A Defence of Madame Blavatsky
Dr.Ilias Chryssochoidis’ letter was sent to the Greek newspaper “Βήμα”, Tuesday, 24 February 1998
To the editor,
I was deeply disappointed to see that your book review section hosted virulent attacks based on personal biases and calumnies. For this was Mr. Vistonitis’ (all but in content) review of a Greek translation of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (ΤΟ ΒΗΜΑ ΤΗΣ ΚΥΡΙΑΚΗΣ, 22 Φεβρουαρίου 1998, online edition).
Dr.Ilias Chryssochoidis’ letter was sent to the Greek newspaper “Βήμα”, Tuesday, 24 February 1998
As a responsible reader, I expect two things from a book review: an accurate and objective summary of the book’s content and, optionally, the reviewer’s serious and constructive critique of it. I found none of the first and scarcely anything of the second in Mr. Vistonitis’ homily on the dangers of occultism. If occultism “δεν αντέχει κατά κανόνα σε σοβαρή κριτική,” why then the reviewer bothers himself and us with it? Because, and this is what he is after, occultism is too much widespread today to be ignored. Is that good or bad? And what is occultism anyway? Mr. Vistonitis has the easy answer: “Διαχρονικές Τερατολογίες.” How he justifies that, I fail to see. Instead, I feel the deprecating attitude of a semi-literate school teacher towards his ignorant and gullible students. I’m afraid I have to resist his simplistic and uncritical treatment of the book.
To someone familiar with Blavatsky’s writings, Mr. Vistonitis’ review is totally unreliable; indeed, bordering on libel. For the following points, I use the most recent, and probably definitive, biography of Blavatsky (numbers in parenthesis refer to the respective pages in the book):
Sylvia Cranston, HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993).
(1) The association of Blavatsky and Theosophy with “μέντιουμ, χαρτορίχτρες κλπ.” is invalid, for she persistently attacked these forms of lower and spurious psychism (129). Indeed, it was because of her attack of spiritualism that Coleman, “a leading spiritualist of his day” (379; also, 271) and the only “reliable” source for Mr. Vistonitis, undertook the task of “exposing” her.
(2) Also, what does Theosophy and Blavatsky have to do with Himler and the SS? The Nazis also appropriated the swastika, a Hindu symbol known for thousands of years. What’s the point of this charge by association? That Theosophy nurtured fascism? Then, why Blavatsky’s books were always banned in the Soviet Union (547; she was a Russian by birth)? Also, how would Theosophy’s role in India’s independence movement be explained? The founder and the most prominent members of the Indian National Congress were theosophists (194). Both Gandhi and Nehru owed their commitment to the Indian cause to theosophists (195-96); Gandhi knew Blavatsky personally and became a member of her group of disciples (195). In recognition of that contribution, the Indian government issued a special stamp in 1975 for the centennial of the Theosophical Society (192). Thus far for the absolutist and Arian “leanings” of Theosophy.
(3) Contrary to Mr. Vistonitis’ opinion, “Η ζωή της Μπλαβάτσκυ” is less interesting than her work. For the latter was known to and influenced some of the most celebrated intellectual and artistic giants of our century: T.S. Eliot (480-81), William Butler Yeats (465-70), James Joyce (473-76), Jack London (476-77), D.H. Lawrence (479-80), Wassily Kandinsky (484-86), Paul Klee (489-90), Paul Gauguin (490-92), Gustav Mahler (495-96), Jan Sibelius (496-97), Alexander Scriabin (497-98), Thomas Edison (a theosophist himself, 183-85), and Albert Einstein (according to testimonies, “a copy of The Secret Doctrine was always on his desk”: xx, 434). Even today, professors and students in major American Universities study The Secret Doctrine (437-38).
(4) Blavatsky didn’t try to create a new religion. On the contrary, her claim was that behind all genuine religions there is a common nucleus of teachings. Actually, the motto of the Theosophical Society is “there’s no religion higher than truth.” She traveled more extensively than any of his contemporaries and in her work she tried to compile the wisdom of all religions and philosophies, known or unknown. Her work is syncretic in the widest possible sense. Significantly, the subtitle of The Secret Doctrine is a “synthesis of science, religion and philosophy.” Hence the accusation of plagiarism.
(5) Mr. Vistonitis grounds his attack on Blavatsky in the issue of plagiarism in her work. First, he accuses Blavatsky as “λογοκλόπο,” and then he admits that she does it “‘σοβαρά’: με παραπομπές, βιβλιογραφία και ‘επιχειρήματα.'” Was she a plagiarist or not? His only source is William Emmette Coleman’s supposed “exposure” of her sources, published in 1895 (not independently but as Appendix C in a book written and sponsored to discredit her). What was his motivation? For years, he had attacked Blavatsky and Theosophy in the spiritualists’ journals. He was also involved in two other cases of bringing false accusations against her (379).
What about the content of the accusation? Coleman’s paper gives the impression that the whole of Blavatsky’s work is derived from uncredited sources. This is not true. What he accepts as plagiarism is the crediting (for any citation) not only of primary sources (e.g. Plato, Aristotle) but also of secondary ones (e.g. Professor X’s book quoting Plato). Today, this is done in the bibliographic index given at the end of a book or in foot- or endnotes; at that time, however, it was not the norm, and this very practice was followed even by Coleman himself in his writings. For example, “Coleman accuses HPB of using forty-four passages-he should say quotations-from C. W. King’s book The Gnostics and Their Remains in Isis without acknowledgement. Yet, when using Gnostics as a primary source, she credits it and its author on thirty-two occasions” (381). So, the issue is not whether Blavatsky acknowledges her sources but whether she does so every single time she uses them as secondary sources (moreover, in books running hundreds and thousands of pages).
Coleman’s claim that Blavatsky’s books were nothing but a compilation of diverse sources is also untrue; statistically, only 22% of Isis Unveiled is quoted material and the rest 78% Blavatsky’s own writing. Coleman first “traces” cases of plagiarism, in the above narrow sense, in Isis Unveiled and then he turns to The Secret Doctrine. But here he never gives pagination, thus making it impossible for someone to verify his claim. Even worse, he repeats time and again that the plagiarized passages and the exact page numbers will be given in his forthcoming book on the subject. In the remaining 16 years of his life, no one heard anything about it and no book was ever published. This is the vague nature of his accusation. Sylvia Cranston verified that in the whole Secret Doctrine, a work of more than 1500 pages, there are only six cases of “unacknowledged borrowings from secondary sources” (383-84, 601-02; for the whole discussion of the topic, see 379-87). And of course, both Coleman and Mr. Vistonitis forget that Blavatsky herself, foreseeing perhaps their reactions, repeated Montaigne’s words in the introduction to The Secret Doctrine: “‘I have here made only a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them'” (386).
In short, Coleman is not a trustworthy source and the accusation of plagiarism is actually a construction based on his disregarding of bibliographic conventions and his misreading of the syncretic nature of her work. The reason why Coleman is remembered today at all is because, after a whole century, people like Mr. Vistonitis cannot find any other “source” to discredit the intellectual accomplishment of Blavatsky.
And what’s that accomplishment? As I hinted above, Blavatsky attempted to synthesize virtually the entirety of human knowledge (hence Mr. Vistonitis’ complain that she moves from the “holy ground” of Plato to “τσαρλατάνοι” like Nostradamus). This is seen, of course, as a threat to any sort of fundamentalism. For throughout her life, Blavatsky fiercely attacked orthodoxies of any kind. And for her brave intellectual stance (moreover, coming from a woman living in the midst of Victorian strict morality) she still pays today.
(6) “Όλα αυτά βέβαια δεν στέκουν πουθενά…” is Mr. Vistonitis’ casual assessment of Blavatsky’s work. But as Cranston shows (430-62), many ideas in Blavatsky’s writings have been confirmed by 20th-century science: “The Secret Doctrine contains many teachings that were denied by the science of HPB’s day but were subsequently proved true” (434). As examples are given: “atoms are divisible”; “atoms are perpetually in motion”; “matter and energy are convertible” (435-37).
(7) “Δεν έχει νόημα στην εποχή της βιοτεχνολογίας, των διατημικών κατακτήσεων και της πληροφορικής να ασχολείται κανείς με τερατωδίες.” Does Mr. Vistonitis forget that the monstrosities in this century came from science: the chemical weapons in WWI and the atomic bomb in WWII; the Cold War and the threat of atomic holocaust; even today, the major concerns are the cloning of humans and the adequate inspection of biochemical weapons and the protection of individual privacy from electronic forms of control? In turn, what exactly are the “τερατωδίες” of Blavatsky and Theosophy? Is Mr. Vistonitis aware of the three objectives of the society:
(a) To form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color. [some 70 years before the UN charter!]
(b) The study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study. [syncretic studies]
(c) The investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man. [studies already under way in some of the major US Universities] (xviii)
Is this program of human betterment that Mr. Vistonitis and all fundamentalists are afraid of? And if he is terrified by Blavatsky’s treatment of Plato, is it because she “misreads” him or because Mr. Vistonitis is accustomed to a monolithic interpretation of the ancient texts? I can still remember my high school days and the limited, dry philological reading of the ancients. As for his cheap assertion that contemporary interest in occultism expresses “ένα ιστορικό κενό,” let me say that this vacuum is partly because of the sort of fundamentalism Mr. Vistonitis tries to pass through his “review.”
(8) A cursory view of Mr. Vistonitis’ vocabulary is revealing: “τάχα μου,” “τσαρλατάνο,” “υποκουλτούρα,” “το κραυγαλέον της ανοησίας,” “πνευματικός ολοκληρωτισμός.” And Blavatsky is called “ψευδοθρησκειολόγος,” “ψευδοπροφήτισα,” and “απατεώνισσα.” The myth that she was an impostor was generated by the now discredited “Hodgson report,” published in 1885 by the Society for Psychical Research in London. A century later, in 1986, the same society published a statement with the opening line: “Madame Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society was unjustly condemned” (xvii). Dr. Vernon Harrison, an expert on forgery, re-examined the case in a twenty-five page study, concluding that Hodgson report is “‘riddled with slanted statements, conjecture advanced as fact or probable fact, uncorroborated testimony of unnamed witnesses, selection of evidence and downright falsity'” while “‘he ignored all evidence'” in her favor (xviii; also 265-77). Harrison ended apologizing for the long time it took to clear her name. Will Mr. Vistonitis do the same?
If Mr. Vistonitis is after an impostor here, he should better buy a mirror, for he behaves irresponsibly to your readers, perpetuating falsities. His review is a compilation of already-disproved accusations, unfounded claims, a generous dose of anti-occult folklore, all galvanized by his uncontrolled personal enmity to somebody dead for more than a century.
Since the late 19th century Blavatsky’s name has suffered in the hands of semi-literates, fundamentalists, materialists and pseudo-occultists alike. She has been associated with Nazism, Sionism, international conspiracies etc. It is time to repudiate the easiness of hear-saying and bring forth facts and arguments. Something which Mr. Vistonitis has failed to do.
Dr. Ilias Chrissochoidis
PS: I don’t happen to know Mr. Vistonitis. But reading his “review” on your Web site, I was very much disturbed by the historical falsities contained, the unjustifiably vulgar expressions used and the overall fundamentalist spirit manifested therein.
It was sent to Βήμα, Tuesday, 24 February 1998
Subject: on the books