Sunday, 7 February 2016

Book Review: Blavatsky - The Secret Doctrine Dialogues

 2013,  The Theosophy Company; 750 pages
First published in the Netherlands in 2010 and edited by Michael Gomes, the happy surprising discovery of a lost collection of transcripts of an important study class on the Secret Doctrine given by H. P. Blavatsky in 1889 by Daniel Caldwell is truly an amazing event. The resulting book is probably the most important Blavatsky publication since Trevor Barker’s 1925 Letters of H.P Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett.
There are twenty-two class transcriptions in all – the first ten classes comprise the contents of the original Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge publication, which covered the first four stanzas of the Secret Doctrine. Classes 11- 17 and part of 21 cover the rest of the Secret Doctrine to the end of Stanza 7. Class 18 is sadly missing and presumably dealt with early and middle slokas of Stanza 7. The remaining classes are dedicated to discussing questions to what eventually became the Key to Theosophy and it is fascinating to see part of the collaborative process that went into the writing of that classic work.
The first thing that one notices is how different the class transcripts of stanzas i-iv differ are the original published 1890 Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge version. It now seems that a considerable amount of re-writing and editing and additions of new material went into the making of that valuable work, one of the underappreciated gems in the Blavatskian oeuvre.
The remaining transcriptions are particularly valuable due to the extremely difficult nature of the stanzaa of the first volume of the Secret Doctrine. Therefore commentary from the original author provides much needed and invaluable hints and explanations.
Another striking aspect to these transcriptions is that one is afforded the opportunity to be a fly on the wall in a room with Blavatsky having discussions with some of her closest students and so we get the most up-close and personal glimpse of Blavatsky yet. Naturally, there are many lively examples of the famous Blavatskian wit, sarcasm, iconoclasm, temper, etc… and also, more poignantly, occasional examples  of Blavatsky feeling the strain of her poor health and the heavy public opposition she was faced with. Yet despite this, and with the added difficulty of having to deal with students much more accustomed to materialistic science than esoteric philosophy (some of them with considerable credentials), she patiently soldiered on to cover the entirety of the first section of the Secret Doctrine.
One also notices the very informal and casual tone of the classes, much different from the often  very laboured, erudite style of her writings; but this does not mean that there is a lack of substance in these texts – there is a refreshing simple kind of wisdom in many of the explanations, giving them a more accessible quality than the formidable original text, making them valuable as an introduction to the Secret Doctrine as well as helpful commentary for advanced students of the text. Moreover, one gets occasional intriguing bits of information not found in any of her writings, further showing what a fathomless fount of information this remarkable woman was (although in general, she is quite reticent to expand upon recondite esoteric hints found in the Secret Doctrine).
Meeting 15 of April 18, 1889 is of interest due to the participation of famous theosophists G.R.S. Mead and A.P. Sinnett as well most likely the famous poet and Theosophist W.B. Yeats. Annie Besant participated in class 21 of June 6 1889. Moreover, the well-known astrologer Sepharial (Walter Old) is a prominent and articulate class participant. This is truly an exceptional publication - highly recommended.
Below is an extract from class 20 of May 30, 1889, showing Blavatsky's distinctively eloquent philosophical metaphysical intuition (pp. 553-554):
"This is then the Unknowable, and this contains more than a simple negation. It is the confession of our human ignorance; but also the tacit or virtual admission that within man there is that which feels that energy which is the universal substance"
Mme. Blavatsky:  This is then the Unknowable, and this contains more than a simple negation. It is the confession of our human ignorance; but also the tacit or virtual admission that within man there is that which feels that energy which is the universal substance; it is fabric, so to speak. Now, Spencer repeats very often that Unknowable is that energy which manifests itself simultaneously in the universe, and in our consciousness, and that it is the highest existing reality, only concealed in the ever-changing progress of physical manifestation; and yet spirit for Herbert Spencer is simply the invisible cosmic cause of these phenomena. As I understand him he does not see in spirit anything more. He attributes to this essence, as we do, unity, homogeneity, and a limitless existence outside space and time, whose means of activity are universal laws. We say so, too, but we add that above that essence and plurality of the laws whose manifestations are only periodical, there is the one eternal law, the causeless cause, as we call it. Spencer places the Unknowable face to face with the abstract and the cosmic phenomena, and sees in this Unknowable the cause of the manifestation. The Positivist, on the other hand, while admitting the existence of a certain fundamental or basic energy, speaks, nevertheless, of the Unknowable as being  simply a negative quantity, which is a contradiction in terms. Now, you understand the idea. One calls it the Unknowable, and the other the Unknown. It is positively a contradiction in terms, and both mean quite a different thing; and yet, the same thing. Because Herbert Spencer calls that which we would call the First Logos—or the first manifestation, the radiation from the eternal—he calls it first cause; and then he speaks about the Unknowable. The other one speaks of the Unknown and wants to make of the Unknown the Parabrahman. You understand? But the Parabrahman entirely unconsciousness, that is to say, a negative quantity, as he calls it. Now, what we Occultists say is that neither Spencer nor Harrison offers anything like a complete philosophy. The Unknowable or the Unknown could not exist for our perceptions, nor could our perceptions for it. It is the Unknown, or the Invisible manifesting the Logos, which we place face to face with every phenomenon—abstract, physical, psychic, mental, or spiritual—because the Unknown will always contain in itself some portion of the Unknowable, that is to say, some of the laws and manifestations which elude our perception for a time. On the other hand, Unknowable, being the sum of all that which owing to our finite intellectual organization may elude forever our perceptions, is the Parabrahman, or the causeless cause. Now, if I have succeeded in making myself understood, then I say if you study Spencer’s Unknowable, and take Harrison’s Unknown, instead of accepting either one or the other, seeing the necessary complements of each one life, then our one abstract Monad, and our one universal Prâna, whose eternal, immutable, causeless cause, is our Vedântinic Parabrahman, at one end of the line, and the great being, the human race or humanity at the other, then you will have the true idea of what the Occultists mean. You see it is this humanity and each unit in it which are, at one and the same time, the Unknowable, the Unknown, and the To-Be-Known. This is what occultism says: as it is impossible for the human mind to know anything definite even of the unknown essence, so let us turn our whole attention to its highest manifestation on earth, mankind, and say as is said in John: “In it we live and move and have our being”—“Illo vivicuus moveuur et sumus”.2  
2 [Acts 17:28, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being—in illa enim vivimus et movemur et sumus.”]