Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America
During my several decades of teaching literature at Berkeley, one of my favorite offerings proved to be a large introductory lecture course on modern British and American authors. Ialways found it a pleasure to lead wary but game lower-division students at least partway into the rarefied, highly wrought worlds of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Stevens, and their contemporaries. Notoriously, however, modernism comes with some awkward ideological baggage. My distaste for Lawrence’s preaching against insubordinate women and for Pound’s fulminations against “the Jews” made it hard for me personally to cope with such noxious rant, to say nothing of asking California sophomores, steeped in egalitarianism and innocent of history, to put it into some ameliorating perspective.
The juncture in each semester that I approached most warily, though, was the hour when an accounting had to be made of W.B. Yeats’s magical beliefs and practices. Here was perhaps the greatest of modern poets, the one who could most fearlessly and eloquently address perennial human concerns about sexual striving, wounded pride, lost love, bodily decay, shattered dreams, and helplessness before blind forces; but here as well was someone who needed—and not just for the sake of his muse—to believe in palmistry, crystal gazing, astral travel, the secret governance of history by phases of the moon, and a spirit world that could be commanded through ritual incantations. How, I wondered, could such a “sentimentalism of the intellect,” as Yeats’s father justly called it, square with the poet’s exultation in his capacity to face cold reality without flinching? Moreover, I knew what to expect at the end of my necessarily equivocal lecture: the blocking of my exit by a small but intent cluster of students who would clamor for further news about those 2000-year cycles that really, professor, really make everything fall into place at last.
That Yeats was in earnest about his esotericism cannot be doubted. As his bemused friend Pound observed in a letter of 1919, “Bit queer in the head about ‘moon,’ whole new metaphysics about ‘moon,’ very very very bughouse.” Neither Pound’s sarcasms nor John Butler Yeats’s paternal chiding could shake the poet’s conviction that, in his own words from 1892, “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” Like some of my students a century later, Yeats felt that gnostic beliefs and rituals were less a rear-guard protest against the iron rule of science and materialism than the advancing edge of an emergent mass consciousness. As he put it, “I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance—the revolt of the soul against the intellect—now beginning in the world.”1
But until Yeats became a distinguished personage, that voice was a mere echo of a far more confident one. Like others who pined for lost certainties, Yeats had fallen under the spell of one of the gaudiest characters of the nineteenth century, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, co-founder (with Henry Steel Olcott)…
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