Helena Blavatsky

Helena Blavatsky

Ed. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2004. Paperback, xii + 220 pages.

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's anthology Helena Blavatsky is one of a Western Esoteric Masters Series, which includes such other figures as Jacob Boehme, John Dee, Robert Fludd, Paracelsus, and Emanuel Swedenborg. The aim of the series is to present “concise biographies of key figures in the tradition [of Western esotericism] with anthologies of their writings." The book consists of extracts from H. P. Blavatsky's writings on a range of subjects, with introductory essays of a biographical and explanatory nature. Some ninety-five excerpts are arranged under eleven topics: From Spiritualism to Occultism, Ancient Wisdom Rediscovered, Secret Brotherhoods, Oriental Kabbalah, Mesmerism and Magic, Hermetic Philosophers and Rosicrucians, Buddhism and Brahmanism, Cosmogony, Macrocosm and Microcosm, Evolution, and Personal Growth and Devotion. A number of the extracts are illustrated by helpful diagrams taken from the original sources.

The selections gathered under the various topics were not randomly chosen but, especially in the first part of the book, illustrate a thesis implied by the series title. HPB and Theosophy are often thought of as based on Indic thought. This volume argues, both explicitly and by many of its selections, that HPB and her Theosophy were solidly in the Western esoteric tradition of Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, Rosicrucianism, and so on. The selections, which range in length from a few lines to several pages each, are drawn from Isis Unveiled (39 selections), The Secret Doctrine (35), the ES Instructions (6), Spiritualist periodicals (5), Lucifer (3), The Key to Theosophy (3), The Voice of the Silence, HPB's scrapbook, The Canadian Theosophist, and a newspaper (l each). The book includes the usual sorts of minor errors, typographical and factual, but they will not distract most readers.

The selections, which are bookended and separated by the editor's essays on the topics they illustrate, vary considerably in their accessibility to a general reader. This is no "Blavatsky for Dummies" book; reading it will challenge the newcomer. But it gives a fair variety of HPB's thoughts on the topics listed above, and the editor's comments are frequently on the mark. Examples are the following:

Individual human destiny and moral problems of individual development are the ultimate focus of the work [The Secret Doctrine].

If Blavatsky had neither founded the Theosophical Society nor gone on to receive the Mahatmas' revelation in India and her only major work had been Isis Unveiled, her reputation would have been assured as the reviver and compiler of a prodigious number of sources bearing on religions, mythology and magic.

Although presented in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Buddhist terminology, Blavatsky's cosmology had deep roots in the Hermetic-kabbalistic world-view of "as above, so below," so fundamental to Western esotericism. Blavatsky's universal wisdom-tradition of Theosophy involving both Western and Eastern sources gave an important impetus to a new global esotericism.

Blavatsky restated the Western esoteric tradition in contemporary scientific terms by incorporating the concept of evolution into the celestial and spiritual hierarchies of being from the macrocosm of the whole universe down to the microcosm of man. Boehme, and later Oetinger, regarded human incarnation as the goal of God in becoming self-conscious. Their idea was also expressed in terms of each human being seeking to become the Christ in the course of their earthly life. This esoteric idea of spiritual growth mirrored in eternity was transformed by modern Theosophy's doctrine of reincarnation and the migration of the Monads over enormous cycles of time. But Theosophical evolution takes place in time and its notion of salvation is a historicist and Romantic modification to the ideas of Boehme and later Christian theosophers.

Such observations, especially the last, are exactly the sort: of Theosophical history that needs to be written. What passes as Theosophical history is all too often simply a Theosophical version of People magazine, with its focus on personalities, peccadilloes, and petty details. It is to be hoped that Goodrick-Clarke's emphasis on the history of ideas will inspire others-perhaps even him-to pursue the more intellectually respectable course he has shown in studying the history of modern Theosophy.


July/August 2005