even if all she really did was travel to Tibet, that alone would make her one of the wonders of the nineteenth century. Could she have done it? She could ride a horse well, Lachman points out, and “is thought to have learned enough Tibetan from the Tartar nomads” she met at her grandparents’ estate to have at least bought supplies and asked directions. Still in her thirties, she was likely not the overweight and unwell person she would in later years become. Lachman is willing to entertain doubts about this and other HPB adventures, but often such doubts are quickly left behind. Many of the accounts he relies on for HPB’s early life are seen later to be the work not of scholars and researchers but of converts and associates, their evidence coming largely from HPB herself.
The aspiring adept who undertakes dangerous journeys and risks death to learn the secrets of an ancient land is a common, if not necessary, figure in the founding stories of occult societies. For centuries that land was Egypt. Greek seekers of late antiquity went there to sleep in the deserted temples and receive instructive dreams; the medieval Rosicrucians and early-modern Hermetic initiates claimed to have learned wisdom there. Egypt retained (and still retains) its mystery for many; but with the advent of steamship travel and modern tourism, a less accessible realm was needed, a realm where anything could happen. As theosophy evolved, it took in Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, and Sufi sources; but the wellspring was Tibet — a Tibet that perhaps few Tibetans now or then would recognize.
The years HPB spent off and on in India are well documented. As her Theosophical Society grew large and rich over the years, it established international headquarters in Madras, where they still reside. Espousing the Brotherhood of Man and rejecting British racism, the society was warmly received by the many faiths of India, at least at first (it was British theosophists who introduced a nonreligious young barrister named Mohandas Gandhi to the Bhagavad Gita — which he read first in English translation). HPB gleaned from secondary sources a wide if idiosyncratic knowledge of Hindu scriptures and Buddhist traditions, and though Indian critics would sometimes dismiss her theosophical Buddhism as corrupt or fake, such harping never had much effect on her; her goal was not the promotion of a creed but the discovery and explication of a universal spiritual reality underlying or overlying all religions and all soul-strivings. Though HPB insisted on celibacy — and seems to have had no interest in sex — theosophy was not a practice or a devotion, certainly not an ascesis. It sought neither purity nor sinlessness nor even redemption but knowledge, what she called “Science.” Like gnosticism, theosophy was a means of ascendance, through knowledge of a secret history of the universe, to the condition of Mastership, a height that even HPB never claimed to have reached.
She was, though, aided by many Masters over time: the Greek Hilarion Smerdis, the Egyptian Tuitit Bey, the French count St.-Germain, and (most communicative of all) Master Morya’s assistant or secretary, the Tibetan Koot Hoomi. They were all living beings, said HPB, though they lived impossibly long lives; they could travel without train ticket or passport and communicate across continents. She met some “in the body” who later appeared in dreams or on the astral plane (a term she popularized) to certain of her associates. These personages, at once immaterial and colorful — you might call them “fictional” if the term could be used without prejudice — differentiate HPB’s theosophical mythos from the many competing or allied systems of spiritual investigation that arose in her time.
The most prominent of these was spiritualism, which like theosophy presented itself as both an investigative science and an experiential gnosis. HPB wittily reframed popular spiritualist practice, with its table rapping and ectoplasm: she asserted that the souls of the dead are concerned with their own evolution to higher planes, and that they have no interest in communicating about it to the living; mediums were actually channeling minor sprites who wandered on “the borderland between the living and the dead” — a “species of astral hobo,” as Lachman neatly characterizes them, or “elementals,” as HPB called them, earthy products of the four elements. Mediums were weak, porous souls unable to fend off these imps, who had enough power to produce poltergeist-like “phenomena” and mimic the voices that séance attendees wanted to hear; when the elementals hied off, mediums under pressure just improvised, or they faked. Spiritualism was thus not false so much as misapprehended; it was bad spiritual science.
By this light, the many ghost visitors summoned by members of the Eddy family to Chittenden, Vermont, throughout 1874 — including a jug band of American Indians who played popular tunes and an old Vermonter who told vulgar stories — were not what they seemed, even if they weren’t an imposture. When a Colonel Olcott began reporting the Eddys’ doings not unfavorably in the New York Daily Graphic, the articles caught HPB’s attention. In a media move that our own century can appreciate, she went up to Chittenden, attracted the colonel’s interest to herself, showed him how the phenomena the Eddy boys produced could easily be duplicated, and at the height of the furor got articles about herself in Olcott’s paper.
Her name was made. The famed spiritualist medium Daniel Dunglas Home accused the newcomer herself of fakery, and she engaged him with such energy and sass that Colonel Olcott, endlessly thirsty for occult knowledge, became her devotee, companion (though never lover), promoter, and business partner — services that lasted nearly to the end of their lives. They called themselves the Chums, and Olcott the journalist is surely responsible in part for the clarity and verve of HPB’s early writings. Together they formed the infant Theosophical Society, which met in New York City lodgings dubbed the Lamasery. She wowed a growing crowd with lectures, demonstrations of telepathy, “mesmeric hallucinations” (including a ring that she gave to a fan), and the tinkling of astral bells. And there, ceaselessly smoking her hand-rolled cigarettes, she wrote her first explication of the Masters’ teachings, Isis Unveiled.
Enormously long (though not as long as her later work The Secret Doctrine), Isis Unveiled is more like a medieval compendium of wonder tales than an organized philosophy, with section titles such as “Prophecy of Nostradamus fulfilled,” “The moon and the tides,” “The gods of the Pantheons only natural forces,” “The ‘four truths’ of Buddhism,” “Vulnerability of certain ‘shadows,’ ” and “The author witnesses a trial of magic in India.” It touches on Indian tape climbing, the limits of suspended animation, and vampirism. The introduction, “Before the Veil,” resembles a great and multifarious army rolling into place or a symphony of the period getting under way:
It is nineteen centuries since, as we are told, the night of Heathenism and Paganism was first dispelled by the divine light of Christianity; and two-and-a-half centuries since the bright lamp of Modern Science began to shine on the darkness of the ignorance of the ages. Within these respective epochs, we are required to believe, the true moral and intellectual progress of the race has occurred . . . This is the assumption; what are the facts? On the one hand an unspiritual, dogmatic, too often debauched clergy; a host of sects, and three warring great religions; discord instead of union, dogmas without proofs . . . pleasure-seeking parishioners’ hypocrisy and bigotry. . . . On the other hand, scientific hypotheses built on sand; no accord upon a single question . . . a general drift into materialism. A death-grapple of Science with Theology for infallibility — a “conflict of ages.”
“Whither, then, should we turn,” she asks, “but to the ancient sages”? Sure enough, they and their doctrines begin to appear in HPB’s teachings, voices of the universal occult sciences of the soul from Plato and Porphyry to Pythagoras and the Vedas.
The interest aroused by theosophy and its founder grew. For a time, the names of Madame Blavatsky and Koot Hoomi were frequently in the news — these were the early days of the penny press and the tabloid screamer — and accounts of HPB’s phenomena, her new gospel, her rooms crammed with weird artifacts (including a stuffed baboon dressed in a wing collar and eyeglasses and carrying a lecture about On the Origin of Species), her rotundity and voluminous costumes (“like a badly wrapped and glittering parcel,” said an earlier biographer), were on many a breakfast table. (It’s unfortunate that there seem to be no pictures of her in youth; the photographs we have show her as a commonplace, not to say ugly, old lady.)
The society grew not only large but also rich. It’s inadvisable to accept the figures for numbers of converts and members that such organizations put out, but the Theosophical Society was run on a subscription basis, and subscription lists survive showing thousands of paid members around the world. Even those who later broke with Madame Blavatsky, as did Rudolph Steiner, depended for a time on her revelations. W. B. Yeats admired her force and vigor, which contrasted with the spiritualist’s typical vagueness, but rather doubted her Masters: Yeats thought they could be living occultists, or spirits, but they could also be “unconscious dramatizations of HPB’s own trance nature” or even “the trance principle of nature expressing itself symbolically.” Peter Washington, in his acerb and wonderfully written history of modern esotericism, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon (1993), wonders whether Yeats’s readers will find his explanations “any less mystifying than Blavatsky’s own,” but I find very modern his conception of HPB’s mysteries as neither exactly what she claimed them to be nor simple fakery. “The trance principle of nature” might be a good name for the apparently hardwired human impulse to make and become enthralled in fictions.
HPB’s relation to what the spiritualists called “phenomena” is harder to explain sympathetically. When surrounded by friends and devotees, HPB was always able to materialize things as needed — an extra place setting for a tea party, lost brooches, on one occasion an ivory card case. She could also produce letters “precipitated” by the Masters, which would arrive at her door or appear on the desks of adherents without postmark or stamp, containing instructions; replies could be precipitated back.
Phenomena were in themselves unimportant, she asserted; they were merely demonstrations to the uninstructed that matter and time are beneath spirit and thought in a hierarchy of reality. She knew of their usefulness, though — how they roused astonishment and wonder in would-be followers, who spread stories in books and articles. The danger was to mistake the pursuit of phenomena for the pursuit of spiritual evolution. This was the failing of the kings and savants of Atlantis, who destroyed their civilization and saw their very land sink beneath the sea as a result of their desire for magic power.
Phenomena were also unreliable, sometimes easily produced, sometimes not. HPB would now and then be caught at a bit of plain trickery, and she would admit it without much embarrassment. Her own nature, she said, could be childish and mischievous, and people so much wanted to see these things. When late in HPB’s life an embittered confederate spilled the beans about hidden doors and Master-shaped mannequins, the Society for Psychical Research investigated and published a damning report. HPB claimed to be rather relieved: she was at least done with the “cursed phenomena,” and if the Masters were now seen as myths, “so much the better.”
HPB’s last work was called The Secret Doctrine, a title that could be given to a hundred books by a hundred hands but that now belongs to her. She wrote much of it in the company of a devoted countess while on the road from Society headquarters in Madras to the Hotel Vesuvio in Naples (“an apt perch for so volcanic a character,” Lachman inaptly observes) to lodgings in Germany and Belgium. She worked tirelessly, up at six and to bed at nine, like any author smoking and playing solitaire between bursts of inspiration. Her traveling library was a little scant, but she could log on to the astral Internet, and once visited the Vatican Library that way to check a reference. (The job of tracing all of HPB’s allusions, buried quotations, lifts, and references will likely never be undertaken by a disinterested scholar, but it seems clear that she had a kind of photographic memory for occult knowledge, however randomly the snapshots were sometimes assembled.)
The Secret Doctrine takes the form of an immense commentary on certain stanzas in the Book of Dzyan, originally written in the language of Senzar that HPB had learned from Koot Hoomi in Tibet. Neither this book nor its language appears in any other source. The Secret Doctrine details a vast circle of evolution through seven Rounds during which beings of different kinds (the “Root Races”) come into existence — some wholly spirit, some physical but highly advanced, some not so high. There were Root Races in Hyperborea, a once-mild land near the North Pole; in Lemuria (where Adam and Eve appear); and on overreaching Atlantis, whose giant residents built Stonehenge. Our current Round is that of Kali Yuga (not good), and the Fifth Root Race is the European/Aryan race. Though the Fifth will of course meet the same cyclical downturn as all the others, Aryan domination of the subraces of this Round was an idea that intrigued some Nazi thinkers. Lachman, who goes as far as ever he can in support of Blavatsky without falling into a trance state himself, says he “profited most” from The Secret Doctrine when he viewed it not as history/prophecy but as an attempt to create a new myth for the modern age, a “huge, fantastic science fiction story” — perhaps something like Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series of philosophical planetary romances.
Following HPB’s death, theosophy expanded as a worldview even as the society fractured. Annie Besant, in whose London house HPB spent her last days, was a British socialist reformer and a fiery public speaker, and she had HPB’s blessing; but others claimed better psychic connection with the Masters. In India, Besant allied with C. W. Leadbeater, whose imaginary biography was as extraordinary as HPB’s; he anointed a beautiful Indian boy (Leadbeater was drawn to beautiful boys) named Krishnamurti as the incarnation of Master Maitreya, Lord of the World — a destiny the boy rejected in the end. Quarreling theosophists referred (more than HPB ever had) to the Lords of the Dark Face, evil Masters who had appeared throughout the history of the cosmos: any opponent could be linked with them. Leadbeater and Besant began tracing (through trance) the web of remarkable reincarnations that had connected them to each other through the millennia, from Atlantis to Lemuria, the moon to Venus; it turned out they had often been husband and wife, or father or mother to each other or to other leading theosophists — a “cosmic soap opera,” as Peter Washington calls it, that caused rifts and jealousies as members were or were not included. HPB had never been very interested in reincarnation. The lives she contained or created as she lived were perhaps plenty for her to contemplate.
All the events in a novel — the characters’ lives and fates, the obstacles that events put in or clear from their paths, the reasons why everything happens — refer to and depend on an exterior, unperceived, and encompassing reality: the plot and the conception of the author. Cause and effect, seen one way by struggling characters, can be seen in an opposite way once this is understood. The weddings, deaths, or changes in fortune aren’t truly the result of the characters’ actions but rather the cause of them; they bring the characters to where the plot needs them finally to be. The characters themselves mostly remain ignorant of this, except in moments of transcendent understanding; and though readers can of course perceive it, they often forget or ignore it, choosing to remain on the plane of unknowing.
Similarly, the theosophical universe comprises a lowly and factitious world of events and things to which unawakened souls are bound in life and a spiritual realm of true being that grants to the material world what meaning it has. (Material things also have no real existence in fiction; however well described or deployed, they’re just words.) Objects can be materialized and letters precipitated because materiality is a veil of illusion, and if the overarching spiritual plot needs this ring or this ivory card case or this postcard from Koot Hoomi at this juncture, there it is. Events, things, happenstance, diurnal goings-on, exist only as they reflect or encode higher realities and ultimate purposes. If (like Peter Washington) you see HPB’s voluminous draperies as full of forged letters and boosted jewels and her pronouncements likewise, you’re not so much wrong as in the wrong realm of being.
Religions aren’t all dualist in this novel-like way, of course; the orthodox sects of Western faiths, at least, mostly consider the common struggles of mortal life as real and as fundamental to our destinies. But dualist systems like theosophy will always appear, claiming to be the “perennial philosophy” underlying all religions. What vivifies and delights their adherents is precisely the thrill of decoding the encoded, reading the allegory of matter and time correctly, and thereby reaching a higher plane. To me it’s their great limitation — not because the Higher Plane is rarely if ever reached in any way that has ascertainable consequences, but because it regards as trivial the grand net of random connection that links a smart, lonely child playing games in Russia to the Hindu-nationalist upsurge under the Raj, that puts the American not-really-inventor of baseball together with the inventor of the land of Oz, that brings the Bhagavad Gita to Mohandas Gandhi and the avocado to California. Those really did take place in real times and places, nodes of a single and singular cosmos whose meaning and course can’t be known but to which, for a time, you and I and everybody else have the ineffable privilege of belonging.