In the current issue of the Fortean Times (June 2013), Blondie bassist and anti-materialist occult writer Gary Lachman has an article on Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, in which Lachman discusses reasons why the mystic should be rehabilitated from the taint of fakery. Lachman’s article is tied to his book, Madame Blavatsky, published last year and unread by me. Lachman celebrates Blavatsky as impetus behind our modern “multicultural, multi-faith, pluralistic sensibilities,” as well as our “current grassroots interest in a direct, immediate knowledge and experience of spiritual reality,” which he takes pains to claim the New Age has perverted.
So, yes, this is yet another argument that science and scholarship are bad because they don’t assume the reality of a spiritual dimension of gods and monsters.
As a point of fact, Western interest in Eastern faiths did not originate with Blavatsky and had been a popular subject of study in the West for a century before her. Additionally, just before Blavatsky started to write, Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors (1864), which forms good evidence for the widespread nature of the beliefs he condemned; these included pantheism and the belief that reason guides each individual to God through any number of equally valid religious paths. These “errors,” so popular in the 1860s, are the same beliefs for which Lachman gives Blavatsky credit, and the existence of the Syllabus is strong evidence that Blavatsky was a result not an originator of the religious and spiritual changes of the nineteenth century.
Lachman’s very first page does not start off very well for an alleged reappraisal of Blavatsky based on solid research. Lachman repeats Theosophical speculation that Einstein kept a copy of the Secret Doctrine on his desk, something that no reputable biography of Einstein and no photographs of his desk have been able to confirm. Although he phrases the claim conditionally (“may have”), he uses it as an element building toward an argument from authority that the interest of Victorian and Edwardian figures presupposes value in Blavatsky’s work. The claim allegedly originates with Einstein’s non-existent niece, but Lachman cites a blog post.
According to S. L. Cranston’s 1993 biography of Blavatsky, Einstein’s niece visited Theosophy headquarters in India and told Eunice Layton, a theosophical lecturer, that she had to see the place because although she knew nothing of theosophy she was driven to India by the sheer power of the book kept on her uncle’s desk. If that doesn’t sound like a myth, I don’t know what does. We can pretty much be sure it’s a myth because Einstein had no niece. His only sister had no children. Cranston’s sources were a 1974 article by theosophist Iverson Harris and a 1983 Ojai Valley News article by “Jack Brown,” a man who does not otherwise have any record of involvement with Einstein and whose article contains unproved assertions, including the claim that the otherwise unknown “Howard Rothman” was one of Einstein’s closest friends.
Somehow this original story that Einstein read Blavatsky in 1935 transformed into the modern story that he referred continuously to the book and left it open on his desk at his death.
The oldest reference I could find, from Harris’s 1971 book Mme. Blavatsky Defended, quoting earlier material, was by Boris de Zirkoff, Blavatsky’s grand-nephew and the editor of her writings: “A set of the Secret Doctrine was always on the desk of Albert Einstein.” Zirkoff had a vested interest in promoting an Einstein-Blavatsky connection since, as he claimed in the “Scientific Vindication of Occultism,” Blavatsky’s mumbo-jumbo allegedly prefigured Einstein’s later attempts at a unified field theory, thus giving a scientific rationale for believing in Theosophy. Zirkoff apparently was a visitor at the Mount Wilson Observatory in L.A., at least according to Cranston, and there met and befriended the astronomers, including Einstein’s friend Gustav Stromberg, who later lectured at the Theosophical Society. Perhaps a misunderstanding of an attempt by Stromberg to be polite about Blavatsky stands behind the story? Or did Zirkoff make the whole thing up?
After the RFK assassination in 1968, news accounts claimed that Sirhan Sirhan read Blavatsky and cited Einstein as another who had also read her, though making no claim that Einstein kept the book on his desk.
It appears likely that if she did not make up the whole thing from whole cloth, Eunice Layton transferred Zirkoff’s relationship to Blavatsky to a fake niece of Einstein’s by misunderstanding Zirkoff’s (probably fictional) claims. Or, maybe somebody passing herself off as the alleged niece lied to her. Who knows?
At any rate, it doesn’t say much for Lachman’s scholarship that he repeats the Einstein claim on the basis of a blog post.
Lachman begins the meat of the article unpromisingly with claims that “mainstream historians” have ignored anything occult or esoteric, by which he presumably means the historians of the 1950s and early 1960s, for prior to this the literature is lousy with all manner of bizarre claims about the role of the occult in history, and after this postmodernism resurrected such ideas as a driving force in culture. But even this is not true. One of the best Classical books of its era, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) by E. R. Dodd, is pretty much exactly what Lachman imagines never existed, even if Dodd and Lachman differ on whether the occult has an independent reality. Lachman’s problem seems instead to be that mainstream historians do not agree with him that the occult has an objective reality.
After this, we get a potted history of Blavatsky that acknowledges the controversial nature of many of her claims to magic powers and Tibetan travel, though subtly suggesting through emphasis of circumstantial evidence that Lachman believes some truth sits behind Blavatsky’s claims. While discussing the alleged Indian masters who provided Blavatsky with cosmic truths, Lachman skips over the fruits of that labor: The Stanzas of Dzyan, allegedly translated from ancient originals, but with no reality outside Blavatsky’s imagination. Instead, he credulously reports the idea that these Indian masters had a psychic post office in Blavatsky’s lacquered cabinet, materializing letters to her from the ether on demand. He dismisses the later exposure of this cabinet’s sliding back doors (through which letters could be passed) as a fraud perpetuated to discredit Blavatsky, and he asks readers to question how Blavatsky could have faked the materialization of letters from the ceiling or other places beyond the cabinet. Apparently stage magic is not among his specialties.
Nor does Lachman mention that Blavatsky’s two tomes, Isis Unveiled and Secret Doctrine, have been shown to be plagiarized, and were heavily criticized for their pseudoscience and outright lies about the religious traditions they claim to represent. Max Müller, the Victorian philologist, was driven to such a fit of rage that he wrote an article about “Esoteric Buddhism” to detail Blavatsky’s mistakes. Another important piece detailed Blavatsky’s plagiarism, with various books that stood behind all of the “revelations” of Theosophy. Blavatsky, of course, had an answer for a similar conundrum, that her beliefs also mirrored early science fiction novels: Earlier writers simply had partial knowledge of the truths of Theosophy! But, given the fact that her work has clear antecedents, there is no reason to propose the existence of imaginary ancient texts or other planes of existence filled with spiritual leaders from the Moon and Venus, as her Indian Masters were eventually revealed to be.
This leaves Blavatsky’s parlor tricks, less exciting than those of your standard Vegas magician, as the only remaining pillar on which to hang Lachman’s idea that Blavatsky needs to be “rehabilitated.” Lachman’s article, while merely a précis of his book, oversimplifies though in ways he condemns “mainstream” scientists for doing; he for example fails to recognize the vast changes in the Society for Psychical Research between its scientific heyday in the 1890s and its modern incarnation as a much more credulous organization. Thus, he sees the 1986 SPR press release by a Fortean psychic retracting an 1885 report on Blavatsky’s fraud as a “vindication,” context and conflicts of interest be damned. He thunders that the early SPR was conceived in sin, “overly critical” in demanding clear proof of claims and unjustly assuming the potential for fraud among claimants to psychic powers. He raises some interesting criticisms of the 1885 report by Richard Hodgson, but he does not apply the same critical lens to the reports of Blavatsky’s supporters, which cannot logically be accepted at face value if critics’ views are likewise discounted as the product of bias and prejudice.
Logically, of course, even accepting that Blavatsky had magic powers implies nothing about the correctness of her spiritual beliefs, for her powers could come from any number of sources, including the Devil, for example, acting to fool Christians into accepting Theosophy. Therefore, to rehabilitate Blavatsky as a spiritual guide would involve proving the validity of her claims in Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, a tall order given their reliance on assumptions that cannot be provide and outdated sources long since proved false. Oh, well. As long as Lachman read a blog that said someone once talked to Einstein’s non-existent niece about why it’s all true, then I guess it’s all good.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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