This article was published in New Dawn 137 (Mar-Apr 2013)
I was in search of the unknown…
– Madame H.P. Blavatsky (1831-1890)
Gary Lachman is one of today’s most intelligent and prolific authors on the world of the occult. He started out in the 1970s in the New York rock scene as one of the original members of the groundbreaking New Wave band Blondie. In 1996 he moved to London, where he established himself as a full-time writer, contributing to publications such as Fortean Times, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.
Since 2001 he has produced a steady stream of books, including Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius; The Secret History of Consciousness; A Dark Muse: A History of the Occult; and Politics and the Occult: The Right, the Left, and the Radically Unseen. In recent years he has published biographies of major esoteric figures including P.D. Ouspensky, Emanuel Swedenborg, Rudolf Steiner, and Carl Jung.
I first came to know Gary in the ’90s, when he was a frequent contributor to the now-defunct Gnosis magazine, for which I was editor. Although we’ve been in constant touch over the years, the last time I saw him in person was in 2006, when he was in New York to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of Blondie. We had a long conversation over lunch that led to his book Politics and the Occult. In 2012 Gary published Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, a biography of the pioneering nineteenth-century spiritual figure H.P. Blavatsky (also known as HPB). In January 2013 I conducted an e-mail interview with him about the book and about Blavatsky.
RICHARD SMOLEY (RS): To begin with, could you say a little bit about who H.P. Blavatsky was for those who aren’t familiar with her?
GARY LACHMAN (GL): Helena Petrovna von Hahn was born in 1831 into a family of the lower Russian nobility. Around her eighteenth year, she fled a brief and unconsummated marriage to an older man, Nikifor Blavatsky, and embarked on what by all accounts was a twenty-odd-year-long global quest for secret knowledge, triggered by her reading of her great-grandfather’s occult library and her own mystical experiences. During this time, she said, she met her Master Morya in London, who charged her with a mission: to reach Tibet, where she would be tutored in the control of her psychic abilities. She surfaced in New York City in 1873, where she lived in a woman’s cooperative on the Lower East Side. A meeting with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott led to a lifelong Platonic relationship, and in 1875, she, Olcott, and William Quan Judge founded the Theosophical Society. The rest is history.
RS: What made you choose her as the subject of a biography?
GL: I had already written studies of Ouspensky, Jung, Swedenborg, and Rudolf Steiner. As I argue in the book, HPB was a seminal influence on practically the whole of modern spirituality and esotericism. All of my work is centred on the idea of an evolution of consciousness, both in the individual and in culture at large. It seemed to make sense to take a new, fresh look at someone who kick-started a whole movement dedicated to this idea. Also, it struck me that much of what we think we know about HPB was really a myth, made up of hearsay and misperception, repeated for more than a century. I can’t say I’ve told the truth about Blavatsky, but I’ve tried to point out what others haven’t.
RS: What influence does Blavatsky continue to have on the current spiritual scene?
GL: Well, the Theosophical Society, in its many different forms, continues today. Much of what we think of as New Age really has its roots in Blavatsky’s early work. Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, as we understand it in the West, for example, emerged from her and her early followers. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, who collected the funerary texts we know as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was a Theosophist, and much of his work is informed by Theosophical ideas. Also, our contemporary interfaith and multifaith sensibilities, our striving toward a broad religious tolerance, has its roots in Blavatsky’s belief that all the major religions have their source in an ancient, ‘secret’ doctrine. She was very much ahead of her time.
RS: There is a broad spectrum of opinion about Blavatsky. On one end there are those who regard her as a fraud pure and simple. On the other end are those who see her as a much-maligned saint. Where would you place yourself on this continuum?
GL: Well, I don’t see her as a fraud or as a saint, so I guess I am in the middle, or rather, perhaps ‘above’ this either/or opposition. In the book I refer to a concept I borrow from the novelist Hermann Hesse. In an essay on Dostoyevsky, Hesse speaks of what he calls ‘Russian Man’, who is an antinomian character, “an hysteric, drunkard, criminal, poet and saint, all wrapped up in one.” Think of Rasputin, the ‘holy devil’. HPB was what we call a ‘trickster’, although that is something of a cliché. She wasn’t above mystical high jinks when she felt it was necessary – or when she got exasperated with the sanctimonious devotees who often wasted her time. But she was also a deeply spiritual, I would even say religious, moral character; I liken her to the Russian startzi – deeply spiritual individuals who gave off a kind of spiritual electricity. But she didn’t wear this on her sleeve.
RS: After having done so much research on Blavatsky, do you personally believe that her alleged occult powers were genuine?
GL: I keep an open mind about her powers. For one thing, I’ve had enough anomalous experiences to accept that the standard ‘scientific’ view of reality simply doesn’t cover all the bases, things like precognitive dreams, telepathy, and very convincing synchronicities. Of course, some of the things claimed about HPB – materialising teacups and other items – do seem impossible. But I point out in the book other examples of similar abilities. I look at a few of the most well known examples, and, given what we know about them – and we can only go by the accounts that have come down to us – I try to see how she could have faked them – if she did. Of course, because I can’t see how she could have faked the teacup or some other ‘materialisation’, doesn’t mean she couldn’t have. But I did rack my brain quite a bit about it, and I think I covered every possible angle. So my take is that, yes, they are incredible, but perhaps not impossible. I mean, look at what science tells us about dark matter, dark force, super strings, and n-dimensions. That seems pretty incredible too. Were her ‘phenomena’ important? That’s a different question.
RS: Blavatsky made much of her connection with the hidden Masters Morya and Koot Hoomi, as well as other Masters. Some take these to be actual men endowed with superhuman capacities who guided her in her path and in the creation of the Theosophical Society. Others say they are figments of her imagination. What’s your own position on this issue?
GL: Blavatsky’s Masters seem to me to be composed of several different things. There was the ‘mysterious Hindu of my dreams’ that came to her in her earlier life, and more than once saved her life – at least that was the story she told in her later years. Then there was the idea of ‘unknown superiors’, high-ranking individuals in the Rosicrucian Freemasonry her great-grandfather practised. Reading of these mysterious powerful but ‘hidden’ men, Blavatsky became committed to finding them and to realising the vision of a progressive, united Europe they championed. The Theosophical Society was her way of trying to make their goal of a universal fraternity come true. Then there were the actual men and women she encountered in her quest for knowledge; people like herself who were pursuing a similar quest. She considered many of these ‘Masters’ – a title of respect and gratitude. But of course the most significant Masters were Morya and Koot Hoomi, flesh-and-blood men who had mastered their own psychic powers and who taught her how to master her own. Whether they had the powers she claimed is still up for debate, but I believe they did exist. HPB lived out a myth and she saw these people as embodiments of the inner guides she believed were helping her on her path. So the Master she knew from her childhood dreams and the Master she met in London in 1851 may not have been the same actual person, but for her we can say that they fulfilled the same role.
RS: In your book you allude to unseen hands that work behind the scenes of history. Do you think there are such forces, and if so, how did they use Blavatsky?
GL: I’m not sure about the ‘hidden hand’ version of history – and the phrase ‘hidden hand’ comes from the esoteric scholar Joscelyn Godwin. That idea is a kind of staple of occult history, and also of our contemporary conspiracy consciousness. In one sense I’m not partial to it – I think we need to solve our problems ourselves, rather than expect a saviour, either some ‘inner circle’ of humanity or benevolent aliens or extradimensional beings or Mayan calendars, to do it for us. But on the other hand, given the dominance of the ‘rational’ view that history is meaningless, or, at best, the result of purely material forces, I think the idea of something at work ‘behind the scenes’ can be positive. At least it posits some meaning or intelligence at work. But the notion of some cabal of advanced individuals, holed up in the Himalayan fastness – or at the centre of the earth, or in the Arctic – does seem a bit de trop. I tend to see the idea as a metaphor for the evolutionary urge. But then perhaps there are angelic beings who drop us hints from time to time.
RS: Could you tell us a bit about Blavatsky’s major works, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine?
GL: In the book I say that I am more partial to Isis Unveiled than to The Secret Doctrine. One reason is that Isis Unveiled is often overlooked compared to her other major work. I think it is a remarkable achievement. It is one of the first occult compendiums, a fascinating, if often exhausting, collection of what esoteric and occult literature and philosophy was available at the time. It is the source of so much of what we see as ‘alternative’ literature today. In a way it is like Charles Fort’s books, only much better-written and containing more cogent argument. Basically, with Isis Unveiled Blavatsky tried to resurrect the Hermetic wisdom, which had been in eclipse since the 1600s. If nothing else she deserves credit for formulating the first philosophical – not religious – criticism of Darwinian evolution in it; credit for this is usually given to Samuel Butler (author of Erewhon), who wrote a remarkable series of books attacking Darwin in the 1870s and ’80s. Unfortunately these are forgotten today, but their arguments are still quite pertinent. (Someone should send copies to Richard Dawkins.) But Blavatsky got there ahead of Butler by a few months. She should be recognised in the history of ideas for this.
The Secret Doctrine is a kind of bible of esoteric and occult thought. It presents a full scale esoteric history of humanity and the universe, and presents the occult wisdom that Blavatsky says she learned during her tutelage in Tibet. It has more of a ‘carved in stone’ character than Isis Unveiled and has given rise to numerous offshoots, some good, some not so good.
RS: The Secret Doctrine presents an elaborate alternative history of human evolution, with references to things like Atlantis and Lemuria. What do you personally make of this history?
GL: I found it most profitable to read HPB’s occult history as a gigantic sci-fi or fantasy epic, a modern mythology, something along the lines of, say, Olaf Stapledon’s ‘future histories’ Last and First Men and Starmaker. I felt the same about Rudolf Steiner’s similar readings of the akashic record. I also think, though, that while the details in both Steiner’s and Blavatsky’s readings of Atlantis and Lemuria and so on can seem frankly unbelievable, the general sense of an earlier form of consciousness they present has much of value. With most such spiritual visions – William Blake’s can fit in here, as can Jung’s as depicted in The Red Book – we have to sift through what is personal, what is simply the unconscious being creative, and what may be a symbolic presentation of our actual spiritual reality. At the same time, there is much cogent argument for the idea that civilisations existed well before what we considered the beginning of history. In fact, the ‘official’ accounts are regularly pushed further and further back. Will archaeology eventually prove HPB was absolutely right? I doubt it. But it may and probably will show that she was right in saying that we aren’t the first ones to spend time on our planet.
RS: One criticism that is frequently levelled at Blavatsky was that she was a racist, and that her views on what she called the ‘Aryan root race’ inspired Nazism and similar ideologies. Where does the truth lie on this issue?
GL: Basically, although some of HPB’s remarks about race break the cringe barrier and are unacceptable to us, she was no more racist than what the prevailing sensibilities of the time accepted. Sadly, her remarks about root and subraces in The Secret Doctrine inspired some proto-Nazi characters in Austria and Germany – if you can call what they did with her brief remarks ‘inspired’. We can’t hold her responsible for that, or for any other appropriation of her ideas by less tolerant characters. In a sense, HPB is in the same position Nietzsche was in when the Nazis appropriated some of his work – he was in no way racist, nor was he a war monger, but Nazi hacks presented him in this way. It wasn’t until serious scholars repaired his reputation that he was cleared of any Nazi taint. The same needs to be done for HPB, and if I’ve helped in this effort, I am glad. I saw no evidence of Blavatsky being personally racist, and indeed, she abandoned her white, European privilege to live with Hindus and Sinhalese during her time in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). She was more anti-European, even anti-white, we can say, given her remarks about the British Raj and the Christian missionary movement. Some have called her anti-Semitic, but what this really means is that she had little fondness for the Judeo-Christian religion. One forgets that her central mission was the founding of a universal fraternity, regardless of race, creed, sex, or colour. One also forgets that she had much more influence on Gandhi than she did on Hitler. Gandhi found his life’s work through his contact with Theosophy.
RS: Could you say a little bit about the Theosophical Society and its place in twentieth- and twenty-first-century spiritual currents? What influence does it continue to have?
GL: Well, I’m not a Theosophist and am not associated with any Theosophical group, so I can only speak of what I’m aware of peripherally, as it were. But the Theosophical Society in its different forms – there are quite a few different incarnations of it – is still alive and kicking. I know here in London the Theosophical Society is a centre for a wide-ranging series of talks, lectures, and other activities, all linked to the themes of spirituality, consciousness, and ‘lost knowledge’. There is quite a lively Theosophical presence on the Internet, with several different sites devoted to different aspects of Theosophy in general and Blavatsky in particular. My book itself seems to have stimulated some discussions. So I think it will continue to maintain an important place in the ‘alternative’ world. What I have found with practically all of the movements or groups associated with the people I’ve written about – Steiner, Swedenborg, Ouspensky, etc. – is that they are all looking for ways to reboot themselves, to attract a wider, younger audience, to make themselves more inclusive. I think this is also paralleled in the broader, outer world. I’ve been involved with some art events in Europe and England at major museums and galleries that have had spirituality at their centre, and Theosophy is a frequent element in these. In fact, I am supposed to be involved in a major retrospective of the work of the Swedish Theosophical painter Hilma af Klint in Stockholm later this year. I think in general the official world is starting to see what many of us have been aware of for years: that esotericism has had a much bigger influence on the modern world that we realise.
RS: What are your own views of human evolution, particularly as it relates to the current era? What do you think is happening with the human race as a whole at this stage of the game?
GL: As I say, pretty much all my work is focused on the idea of an evolution of consciousness. My view is informed by the work of people like Colin Wilson, Owen Barfield, Jean Gebser, and others; I write about it at length in my book A Secret History of Consciousness. In a general sense, I think we are seeing the beginning of the breakdown of the kind of scientific reductionism that has been the dominant mode of consciousness for the last four centuries. This doesn’t mean that a neon sign will rise up over the horizon announcing the start of a new age. It doesn’t work like that, and we shouldn’t look for signs of this change in the news. Changes in consciousness don’t necessarily mean immediate changes in society or the world. All work begins with the individual. But I do think that in the last century or so, more and more people have realised that science, or rather, scientism, is simply no help when it comes to the big questions, such as ‘What is this all about?’ Science is very good on know-how but useless on ‘know why’. The Higgs boson can’t tell me why I exist and what I am supposed to do now that I’m here. For a long time we went along with the notion that if science can’t answer these questions, then they are nonsense. But that doesn’t work any more. The main challenge is for us to understand how our own consciousness works, not try to explain it away, as much contemporary neuroscience and philosophy of mind have tried to do. Science can’t tell me the meaning of my life, and the established religions – which once were able to satisfy this need for meaning – seem no longer capable of it. I think the answer lies in ourselves, in our own minds. I think HPB would have agreed.
Gary Lachman’s biography of the pioneering nineteenth-century spiritual figure H.P. Blavatsky is titled Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (352 pages, Tarcher 2012). It’s available from all good bookstores. Gary Lachman’s website is www.garylachman.co.uk.
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