Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America
- abook review
National Review , May 1, 1995 by Hugh Kenner
ALL RIGHT, the baboon. It was stuffed and bespectacled and stood in Madame's parlor, wearing a wing collar, morning coat, and tie, with tucked beneath its hairy arm the manuscript of a lecture on The Origin of Species, the book alleged to document its kinship with humans. Its name, shared with a prominent Darwinian academic, was ``Professor Fiske,'' and it was clearly either setting forth to deliver the lecture or just back from having done so. The place was New York, the time the mid 1870s.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was then in her forties: ``A short, stout forceful woman, with strong arms, several chins, unruly hair, a determined mouth, and large, liquid, slightly bulging eyes.'' Her father was a military man of the lesser Russian - German nobility, her mother a Russian romantic novelist ``descended from a much grander noble house.'' The mother's gift of overlaying banality with fictions was something the daughter inherited; Helena's sister remembered how she and other younger children had been kept entranced by Helena's way of telling how ``Each of the stuffed animals had taken her in turn into its confidence, had divulged to her the history of its life in previous incarnations or existences.''
That gift was to become Helena's lifelong resource. At 17 she married a forty-something vice governor named Blavatsky; a few weeks later she fled from him. The story of her next quarter- century is a chaos of improvisations studded with occasional fact. She claimed to have ridden bareback in a circus, toured Serbia as a concert pianist, set up as an itinerant spirit medium. In particular, she would boast that she had traveled alone in Tibet and lived there more than seven years. (Seven years is the prescribed ``period of apprenticeship for candidates seeking initiation into esoteric mysteries.'') That was where certain ``Himalayan Masters'' revealed to her what the West still knows as Theosophy. What they had to impart is strangely analogous to what the stuffed animals were divulging decades before: cycles of former lives, and the details thereof.
The strongest argument against Tibetan travel, Mr. Washington suggests, is that ``the breathless, tactless, and massively stout Blavatsky managing to climb steep mountains in brutal weather while concealing herself from trained observers is just too difficult to imagine.'' Far more germane than Tibet is Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803 - 73). Madame Blavatsky paid close attention to his occult works: so much so that her new religion ``was virtually manufactured from his pages.''
By 1875 she was generating Isis Unveiled, thirty-page installments of which she would find on her desk of a morning, written by invisible hands while she slept. Or, ``a Master would take over her body and write for her, unquestionably a help with a book running to half a million words.'' Its influence was easily comparable to that of the Book of Mormon. The Theosophical Society was founded ``almost by accident'' on September 7, 1875. Theosophy ``started from the premise that fundamental truths and values are universal and that all religions are essentially the same religion.'' To impress outsiders, complicated ``phenomena'' were staged; brooches vanished and rematerialized, dishes broke and were reconstituted. (Matter, you see, is illusion, dominated by spirit.) There were hints of scandal. An accomplice who felt underpaid muttered threats of exposure. By 1884 the Society for Psychical Research (e.g., Ruskin, Gladstone, Tennyson, William James) had decided to look into these Theosophists.
Investigation followed investigation. Nothing final emerged. HPB was by then ``so grotesquely obese that at times she could hardly move, and the combination of illness and fat meant that when she took ship at Madras she had to be hauled on board in a chair attached to a rope and pulley.'' By May 8, 1891, she was dead in London.
And with his book but one quarter finished, Peter Washington is suddenly deprived of a focal figure. In the decades of squabbling that ensued, no one as interesting as HPB would emerge; no one with her genuine aura of mystery, or her occasional sudden candor about the need, now and then, to deceive the imperfectly convinced. Her quarrelsome successors were by contrast straightforward con artists.
An exception was the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861 - 1925), whose father had hoped to steer him into science. But Rudolf instead ``discovered the great classics of German literature and philosophy in the library of the local doctor, an eccentric figure who diagnosed patients from a moving train as it passed the station platforms on which they were standing.'' Since the doctor never appears in the narrative again, his diagnostic habits are of no relevance; but those last 21 words enshrine a bit of zaniness our author couldn't pass up, perhaps feeling that to compensate for the loss of HPB his book needed all the titters it could muster. There are many such small symptoms. Here's Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect, present because his wife was a Theosophical fellow-traveler: ``A man of strong tastes with a passion for jokes, his pet hates included long-stemmed glasses, fish knives, cut flowers, silk lampshades, pile carpets, the seaside, statistics, painted nails, the diagonal placing of furniture -- and, of course, religious enthusiasm.'' Only that last item, clearly, is pertinent here. Or consider how an ex - Secret Service man named Bennett ``experienced a moment of mystical illumination in a cemetery overlooking the Bosporus while recovering from foot-and-mouth disease caught by eating Bulgarian cheese.'' Though it's the content of the illumination that will matter, what we're apt to remember is that cheese disease. Or sometimes a seeming specificity proves shaky. Here's ``Louis Fuller,'' a dancer; readers of Yeats may remember that the name was ``Loie.'' Or ``Amy Semple McPherson'': read, of course, ``Aimee.
What's lacking, I'd say, is a unifying theme. What hunger do exotic religion-substitutes fulfill, then as now? The money the con artists competed for was after all given willingly. Why? The cliche answer is that Science -- i.e., Darwinism -- seemed to have ousted Religion, leaving unfulfilled a hunger to which Science isn't equal. What was needed, then, was an exotic religion, capable of reducing the world of scientific expertise to sheer illusion. That seemed to mean getting rid of matter itself. Christian Science had been one contender. The Theosophy of Tibetan sages was another. Page after page, the narrative of Madame Blavatsky's Baboon is more strongly attracted to the con men than to their disciples, though it's the phenomenon of discipleship, indeed its sheer scale, that keeps tickling one's curiosity. In country after country they were numbered in the thousands.
Because of Yeats the theme has been much examined with regard to Ireland; but Yeatsian Ireland is a special case. The Irish Theosophists were generally Anglo-Irish, for whom Irish Catholicism, perceived as arid and mechanical, was no alternative. But how to account for so many British disciples? So many French? German? Swiss?
Mr. Washington (by the way a London resident and the current editor of Everyman's Library) has written a diverting book. There's another book still to be written.
Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America, by Peter Washington (Schocken, 470 pp., $27.50)