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Blavatsky Lite

In response to:

The Consolation of Theosophy from the September 19, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

The honor of being named in your pages as the “best informed…commentator on Theosophy” is slightly deflated by being caricatured as “pious” and “deferential” [NYR, September 19]. After repeated condemnation from outraged Theosophists for giving Madame Blavatsky too little credence and respect in my books, it is refreshing to be accused by Frederick Crews of giving her too much. But his charge that “Johnson airily maintains that she ‘devot[ed] all her energies to the enlightenment and liberation of humanity”’ uses selective quotation out of context to misrepresent my approach.

The sentence he quotes from The Masters Revealed describes only Blavatsky’s writings in the last few years of her life, after her return to Europe in the wake of the Society for Psychical Research investigation that branded her an ingenious imposter. In India she had behaved in ways that can only be called deceptive, manipulative, and cynical, so it would indeed be “airy” to evade these darker aspects of her life, and I did not. But both she and Olcott expressed remorse for the excesses of those years, and thereafter she tried to make amends by focusing her energies in less sensationalistic directions. A bit of context shows the real meaning of the passage quoted by Crews: “In The Secret Doctrine, The Key to Theosophy, The Voice of the Silence, and her writings in Lucifer [all published in the last four years of her life], she emerged for the first time as a spiritual teacher in her own right, devoting all her energies to the liberation and enlightenment of humanity. During her Indian period, HPB had gotten in over her head in a network of fraud and intrigue.” In context, the passage is not as airy as Crews’s editing makes it appear. But this is inconvenient to his effort to prove me less “trustworthy” than Peter Washington as a commentator on Theosophy and Blavatsky.

Crews describes Washington’s portrait of HPB as more nuanced than mine, but rather than being more subtly shaded, it is simply darker in tone. Although I admire Blavatsky far more than Washington does, my books acknowledge the unscrupulous, sensationalistic side of her personality as well as her sincerity in a world-ranging quest for spiritual truth. No other author has provided more detailed evidence of the manipulation and deceit behind the Mahatma letters. Nevertheless, my discovery of the extent of HPB’s affiliation with authentic initiates in Eastern and Western esoteric traditions is far more newsworthy from a scholarly point of view, and is the primary theme of my books. My emphasis on the latter does not occlude the former, whereas Washington does the opposite. In two pages devoted to the Theosophical Masters, he mistakenly attributes to Blavatsky dozens of bizarre teachings about them which first appeared years after her death in the writings of C.W. Leadbeater, and thereafter treats her connection with Masters as a fantasy and a joke. His is hardly a nuanced treatment of this central theme of her life and writings.

As for my occluding the evidence for a feminist reading of HPB’s life, Initiates of Theosophical Masters provides the only detailed exploration of that theme yet published, examining her role as a model for other women in “The Great White Sisterhood.” My books portray Blavatsky as obedient only in the narrow sense that she kept secrets in order to protect her hidden sponsors, who gave her broad mandates rather than detailed instructions. The ease and frequency with which she abandoned one set of Masters for another, as depicted in my books, is hardly the behavior of an obedient handmaiden. Her final liberation from even limited apprenticeship to powerful men was the crucial turning point in her career. This is implied by the passage misconstrued by Crews, as well as these from the introduction and final page respectively: “When HPB was freed from service to hidden Masters, she entered the most productive part of her career…. The saga of the Theosophical Masters ends at the point when HPB began to take control of her destiny, becoming her own Master.”

K. Paul Johnson
South Boston, Virginia

Frederick Crews replies:

K. Paul Johnson has indeed unearthed a number of compromising facts about Madame Blavatsky, as I myself pointed out. Thanks to his own occult sympathies, however, he does ultimately manage to take what I called a pious and deferential as well as an untrustworthy view of her. It isn’t just that he gratuitously credits HPB with having exercised “remarkable mediumistic skills.” [The Masters Revealed, p. 1] and with having produced “an astounding series of paranormal phenomena.” [Initiates of Theosophical Masters, p. 21] Nor is it simply that he looks with favor on some of the miracles in Theosophical gospel lore.* More to the point, he is awestruck by HPB’s accomplishments as a religious tutor to the world, one who must have been drawn forward by “some wider evolutionary purpose” (!) to realize her destiny. [ITM, p. 161] “The spiritual treasures she gathered and transmitted,” Johnson avers, “entitle her to recognition as a Great Soul in her own right.” [MR, p. 244] If that isn’t piety, what is? Johnson wants credit for skepticism because of his contention that “HPB’s adept sponsors were a succession of human mentors rather than a cosmic hierarchy of supermen.” [MR, p. 244] But the appearance of cogency dissipates as we wait in vain for any solid evidence that Blavatsky’s Eastern acquaintances were indeed adepts, that they “sponsored” her, that she vowed obedience to their “broad mandates,” or that the mandates themselves were ever given. Johnson’s thesis—that the Masters were real but human—amounts to Theosophical damage control of the kind that Blavatsky herself often practiced, trimming her claims somewhat when their exposed preposterousness had become a liability. The only difference is that Johnson, unlike HPB, appears woefully sincere about it all.

Finally, is Johnson’s Blavatsky Lite, as he now claims, the picture of a feminist—this figure who allegedly spent most of her adulthood protecting the secrets of mere mortal men and who was then “liberated” to become a conduit for the timeless male sages? Hardly. The Masters Revealed ends not with the line Johnson now cites about HPB’s “becoming her own Master” but with a sappy quotation about

a cloud of living light…. At last even the cloud-like appearance was gone; there was nothing of a material character left; the Image had become all soul—a streak of supernatural glory—which slowly faded away.

This is what’s left of Blavatsky when Johnson has finished gussying her up—not even a woman but a wraith. The all too solid HPB would have had a good belly laugh over that.

  1. *

    Johnson expresses faith, for example, in Master Koot Hoomi’s materialization in the tent of two traveling Theosophists in Lahore [MR, p. 140] and in the famous indoor rain shower produced in a New York hotel room by “two real adepts” [MR, p. 62] or their astral bodies. As I stated, historians possessing such a wavering commitment to reality “can’t tell us why occult ideas have proved seductive; they merely illustrate the problem.”

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