HPB and Her Letters--The Formative Period

Originally printed in the May - June 2004 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Algeo, John. “HPB and Her Letters--The Formative Period.” Quest  92.3 (MAY-JUNE 2004):96-101

By John Algeo

John Algeo

H. P. Blavatsky was a prolific writer. In addition to her two major works, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, of two volumes each, and her shorter books, The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence, her periodical publications and miscellaneous writings in English and French fill fourteen volumes, which do not include her Russian works, yet untranslated into English except From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan and "The Durbar at Lahore." There are also the transcriptions of her remarks in The Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge. The quantity of HPB’s publications is phenomenal, especially considering the fact that most of them were produced during the last few years of her life, when she was chronically ill.

But in addition to her public writings, intended for publication, there is a mass of private writing—her correspondence with a great variety of people: her family in Russia, as well as friends and acquaintances in America, Europe, and India—scientists and spiritualists, journalists and generals, professors and preachers. Her correspondents included a distinguished Russian philosopher, Alexander Aksakoff; an American general, Francis Lippitt; a professor at Cornell University, Hiram Corson; a scholar of Platonism, Alexander Wilder; a British naturalist who anticipated Darwin in formulating the theory of natural selection, Alfred Wallace; and the inventor of the electric lightbulb, the phonograph, and other technologies, Thomas Edison. She wrote her letters in three languages: English, French, and Russian (and sometimes in a mixture of the three). Much of that correspondence—probably most of it—no longer exists, having been destroyed or lost. But what does remain gives a direct and intimate view into the mind and heart of the "Old Lady," as her intimates used to refer to her.

Even of the surviving correspondence, much no longer exists in autograph, that is, in its original form in her handwriting, but rather only in copies made by others or in published forms, the originals having long since disappeared. Many of the copied or published letters are clearly inaccurate, having been altered by the copyist or editor, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately to make some point. The nonautograph letters are obviously of lesser authority and reliability, but when they are all that survive, one must, for lack of anything better, accept them as evidence, albeit flawed, of what HPB wrote. When there is no surviving original but several copies made at various times by different persons, those copies often differ from one another, sometimes only in minor details, but sometimes extensively in content.

A complete collection of Blavatsky’s correspondence was begun by Boris de Zirkoff, her second cousin once removed, but he died before completing the collection or publishing any of it. De Zirkoff left his library, papers, and unfinished work to the Theosophical Society in America, where it is now archived. His manuscript collection of her letters comprises several large volumes. The American Society first arranged for John Cooper, an Australian interested in Theosophical history, to take on the task of completing the collection and editing of HPB’s correspondence for publication by the Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton. Cooper also planned to use an edition of the early letters for his doctoral thesis at Sydney University. However, Cooper died suddenly, with the projected first volume of the letters only in preliminary form and unedited professionally.

To complete the work, I assumed the editorship, with the assistance of my wife, Adele, and an advisory committee consisting of Daniel Caldwell, Dara Ekund, Robert Ellwood, Joy Mills, and Nicholas Weeks. We soon discovered that the texts of many of the letters were inaccurate, and we concluded that a reader would need fuller notes and explanations to understand the letters in their historical context. It became clear that more editorial apparatus was called for and that the text of every letter would have to be verified by comparing the copy we had with the original or with the best existing version. As HPB wrote to people all over the world, her letters are now deposited all over the world. Thus getting to see the prime versions, in order to ensure the accuracy of the texts to be published in The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, entailed a pilgrimage around the globe. To give an idea of the vastness of the hunt, I will mention some of the places one must look to find the Old Lady’s letters.

The Adyar Archives are the richest depository of HPB’s correspondence. In addition to whatever correspondence has been there from the days of HPB’s residence in Adyar, Annie Besant and others gathered as many of her letters as they could find and deposited them for safekeeping at the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society. But many of those letters are now in poor condition from the ravages of the years. Every effort is now being made to preserve them properly, but earlier damage cannot be undone.

Adele and I have spent long hours pondering the distinctive, but sometimes difficult to read, handwriting that we came to recognize as HPB’s. We worked together, puzzling out whether a particular squiggle was an s or an a or just a squiggle. Deciphering HPB’s script is a little like working a crossword puzzle: You go at a particular piece of it for a couple of hours, then put it aside and do something else for a while. When you return hours or days later, sometimes the mysteries solve themselves, and you immediately recognize what the message says. At other times, however, the puzzle remains a mystery, and you can only make an educated guess at the intention. But the work is fascinating, and when you finally succeed in making sense of an orthographical puzzle, you feel as though you have passed an initiation into the esoteric mysteries of HPB.

A number of other archives also contain letters or copies of letters by HPB. They include those of the Theosophical Society in America at Wheaton, Illinois; the Theosophical Society with international headquarters at Pasadena, California; the British Library; the College of Psychic Studies in London; the Thomas Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey; the Grand Lodge of Freemasons at Freemason’s Hall in London; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles; the Kroch Library of Cornell University in Itahaca, New York; the Society for Psychical Research in the Cambridge University Library; the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; the India Office Library (containing correspondence of the Political and Secret Foreign Service Office) in the British Library; and the private HPB Library in Toronto.

Some of HPB’s letters now survive only in published form in early magazines and newspapers. These publications, some of which still appear and some not, are diverse. They include general periodicals like the Calcutta Review, Ceylon Times, Hindu, New York Daily Graphic, New York Sun, New York World, and Times of India. Others are Theosophical journals like the Path (of London), Path (of New York), Theosophical Forum, Theosophical Nuggets, Theosophical Quarterly, Theosophic Isis, Theosophist, and Word. Others include specialized periodicals like Banner of Light, Carrier Dove, Harbinger of Light, Human Nature, Link, Madras Christian College Magazine, Medium and Daybreak, Rebus, and Spiritual Scientist.

Other letters survive only by quotation in whole or part in books. Such books include Contribution à la Histoire de la Société Théosophique en France by Charles Blech, Modern World Movements by Jirah Dewey Buck, Life and Teachings of Swami Dayanand by Vishwa Prakash, Life of Dayanand Saraswati by Har Bilas Sarda, The Theosophical Society, Its Objects and Creed by Arthur Theophilius, and Madame Blavatsky by K. F. Vania.

The hunt for HPB’s correspondence is a quest, and, like all quests, it is never completely finished, for there always remains the yet undiscovered letter somewhere over the horizon. As recently as 2002, a letter written by HPB in 1889 turned up in a minute book of the Bradford Lodge in England, and there are doubtless others waiting to be found elsewhere. But the collecting of her letters is not just a pastime or an antiquarian activity. HPB’s personal letters are of interest for what they show about her many-faceted personality, about her inner experiences, about her ideas as they were forming, about her view of her own mission, about the way the Theosophical Society came into existence and developed over the years, and about us as readers as we respond to those letters.

The letters in volume 1 of the Collected Writings edition of H. P. Blavatsky’s correspondence include all known surviving letters written before she and Colonel Olcott arrived in Bombay in 1879 to transfer the center of Theosophical activity from America to India. To get some sense of what those letters are like, I will quote from a few of them to show the range of her correspondence.

The first letter by HPB for which we have evidence is undated but was written to her relatives probably about 1863, when she was just a little over thirty years old. She had been traveling widely in Caucasian Georgia, especially in mountainous and wild country, and she apparently studied there with native magicians called kudyani, as a result of which she became known for the healing and parapsychological powers she was developing. During this time, she had a shamanic-like experience, in which she led a "double life." She was fasting, had a light fever, and would enter into a kind of meditative state, in which (as she later commented) she nevertheless "understood all, for I was never delirious." She describes the state in this letter to her relatives:

Whenever I was called by name, I opened my eyes upon hearing it and was myself, in every particular. As soon as I was left alone, I relapsed into my usual, half dreamy condition and became somebody else. . . . In cases when I was interrupted during a conversation in the latter capacity—say, at half a sentence spoken by either me or some of my visitors—invisible of course to any other, for it was I alone to whom they were realities—no sooner did I close my eyes than the sentence which had been interrupted continued from the word it had stopped at. When awake and myself I remembered well who I was in my second capacity and what I was doing. When somebody else—I had no idea of who was H. P. Blavatsky. I was in another far off country, quite another individuality, and had no connection at all with my actual life.

This experience or training seems to have lasted for several years, and during it she had only imperfect control of her own developing abilities. But it came to a head, a sort of crisis, in 1865, which was a watershed in her life. As a result of her experiences in the Caucasus during the preceding few years, her parapsychological powers, which had been active to varying degrees since her childhood, came increasingly under her conscious control, and her life took a new direction. In a later letter of March 1, 1882, to Prince Dondukov-Korsakov, HPB wrote, "Between the Blavatsky of 1845-1865 and the Blavatsky of the years 1865-1882, there is an unbridgeable gulf." When HPB finally left the Caucasus to go to Italy in 1865, she was never to return there again. She expressed her sense of freedom and release in a letter to her relatives, probably written about the time she left the Caucasus:

Now I will never be subjected any longer to external influences. The last vestige of my psycho-physiological weakness is gone to return no more. . . . I am cleansed and purified of that dreadful attraction to myself of stray spooks and ethereal affinities. I am free, free, thanks to Them whom I now bless at every hour of my life.

During the next five or so years, HPB was traveling in eastern Europe and the Near East. They are sometimes called the "veiled years" because we know so little about her whereabouts or activities then, but she seems to have contacted the Druzes and other esoteric and mystic groups in the course of her travels. By 1873 she was in Paris visiting a cousin and intending to settle down there. But unexpectedly, she received a letter from her adept teacher directing her to go to America. When her teacher spoke, HPB did not hesitate. So within two days she boarded a ship bound for New York, where she arrived on July 7, about a month before her forty-second birthday, and where it was her destiny to begin her public esoteric work.

The next five and a half years were the American period in HPB’s life, and most of the letters in volume 1 of her correspondence date from that time. A year and three months after landing in New York, HPB met Henry Steel Olcott. They immediately struck up (or, it would be more accurate to say, renewed from past lives) a friendship that would last the rest of their lives in their current incarnations and that would generate the Theosophical Society.

Olcott and Blavatsky met at a Spiritualist séance, and her first published article was the result of that experience. Indeed, Spiritualism loomed large in HPB’s plans, as she believed it was her calling to show two things: (1) that genuine—rather than spurious—Spiritualist phenomena showed the limitations of the materialistic science of her day and (2) that the phenomena were not what the Spiritualists thought they were. Much of HPB’s early correspondence thus deals with Spiritualism—the challenge it posed for science and its misconceptions and foibles.

One of her correspondents at this time was Louisa Andrews, a Spiritualist. But their correspondence was not limited to that subject. Louisa wrote to HPB about a man who frightened her. HPB’s answer was clearly intended to buck up the intimidated woman:

Fiddle dee stick! Milady—darling—I defy spirit or mortal, God or Demon to become dangerous to me. I was never controlled & never will be. I don't know a will on earth that would not break like glass in contact or conflict with mine.

Louisa Andrews’s comment to a mutual friend was "What a woman she is!" And indeed what a woman she was.

HPB wrote to her sister, Vera, probably in late 1875, concerning the effect of materialism and false science on the then dominant worldview:

Humanity has lost its faith and its higher ideals; materialism and pseudo-science have slain them. The children of this age no longer have faith; they demand proof, proof founded on a scientific basis—and they shall have it. Theosophy, the source of all human religions, will give it to them.

About that same time, HPB was engaged in writing her first book, Isis Unveiled, and of that work she wrote to Vera:

Well, Vera, believe it or not, some enchantment is upon me. You can hardly imagine in what a charmed world of pictures I live! . . . I am writing Isis; not writing, rather copying out and drawing that which she personally is showing me. Really, it seems to me as if the ancient Goddess of Beauty in person leads me through all the lands of bygone centuries which I have to describe. I am sitting with my eyes open and, to all appearances, see and hear everything real and actual around me; and yet at the same time I see and hear that which I write. I feel short of breath; I am afraid to make the slightest movement, for fear the spell might be broken. . . . Slowly, century after century, image after image, float out of nowhere and pass before me as if in a magic panorama; and meanwhile I put them together in my mind, fitting in epochs and dates, and know positively there can be no mistake. . . . It stands to reason, it is not I who do it all, but my Ego, the highest principles that live in me; and even then with the help of my Guru, my teacher, who helps me in everything.

HPB’s correspondence reflects the personality of those to whom she was writing as much as it does her own. One of those who was present at the initial formation of the Theosophical Society was an Englishman, Charles C. Massey, a barrister who had come to America to investigate the Spiritualist phenomena about which Colonel Olcott had published articles and a book. HPB wrote to Massey in a sophisticated, worldly, and allusive style quite different from that of much of her other writing. Here are some extracts from a letter of November 1876:

Hail Son of the West,--(End), adept of the Athenaeum, Seer of the Saville; may your shadow never diminish but dazzle the Elmo with its unfailing brightness. . . . Now that I have my infernal book off my hands, my heart yearns after the trans-Atlantic brace of Iamblicho-Apollonians, and Porphyritico-Hermetists. Are they treading with stone-proof and fire-proof sole the rugged path of truth, or wandering in the enticing fields of sense and juvenile fancy? . . .

Of all the flap-doodles, Cora Tappan’s last is the greatest. Did you read her masterly dissection of the word Occultism? or her Symbolism on the mother, the letter M and the religion of the ancients? Really, the woman seems to have a Verbo-mania. She gallops furiously through the Dictionaries clutching adjectives, nouns, and verbs with both hands as she passes and crams them into her mouth. It’s a perfect Niagara of Spiritual flap-doodle . . .

The cremation of the old Baron [de Palm] will take place next month if nothing prevents. He must be a pretty boy to look at now. The Newspapers begin ringing the bells already, and when the thing comes off you will see the liveliest excitement that this country has ever produced: I have a good mind to cremate myself in the sight of the public together with him (or rather what remains of him, for he has turned into a Baronial broth by this time) and then resuscitate again phoenix-like.

Isis Unveiled was published in 1877, and HPB sent a copy to her relatives, with some trepidation, for her aunt (who was only a little older than she) was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian. Several of the letters to this aunt (who was more like a sister) struggle with trying to convey to her HPB’s view of religion, as in the following passage for example:

You are wrong in expressing the opinion, my friend, that I only "cast a glance" towards Christ, but in reality yearn for the Buddha. I look straight into the eyes of Christ, as well as of Gautama the Buddha. That one of them lived twenty-five centuries ago and the other nineteen does not make the slightest difference to me. I see in both of them the identical Divine Spirit. . . . Neither Christ nor Gautama the Buddha nor the Hindu Krishna have ever preached any dogmas.

As the end of this period approached, much of HPB’s correspondence was with people in India, to which she was preparing to travel, and that correspondence concerns the momentous change about to occur in her life. She and Colonel Olcott sailed from New York at the end of 1878. They paused for a brief period in England, and in January 1879, shortly before boarding ship in Liverpool to make the long voyage to Bombay, HPB wrote to her sister Vera, sending some photographs taken in England. This is the last letter in volume 1 of her correspondence:

I start for India. Providence alone knows what the future has in store for us. Possibly these portraits shall be the last. Do not forget your orphan-sister, now so in the full meaning of the word.

Good-bye. We start from Liverpool on the 18th. May the invisible powers protect you all!

I shall write from Bombay if I ever reach it.

Elena

This correspondence, in its fullness, of which only a few fragments have been included here, depict a remarkable woman, who was engaged in a remarkable quest: to bring timeless Wisdom to the modern world. She was no saint, but she was dedicated to her mission. She had remarkable powers, but she claimed no special status for herself. She was, in turns, tender and witty, considerate and arch, indignant about fraud and inspirational in her call to Truth. As one of her teachers wrote of her, she was flawed and imperfect—but she was the best available. And the letters she wrote show her in all those aspects.


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