The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my my new book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (Tarcher/Penguin 2012). Blavatsky is a remarkable character, and one of my aims in writing the book was to get past all the myths and misconceptions about her, and re-introduce one of the most fascinating and important figures of the nineteenth century to readers, like myself, who thought they knew all about her. I was very happy to discover that in many ways, I didn't know her at all. Enjoy. Other excerpts can be found on my blog at Reality Sandwich and at the Tarcher/Penguin preview site.
I first came across a reference to Madame Blavatsky in 1975. I was living in New York, playing in a rock band, and had just become interested in magic, the paranormal, and what I later learned was called “esotericism,” and was busy reading my way through Colin Wilson’s The Occult. There, amidst accounts of Gurdjieff, Nostradamus, Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was Blavatsky. But although Wilson was convinced of her importance, there was an ambivalence about his account of her that was lacking in his analysis of Gurdjieff or Crowley. He was convinced that she “could not have held so many disciples entirely by means of confidence trickery” – she had, about mid-way through her career, been accused of fraud and the tag had stuck – but he also compared her to the 18th century Freemason, magician, and, by most mainstream accounts, charlatan Cagliostro, an identification Blavatsky herself would have approved of. She had “the same charisma, the same adventurousness, the same mixture of humour, roguery, and genuine psychic ability.” This uncertainty about Blavatsky must have stayed with Wilson. Years later, in a book called The Devil’s Party: A History of Charlatan Messiahs, she appears in the company of David Koresh, Jim Jones, and other doubtful characters, and Wilson remarks that “the question of how far Madame Blavatsky was a fraud must be left open.” She was “part genuine, part fraud,” but “unlike most messiahs, she never became paranoid, and always retained her sense of humor,” a trait sadly lacking in many spiritual teachers.
After reading The Occult, and practically every other book on magic I could get my hands on, I went on to study Gurdjieff, Crowley, and many of the other figures Wilson wrote about. But to be honest, I didn’t take Blavatsky that seriously, although “Theosophy” did turn up in a song of mine, written at the time. After all, what was one to make of the tales of mysterious Mahatmas in Tibet, of Blavatsky’s own travels there at a time when it was nearly impossible for a white European male, let only a woman, to enter that forbidden land, of letters, tea cups, and other items strangely “materializing” out of thin air, of stories about ancient Atlantis and Lemuria plucked from the mystical Akashic Record, not to mention the off-putting Theosophical jargon and jaw-breaking Tibetan terminology? I was gripped by Wilson’s account of the occult because he had linked it to philosophy, history, literature, and science, and Blavatsky’s Tibetan Masters and frankly improbable stories didn’t fit this frame. It also struck me that while, say, Gurdjieff had attracted several creative, well-accomplished individuals, who had already made a mark on society before they became his followers – the philosopher P.D. Ouspensky immediately comes to mind, as does the brilliant editor, A.R. Orage – there was something about the kind of people attracted to Theosophy that smacked of grandmothers’ shawls and tea cosies, of Sunday afternoon conversations about astral bodies and past lives, conducted with the same nonchalance with which one spoke about the weather. It was all very nice, harmless, and “spiritual,” but it lacked the hard edge that led Wilson to equate some of Gurdjieff’s ideas with existentialism. It wasn’t until some time later that I discovered with some surprise that both Ouspensky and Orage had started out as Theosophists.
And there were Blavatsky’s books, the huge, towering piles of Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. Their length alone didn’t deter me, but when I peeked into them, reading bits here and there, there was something about the avalanche of information falling from each page that made my curiosity dissolve. Blavatsky seemed incapable of simply stating her ideas. She had a hectoring, blustery style that didn’t want to convince the reader so much as to bowl him over. I came away from them feeling more bullied than enlightened, and I felt justified in avoiding more study when I read that Gurdjieff himself had complained of the time he had wasted on The Secret Doctrine.
So while I understood that it was Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society that had got the modern occult movement rolling, I felt I could give suitable deference to this, but save myself the trouble of really grappling with the “root races,” “planetary rounds,” “Manvantaras” and “Pralayas,” that jammed the pages of her gargantuan books.
Yet, as the years went by, and my studies grew, I discovered that many of the paths I traced led back to Blavatsky. It seemed clear that practically everyone I read about and later went on to write about owed something to her. Recognizing this, I finally found myself having to come to serious grips with a character and a body of ideas I had successfully avoided for some time.
There are, it seems to me, at least three different Madame Blavatskys, although I’m sure this is a conservative estimate; as her contemporary Walt Whitman said of himself, she contained “multitudes.” And Whitman, we know, was also untroubled by his contradictions. There is the “official,” “encyclopaedia” version Blavatsky, the colorful rogue and breezy bohemian, who pulled the wool over many intelligent eyes, but in the end was found out as a foul-mouthed, overweight, chain-smoking charlatan and fraud – although, as we will see, the “evidence” for this accusation is itself pretty questionable. Then there is the “pro-Blavatsky” version: the saintly, holy guru, steadfastly following her destiny, who fills the pages of more than one hagiography, and is embraced by her uncritical devotees, who believe that everything she said was the unalloyed truth, and who maintain the strict letter of her law against any deviation. These two separate camps carry on in their own way, having little if any communication with each other, aside from the obligatory brickbats they fling across the great divide between them. As you might imagine, neither of these Blavatskys is completely satisfying, and neither does her, or those interested but non-partisan readers who would like to know more about her, much good, although it has to be said that some of the critical accounts are quite entertaining and readable (HPB always provided excellent copy), while the hagiographic ones start out on a note of uplift and soon drift off into increasingly ethereal realms, quickly leaving the interested, but not entirely converted reader far behind.
Then there is the third Madame Blavatsky, the one I discovered as I investigated her life and times, a much more fascinating, exciting, surprising, and “real” character than I, and I suspect most people, thought, and one that deserves to be better known. What follows is my attempt at doing precisely that.