Thursday, 13 August 2015

Book Review: The Secret Doctrine - abridged by Michael Gomes

In 2009, mainstream Tarcher /Penguin published theosophical historian Michael Gomes very short 237-page abridgment of H. P. Blavatsky’s magnum opus The Secret Doctrine, a sprawling 3-volume work of over 2000 pages. The first two volumes are divided into three sections, the first dealing with the stanzas of Dzyan and commentaries thereon, the second section is devoted to comparative myth symbolism, while the third section covers ancient and modern science.
Gomes effects an interesting structural simplification: about half the book is devoted to the cosmogonic and anthropogonic stanzas of Dzyan from vols. 1 & 2 and the other half covers 16 chapters of symbolism from both volumes. He boldly eschews the section on science altogether despite aptly stating that chapters 11, 15, and 17 contain much fundamental information. The science section tends to get neglected, so the absence is understandable although regrettable because I feel that this section is underrated. Even though the section is probably the most obsolete with much outdated scientific information, much of it deals with what can be called philosophy of science and is often still relevant, sometimes even more so. Moreover, notably absent from the text is the interesting introduction, the ‘misconceptions’ and ‘explanations’ sections from the first part, the five-part section on the symbolism of the number seven
The stanzas abridgement section is well-done. There is a kind of natural cleavage point to the stanzas if one considers that the original draft of this section was apparently quite short, with later explanations added, which tend to give general semantics explanations that, while helpful, are not essential. And Gomes’ seems aware of this potential for retrieving the original succinct commentary text.

Moreover, although the original sections and many chapters function as self-contained works the structure also has a complementary aspect in the sense that parts of the second and third sections tend to complete the exposition of section one and so one only gets a complete picture by working through the work in sequential order.

The introduction by Gomes is informative and interesting, including a very apt comparison with the neoplatonic Chaldean Oracles fragments, but could have benefitted from more didactic explanations of the technicalities of the theosophical concept of spiritual evolution that the Secret Doctrine develops. A glossary of the very copious terminology would also have been helpful, although he does include useful brief definitions of terms in the index.
Not the only way to go about abridging this difficult and complex work (other more straightforward abridgments have been published), the appeal of this edition is probably the maximum degree of simplification – it is probably the easiest and most reader-friendly edition available (by no means easy for all that), representing the most popular aspects of the work. It makes for a good introduction text for first-time readers (although there are other preliminary readings that would be helpful as well), it can also be useful for long-time readers as a quick-reference copy of the stanzas and the commentaries