Monday, 13 April 2015

Book Review: Helena Blavatsky - Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke 2004

The new millennium has quite been kind to Blavatsky. Quite a few important publications have seen the light of day, and I will endeavor to kick start a new book review feature this month by covering as many of them as I can.

This book can be considered a breakthrough in Blavatskian literature. After more than a century after her passing, Blavatsky has made it into the canon of western esoteric thinkers, deservedly so. Finally, her writings are considered worthy of serious academic study. The late, lamented Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke was one of the most qualified scholars to attempt this task and he does a creditable job, referencing the better academic works on theosophy that have emerged since the mid-80s and the most lucid and accurate theosophical publications. It is refreshing to see such a fair-minded, charitable, positive appreciation of Blavatsky’s works. Although at a modest 200 pages, the work cannot claim to be more than a basic introduction, Goodrich presents well-researched biographical accounts to frame the text selections of this anthology of her writings.

I will briefly list a few caveats that come to mind:

He basically follows the materialistic, highly skeptical, rationalistic approach established by Paul Johnson in the early 90s, which has become something of a status quo for academic research (although he is more open-minded about Blavatsky’s extensively documented capacity to produce diverse types of paranormal phenomena). I find that there are a number of semantic problems to this approach, but if that is the only framework that scholars are comfortable with at the moment, then so be it.
The author understandably sticks to his area of specialization, the western esoteric tradition, and so roughly two thirds of the work is devoted to Isis Unveiled  and earlier writings, whereas the work should probably only proportionally occupy no more than a quarter  of the space. However Isis is actually rather underrated for various reasons and is well-suited for an introductory study. He does a solid job with the remaining third, which covers what are the core aspects of Blavatsky’s oeuvre, although I find that it makes for a dense concentration of passages that are some of her most difficult, complicated, obtuse metaphysical and cosmological concepts that can appear inscrutably byzantine without the extensively documented arguments that Blavatsky generally takes pains to provide. He does however manage to provide a decent summary of the notoriously difficult Secret Doctrine.

I find that his references to the over-used W.E. Coleman (pp. 51-52, 132) to be outdated and not very pertinent, although he does refute him. His summary of her notions of human and geological evolution (p. 16) is a little inaccurate. A passage from the Key to Theosophy (pp. 105-06) has  a large concentration of outdated or innacurate references. (To her credit, Blavatsky takes pains to give a lot of references to suport her claims and she is pretty accurate, but sometimes they do not hold up to contemporary standards). Moroever, he does not necessarily give an indication of the complete, extensive scope of her writings (running to some 20-odd large volumes). So for example, his claim that she de-emphasized her references to the Kabbalah (p. 76) could be contradicted by pointing out several writings on the Kabbalah dating up to the end of her life.
On the more positive side, most of the major well-known diagrams, including the rare ‘meditation diagram’, are included. Chapters 5 (Mesmerism and Magic) and 6 (Hermetic Philosophers and Rosicrucians) are Goodrick-Clarke’s most incisive, original and well-documented contributions. My caveats do not prevent the book from being a fair, well-researched, accurate introduction to Blavatsky and it deserves commendation for being a pioneering, breakthrough effort in taking Blavatsky seriously as an important thinker. Consumatum Est!