Edited by MOON LARAMIE
Berkshire, England: Martin Firrell Company, 2020. x + 457 pp., paper, $21.33.
According to a September 2016 article in the Washington Post, fewer and fewer American adults are reading literature of any kind. The Post was quoting from a recent report published by the National Endowment of the Arts. One indicator of this decline in serious reading was that in 1982, 57 percent of adults claimed to have read “at least one work of literature in the previous year,” while in 2015 it was only 43 percent—a decline of 24 percent. One wonders what it will be twenty years from now.
For those who have developed a love for literature, this is certainly a matter of concern. So too is it for those who admire and value the literature of H.P. Blavatsky and other Theosophical writers, much of which was written over a hundred years ago, in a style unfamiliar to those who have only read literature produced in the past ten or fifteen years.
This is one reason why British Theosophist Moon Laramie devoted four years to producing a version of Isis Unveiled that would appeal to younger audiences. The seminal literature of the Theosophical movement is profound and transformative, but the younger generation of today, whose reading consists largely of postings on social media, is deterred by the writing style of the late nineteenth century, with its longer and more complex sentence structures. As Laramie notes in his introduction, “to the modern eye, the linguistic style of Isis Unveiled can appear dense, convoluted and over-wrought.”
The other reason for Laramie’s book is “the obscure nature of many of Blavatsky’s references,” all of which “have been meticulously researched” and compiled in a seventy-five-page notes section at the end of the book.
Let us take a few excerpts from Isis Unveiled and compare those with Laramie’s renditions, beginning with this passage from chapter 2:
Is it enough for man to know that he exists? Is it enough to be formed a human being to enable him to deserve the appellation of man? It is our decided impression and conviction, that to become a genuine spiritual entity, which that designation implies, man must first create himself anew, so to speak—i.e., thoroughly eliminate from his mind and spirit, not only the dominating influence of selfishness and other impurity, but also the infection of superstition and prejudice.
Below is Laramie’s streamlined rendition:
Is it enough merely for a man to know that he exists? Does he deserve the name “man” simply by being a human being? Surely the name “man” implies a spiritual being and to become a genuine spiritual entity man must first recreate himself. He must completely remove self-interest, superstition and prejudice from his mind and spirit.
Laramie’s version is shorter and gets right to the point. In today’s world, where everybody seems to be busier than ever, getting to the point is essential.
Let us now take a passage from chapter 6, first the original version, followed by the modern rendition:
One of the most interesting discoveries of modern times, is that of the faculty which enables a certain class of sensitive persons to receive from any object held in the hand or against the forehead impressions of the character or appearance of the individual, or any other object with which it has previously been in contact.
One of the most interesting discoveries is the phenomenon of psychometry. A person with psychometric abilities is able to receive impressions from an object held in the hand or against the forehead. These impressions may reveal the character of the appearance of an individual who has been in contact with that object.
In terms of length, these passages are about the same, but Laramie’s version uses shorter sentences, which make it easier for the reader to follow the line of thought.
In this next comparison, Laramie not only streamlines Blavatsky’s original words but eliminates an anachronism (“of the present century”):
It may be noted, as an example of the inaccuracy of current notions as to the scientific claims of the present century, that the discoveries of the indestructibility of matter and force-correlation, especially the latter, are heralded as among our crowning triumphs.
Matter and energy are interchangeable and cannot be created or destroyed. The discovery of this principle is regarded as one of the greatest achievements of modern science.
In other instances, Blavatsky quotes from her sources in the original language, as in this quotation from the French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, which appears as an epigraph to chapter 3:
Qui, donc, t’a donné la mission d’annoncer au peuple que la Divinité n’existe pas . . . quel avantage trouves-tu à persuader à l’homme qu’une force aveugle préside à ses destinées et frappe au hazard [sic] le crime et la vertu?
Fortunately, Laramie has taken the trouble to translate it for us:
Who, then, gave you the mission to announce to the people that there is no God? What advantage is there in persuading man that nothing but blind force presides over his destiny and randomly punishes both crime and virtue?
The last example is taken from chapter 7. First, Blavatsky’s words:
In what particular is the knowledge of the present century so superior to that of the ancients? When we say knowledge we do not mean that brilliant and clear definition of our modern scholars of particulars to the most trifling detail in every branch of exact science; or that tuition which finds an appropriate term for every detail insignificant and microscopic as it may be; a name for every nerve and artery in human and animal organisms, an appellation for every cell, filament, and rib in a plant; but the philosophical and ultimate expression of every truth in nature.
In what way is modern knowledge superior to the knowledge held by the ancients? The word “knowledge” is used here to mean the deepest possible understanding of life itself—not the complex, convoluted explanations of science—not merely labeling everything as in modern education. Knowledge is more than learning a term for every nerve and artery in the body or simply remembering the name of every component of plant structure.
Readers can judge for themselves which version they prefer. If you are comfortable with the writings of Blavatsky and other Theosophists of her era, then this book is not meant for you. But if you have tried reading HPB and found it difficult because of the style in which it was written, then I strongly recommend this book for you.
In closing, I should note that Laramie’s new book covers only chapters 1 through 7 of Isis Unveiled. Translating the rest of volume 1 is a project that he has already undertaken, and I wish him well in this endeavor.
David Bruce is national secretary of the Theosophical Society in America.