Part Three of Out of This World: Death, Ghosts, and the Roots of Theosophy
If George Beard was the archetypal rationalist quack, Helena Blavatsky was surely another archetype — the occult pioneer. By her own account, before reaching the United States in 1873 she had already delved into various mystical traditions, become a student of Tibetan adepts who sent her telepathic messages, and had a special destiny — to bring what she alternately called a wisdom religion, divine magic, and the “secret doctrine” to a materialistic yet psychically fertile Western world.
Once she started attending séances in rural Vermont, the cast of materialized spirits expanded dramatically — a Russian boy, a Kurdish warrior who had once been her bodyguard, an old Russian woman, and her dead uncle, among others.
But her explanation was a far cry from Beard’s denunciation and also different from Henry Olcott’s surmise. Although she declined to comment at the time, preferring to defend spiritualism against the attacks of people like Beard, she later argued that spirits of the dead rarely return, and that materializations are “usually the astral body or double of the medium or someone present.” The medium is often a passive participant, whose mind is attracted by the “astral light” while the physical body is in a trance, she offered.
She also issued a warning. Attempting to contact the dead “only opens the door to a swarm of ‘spooks,’ good, bad, and indifferent, to which the medium becomes a slave for life.” In The Key to Theosophy, a kind of “occultism for dummies” primer written shortly before her death in 1891, Blavatsky added that while some so-called spirits are just “poll-parrots” that repeat whatever they find in the medium’s or other people’s brains, “others are most dangerous, and can only lead one to evil.”
Here is another excerpt from Spirits of Desire, describing the first meeting between Helena and Henry Olcott:
From the instant she had seen him, Helena sensed that destiny was inexorably propelling her toward Henry Olcott. But destiny without will was surrender to fate – and she wasn't one to surrender in any situation. As a result, once she knew where he was, the only real issue was choosing precisely the right moment for them to meet.
The moment finally presented itself in mid-October, as she surveyed the scene at the Eddy farm. Although she kept him under surveillance once he entered the dining room, she wasn't ready yet to admit her interest; their first meeting should seem like his idea. And so, when his eyes finally settled on her that afternoon, she looked away.
On the other hand, now she was positive: he must be the one They had sent her to meet. The pull of karma filled her with a sense of relief that finally, after half a life of restless wandering, the cosmic balance would be restored. She had felt it also in New York, but she'd held back then and lost track of him. Afterward she had waited, confident that a sign would confirm her instinct. Less than a month later, it had come – in the form of an article presented to her by a young libidinous doctor. Henry was back in Ghostland, and she was surely meant to follow.
She had no illusions. Henry's writing was superficial and glossy. He seemed to think William Eddy was some natural adept or master sorcerer. He believed his eyes without guessing the truth. But it didn't matter. She could change all that.
First, however, they had to get acquainted.
He had already noticed her; she'd made sure of that. Her scarlet shirt and short blonde hair were far enough from fashion to make her impossible to ignore. But when she saw him whispering to a young female, she wondered briefly if she'd miscalculated. He could have a taste for corseted beauty, and Helena simply might be too large and unusual. For a brief moment she felt like a teenage girl, eager for the attention of a new beau. It was an odd sensation, long forgotten but not entirely unpleasant.
He walked across the room, took a seat, and examined her. How bold, she thought, trying to ignore him. For several minutes she spoke in French with Celeste, waiting impatiently for his introduction. He did seem fascinated, but could summon no excuse to say hello.
After finishing her soup, she rose and went outside to enjoy the splendid foliage. Gold and crimson on the bright green hills had turned the landscape into a natural tapestry. She gazed at the mountains and grass-covered slopes.
"Is he still watching us?" she asked Celeste.
"Watching you, you mean."
Helena rolled a cigarette and searched for a match.
Olcott quickly moved to her side. "Permit me," he said in poor French.
Now it was her turn. "Have you been here long?"
"Too long. And then again, perhaps not long enough."
"But it must be thrilling, I mean, to keep you in such a remote place. So, what do you think? Is it really happening?"
He didn't need much prodding. Struggling with the language, he tried to describe what he'd seen so far. She was amused, but since her ploy was getting in the way, she suggested they continue in English. Henry was relieved, and clearly starved for good conversation.
He saw himself as a free thinker. She had to agree. He did have fresh ideas, rough but also creative and promising. Reviewing the seances, he ruled out fraud and mass delusion. Instead, he had deduced that the actions and will of the medium were under some hidden control.
Very perceptive, she thought.
"The issue isn't whether these things are real," he explained, "but what they are? Good, evil, or both? Have they lived on Earth before, or do they come from another planet? How much can they interfere with our affairs? Should we learn from them -- or run for our lives?"
These were reasonable questions, and Helena assumed she could provide the answers. But saying so – without solid proof – might not secure his admiration. And that was what she wanted.
"You know, I hesitated before coming here," she said instead.
"Oh? Frightened, were you?"
"Of meeting that reporter, yes. What's his name?"
"Olcott. Why be afraid of him?"
How precious. He was reacting like a rejected child.
"He might put me in one of his articles."
"Don't concern yourself," he said, straining to sound chivalrous. "I'm sure he won't do that-- unless you permit it."
"How can you be so sure?"
Because I am Colonel Henry Olcott. At your service."
"Oh, my! Then I must apologize."
"Your name will be more than sufficient."
"Blavatsky – Helena de Blavatsky," She replied, presenting one hand for a kiss.
To be concluded on October 30. Previous parts:
Next: The Chittenden Mysteries
On November 8 from 1-4 p.m., I will discuss Spirits of Desire at The Sacred Bean in Prescott, Arizona. To purchase a copy of the book or find out more, post a comment to this website.
Here’s what some critics say:
"Like E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, Spirits of Desire is a story that plays out against a tapestry of social, intellectual, religious, political and scientific forces.... Because this is a novel -- and a good one -- I don't want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that Mr. Guma has done a fine job of bringing these characters and their fascinating epoch to life."
– Joseph Citro, Vermont Public Radio
"...one of the most fascinating fictional Vermont-based true-to-history yarns I've read in quite some time...an impressive debut novel, one that raises more questions than it answers, one that will stay with you long after you finish the tongue-in-cheek last sentence."
– Rob Williams, Valley Reporter
"Guma has retold the Eddy story in crisp, clear prose, keeping himself out of sight (like a good medium) and setting his plot against a backdrop not just of scientism and spiritualism, but also human emotion, individual quest, private doubt, sex, love and social turmoil. ... It's Guma's achievement that he doesn't belittle any of his characters, nor land dogmatically on either side of the "Yes?/No?" debate over parapsychology."
– Peter Kurth, Seven Days