6 November 2012


Gary Lachman, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality. Tarcher/Penguin, 2012.

There are few superstars in modern occult/esoteric history – literally and perhaps even figuratively names to conjure with - but apart from the ubiquitous Crowley, the only other big name that springs almost unbidden to mind is that of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (‘HPB’).
But until recently – even, arguably, until this book - her name may have come unbidden but almost immediately to most people it will have been dismissed.

For ‘the madame’, as Lachman sometimes charmingly calls her, has fairly universally been thought of as a colourful but basically fraudulent old trout – ‘outed’ in her fakery by no less than the distinguished Society for Psychical Research - who along the way founded the Theosophical Society. Which in itself might or might not be a good thing.

Despite the ambitious implication of his subtitle, Lachman’s work is by no means a hagiography. He acknowledges fully her foibles and contradictions – many and varied – and seems occasionally to be as exasperated with her as (almost) anyone else. But the greatest triumph of the many achieved by this book is perhaps to present a truly balanced view of this alarmingly larger-than-life woman. Suddenly she’s no longer the Marmite Madame – you have to love her or hate her, with no in-between possible – but a real person battling with personal demons, dreadful misfortunes and dire calumnies. Besides, apparently genuinely, rejoicing in some of the most resplendent of occult talents.
(And colourful she certainly was. Married twice but always celibate, she bore wounds from fighting against the pope’s soldiers. She was massively overweight, due partly to a kidney problem but mostly to her diet, which included such indulgences as fried eggs served swimming in butter. Her partiality for voluminous gowns made her look as if ‘the curtains had fallen on her’. And she chain-smoked roll-ups, reportedly getting through a pound of tobacco a day.)

A major triumph of Lachman’s biography is that it exists at all, it being notoriously difficult to discover anything concrete about the life of this maddening giant of the esoteric world. But the author is a dogged and particularly gifted researcher – and possessing a rugged affectionate for his subject must have helped.

HPB was born in Russia in 1831 and died in St John’s Wood, London in 1891. That much is certain. What happened in between is often a matter of debate (to put it mildly), but what emerged from a rackety life lived at great speed, over several continents and – if one can suspend disbelief for a moment – sometimes straddling the dimensions between the nuts and bolts here and now and the more fluid quantum world of psychical phenomena.

And that is where her story traditionally hits the skids, where one instinctively either reaches hungrily for the Marmite jar or tips it into the bin sharpish.

Madame Blavatsky’s whole esoteric career depended, she claimed, on her encounters with the ‘Masters’, spiritually evolved Indians/Tibetans who came and went in her life – and those of her close associates – usually in a more or less miraculous manner. Through her relationship with them she not only discovered how to make objects appear in thin air – and, at least once, actually buried under apparently undisturbed soil – plus a host of other wild talents, but she also learned less flashy, more profound, mystical truths that she used as the basis for her monumental books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, besides providing the foundation for the Theosophical Society.

Of course mere mortals were most attracted to the phenomena, which she found distracting (although one suspects she enjoyed the awe and adulation they inevitably brought). Her attitude to her own phenomena was, like many of her responses, ambiguous, although she often stated that the mysterious appearances and rapping noises were not for the serious seeker. ‘Raps are the easiest to get’, she’d say dismissively, but couldn’t seem to wean herself entirely off producing them for yet another wonder-hungry crowd.

More serious phenomena attended the presence of her beloved Masters, and it was here that her problems really started – which, in a sense, continued until Lachman’s book finally set the record straight. (And there’s his own contribution to the mystery, of a sort, in his dedication: ‘To the Masters, whoever they are’.)

While resident near Madras, India – in the Theosophical Society there – HPB would not only receive letters in a variety of mysterious ways from the Masters, but she arranged that others could, too, in a little room called the Shrine. Later, when she was out of the country, Society for Psychical Research emissary Richard L. Hodgson poked around the house and, prompted by HPB’s one-time friend, discovered a suspicious sliding panel in the wall over the place where the letters would ‘precipitate’. Together with an assortment of circumstantial detail from the said former friend of the Madame, he reported back to the SPR that the founder of the Theosophical movement was a fraud. And suddenly it was set in stone. So there you are, then. HPB is a fraud – worse, far worse: she’s a joke.

But Lachman sifts through the Hodgson story, uncovering the blatant bias – the SPR were going through a phase of desperately seeking to look anything but credulous – and hopeless research. There are indeed some suspicious elements, but not on HPB’s side. For a start, although she’d been out of India for a long time when the SPR stalwart arrived, the sliding panel and cubby hole were obviously brand new. And the woman who showed him them, the ex friend of the Madame, not only hated her with a deadly loathing but was deeply, worryingly unbalanced.

The most shocking part of the whole Blavatsky-versus-the-SPR scandal is the fact that in 1986 Vernon Harrison exposed Richard Hodgson as, basically, a fake, declaring that he was ‘prepared to use any evidence, however trivial or questionable, to implicate HPB…’ And Harrison made the momentous announcement in the SPR’s own press release, entitled, unambiguously: ‘Madame Blavatsky, Co-Founder of the Theosophical Society, Was Unjustly Condemned’. But retractions are never as newsworthy as accusations, and few even noticed it. Poor HPB. But at least she’s got Lachman fighting her corner now, and, judging by this book, that’s certainly not to be sniffed at.

The author does acknowledge, however, as even the most dedicated chronicler of mystical events must at some point, that HPB probably faked some of her phenomena. She was increasingly sick and must have been chronically exhausted by constant travel, so perhaps she thought why not produce the odd rap by sleight of hand when sleight of spirit was too bottomed out by fatigue to rise to the occasion? But there were many occasions, which Lachman revisits in detail, when it seems impossible for her, or indeed anyone, to fake the wonders that poured from her.

Then again, exactly who were the Masters? She claimed to encounter the first in Hyde Park, London in typically bizarre circumstances. But was he quite the semi-divinity she believed him to be? Indeed, did he exist at all outside of her imaginal – as opposed to imaginary – inner world? Perhaps, some suggest, he was a Nepalese emissary over in London for the Great Exhibition. But surely what really matters is the effect they had on this extraordinary woman.

And that is where the nuts and bolts ‘Skeptic’ instantly parts company with the more mystically inclined. To the former the literal genuineness of any paranormal claims is the be-all and end-all. To someone who thinks metaphysically, what matters is the underlying truth. Truth being as truth does, the fact is that Blavatsky left some astonishing legacies.

The Theosophical Society, formed in 1875 in New York by HPB and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, aimed to open up universal esoteric truths to anyone from any race or religion. Its basis was, and still is, universal brotherhood. In the days of Victoria that was astonishingly far-sighted.

Not only does this landmark book rehabilitate the Madame herself, but it also casts a completely new light on her close associate Colonel Olcott, traditionally thought of little more than her dupe and lap dog. Yet consider this:

He was an astonishing healer, using the even then outmoded technique of making ‘passes’ with his hands over the sick, but it certainly worked. He cured at least 8000 Indians in a year, only stopping because the Masters told him to, as his own health was at risk. He devoted every ounce of his strength – and not just psychically - on behalf of the people he lived among, and in 1967 Sri Lanka issued a stamp in his honour. As Lachman also notes: ‘Streets in Colombo and Galle are named after him, and a statue of him stands outside Columbo Fort Railway Station. Olcott’s work inspired the Buddhist nationalist efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala, the great Sinhalese religious reformer…’ Some lap dog.

What the Madame and her ‘chum’ Olcott envisaged was nothing less than a brave new world built on equality and access to ancient wisdom. By founding the Theosophical Society – in her words, ‘the archaic Wisdom-Religion, the esoteric doctrine once known in every ancient country having claim to civilisation’ – and making it available to any seeker from anywhere in the world she opened the way for today’s liberal culture, besides the more obvious mystical movements. One way or another, her work and indomitable spirit led to the fusion of eastern and western esoteric traditions, but also to the rise of feminism and more tolerant social attitudes.

HPB, for all her faults, had great charm and a wicked sense of humour. Once when shown a suspiciously large tooth in India that was said to have belonged to the Buddha she remarked ‘Yes, in his life as a tiger’…

And being OTT in everything she did also encompassed her compassion. Once when she had just received her ticket to travel first-class to America a poor woman knocked on her door asking for help. Immediately she traded her ticket to unimaginable luxury in for several steerage tickets so she and the woman’s family could all go to America. It was not a comfortable journey.

Lachman’s done all the hard work for us. We can wallow in the extraordinary stories – yes, just how did she have access to all those lengthy quotes for her books with so few works of reference to hand? – and end up really rather liking this lady. Better still, we can feel free to admire her. For in Lachman’s hands she has finally got her dignity back. -- Lynn Picknett.

1 comment:

Lawrence said...

I have been critical of L Picknett on occasion, but this is a fair and thoughtful review of a figure who deserves serious attention (and at least a fair bit of rehabilitation), and from ufologists too. 'The Masters' as Picknett and Lachman of course hint at, are on not removed from the enigma of the wider world of so-called entity sightings (what folklorist Peter Rojcewicz calls the Extraordinary Encounter), and that would include the more bizarre so-called MIB or alien interactions and related. As Picknett and Lachman know, there is a tendency to think in boxes and not make connections, dismiss the one whilst salivating over the other.

Lachman is proving himself to be a heavyweight writer of serious occult topics. This may be his best yet.