Blavatsky and The Theosophist

Part 1

Introduction: Why should we care?

Carlo Ginzburg, in his seminal micro-history The Cheese and the Worms, examines the theological and philosophical beliefs of a 16 th century miller, Menocchio, who falls afoul of the counter reformation Inquisition in rural northern Italy. Menocchio’s world view is expanded and influenced by the literature he has been given access to, though that literature is both sparse and expensive by modern standards, printing began still at that time a relatively new technology and literacy only having just begun filtering down to the rural and lower social classes. Ginzburg’s thesis, or one of them at any rate, is that Menocchio uses the language and imagery he acquires in his reading to reframe his world view and bring to light the traditions of a much older strata of belief than the ones he might have been exposed to in either Church or in the readings themselves. Menocchio raids the books for language and metaphors, reinterpreting and redefining them to suit his purposes – he reads and quotes with a mental filter transforming the language into a personal code.

The Emblem of the Theosophical Society

In many ways, the problem of analysing Mme Blavatsky’s writings is similar to that of Menocchio. An avid reader who devoured sources, HPB reuses and recycles print and language and scholarship, reforming it to match her own mental world, and then returning it into the wilderness of print transformed and embossed with new meanings and habits. Unlike Menocchio, however, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Theosophical literature. More than a few scattered scraps of testimony from a forgotten trial many centuries past, we have instead reams upon reams of written texts, printed and disseminated on an industrial scale. If the early Theosophists were avid readers they were also avid writers and printers, producing sprawling tomes and monthly newsletters full of references and speculations. Paring this down and coming to some idea of the origins of these ideas, what was being attempted, and what, if any, psychic or social compulsion lay behind this mass outpouring of words and striving is an endeavor that would, in my opinion, cast much light upon the social characteristics of the late Victorian age and the cultural roots of the 20th century.

The Theosophical Society was formed at a transitional period in human history. It represented the tremulous beginning of a broader reaction to the rampant materialism and positivism which was ubiquitous among the ruling elite of that era. Similarly, it revealed a growing feminization among the liberal arts and among religious movements. Finally, it revealed a growing reaction to the underlying ethical problem inherent in the imperial practices that had been engaged in more or less reflexively by the European powers

In the course of this essay I will attempt a variety of tasks that will prepare us to study this field and the relevant documents. First, I will examine Mme Blavatsky herself, looking briefly at her personality, her history, and her writing methods. Though there are many biographies of this remarkable figure, we need to have at least a brief understanding of who she was here. We should also be aware that many of her biographers were themselves Theosophists, and many such works tend towards hagiography as much as biography. Secondly I will give a brief overview of history of the origins of the magazine, The Theosophist, which Blavatsky and her partner Col. Olcott, founded in India shortly after their sojourn there. Finally, I will examine by close reading Mme Blavatsky’s articles for that premier issue of that publication in which she states her purpose and intentions for her organization. I will be paying special attention to references therein, and examining her cited sources for insight into her beliefs. 

Part 2: Who was Madame Blavatsky?