Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality
a biography by Gary Lachman (2012)
New York: Tarcher/Penguin Publisher
ISBN 978 1 58542 863 2
Paperback, 330 pages
Review by Joe Szimhart, February, 2013
“To the Masters, whoever they are...” introduces the reader to Gary Lachman's latest effort to get things right about the mysterious adepts, gurus, mystics and gadflies that populate the twilight or moonlit territory of occultism and New Age spirituality. Lachman may have sobered up in his spiritual quest since his younger years as a devotee of the Fourth Way teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, but he has not given up. This is almost as apparent in this volume about HPB or Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) as it was clearly evident in his practically apologetic account of the life of Anthroposophy's founder Rudolf Steiner (died 1925).
(Before I go on with this, I must again warn the reader of reviewer bias: Back in my serious seeker days into the early 1980s I pursued (eagerly if clumsily) a host of mystical and theosophical teachings and groups including the Agni Yoga Society and its illicit absorption by the Church Universal and Triumphant, then a thriving New Age cult led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939-2009). Most of the groups and gurus that attracted me had one thing in common: They were maverick spawns of the enigmatic Blavatsky and her following of Theosophists. The claimed communication with other- worldly adepts, entities, and masters was a common thread. Another was a Gnostic milieu that more or less turns orthodoxy in Christianity on its head. For example, Blavatsky as neo-Gnostic bought into the anti-myth that the talking serpent that tempted Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden actually did mankind a favor, releasing the species from submission to a ‘jealous God.’ Ingesting the fruit of the mythical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a necessary step in human spiritual evolution. In my labors to make sense of my embattled passage in and out of devotion to Theosophy’s White Brotherhood, I wrote Mad B's Myth (1982, available in pdf from me), a 100 page unpublished but widely distributed manuscript in the days before Internet. In that paper, I covered much of the same ground about Blavatsky as Lachman but not nearly as well and up to date as this fine author has. I cautiously recommend his book.)
I want to cut to the chase without having to rehearse all the main if controversial facts in Blavatsky’s outsized and colorful life. Lachman mentions many good critiques of ‘HPB’ that I endorse by Rene Guenon (1921), K. Paul Johnson (1995), and Nicholas Goodrick-Clark (2004). Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon by Peter Washington (1993) is popular and readable but contains some errors. Wikipedia has a credible brief about HPB on line. Lachman does not mention Bruce Campbell’s fine 1980 study Ancient Wisdom Revived that best explored the Blavatsky story for me at the time. Another I liked despite its limited point of view was Modern Religious Movements in India by J. N. Farquhar (1915). This is not to discredit Lachman—his book is for the general reader, thus his selection of references is entirely adequate to his task.
Lachman writes that there are three Blavatsky biography approaches: The blinkered apologist, the hostile critic, and the realist. Lachman tells us he strives to be the realist. Lachman is realistic when he admits that Blavatsky’s life history (as Gurdjieff’s later) is fraught with contradiction and enigma, and like Gurdjieff, much of the confusion may have been intentional for three possible reasons:
1. Blavatsky was truly an emissary of hidden wisdom if not for hidden masters or adepts that work to guide human affairs. In this she followed the pattern set by Freemasons and Rosicrucians. She was an embattled person that suffered from a host of maladies as well as her difficult mission, but she purposely misguided the unworthy to protect her sources and her masters. Her fraud if anything was a pious fraud.
2. Blavatsky was a combination of precocious genius and a chronically disordered personality that passed for charisma to those who felt and feel an attraction to her. Blavatsky worked hard to mask her utter confusion, that her incredible maze of metaphysical ideas and paranormal experiences had no resolution in her undisciplined mind, and has no resolution in human reality. She could not prove a thing. She was not so much a fraud as she was flawed as a scholar and a failure as a guru.
3. Actual spiritual forces and entities possessed Blavatsky and drove her to spell out an elaborate attack against orthodoxy in science, history, Christianity and Judaism. The adult Blavatsky claimed as much about herself, that the original jiva (her natal identity) no longer inhabited her body.
I would place Lachman in the first opinion whereas I lean toward the second. Blavatsky I think would argue, if she could, for the third option. Of course, all three options describe one person, so what is the truth? Let’s start with her mother Helena Andreyevna who died of tuberculosis when Helena Petrovna was but nearly eleven in 1842. One family witness recorded that one of the final things HPB’s mother said was, “What is to become of little Helena?” Lachman does report the mother saying to HPB “that her life would not be that of other women, and that she would have much to suffer” (13). That much is true, that Blavatsky suffered as her mother predicted and much of that suffering was directly attributable to HPB’s outrageous behavior. One wonders how an expert in psychology today might assess a willful young woman raised in privileged circumstance yet rebellious to authority in all its guises. That is what Helena the mother meant: This combative, unruly daughter was going to bring misery upon herself and those around her.
One redeeming feature for the spoiled brat HPB, after her family finally withheld monetary support, was her ability to attract attention as well as funds or loans from people that found her psychic powers intriguing. One example was in 1872 in Cairo where she met a Madame Emma Coulomb (nee Cutting) who took HPB in at the hotel where she worked and gave her a considerable loan. At the time HPB claimed to be one of only sixteen survivors out of four hundred on a ship that sank in the Mediterranean. On that trip she claimed to have lost everything. Coulomb believed her but was also taken in by Blavatsky's claims to paranormal powers. Coulomb and her husband became devotees and donors, even following HPB to India into the early 1880s. After another internal squabble, Coulomb was instrumental in exposing a major Blavatsky hoax regarding the Masters. HPB apparently had a hidden panel in her bedroom in Adyar, India from which she could slip missives into an enclosed shrine dedicated to the hidden Masters. The shrine was in a meeting room opposite her bedroom wall. Theosophy disciples would leave questions at that shrine and answers written on exotic paper would appear as if out of thin air the next day perhaps, proving Blavatsky's so-called precipitation from the astral plane or ethers used by the Masters to communicate. (I have to laugh here as nearly every teenager on earth today has the potential to send missives through thin air on their mobile devices—no occult power needed!)
Now Lachman and others suggest that Mme. Coulomb was a prying, manipulative woman who was resentful that she was not included in some inner circle decisions, thus she and her husband made it appear that HPB was faking the missives from Masters. This begs the question of why HPB would allow such a bitch to tag along with her for over a decade as well as accept financial support from the Coulombs. From all accounts, even to the end, the Masters (Koot Hoomi and Morya primarily) in their purported precipitated letters were ambivalent about Emma Coulomb. The infamous Hodgson report from the Psychical Research Society (PRS) that personally investigated the shrine affair concluded that HPB was indeed a hoaxer and an imposter. Lachman remains unconvinced, stating that Mme. Coulomb never produced the actual incriminating letters from Blavatsky and other evidence like the shrine that she claimed to have destroyed. Lachman also disregards the Hodgson report as “he never investigated any phenomena, merely gathered reports about them from others” (230). If anything, HPB was a most slippery target.
In any case, Blavatsky's reputation was practically destroyed in the public eye by the PRS report. She resigned under duress as Secretary of the Theosophical Society and left India for good in 1885, leaving the society. However, Theosophy groups have been notoriously jealous creatures, splintering at the least provocation. One key sore point was who is really in contact with the Masters and who is not. This was Blavatsky’s trump card all along. Blavatsky soon set up an inner sanctum of devotees called the Esoteric Section of Theosophy in England after she met Annie Besant. HPB became a psychic pope to her flock during the last year of her life as she presided over six female and six male members to direct them in private meditation rituals—note the 13 parallel to Jesus and the Apostles. Her primary focus thereafter was to write The Secret Doctrine which remains her magnum opus and the inspiration for any number of new cults as well as ongoing criticism. Of The Secret Doctrine, Lachman quotes Blavatsky saying that “reading it page by page will only end in confusion” (250). This is not a very promising recommendation by an author for any book! HPB died in 1891 at around age sixty—she packed a lot in during her tenure in that lifetime, and I say that because many Theosophists and New Agers claim that HPB reincarnated soon with an anonymous male body in which she won her freedom (moksa) or ascended in the 1920s.
Lachman appears to yet be caught up in the charisma of many outrageous characters like Gurdjieff, Steiner and Blavatsky but without the sappy devotion attributed to the hard core disciples. He appears to have made an informed choice if this book is any indication. Yet, in the midst of his study, he makes an astonishing confession: “If the reader feels a bit dizzy after all this, I can't blame him, and to be honest I'm not sure that I grasp all the strands of this intriguing scenario myself” (121). He is talking about all the “mysteries behind the veil” that Blavatsky struggled to “unveil,” and all the flip-flopping as HPB switched from adamant support for Spiritualism that did not believe in reincarnation to her newfound Theosophy that did. What exactly was she unveiling if not herself? That is a facetious question, by the way.
Lachman rightly exonerates Blavatsky of any blame for what the proto-Nazis in Ariosophy gleaned from her writings. Yes, Theosophists value the Swastika as a holy symbol just as many subsequent radical groups have, but if anything, the Theosophists were early in the forefront to defend their brown-skinned brothers from further abuse by white Christian colonizers. Nevertheless, Blavatsky's notion of root races tumbling out of the etheric realms into matter through the ages easily lends itself to a naive elitism that yet exists among Theosophists and New Age cults. In contrast to the post-Darwinian racist idea of survival of the fittest, the typical Theosophist fancies himself ( humbly, mind you) among the more advanced or enlightened coming root race on earth, on the cutting edge of human spiritual evolution. One of Blavatsky’s favorite books that Lachman points to was The Coming Race by the Rosicrician sympathizer Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The coming race had magic powers due to their ability to use vril or a pervasive energy called prana in Sanskrit, something New Agers call the life force energies of the universe.
Rather than admit that Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine has been an utter failure as a sensible rendition of human reality, the HPB devotee holds on to the possibility that we will all evolve in future lifetimes to grasp its Truth. Ah, I say, spare us the unnecessary misery! I have read the thing...and wasted my time, her later Key to Theosophy for clarification notwithstanding. I do not disagree with its cosmology borrowed essentially from early “theosophists” (Boehme, for example) and Vedic tradition as well as Kabbalistic mysticism—all that makes esoteric sense in context, just as the feeling of oneness with the universe makes sense to a cannabis smoker. Entering Blavatky's astral light or a “time slip” that Lachman finds so divine is really no big deal (This is your brain on Theosophy)—what we encounter and do with it after is. It is the presentation and the pretense that HPB was somehow closer to the cosmic truth than the average parishioner in the pew that is most troubling. Lachman mentions almost in passing the Muslim convert Rene Guenon and his seminal critique (in English) Theosophism: The history of a pseudo-religion (original in French, 1921) but fails to appreciate Guenon's sobering insight that Blavatsky never grasped the sophistication of great world religions. She continually rebelled against that kind of authority to her downfall, thus her pseudo-religion, according to Guenon.
Blavatsky, who could be delightful, charming, entertaining, temperamental, brutally honest, foul-mouthed and deceitful all at the same time, was in the end, a misfit obsessed with the occult, addicted to nicotine and with impulsive and manic tendencies. Her family appeared relieved to send her money to keep her from coming back home it seems, during her irascible young adult era. As she told W. B. Yeats and others in her last years, her role was to “write, write, write” in one body during the day and in another at night as if in trance (247). The pile of papers she submitted to her overwhelmed editors was anything but organized. It did not help that she often would not name her sources, making it appear that the information came directly from the astral, so to speak, when in fact most of her information came from the one hundred or so books she carried in a private trunk, a fact testified to by her most constant “chum” Colonel Olcott in his memoir Old Diary Leaves. Later, HPB would be accused of several thousands of instances of plagiarism in her Secret Doctrine. Whether this was a result of intentional fraud or the artifact of an undisciplined but photographic memory is up to the reader to decide, but the “one hundred books” were thus identified by researchers, especially William E. Coleman (153). In any case, the imaginary Masters that allegedly inspired HPB became an unnecessary factor.
In February of 1886 (five years before she died) she sent a document headed “My Confession,” to M. Solovyoff, in which she stated:
“I have already written a letter to Sinnett forbidding him to publish my memoirs at his own discretion. I myself will publish them with all the truth. So there will be the truth about H. P. Blavatsky, in which psychology and her own and others’ immorality and Rome and politics and all her own and others’ filth once more will be sent out to God’s world. I shall conceal nothing. It will be a Saturnalia of the moral depravity of mankind, this confession of mine, a worthy epilogue of my stormy life.” http://blavatskyarchives.com/farquhar/farquharcontents.htm (212-213)
No “all the truth” autobiographical memoir ever appeared, and even if it had I doubt it would satisfy Blavatsky’s critics or devotees. If it had, my guess is it would be a wild precursor to Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, a mix of fact and self-indulgent fable. I for one am glad she regurgitated no such “Saturnalia” to add to her already caustic history. Whether anything good came of Blavatsky’s life, Lachman I think overrates her achievement. In the end he says it does not matter to him whether she or Gurdjieff made up stories about a secret source of adepts or a hidden fraternity—the ideas “were exciting and compelling, and that was enough” (297). He says, “What we owe her is almost an embarrassment” (298). I am not sure who he means by “we” but I am not among the we folk.
To the Masters, whoever they are is not a good way to approach Blavatsky. Lachman assumes the possibility that she had telepathic communication with these guys. With all their powers and high purpose to guide the human race, one would think that the hidden Masters would have the ability of the average mouse or rat to manifest to common human senses like mine. The danger here is that Blavatsky will tell you who they are, but the only way to get to them is in the person of Blavatsky. Therein is the danger of enthusiasm for a guru—if you do not believe her, just ask her.
for pdf copy of Mad B's Myth (1882) email