Theosophical University Press Online Edition
H.P.B. on the title-page of Isis Unveiled has a saying of Montaigne's: "Cecy est un livre de bonne foy." This is not a mere idle choice for a motto; it comes from the very heart of the woman. Nor have I seen any of her writings, no matter how much I may criticize them, no matter how much they may be open to criticism generally, where I felt she was acting a part, or in any writing for mere effect, or for any display of knowledge or learning. The woman was genuine, genuine in her pleasantest moods, genuine in her anger and rage when wrought up to the highest pitch by her tempestuous emotions. Again and again in her writings does she express her contempt and abhorrence for a lie; she even has spoken of it as worse than murder, which is carrying her convictions to the highest pitch, and certainly quite too far.
But aside from this mere verbal expression, I can see the same conviction in her actions and general attitude towards the world. Here is a woman born an aristocrat, and in a country where the aristocracy meant more than in any other country. In Russia, where the serfs were not yet free, the nobility had every privilege and every advantage, and the peasantry every degradation and every hardship. It was champagne and the Court for the aristocrat, and a hovel and black bread for the peasant, though he did have his vodka for some surcease from toil, and for some slight semblance of the mystic consciousness, and for some faint glimpse of the Elysian fields.
When at the outbreak of the War the Czar took away his vodka, it was the last straw to break his back. He had no equipment; he had no vodka; yet a half-drunken soldier was better than a sober one. Nothing could follow this but defeat, and after defeat must come the Revolution; and Red Russia had to go back to its vodka. The peasant could work in the fields all day in the bitter cold, but he had to have his ikon to pray to, and he had to have his vodka.
The Russian novelists have drawn the picture for us in vivid colours, and they can draw and they are colourists.
One of the most interesting facts in modern history is the birth of Russian literature after centuries of comparative silence. It came with a great outburst, with a galaxy of writers, poets and novelists, whose pictures of Russian life and thought were more vivid and more minute and accurate than any other country could boast of. It came almost as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the great poet Pushkin, a passionate romanticist, started a movement which passed rapidly from poetry to the realistic novel. Such names as Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi have brought this immense and almost boundless Russia before our eyes; the peasant in his hut, the aristocrat in his palace, and the Court in all its gorgeous ceremonies and trappings. They have shown us an aristocracy probably the most dissipated in the world, for its dissipation was reduced to a fine art. In my youth I read the novels of Turgenev, and their characters and their scenes were as of another world. Later I read Tolstoi, and now all the world is reading him, perhaps the greatest genius of them all.
And they have shown us the intellectual side of this marvellous people, their mysticism, their love of philosophy, and their eagerness to grasp all the intricate and subtle questions of life, as manifested in the student, in the soldier, and in the aristocrat.
St. Petersburg becomes for us more alive than Paris, and we might imagine we were in the French capital, for we hear more French than Russian, and wine and song and bejewelled women make us forget the bitter cold outside. It was indeed a land of contrasts.
Years ago the gentle John Ruskin pointed out to us that with war and the military spirit art and literature flourished best, while with peace and security art and literature languished and decayed. Russia is a good example of this: her wars have enriched her literature and art. The pictures of Verestchagin will long live in art; Napoleon's wars at Versailles are tame indeed in contrast.
But we must not forget an aristocracy that claims some nobility, where the intellectual and artistic elements predominated, and fired by a military spirit, along with a certain abandon, courage, devotion to Czar and country, a sense of duty and responsibility, all inspiring to higher action and endeavour.
Russia up to the Great War was a land of an autocratic Czar with all the traditions of Peter the Great and the great Catherine, with its oriental Court and trappings, its intricate and vicious bureaucracy, its tyranny, its brutality, and its oppression of the poor and humble.
Her religion, too, was a full expression of the national character, rich in imagery, in imagination, in pictorial and architectural art, and of an emotional warmth to fight the bitter cold. It was a Church, oriental, Byzantine, superstitious, mystical, and with a ceremonial outclassing in gorgeousness and pomp Rome herself. It satisfied fully the genius of the race. Red Russia has tried to kill it, but it cannot be destroyed.
Into this land Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was born, and she was born an aristocrat, with riches and serfs and influential connections, and everything to make life easy and successful and coveted. Did she sink into this lap of luxury? Did she care for the conventions about her? Were the family ties strong enough to hold her down? Were riches and bodily comfort and the intellectual allurements then offered her sufficient to hold her and keep her from exile? Her wild spirit and genius, and genius it must be called, would have none of it, though she had to face an outside world as cold and bitter as her own Russian winter, and as cutting as the winds which blow over the great steppes. To the Imperial Court she preferred the Arabs and Bedouins, the wandering tribes of the East in their tents where she could warm herself by their fires at night and learn their languages, their myths, their religious secrets, their magic incantations, and all their occult imaginings and ceremonies, seeking the great mystery of man's spirit and being.
If she did not find what she was after she found something to help satisfy her cravings, something which she could not find in books or in universities or in any abodes where learning flourished. If for years she had become a wanderer it was to some purpose after all, for the time came when it bore fruit, bitter often though it was, yet in the end luscious and sweet. And what was this fruit but the Cosmic consciousness which comes sometimes without effort, and sometimes after the weary toil of years.
Walt Whitman had it with but little wandering, though he too had to suffer some. Lord Tennyson had a glimpse of it, and has given expression to it; and in some of his poetry it is near enough to the surface to show its presence. With H.P.B. the struggle was so fierce that it left its mark. She was an old woman at forty. The soft lines of youth, a face of beauty and charm, which even her cousin, Count Witte, admits, had hardened into the characteristic Calmuk features, her wonderful eyes alone remaining to charm and attract. She was old, but she was a great woman, a great personality, sometimes as gentle and simple as a child, and sometimes a raging lioness turning on the yelping curs at her heels.
But we must not forget that all her powers did not come through a severe struggle alone; far from it. Even in her youth Count Witte testifies: "She could write pages of smoothly flowing verse without the slightest effort, and she could compose essays in prose on every conceivable subject."
Katkov, the famous Moscow editor, praised her great literary talent. We have but to point to From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan to show it; it's an ex pede Herculem judgment, but it is sufficient.
It is impossible to form any idea of the character of H.P.B. unless we regard her as a genius and a great genius at that. To show this I shall in a separate chapter turn to the characterization of genius as given us by F. W. H. Myers, who was one of the committee of the S.P.R. to brand her as a charlatan. Her automatisms, her externalizations, and visualizations, her marvellous powers of continued application at her writing-desk, her eccentricities, her emotional storms, her defiance of the ordinary conventions, and even the lack of uniformity in her writings, all bring out the very points which Professor Myers has so eloquently treated.
It is in her polemical writings that we see her fearless and outspoken nature. There is no pretence here; there is no lack of good faith; she means every word she writes. Her opponent may be the elite of the elite among scholars, under the aegis of a great university; it matters not; she does not hesitate. Doctor Jowett does not escape; she admits his great scholarship, but she always shows that he translated Plato for the love of the Greek and not for his understanding of Plato's philosophy. Nor does Max Muller escape her criticism when he denied that there was any secret doctrine in the religions of the East. Her article on "Mr. A. Lillie's Delusion" is one of the best of her polemical writings, and has a charm for its incisive sarcasm and biting denunciation of this gentleman's attempt to show what he considers her inconsistencies, and even misstatements regarding herself and her past. She made Mr. Lillie a wilted lily before she got through with him.
In all her writings, whether in the calm statements of her occult and philosophical expositions or in her polemical writings, you feel that right or wrong she is honest. It is all in good faith; there is never any subterfuge; there is no beating the devil around the bush; she is out in the open, and her opponents who are hiding in their holes must get out and face her. And when enraged by the taunts and abuses of her enemies she becomes a Samson Agonistes, ready to pull down the temple on her enemies as well as on herself and destroy all in its ruins. Such a titanic creature is fearless, and her very fearlessness has a basic honesty that knows no lack of faith, and therefore brooks no lack of it in others. Lesser minds and weaker natures may charge her with follies and weaknesses and lack of faith, but they do not understand her.
Yet she suffers from it all and raves, and still goes on her way, and when she reaches the end of the way she falls in her own tracks, but she falls triumphant. She may have lost the fight for the time, but her heart has still the courage and the exultant joy of a future justification, even though that future may be far off.
Unfortunately a number of her letters deal with the sordid question of the Holmes's controversy, but one can easily see that she is fighting for the truth and anxious to pour the vial of her wrath on the guilty party. The reading of her articles in The Spiritual Scientist, where this controversy is fully discussed, may prove of interest in connection with the letters, but in both instances her good faith is in evidence. She never changed one iota in her attitude towards modern spiritualism. I am quite free to admit that she probably overstated the dangers and pitfalls of modern mediumistic spiritualism. Though she repeatedly attacked the Catholic Church for many abuses, as she thought them, the Church has really for centuries deprecated all attempts to get in touch with the spirit-world for fear of the very dangers she so earnestly warned against. It is only the phenomena and miracles of sainthood which the Church has treasured and encouraged, but they have been very different from the phenomena of the seance room, even when these have all the semblance of good faith.
The whole character of the movement has changed since her day, and it is not impossible that her memory will take on a more gentle and a more serene aspect. She fought when all is said the materialism of the last century, and when materialism had reached its nadir. The world can well thank her for that.
The molecular and mathematical physics of to-day is a new science as compared with the physics of John Tyndall and Herbert Spencer. The scientific use of the imagination has carried us to the ultimate confines of the state of matter. And now we will not stop at the atom, for a very great scientist, Sir J. J. Thomson, who first calculated the electric charge on the electron, has just published a lecture on "Beyond the Electron," in which he shows that the electron itself has its etheric body-guards, and pure spirit itself cannot be far off. Mme. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine tells us that "light is matter," and Sir J. J. Thomson in the lecture I have mentioned says that we are returning to the corpuscular theory of light — and Einstein's relativity is certainly favouring that theory — and that light is both corpuscular and undulatory. The mathematical physicists are really more spiritual in a way than the churchmen; the tables are turned, the latter have become the materialists.
In the recent silly vapourings of many modern Protestant writers on the conflict between science and religion, it is the Catholic Church which is now receiving the decrees of science and declaring there is no conflict — witness the recent pronouncement of Cardinal Hayes. In all the foolish squabbles of the Protestant churches about evolution, — and we can see at the basis of it the crass ignorance of the masses who profess Churchianity rather than Christianity, — the Catholic Church has remained silent. In silentio et in spe erit fortitudo vestra.
Whatever the mistakes of H.P.B., and they were many, they cannot diminish the power and the radiance of her genius; and of her mistakes, bad faith was not one; and all she wrote can well come under the motto of Isis Unveiled: "Cecy est un livre de bonne foy."