In the realm of who’s mad at me now, we can add Gary Lachman, the Blondie bassist turned occult apologist, who wrote to Blavatsky News this week to criticize my review of his Fortean Times article on why Helena Blavatsky should be rehabilitated. I had chided Lachman for his lack of scholarly rigor and his apparent misreading of facts, so it did not surprise me that he (a) chose to engage a third party rather than me directly to offer criticism and (b) completely misread my blog post in order to create a sense of self-vindication.
Here’s what Lachman told Blavatsky News:
It is odd that a mere mention of a ‘suspicion’ that Einstein may have read HPB brings out the kind of animus that Jason Colavito directs at my Fortean Times Article. I even send the reader to the web link that traces this idea and says unambiguously that it is most likely not true. If I wanted to perpetuate an untruth, would I send the reader to a source saying the opposite? I in no way say that Einstein ‘referred continuously’ to the Secret Doctrine or any other of HPB’s writings. But I guess one can’t be ironic or write with tongue in cheek about these matters. There are too many experts on both sides waiting to pounce on the slightest inaccuracy.
So let’s take this apart line by line.
Let’s start with what Lachman actually said about Einstein in this month’s Fortean Times:
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was initiated into the Theosophical Society; and there is even suspicion that Albert Einstein kept a well-thumbed copy of The Secret Doctrine by his bedside.
That’s it. So, let’s look at the source Lachman cites, which I linked to previously. It’s a blog post on Theosophy.net by Leon Maurer and it completely accepts the idea that Einstein read Blavatsky:
How Did Albert Einstein Intuit (Grok) E=mc^2? That's easy... He looked it up in The Secret Doctrine. […] A niece of Einstein reported that a copy of the Secret Doctrine was always on his desk.
Remember, this is the exact link Lachman gave in his Fortean Times article. My guess—and this is only a guess—is that Lachman has confused this blog post for a follow-up post by a different writer on Theosophy.net that debunks the story. Nevertheless, the link he sends his readers to is one that supports the Einstein-Blavatsky connection, so on this point Lachman is wrong. One might also wonder why he would choose to include information that he now asserts he has always believed to be false, but that is another question.
Second, Lachman accuses me of claiming he said Einstein “referred continuously” to The Secret Doctrine. In my blog post, I used those words after summarizing the positions of several other claimants, including S. L. Cranston, Eunice Layton, and Jack Brown. These are the authors who made the claim, along with other online sources; specifically, as my very next paragraph makes plain, I was referring directly to Boris de Zirkoff who specifically stated that “A set of the Secret Doctrine was always on the desk of Albert Einstein.”
Later authors, building on Zirkoff, turned this into frequent or constant reference, as a look at any number of online sources attests. Jeffrey D. Lavoie in The Theosophical Society (2012) claimed that Einstein consulted The Secret Doctrine “from time to time” throughout his life; Robert Kleinman in The Four Faces of the Universe (2007) claimed Einstein was reading the book at the moment of his death, leaving it open and unfinished on his desk; and the joint authors of The Laws of Life (2004) simply assert that Einstein “avidly studied” The Secret Doctrine. Thus, my summary that a “modern story” exists of Einstein’s continued reference to the book.
Lachman is therefore either unable to understand my posting or has purposely misrepresented it in order to make it look as though I am incorrectly attributing ideas to him. But even if I was referring to him, what is one to take from the words “well-thumbed” if not that it had been frequently read?
Lachman’s next claim is that he was writing “ironic[ally] or tongue in cheek” and therefore should not be held accountable for the stories he tells. Let us counter that with two points. First, there is no indication in the paragraph that he is speaking ironically. Here is the context:
Practically all the major figures of modern esotericism and spirituality—names like Rudolf Steiner, PD Ouspensky, GI Gurdjieff, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Dion Fortune, RA Schwaller de Lubicz, and many more—emerged from Theosophy’s ample folds. TS Eliot lampooned her in his modernist masterpiece The Waste Land; Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was initiated into the Theosophical Society; and there is even suspicion that Albert Einstein kept a well-thumbed copy of The Secret Doctrine by his bedside. Small wonder, perhaps, that the esoteric historian Christopher Bamford questioned why Blavatsky was not counted, along with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, as one of the “creators of the twentieth century”.
Did you detect in that paragraph that Lachman does not believe his own words?
But let us admit that he is correct; this brings me to point two: I will accept that he was writing ironically with tongue and cheek and therefore does not want us to accept any of his claims as true. Consequently, I will respect his wishes and accept that his discussions of the occult are not to be taken seriously and can therefore be safely ignored.
His final point is that I have pounced on his “inaccuracy” with “animus.” Again, Lachman fails to see that I merely criticized him for presenting a story that he now admits to believing as false buried within a list of true facts; the rest of my discussion of the Einstein claim was historical background. Lachman seems to feel that as an occult writer he should be able to propose without criticism or scrutiny the complete abandonment of five centuries of scientific discovery on the flimsy grounds that Helena Blavatsky could make a tea cup appear by “psychical power”, but any attempt to evaluate his claims is necessarily animus and hatred of his “truth”—a truth he now admits he does not believe and did not mean for readers to take seriously!
And to top it all off, instead of raising his concerns here on this blog where I made my critique, he sends them to Blavatsky News, knowing they will be repeated without challenge.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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