Saturday, 2 May 2015

Book Review - Gary Lachman - Helena Blavatsky - The Mother of Modern Spirituality 2

Prolific writer Gary Lachman, who likes to write about the influence of esoteric trends in mainstream society and mystical biographies delivered this compact 300-page, 10-chapter tome a couple of years back, just after doing a work on the history of Hermetism, so he would seem well-suited for the task of tackling the enigmatic and controversial HPB. He pens a very interesting 20-page introduction showing a keen awareness of the complexities of the history of reputations, demonstrating his bold intention to take the bull by the horns and tackle the toughest problems of the Blavatsky case head on. He perceptively remarks that, there is a marked dichotomized-tendency to portray her either as a superhuman, heroic, saintly martyr or as a shady, fraudulent, opportunistic schemer and so states his intention to avoid this black or white position and present a more nuanced, objective, neutral, and critical perspective.

I find that the first three chapters are quite excellent. He has a breezy, conversational style and he manages to juggle several strands of discussion with a remarkable ability to synthesize a lot of information into concise, focused, snappy, insightful, interesting, and original paragraphs. For example:
“If the reader feels this sounds like something out of Alexander Dumas and The Count of Monte Cristo, I’m not surprised. HPB’s “journey into the unknown” had begun and at this point her life becomes a series of adventures, much like those her contemporary Jules Verne would pack into the pages of his novels. Around the World in Eighty Days, was published in 1873, the year that Blavatsky surfaces in New York, and it made Verne an international success. But between 1849, when she escaped her crestfallen husband, and that year, HPB embarked on a voyage that Phileas Fogg would have found impressive” (p. 33).

For the next seven chapters, he visits the standard events in the Blavatskian biographical corpus (Blavatsky has always been considered bio-friendly. Since her passing, there’s been a steady output of biographies, one every five years on average: He manages to deftly consider the  anti-Blavatsky and pro-Blavatsky stances on the  various issues and arrive at some sensible understanding of them. (Briefly, this means allegations by Home, Coleman, Coulomb, Hodgson, the SPR, Soloviov, De Witte, Coues, and a couple of pseudo-Blavatsky forgeries).

Overall, I think that he is quite successful in dispelling the haze of confusion that the aforementioned testimonies have created and which have effectively left Blavatskian studies in a state of arrested development for over a century. He diligently analyzes the relevant data and tends to demonstrate that there is very little substance to the various claims or any concrete evidence. Moreover, the testimony in question tend to have flagrant factual discrepancies and  the people in question tend to have palpable motivations of personal ideology or ambition.

Otherwise, he manages to place of a lot interesting, if undeveloped, digressions that can serve as placeholders for future research. For example, on page 313 he notes how Vsevolod Solovyov is the brother of Vladimir Solovyov, an important spiritual philosopher. In turns out that the latter actually did an interesting review of the Key to Theosophy to which Blavatsky issued a very articulate reply. Unfortunately, the reply was not published at the time, but her manuscript survived. This intriguing meeting of minds surely merits further study:

Moreover, he makes use of more contemporary research into parapsychology and supernatural phenomena, as well as alternative science and makes some interesting comparisons to Blavatksy’s writings and experiences.

In terms of critiques, I think that this work would benefit from a greater awareness of the classic original insights and explanations into Blavatsky’s behavior and motives from an occult perspective, as can be gleaned from the Mahatma letters and Blavatsky’s letters to A.P. Sinnett. These essentials can be found  in Geoffrey Barborka’s Blavatsky, Tibet, and Tulku. Although published in 1974, I think that it remains a very helpful work for understanding Blavatsky’s character from an esoteric perspective. Also, the description of the Secret Doctrine human evolutionary scheme  (pp. 255-56) is a little innacurate (nb. in a future post, an accurate chart will be presented here). Moreover, I think that more exploration into what is known as the "Judge Case" would be needed. Simply reading Judge's own final reply, would seem to indicate that there is more to the picture than what the press of the time had put forth (see the second reply of "Two replies" : )
Note 79 on page 266 seems a little garbled. Mead is not involved in the Johnston text.

I would venture to say Lachman’s book marks a kind of  breakthrough in the sense that it is the first bio aimed at the general public that I know of that is reasonably neutral and objective and has a reasonably critical analysis of historical sources. Hallelujah. Hopefully this clears the ground for a new phase of more original and open research into the mysterious Madame B.

PS. Below is a little-known Blavatsky text that is interesting in that she offers some interesting insights and perspectives into the difficulties of the semantics of esoteric historiography that, in my opinion, remain relevant: