Book Reviews 2009

Into Great Silence
DVD. Zeitgeist Films, October 2007. 162 minutes.

Symbols play an important part in human life. In their concreteness, they have the ability to touch the whole person with all his feelings and senses. As a result, they can have a greater impact than can an abstract discussion directed to the intellect alone.

Into Great Silence can be regarded as a symbol in this sense. It is a three-hour film, mostly silent, that takes the viewer into the realm of monastic life. The director, Philip Gröning, stayed at a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps for six months and let his camera follow the monks in their daily and weekly life—all in silence.

The camera observes the hermits in their individual cells, eating their meals, chanting in the chapel, doing manual labor, and participating in the liturgical celebrations of the yearly feasts. It also depicts the lovely alpine scenery surrounding the monastery and its changes during the seasons of the year. The deep forest, the blue sky with sun and clouds, the birds flying in the air, the rushing streams, and the agricultural plots participate in the silence of the hermits and surround it with nature's beauty.

As one sits through the film for three hours and experiences the rhythm of this silent life, one realizes that this is a story of love. Supplied with the bare necessities of daily living, the monks have the freedom and time to focus on this meeting with God. The divine speaks in silence, and the audience experiences this truth in the rhythm of the film. Briefly at the very end, the film shows a monologue of a blind hermit who talks about the centrality of God in human life. His few words sum up what the audience has experienced for three hours. More words are not needed.

Robert Trabold

This reviewer has a Ph.D. in sociology with specialties in urban issues and the religious expressions of people in transition. His reflective poetry and articles on contemplative prayer have been published in Quest and other journals.


Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen
Gary Lachman
Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2008. Paperback, $19.95, xxiv + 276 pages.

Most books presuming to deal with politics and the occult have been marred by a conspiratorial premise ("the Illuminati are secretly running the world!") and a cavalier attitude toward fact checking. Indeed, conspiracy peddler Texe Marrs once filled a thirty-five-dollar, six hundred-page book with photos of politicians giving "V for victory" signs, "OK" signs, and just about every other hand gesture under the sun and interpreting these as secret Illuminatist and Satanic signals.

Luckily, Gary Lachman's latest book takes a saner and more even-handed approach to the considerable overlap between matters political and occult. This is not surprising, as Lachman has emerged over the past twenty years as one of our most readable and reliable writers on spiritual and esoteric systems and personalities.

The task that Lachman sets for himself in Politics and the Occult is straightforward enough: Beginning with the Rosicrucian uproar at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Lachman provides a historical survey of the political impact in the West of occult and esoteric ideas over the last four hundred years. He nimbly leads the reader through controversies surrounding British and European secret societies, the French Revolution, curious erotic mystical sects like the Moravian Brotherhood, and more recent occult figures such as Nicholas Roerich, Papus, R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, and Julius Evola. The book ends with a meditation on the parallels between the present Christian Right in the United States and manifestations of a spiritually tinged fascism that Lachman discusses in earlier chapters.

For the bulk of Politics and the Occult, Lachman is content to provide an anecdotal chronology of colorful characters in a generally nonjudgmental manner, simply letting the facts speak for themselves. It is only in the final chapters, as the people under consideration begin to brush up against twentieth-century "isms," particularly fascism, that Lachman seems obliged to render judgments, albeit judgments circumscribed by considerable ambivalence.

For instance, what are we to make of the sympathy of Mircea Eliade, the distinguished scholar of comparative religion, for the mystical-fascist-nationalist Legion of the Holy Archangel Michael during his young adulthood in Romania? Or Eliade's ongoing correspondence with Julius Evola, the brilliant Italian Traditionalist who synthesized a kind of esoteric fascism that inspired youthful extreme rightists to engage in a nihilistic terror spree during the 1970s in Italy? Do these instances of Eliade's hidden past totally undercut the value of his considerable later scholarship in shamanism, cross-cultural studies, and religious myth? Lachman considers such questions at some length and provides enough thoughtful analysis for the reader to grasp the difficulty of a single clear-cut answer.

In considering the contemporary Christian Right, Lachman steps most fully off the fence and voices his concerns that their theocratic yearnings, if put into practice, would usher in an era of totalitarianism reminiscent of earlier fascist regimes. Given a choice between the modern world with all its flaws (materialism, consumerism, celebrity worship, and all the rest) and the flight from modernity (whether quasi-fascist Traditionalist or Christian Rightist), Lachman ultimately sides with a modern world that allows at least enough freedom to voice one's opposition to its faults.

For the reader who has only a vague sense of the history of the Western occult traditions' interaction with the political arena, Politics and the Occult should serve as a salutary overview. In a genre loaded down with garbage, Lachman's book is a breath of fresh air.

However, I feel compelled to note that if your reading of esoteric history has already encompassed books by James Webb (The Occult Underground, The Occult Establishment, and The Harmonious Circle) and Joscelyn Godwin (Arktos and The Theosophical Enlightenment), as well as Mark Sedgwick's thorough study of the Traditionalists (Against the Modern World), you may find little new in Politics and the Occult. Lachman draws heavily on these sources, and while he serves up a highly readable distillation, no new ground is broken (to wildly mix metaphors).

Moreover, more than once Lachman cites, as sources, books that can most charitably be described as "speculative." The works of Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince purveying "alternative history"—such as The Templar Revelation, The Stargate Conspiracy, and The Sion Revelation, the last of which Lachman cites several times—may be both engaging and exciting (as well as best-sellers), but their presence as footnoted sources does not breed confidence in the thoroughness of Lachman's research. Similarly, the citation of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's Temple and the Lodge for anything having to do with the Knights Templar and Scotland is problematic. (See Robert L. D. Cooper's The Rosslyn Hoax? for a valuable debunking of most such claims about Scottish Templars.)

Luckily, such speculative sources are few in Lachman's book, and for the most part, their use is confined to minor matters. Pop histories such as Politics and the Occult fulfill an important role in disseminating information to intelligent readers who don't have the time or resources to thoroughly read across a given field. Lachman has a gift for taking on complex subjects and personalities (Rudolf Steiner and Emanuel Swedenborg, for example) and making them accessible. I just hope that the pressure of making a living in the literary marketplace doesn't cause him to surrender to what the Traditionalist René Guénon called the "reign of quantity."

Politics and the Occult is a good book. Here's hoping that Lachman's next one is even better.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was the publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis magazine (1985-99) and is coauthor (with Richard Smoley) of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (Quest, 2006). His forthcoming book, The Masonic Enigma, will be published by HarperOne.

 

Letters from a Sufi Teacher
Shaikh Sharfuddin Maneri
Translated by Baijnath Singh. Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 2006. Paper, $7.75, x + 130 pages.

This is a very welcome reprint of Baijnath Singh's 1908 translation of excerpts from the letters of Sheikh Sharfuddin Maneri, a fourteenth-century Indian Sufi. It is a very readable book, divided into short sections on a great variety of topics. The original author, from north India, reveals the influence not only of Islam and the Sufi heritage but also of yoga, the Upanishads, and Buddhism. He points toward a path that transcends the ordinary sort of religious belief and leads one toward the direct inner revelation of God.

It is not enough, according to Maneri, just to read this book and absorb its theories. He insists that one must find a master who can lead beyond all theories, all words, all thoughts to the inner illumination of God's presence. The path is difficult, for it involves learning to control one's "desire-nature" and "self-ness." Indeed having a grand "spiritual experience" may lead one astray, for it usually promotes one's sense of ego.

Baijnath Singh's translation is quite accessible, though he occasionally lapses into "thee-thou" language that has been archaic for centuries. Moreover, he sometimes inserts Theosophical language that was certainly not used by the original author. Nevertheless, this is a fine, even moving, exposition of Indian Sufism that is highly recommended.

Jay G. Williams

This reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. Formerly a Presbyterian minister, now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, he is author of the Quest Books publications, Judaism and Yeshua Buddha.


A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion
Catherine L. Albanese
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Cloth $40.00, Paper $22.50, 628 pages.

Written by the chair of the religious studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the work will doubtless remain a standard in the field of American religious history for many years to come. In the past, American religious history has often been seen as either the history of the various denominations or as a series of evangelical waves beginning with the first Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century. Albanese joins several other recent scholars (I think particularly of Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls and Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney's Hidden Wisdom) in looking at the American scene with very different eyes, charting the importance of what she calls "metaphysical religion" for the history of America.

Although Albanese offers a four-point definition of what she means by metaphysical religion, it turns out that the term includes virtually everything that is neither denominational nor evangelical. Thus, beginning with European religious roots and proceeding historically through American history, she deals with (among many other topics) Hermetic philosophy and alchemical traditions, the "cunning" people of seventeenth-century England and America, Native American religion, African obeah cults, the Shakers and other communal sects, Transcendentalism, mesmerism, spiritualism, faith healers, Christian Science, New Thought, the influence of Asian religions, and of course Theosophy.

Throughout, A Republic of Mind and Spirit exhibits an amazingly close reading of letters, diaries, and other texts. The work is a monument to prodigious scholarship, often bringing to light the importance of long-forgotten writers and movements. At the same time, the book is eminently readable and captivating in style. This reader had no temptation to skim or to skip a section. The history of so-called metaphysical religion in America is fascinating.

Nevertheless, some problems emerge as one proceeds. First of all, the term "metaphysical religion" is so broad that one sometimes wonders whether there is much connection at all among the various persons and movements examined. Do Norman Vincent Peale and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky really belong to the same general movement? If so, why not include Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian who was certainly interested in metaphysical ideas?

Secondly, it is far more difficult than this work implies to separate American religion from what was happening in Europe. For instance, Hegel's philosophy certainly influenced many American thinkers, including Mary Baker Eddy, but his name appears only once in the text. Carl Jung's psychology is also barely mentioned, even though he strongly influenced a variety of American thinkers as well. European occult figures such as Éliphas Lévi, A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, P. D. Ouspensky, and G. I. Gurdjieff were far more important for the development of American "metaphysics" than the author suggests. In other words, Europe influenced America not just at the beginning but continually.

Third, there are some strange omissions from the discussion. For instance, although the philosopher Paul Carus rates a short discussion, the author says almost nothing about D. T. Suzuki, who worked for Carus and who, almost single-handedly, popularized Zen in America. Perhaps Albanese does not regard Zen as "metaphysical," but given her very broad definition of that term, that seems difficult to imagine. Moreover, although she mentions Jiddu Krishnamurti, she never explores his very interesting philosophical position. Sufis are, by and large, overlooked, while American Taoists are treated rather cavalierly.

Fourth, Albanese discusses the New Age movement without explaining the precession of the equinoxes and why this time is believed to be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. She also believes that New Age movement is dying. Perhaps it is, but if one surfs the Web or consults, for instance, the offerings of the Open Center in New York, it hardly seems moribund at all.

Finally, many Theosophists may be upset by Albanese's treatment of their movement. She devotes all of her attention to William Q. Judge and Katherine Tingley and their Theosophical Society (now headquartered in Pasadena, California) and says virtually nothing about the Theosophical Society in America, the society founded by Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott.

Overall, however, the author treats most traditions with an even hand, offering description without critique. Her aim is to right the balance of emphasis in the study of American religious history, and that she does with both erudition and grace. I recommend the book enthusiastically.

Jay G. Williams

This reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. Formerly a Presbyterian minister, now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, he is author of the Quest Books publications Judaism and Yeshua Buddha.


 

The Light of the Russian Soul: A Personal Memoir of Early Russian Theosophy
Elena Fedorovna Pisareva
Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2008. 119 pages, paper, $19.95.

This small, charming memoir opens the door to a little-known chapter in Theosophical history–its early days in H.P. Blavatsky's homeland of Russia. The author, Elena Pisareva (1855-1944), first encountered Theosophy in 1901 at a spa in what is now Slovenia. When she returned home to Russia, members of the Theosophical Society contacted her, and she quickly became involved.

While H. P. Blavatsky was a native of Russia, most of her spiritual exploration and teaching took place abroad. Moreover, at that time the Orthodox Church had close links with the tsarist regime, and alternative spiritual viewpoint often suffered under prohibitions. Thus the Theosophical Society took longer than might have been expected to establish itself in Russia. Nevertheless, by the turn of the twentieth century, pioneers such as Nina Gernet and Anna Kamensky were making efforts to promote it.

Pisareva's memoir is particularly focused on the personality and work of Anna Kamensky and her tireless work in the face of opposition, first from the tsarist government and then from the early Soviet state. Kamensky shines as an exemplar of calm, confident, fearless, and truthful spiritual endeavor, regardless of outer circumstances. Together with her coworkers, she achieved legal recognition for the TS in Russia in 1908. Her labors continued until the postrevolutionary state halted the Society's activities in 1920. In 1921, Kamensky and a colleague, carrying only necessary items and copies of the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels, fled across the Finnish border. In 1925, Kamensky reestablished a Russian section of the TS in exile.

In this memoir, Pisareva, who was well acquainted with the Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner and his second wife, Marie von Sivers, discusses the departure of the majority of the German Section of the TS under Steiner's leadership to form the Anthroposophical Society in 1912. She also describes the contacts of the early Russian Theosophists with Leo Tolstoy and his family and followers. Anyone interested in Theosophical history will enjoy Pisareva's account.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement.


 

What is Hinduism? Modern Adventures into a Profound Global Faith
by the editors of Hinduism Today
Kapaa, Hawaii: Himalayan Academy, 2007. 392 pages, paper, $39.95.

Many introductory books about Hinduism are available in English. Most of those for sale in the United States are written from a Western point of view and at least pretend to be objective. This volume is very different. Compiled from articles published in the newsmagazine Hinduism Today, the work offers a view of Hinduism as it is known to Hindus themselves. It is positive, enthusiastic, and even mildly “evangelical.” At the same time, the authors can be quite critical of customs, such as untouchability, that have doomed many people to a life beyond the fringe of Indian society. Overall, however, the text is warmly pro-Hindu and provides an interesting and informative view about how one-sixth of the world’s population thinks and lives.

Each chapter originally appeared separately and therefore can be read independently. At the same time, these various chapters are organized topically, which provides the book with a modicum of order. The basic topics are: “The Nature of Hinduism,” “Hindu Metaphysics,” “How Hindus Worship,” “Spiritual Practice,” “Family Life and Culture,” and “Hindu Ethics.” the book may be read from cover to cover, or one can read a later chapter without having read everything that preceded it.

One very positive feature of this book is its many photographs and illustrations. Scarcely a page goes by without some reproduction of a piece of artwork, a temple photograph, or some other illustrative material. There are many pictures of Hindus practicing their faith. The reader is surrounded throughout by visions of Indians and India. In fact one is tempted just to leaf through the book just to look at the pictures.

Sometimes the Western reader may want to take exception to what is said. Is it really a fact, for instance, that Hinduism is twice as old as Judaism? Even that seeming mistake, however, reveals a great deal about the Hindu vision of reality. What one learns in these pages is not purely objective (Is there really such a thing anyway?) but shows how Hindus themselves understand and interpret life.

My own response to this book, then, is very positive. It is informative, readable, and beautifully put together. It would certainly make good reading for an undergraduate course in religion or simply for anyone interested in that age-old spiritual tradition we have come to call Hinduism.

Jay G. Williams

The reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. He is the author of Judaism and Yeshua Buddha, both published by Quest Books.


 

The Death of Religion and the Rebirth of the Spirit: A Return to the Intelligence of the Heart
Joseph Chilton Pearce
Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2007. 257 pages, hardcover, $22.95.

Joseph Chilton Pearce, the well-known author of The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, The Biology of Transcendence, and several other works, has written another provocative book, this time about the evolution of the brain, personal development, and what has corrupted our society. Sources for his thought range from the poet William Blake and Baba Muktananda (Pearce’s own guru) to Rudolf Steiner, Elaine Pagels, and Jean Piaget. His aim is to free the power of the heart―which for him is both a physical and a spiritual reality―from the confines of religion, culture, and, perhaps most importantly, bad mothering.

Pearce is an opponent of birth in hospitals, bottle feeding, religion as it has developed, and, it would appear, culture in general. Much of what he says is based upon various psychological studies that are mentioned but not examined in depth. This raises a major problem, for this reviewer has a strong suspicion that mainline psychologists would not be happy with the studies Pearce cites or with the conclusions he draws from them. In fact, mainline psychology is part of the scientism Pearce severely criticizes. So the reader is really asked to accept his findings largely because they “sound good” and not because they are proven in any conventional sense.

Pearce believes that one of the major problems with our culture is that children are often not breast-fed and do not receive the careful, face-to-face attention that mothers need to provide. Sending children off to daycare will not do. At the same time, he seems to favor “free love” for teenagers so that they can find their “soul mates.” But if a young girl becomes pregnant, it is difficult to see how she would be able to provide the nurturing care and love that mothers, according to his teaching, are supposed to offer. In fact, free love may very well end in child neglect, the very problem he seeks to solve.

Pearce is very critical of what he calls culture, but he never clearly defines what he means by the term. Indeed the very center of culture is language, which embodies that culture’s attitudes and prejudices. Nevertheless, he uses language to write this book. Publishing, then, is a very cultural act. What he really seems to be against is a culture (and religion) that judges some people as evil. Even here, however, his view of mothering condemns women who do not breast-feed and do not, perhaps cannot, provide the nurturing he thinks so important. So, in fact, his attempt to improve society proves to be really no better than other “cultural” attempts to do the same.

This does not mean, however, that this book is of no value. It is a challenge to our established culture and may provide many moments of insight. It is doubtful, however, that Pearce’s philosophy will change things. Culture has a way of accepting the “Eureka!” moment he so savors and turning it into another form of cultural control. If his views of nurturing were turned into law, they would become repressive indeed.

Jay G. Williams

The reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. He is the author of Judaism and Yeshua Buddha, both published by Quest Books.

 

My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary
John Blofeld
Translated by Daniel Reid. Forewords by Huang Li-Sung and Chungliang Al Huang. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2008. xxxv + 247 pages, hardcover, $24.95.

A good travel memoir gives the reader a vivid and entertaining sense of the places visited and the people seen. A great travel memoir does more. It evokes in the reader the spirit of the civilization it describes.

John Blofeld's posthumous book My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary falls into the second category. Readers may remember Blofeld (1913¬-87) as the author of many authoritative works on the East, including The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, The Chinese Art of Tea, and a translation of the I Ching. This book is not Blofeld's first memoir—others include City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures and Wheel of Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist—but it does have the distinction of being the only book he wrote in Chinese. Originally published in 1990, it is appearing in English for the first time in this edition.

Blofeld, a Cambridge-educated Englishman, grew up with a mysterious and unshakable fascination with China. In 1932, he dropped out of university and went to that remote country, remaining until 1948, when the imminent victory of the communists impelled him to leave. My Travels in Mystic China chronicles that period in his life. The title is somewhat misleading in that the book does not place any particular focus on the mystical aspects of the China Blofeld visits. Its original Chinese title, Old Pu's Travel Diary: The Memoirs of an Englishman in China, is more accurate. (Pu is Blofeld's Chinese surname.)

Nevertheless, this book is a fascinating description not only of Blofeld's life in China (including his experience with "black rice," i.e., opium; the alluring "flower girls" or courtesans; and even an abortive engagement with a Chinese woman) but of the elaborate and beautiful civilization whose demise he chronicles. If there is a central theme to this book, it is Blofeld's encounter with traditional China and his acute awareness of its passing. Blofeld's years there coincide with some of the worst in the nation's history—the civil war between the nationalists and the communists as well as the Japanese invasion, with its countless atrocities—so in the memoir he ceaselessly laments that many of its glories are soon to perish. At the end of the book he writes, "Prior to the Tang, Sung, and Ming dynasties, although China was influenced for more than a hundred years by various foreign cultures, in the end it always restored the glory of its own indigenous heritage. But within my own lifetime, these ancient winds stopped blowing and would never again fan my face, and it seemed certain that the former glory of Chinese civilization could never be revived."

Although this memoir places more emphasis on China's people and traditions than on its mystical dimensions, we are provided with glimpses of the latter as well. In his travels Blofeld is often hosted by Buddhist and Taoist hermitages, with their quaint and serene atmosphere. One section describes Blofeld's sighting of the mysterious "bodhisattva lights" one night during a visit to Mount Wutai, on the border of Mongolia. "These extraordinary globe-shaped entities approached from faraway and disappeared again into the distance, continuously radiating golden beams of light." Fifty years later, he adds, "I still find it very difficult to explain that phenomenon!" Another striking anecdote is a mystical experience while visiting with "Old Taoist Dzeng," a master in Peking (as Blofeld and his translator still spell the city's name). "All of a sudden, he, I, and everything in the space between us, while still retaining their external appearance, seemed to condense into an inseparable singularity, as though we had suddenly dissolved into one amorphous singularity....When Old Dzeng fixed his penetrating gaze on me, I definitely and very clearly perceived the inseparable and boundless nature of all phenomena."

For such memorable anecdotes as these and for Blofeld's insight into Chinese culture and customs, this book is definitely worth reading. But its greatest value lies in the fact that its pages evoke a sense of the wisdom and calm serenity that characterized Chinese civilization at its greatest.

Richard Smoley


 

A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion
Catherine L. Albanese
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Cloth $40.00, Paper $22.50, 628 pages.

Written by the chair of the religious studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the work will doubtless remain a standard in the field of American religious history for many years to come. In the past, American religious history has often been seen as either the history of the various denominations or as a series of evangelical waves beginning with the first Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century. Albanese joins several other recent scholars (I think particularly of Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls and Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney's Hidden Wisdom) in looking at the American scene with very different eyes, charting the importance of what she calls "metaphysical religion" for the history of America.

Although Albanese offers a four-point definition of what she means by metaphysical religion, it turns out that the term includes virtually everything that is neither denominational nor evangelical. Thus, beginning with European religious roots and proceeding historically through American history, she deals with (among many other topics) Hermetic philosophy and alchemical traditions, the "cunning" people of seventeenth-century England and America, Native American religion, African obeah cults, the Shakers and other communal sects, Transcendentalism, mesmerism, spiritualism, faith healers, Christian Science, New Thought, the influence of Asian religions, and of course Theosophy.

Throughout, A Republic of Mind and Spirit exhibits an amazingly close reading of letters, diaries, and other texts. The work is a monument to prodigious scholarship, often bringing to light the importance of long-forgotten writers and movements. At the same time, the book is eminently readable and captivating in style. This reader had no temptation to skim or to skip a section. The history of so-called metaphysical religion in America is fascinating.

Nevertheless, some problems emerge as one proceeds. First of all, the term "metaphysical religion" is so broad that one sometimes wonders whether there is much connection at all among the various persons and movements examined. Do Norman Vincent Peale and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky really belong to the same general movement? If so, why not include Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian who was certainly interested in metaphysical ideas?

Secondly, it is far more difficult than this work implies to separate American religion from what was happening in Europe. For instance, Hegel's philosophy certainly influenced many American thinkers, including Mary Baker Eddy, but his name appears only once in the text. Carl Jung's psychology is also barely mentioned, even though he strongly influenced a variety of American thinkers as well. European occult figures such as Éliphas Lévi, A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, P. D. Ouspensky, and G. I. Gurdjieff were far more important for the development of American "metaphysics" than the author suggests. In other words, Europe influenced America not just at the beginning but continually.

Third, there are some strange omissions from the discussion. For instance, although the philosopher Paul Carus rates a short discussion, the author says almost nothing about D. T. Suzuki, who worked for Carus and who, almost single-handedly, popularized Zen in America. Perhaps Albanese does not regard Zen as "metaphysical," but given her very broad definition of that term, that seems difficult to imagine. Moreover, although she mentions Jiddu Krishnamurti, she never explores his very interesting philosophical position. Sufis are, by and large, overlooked, while American Taoists are treated rather cavalierly.

Fourth, Albanese discusses the New Age movement without explaining the precession of the equinoxes and why this time is believed to be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. She also believes that New Age movement is dying. Perhaps it is, but if one surfs the Web or consults, for instance, the offerings of the Open Center in New York, it hardly seems moribund at all.

Finally, many Theosophists may be upset by Albanese's treatment of their movement. She devotes all of her attention to William Q. Judge and Katherine Tingley and their Theosophical Society (now headquartered in Pasadena, California) and says virtually nothing about the Theosophical Society in America, the society founded by Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott.
Overall, however, the author treats most traditions with an even hand, offering description without critique. Her aim is to right the balance of emphasis in the study of American religious history, and that she does with both erudition and grace. I recommend the book enthusiastically.

Jay G. Williams

This reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. Formerly a Presbyterian minister, now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, he is author of the Quest Books publications Judaism and Yeshua Buddha.


 

The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life
Parker J. Palmer
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. xxxvii + 145 pages, hardcover, $18.95.

Parker Palmer, the well-known Quaker author and educator, maintains that most of us are not well equipped to understand our lives through the lens of paradox. We tend to see life in terms of dualities: the spiritual and the secular, success and failure, freedom versus order, the self versus the group. This either/or approach often leads to a feeling of being torn between irreconcilable pairs of opposites. To be human is to experience contradictions. “Our highest insights and aspirations fail because we are encumbered by flesh that is too week—or too strong,” Palmer writes in a revised edition of his book The Promise of Paradox. “When we rise to soar on wings of spirit, we discover weights of need and greed tied to our feet.” What Theosophist has not experienced this feeling at one time or another?

For some seekers the contradictions are so great that they abandon their efforts to live a spiritual life. Others react to this tension by turning a blind eye to the inherent contradictions in human nature and pray not for a resolution but for an “extreme makeover.” The author suggests a third way, which is to “live the contradictions, fully and painfully aware of the poles between which our lives are stretched” (emphasis Palmer’s). By doing this, we may begin to experience the contradictions as a paradox “at whose heart we will find transcendence and new life.”

A paradox is a statement that seems to be self-contradictory but which actually contains a truth. The author quotes Nobel Prize winner Neils Bohr, who defined paradox this way: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.” As a caveat to Bohr’s statement, Palmer correctly notes that not all contradictions house a paradox. Sometimes a contradiction is just what it appears to be—a contradiction. This means discernment is required. Understanding paradox is not just a parlor game involving mental acuity; it requires the ability to stand calmly amidst the pairs of opposites with a profound sense of humility.

The author looks at a number of paradoxical statements found in the Christian Bible, one of which is usually glossed over by contemporary Christians: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe” (Isaiah 45:7). He also notes that the injunction of Jesus that one must lose one’s life before he finds it is an insight found in the wisdom traditions of the world. Palmer explores the cross as symbolizing the oppositions of life. He sees the crossbar as representing the horizontal pull of life’s conflicting demands and obligations, while the vertical member suggests the way we are pulled between heaven and earth.

One recurrent theme in this book is the contrast between individualism and the need for community. Palmer relates his experience of living in Pendle Hill, a Quaker community near Philadelphia, some thirty years ago. “We came to community with certain expectations, seeking certain qualities of life. . . . It sometimes seems that for each thing we sought, we have found not only that thing but also its opposite!” As interesting as that may be, it seems to this reviewer that this speaks not so much of paradox but of irony.

Less effective is the essay devoted to scarcity and abundance in the spiritual quest. Palmer tries to draw an analogy between scarcity and abundance as found in the world and in the spiritual life. In his view, the world consists of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” He makes some good points about exploitation of the weak by the strong but falls into the trap of seeing the world economy as a zero-sum game, in which the gain of one nation is accomplished at the expense of another. This is a simplistic and unrealistic view that ignores a host of other factors that contribute to a nation’s standard of material living. Take Russia, for example, which has a plethora of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals, and timber, but whose people chronically endure a low standard of living. Contrast Russia with much smaller nations with limited natural resources such as South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, whose people enjoy considerably higher levels of prosperity. Palmer fails to take into account the significant effects that rule of law, property rights, a transparent banking system, government policy, and other crucial factors have in creating a flourishing environment for economic growth.

The Promise of Paradox was first published in 1980. Having compared both editions, I can say without reservation that the new version is the better of the two. The main ideas within the book have not changed, but the author has edited the language for style to give it a nice contemporary feel. For example, the substitution of the words “spiritual” for “religious,” “life” for “God,” and “renew” for “convert” allows the author to reach out to a wider audience. The 2008 edition also has an extended introduction by the author that adds considerably to its value. Promise is a book well worth reading, both by Christians and open-minded seekers of other faiths.

David P. Bruce

The reviewer is a long-time member of the Theosophical Society, for which he currently serves full-time as director of education.


 

The Voice, The Word, The Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims
F. E. Peters
Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. 320 pages, hardcover, $29.95.

This new book by F. E. Peters, a professor at New York University, provides an extremely readable and entertaining introduction to contemporary scholarship on the origins of the Jewish scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur'an. Peters writes from a secular (and at times seemingly skeptical) viewpoint, which can be a change for those accustomed to approaching these texts from the perspective of religious faith or esotericism.

Peters traces the development of the Abrahamic scriptures from oral prophetic experience through the development of recited and then written texts, which are finally fixed in the forms in which we know them today.

According to Peters's schema, first there is a book in heaven. It is authoritative because it is written by God himself. At some point, God speaks the contents of the heavenly book to his prophet (for Israel, God gives a written copy to Moses as well) to be recited to his chosen people. This occurs in the preliterate or oral stage of the society, when communication and memory are solely or primarily through the spoken word. But as writing becomes more common, the revelation is committed to writing out of a fear (common to oral societies in transition) that the original oral version will be lost or become "inaccurate." Thus the recited scripture becomes the written scripture. The book is copied and finally printed, and both the Bible and the Qu'ran now circulate widely in societies where both the oral and the literary cultures still exist side by side. Yet the oral quality of the revelation never quite disappears; the book continues to be recited even though written copies are available.

The main thrust of Peters' work extends through the translation of the various scriptures into the classical tongues and into the (relative) fixing of the text through the development of printing. He also includes extended discussions of the performance of the text through pictorial art and recitation, chanting, and singing.

The Voice, The Word, The Books will hold great interest for a wide range of readers, including those personally formed by one of the Abrahamic traditions as well as interested observers of these religions as a result of their cultural and political importance. Moreover, Peters' careful investigation of the translation of revelation or spiritual experience into oral transmission and then into text is likely to engage any Theosophist, as we see a similar process in all spiritual traditions, ancient and modern.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement.


 

On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine
Rabbi Léah Novick
Wheaton, Ill.: Quest, 2008. 210 pages, paper, $17.95.

After spending decades as a powerful presence in Washington politics and then as a professor of public policy, Léah Novick found herself on the California coast over twenty-five years ago being summoned by the Divine Feminine. She recounts her epiphany in her recent book, On the Wings of Shekhinah: "A gigantic goddess was calling me. At first she spoke through sand and rocks, flowers and animals; later she spoke through visions and memories of earlier lives. Still later she spoke through the spirits of the ancestors and Judaism's forgotten women saints and miracle workers." Gradually she returned to the religion of her youth, but with a new understanding, which she refers to as "respiritualized Judaism." Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, ordained her as a rabbi in 1987.

Reb Léah's work focuses on the restoration of the Divine Feminine in Judaism, often known as the Shekhinah. To that end, she has expressed her vision in various media, including the written word, music, movement, and drama. At one point, she held meditation circles on the birthdays and death anniversaries (yahrzeits) of the many women Jewish scholars and mystics who have gone unrecognized for generations; she calls these women "the Messengers of the Shekhinah." I was fortunate to be able to study with Reb Léah a few years ago when I attended her workshop on Kabbalah. She impressed me not only as a scholar of the Jewish mystical tradition but also as a touchstone of knowledge and wisdom gleaned through hard-won realization and life experience. Moreover, coming as I do from an interfaith family and possessing a spirituality that defies easy categorization, I appreciated her understanding of and esteem for a wide range of religious traditions while maintaining her profound commitment to Judaism.

On the Wings of Shekhinah, her first book, highlights Reb Léah's scholarship and accessible writing style as she elucidates the complex story of the Shekhinah in Jewish thought and culture. Beginning with Genesis and through the Jewish people's history in Canaan, the Temple period, the Babylonian Exile, medieval times, and the beginnings of Kabbalah, she explores diverse and sometimes contradictory conceptions of the Divine Feminine. Of course, Judaism has never been a monolithic institution; it has always been composed of numerous factions that disagree, usually in a most vociferous manner. Jewish culture does not shy away from debate, but encourages it, whether at the dinner table or in the study hall. The larger tradition tolerates and even revels in a multiplicity of viewpoints.

The term "Shekhinah" does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, although versions of its root, shakhan, the Hebrew verb "to dwell," show up in the text. Over the centuries, the Shekhinah has most often been perceived as the "indwelling presence of the Holy One." Jewish mystics have also seen her as mourning at the wall of the destroyed Temple, as the cosmic soul of the world who connects all living things, as the faithful mother sustaining the Jews in the Diaspora, as the fierce protective mother who punishes the wicked, and as the glorious Sabbath Queen. Some biblical commentators have envisaged the Mishkan or Tabernacle, the portable residence of the Divine carried by the early Israelites as they wandered the desert, as the meeting place where the Shekhinah and her consort Yahweh reunite each evening in sacred marriage to renew and perpetuate the life force that animates the earth.

One of the book's great strengths is Reb Léah's retelling of well-known biblical stories from a perspective that encourages her readers to question and expand their view of these ancient tales. For example, in the chapter entitled "Encountering the Pagan Past," she reminds us that all four Jewish matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel—were originally from pagan cultures. She details episodes in Jewish history when goddesses such as Asherah were widely worshipped and notes that "thousands of Asherah figurines have been found in archeological digs all over Israel, covering an extended span of Israelite history." Reb Léah also draws attention to research in this generally obscure area, highlighting the contemporary feminist scholarship of Savina Teubal among others. Teubal argued convincingly that as a priestess of the Goddess, Sarah was sought out by neighboring kings to participate with them in the hieros gamos, a sexual fertility rite enacted in order to increase the land's fruitfulness.

While the Shekhinah as a goddess figure enlivens the spirituality of many contemporary women, not all Jewish women, even feminists, embrace this concept. A leading Jewish feminist theologian (and a former professor of mine) adamantly proclaimed to her students that the word "Goddess" should not be a part of the Judaic tradition, although the word "God" was acceptable. I found this to be an odd theological position, especially if the Holy One is seen to be beyond gender, which many Jews would agree is the case. This particular theologian didn't have a logical explanation for her stance; it seemed more of a visceral reaction than anything else. Does this position reflect a residual fear of the Goddess's power even today? Perhaps. As Reb Léah notes, "Judaism continues to resist its pagan roots. . . . Perhaps there will be a future time in which memory is no longer a threat."

I found Reb Léah's writing on Kabbalistic thought especially fascinating. One mystical community, the famous circle of Kabbalists in sixteenth-century Zefat, Israel, focused many of its spiritual endeavors on reconnecting with the Shekhinah. Headed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, this close-knit group would venture outside on the eve of the Sabbath, summoning the Shekhinah as Sabbath Queen and Bride to bless their celebration. One evocative song, still sung today on Friday nights, was penned by one of the Zefat mystics; L'Cha Dodi ("Come, My Beloved"), a heartfelt plea to the Shekhinah to grace the congregation with her presence. Those familiar with the classical Gnostic myths will recognize the remarkable similarities between the stories of Sophia in exile and the tales of the Shekhinah's separation and reunification with her people through their prayers and good deeds.

To round out the historical narrative, each chapter concludes with a simple yet powerful meditation that encourages the reader to actually experience the Divine Feminine. Reb Léah notes others ways, including dream and healing work, seasonal celebrations, love and sexuality, and life passage rituals, in which the Shekhinah may be accessible to us. Reb Léah's wise and intuitive guidance pervades The Wings of Shekhinah, offering its readers a palpable sense of personally studying with this extraordinary Jewish teacher.

Reb Léah relates that as a young girl she never heard of the Divine Feminine, even though she grew up in an observant household and had many years of Jewish education. This called to mind a conversation I had not long ago with my mother, a Jewish woman of Reb Léah's generation, in which we were discussing Jewish veneration of the Goddess during different historical periods. My mother exclaimed, "We were never taught that in Hebrew school!" She didn't sound incredulous but rather as if she had been cheated of essential knowledge that might have changed her life. Thanks to the life work of Reb Léah and many others, the Shekhinah has made her presence known in our time. May it be that the Shekhinah is never again exiled; may she be acknowledged as an essential part of Jewish spirituality and tradition far into the future.

Siobhán Houston

Siobhán Houston, Ed.D., is a scholar, writer, and editor living in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of Invoking Mary Magdalene: Accessing the Wisdom of the Divine Feminine (Sounds True, 2006) and Priests, Gnostics, Magicians (forthcoming from Apocryphile Press).


 

The Majesty of Your Loving: A Couple's Journey through Alzheimer's
Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle
Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Cambridge, Mass.: Green Mountain, 2008. 314 pages, paper, $16.95.

This beautiful yet practical book provides a spiritual dimension to a caregiver's problems in handling the ever-increasing challenge of Alzheimer's disease and other terminal situations.

Olivia and Harrison Hoblitzelle were both in midlife, active in teaching as well as faithful students and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. "Hob" held a Ph.D. in English literature and was a distinguished professor but (ironically, as it turned out) served in hospices as well. Olivia had been a teacher in the field of behavioral medicine and was (and is) a gifted writer and therapist. They had two grown children and several grandchildren and were world travelers at the onset of Hob's case of Alzheimer's.

Slowly and inexorably, Olivia is forced to watch her husband's mind deteriorate, but she decides to record not only his mental conditions but her own reactions of compassion, resentment, guilt, despair, and unfailing love. She finds comfort in turning to her family and friends, but in the end the most powerful source of strength comes from her years of spiritual training and the perspective and insights this yields.

In the meantime, Hob in his rare lucid moments attempts to describe objectively what it feels like to be transitioning from normal consciousness to another level of reality. It is almost as if he is taking psychiatric notes on the nature of Alzheimer's! The result is a deeply moving record of two heroic souls attempting to make a healing gift of love and compassion to all those many others who will come after them. This is Tibetan Buddhism put into practice: to offer up one's suffering for the benefit of others.

Each chapter is followed by practical solutions and "Seed Thoughts." A series of appendices include "Clear Light Meditation," "Caring for Loved Ones in Death," and "Topics for Discussion." There is also a helpful bibliography and Website source.

If you know anyone caring for someone facing certain death, this book could be the best gift ever. It glows with inner light and practical wisdom and surely will become a contemporary classic.

Alice O. Howell

The reviewer is an author and astrologer based in western Massachusetts. Her works include The Web in the Sea; The Dove in the Stone; and The Heavens Declare: Astrological Ages and the Evolution of Consciousness, all published by Quest Books.


 Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ
 Richard Dooling
New York: Harmony, 2008. 272 pages, hardcover, $22.

Having an avid interest in technology and its "spiritual" implications, I tend to follow anything that sounds a cautionary note regarding technological advances. For those with a similar taste, the field is currently dominated by the writings of Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy, who have highlighted to great effect both the promise and peril of our technological future(s).

The central point of Richard Dooling's Rapture for the Geeks is its concept of the Technological Singularity. This is an event which (unless you have read The Secret Doctrine) appears to have no precedent. The general view is that somewhere around 2045, technological progress will go off the scale exponentially. The Wikipedia Web site defines this "Singularity" as "a theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress, caused in part by the ability of machines to improve themselves using artificial intelligence." Essentially this means that we will evolve ourselves out of existence—largely by producing computers that are smarter than we are. Like Kurzweil, Joy, and others, Dooling seems nearly certain that this Singularity will take place.

When approaching Dooling's book, I expected it to be a timely update of earlier writings principally by Kurzweil. Unfortunately, although Dooling's book is written for a much more general audience (and is sprinkled with humor and bits of JavaScript, xml, and other bits of programming that serve to illustrate his points), for the most part he rehashes material from Kurzweil and others without adding much that is new in the way of current research.

Probably the most valuable part of the book is Dooling's advice for those who have no desire to become obsolete. He suggests a number of actions readers can take to become better equipped to handle the ever-quickening pace of technology. First and foremost is to learn some programming languages. For some (especially those who have mangled Sanskrit terms when reading Theosophical literature), the task may seem daunting, but Dooling makes programming seem doable by just about anyone.

From a Theosophical perspective, the most worrisome aspect about this discussion is that its assumptions proceed in the classic pattern for Western science: from the bottom up. We create conscious machines and we upload the contents of our brains into them, or we augment capabilities already present using technological means. Eastern philosophy, by contrast, holds that our existence is possible because of consciousness, and that evolution is a process which takes place in the realm of the spiritual, with effects manifesting in the physical realm. Current views of the Singularity seem to be urging us to make yet another attempt at forcing "evolution" from the bottom up. But what if Eastern modes of thought are correct about the nature of consciousness? What are the likely outcomes? What needs to take place in order to guide technological "progress" in a healthier direction?

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who wants to quickly understand the issues we are facing and doesn't mind having a good laugh along the way. (Beware of a little off-color humor.) For a more thoughtful exploration of the subject, however, I would strongly recommend three classics from Ray Kurzweil: The Age of Intelligent Machines, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and The Singularity Is Near.

Joe Fulton

The reviewer is a Life Member of the Theosophical Society and past president of the Akron lodge. He is employed by a major software manufacturer, where he performs duties related to quality assurance, support, and innovation.


 

The Kingdom of Agarttha: A Journey into the Hollow Earth
Marquis Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre
translated by Jon E. Graham. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2008. 172 pages, paper, $14.95.

The Archeometer: Key to All the Religions and Sciences of Antiquity; Synthetic Reformation of All Contemporary Arts by the Marquis Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre, translated by Ariel Godwin. Idyllwild, Calif.: Sacred Sciences Institute, 2008. xxxvi + 422 pages, hardcover, $300.

The Marquis (Joseph) Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre (1842–1909) was not the most peculiar figure to emerge out of the French occult revival of the late nineteenth century, but he was among the most influential, largely because he remains one of the first sources for the tantalizing myth of a mystical kingdom hidden away in Central Asia.

The early part of Saint-Yves' life was unremarkable. The son of a doctor, in the course of his education he saw a future role for himself as the Pythagoras of Christendom. If he didn't entirely live up to this grandiose ambition, he went some way toward it, as we shall see. As an adult, he was befriended by a number of prominent occultists, including a friend of Antoine Fabre d'Olivet, author of the occult classic The Hebraic Tongue Restored (from which Saint-Yves was later accused of plagiarizing), and the son of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist and mystical adept. After a marriage to a wealthy noblewoman, Saint-Yves lived in high style in Paris and Versailles, although his desire to be accepted by the gruelingly snobbish French nobility was never fulfilled: his title, purchased from the papacy, did not in their eyes make him a genuine marquis.

In the 1880s, Saint-Yves published a number of works addressed both to occultists and to the world at large, propounding an esoteric view of what was wrong with the world and what was needed to set it right. The most ambitious of these, La mission des juifs ("The Mission of the Jews"), a 900-page secret history of the world published in 1884, has never been translated into English.

The next year, Saint-Yves took up the study of Sanskrit with one Hardji Scharipf, an individual of unknown (probably Afghan) origins who also styled himself "the Teacher and Professor H. S. Bagwandass of the Great Agartthian School." Saint-Yves pressed his teacher for more information about this school and was given to understand that Agarttha (the name is supposedly Sanskrit for "inaccessible to violence") was a secret, subterranean kingdom that was still flourishing somewhere in Central Asia.

In 1886, Saint-Yves published a book, Mission de l'Inde ("Mission of India"), which revealed his findings about this hidden kingdom: "In Asia alone there are a half a billion people who are more or less aware of its existence and its greatness—not to mention America, whose subterranean regions belonged to Agarttha in very remote antiquity." Saint-Yves foresaw that "certain powers, in their competition with each other across the whole of Asia" (i.e., Britain and Russia) would stumble upon this kingdom, but if they attempted to invade it, "every conquering army, even if it consisted of a million men, would see a repetition of the thundering response of the Temple of Delphi to the countless hordes sent by the Persian satraps."

As even these short quotes suggest, Saint-Yves' language is thunderous and bombastic and is likely to ring hollow to the reader of today. In any case, Saint-Yves had a mission to proclaim. The message of Agarttha was embodied in its system of government and, indeed, in the philosophy upon which the whole nation was supposedly based: a doctrine that Saint-Yves called "Synarchy" and which he claimed was Europe's only hope in order to avoid annihilation. By Synarchy he meant a unified government, both sacred and secular, that would include a "Sovereign Pontiff" who would "respect all that exists, give it his blessing, unite it in the same spirit of tolerance, and gather together all the teaching bodies at last reunited, in one bundle of Light, Wisdom, and Authority." The idea of Synarchy would later influence Rudolf Steiner, who would call for a "threefold social order" encompassing economy, politics, and culture, as well as some quasi-fascistic movements in twentieth-century Europe that were far from Saint-Yves' original vision.

After publishing Mission de l'Inde, Saint-Yves thought better of the matter and immediately withdrew the book from publication. As Joscelyn Godwin points out in his extremely valuable introduction, this was largely due to humiliation at being unfavorably depicted in a roman à clef written by his former lover, an opera singer, that appeared at the same time. As a result, Mission de l'Inde reached the public only after Saint-Yves' death in 1909. The Kingdom of Agarttha is the first version to appear in English.

But the idea of Agarttha did not die with Saint-Yves. It resurfaced in the 1920s, when Ferdinand Ossendowski, a Pole who had served in the White army during the Russian Civil War, published a highly successful memoir entitled Beasts, Men, and Gods that recounted his escape through Central Asia after the Whites' defeat. Ossendowski said that during his travels he heard legends of a figure called "the Lord of the World," the secret head of humanity, who was headquartered in a mystical kingdom called Agartthi. Scoffers claimed that Ossendowski had stolen the idea from Saint-Yves, but others, including the celebrated esotericist René Guénon, took Ossendowski at his word. Guénon wrote a monograph called The Lord of the World which upheld the claims of both Saint-Yves and Ossendowski. (To download a complete text of Beasts, Men, and Gods, visit <http://infomotions.com/etexts/gutenberg/dirs/2/0/6/2067/2067.htm>).

Of course Agarttha is not the only hidden kingdom said to exist in Central Asia. There are Russian tales of a mystical country called Byelovodye ("Land of the White Waters") in the Altai Mountains. But the most famous legend of this kind is the Tibetan Shambhala, which the Dalai Lama has described as "a pure land which, except for those whose karma and merit have ripened, cannot be immediately seen or visited." It's hard to avoid seeing some connection between the Agarttha of Saint-Yves and the Tibetan Shambhala. As Godwin notes, some, probably most, esotericists have identified the two.

There's more to this rich and haunting saga than I can describe in a review, but Godwin's deft introduction to The Kingdom of Agarttha gives a clear picture. Nevertheless, if you haven't read much about the subject, this book is not the best place to start. A better introduction is Godwin's own Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival, which is the most fascinating and far-reaching work to cover this topic, dealing not only with Saint-Yves and Agarttha but with various hollow earth theories and the weird Welteislehre ("world ice doctrine"), favored by the Nazis, which taught that originally the earth had been encased in ice.

Another teaching that Hardji Scharipf passed on to Saint-Yves was that of Vattan or Vattanian (sometimes spelled "Watan"; Saint-Yves also calls it "Adamic"), an otherwise unknown primordial tongue that shows some affinities with Senzar, a similarly mysterious language mentioned by H.P. Blavatsky. Saint-Yves recorded the Vattanian alphabet and claimed that it was the ancestor of both the Hebrew and the Sanskrit devanagari alphabets.

Saint-Yves deals with Vattan and similar subjects in another posthumous work, The Archeometer, which has also recently been translated into English for the first time. "Archeometer" sounds like the name for a device, and that is what it is. Dubbed by Saint-Yves as a "synthetic protractor of the higher studies," it is a colored wheel inscribed with a twelve-pointed star, inside of which are several other circles centering around a nine-pointed star. Supposedly integrating the symbols of the colors, planets, musical notes, and the letters of various alphabets (including Vattan), the Archeometer is "all at once the key to musician's sonometric scale, the painter's range of colors, and the architect's forms," according to Saint-Yves.

As a book, The Archeometer is vast, sprawling, and often incomprehensible, left unfinished by Saint-Yves at his death and imperfectly edited by a number of his pupils, including the French occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse). It not only describes the Archeometer as a tool but claims to trace the history of religion back to its roots. Unfortunately, as a synthesis of sacred science or indeed of anything, the Archeometer is disappointingly opaque. Godwin, whose son Ariel translated this text, sums up the situation thus: "I doubt that there is anyone today—even that there ever was anyone‑who shares the opinion of Saint-Yves: that the Archeometer is the result of the true, primordial wisdom of mankind...familiar to Moses and Jesus, but since preserved solely in the universities of the Brahmins, their very existence unsuspected to this day."

Despite these flaws, it's interesting at last to see The Archeometer, which, like many corners of the rich world of French occultism, has been hidden from the English-speaking world for so long. Nonetheless, this work is likely to be of interest chiefly to specialists and aficionados of the arcane (and, at $300 per copy, rich ones at that).

Finally, what of Saint-Yves' relations with Blavatsky? Despite the obvious resemblances, the two don't seem to have any real connection. In The Secret Doctrine (I, 471), Blavatsky labels Saint-Yves as a "French pseudo-Occultist," deriding his idea, expressed in La mission des juifs, that the Kali Yuga was a Golden Age and not, as most would have it, an age of darkness. Moreoever, in an early issue of the Theosophical journal Lucifer, an anonymous review (attributed to HPB) of a work by Papus contends that Saint-Yves is wrong in the degree of importance he attributes to the Jews in esoteric history (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, IX, 46). There is also the occasional contemptuous reference to Theosophy in The Archeometer. The upshot would seem to be that neither Blavatsky nor Saint-Yves owed much to the other and that neither one held the other in particularly high regard. But then the history of esotericism is rarely one of concord.

Richard Smoley


Image
Theosophical Society PoliciesTerms & Conditions • © 2019 The Theosophical Society in America