Isis Unveiled by H. P. Blavatsky
Theosophical University Press Online Edition
*The authorship of "Isis Unveiled" has sometimes been questioned. Some persons have claimed it for themselves. The one individual best able to bear witness, from among all who had personal knowledge of the authorship, is Alexander Wilder, physician and scholar, the most able of the Platonists. To-day, at 85 years, he has the buoyancy of youth, the mental virility of manhood, and all with his Platonic "enthusiasm." — H. W. P.
One morning in the autumn of 1876, I saw in the New York "Tribune" the mention of a work in process of publication styled "Art-Magic," which would treat of recondite subjects. Having from earlier years been interested in such matters, I wrote to the address there given and received a reply from Mrs. Hardinge-Britton. Besides answering my inquiry, she told me of the forming of a Theosophical Society, then taking place. But I did not pursue this clue. I had become disgusted with individual pretensions to superior powers, and unusual names have for me no attraction. Some weeks later, however, learning that the book had been printed, I called upon Mrs. Britton and received a copy. She stated that the author did not give his name, and that he would not require the payment which I was to make, paying a compliment to my intellectual qualifications as something unusual in this field. The book was very interesting to me, and contained many valuable nuggets in relation to arcane matters. Unfortunately, there was no index, and the omission of an index takes away half the usefulness of a book to a student. There was no allusion in the book to the Theosophical Society, and I had no curiosity to know about the organization.
At that time I had been editing several publications for Mr. J. W. Bouton, a bookseller in New York, and was lecturing and contributing papers for one or two periodicals. Other engagements and associations had been laid aside. I had barely heard of Madame Blavatsky, but in no connection with anything relating to Theosophy, or other subject that I knew anything about. She had been described as having introduced herself to an acquaintance as a "rushing Russian," and her manner had attracted attention. Nothing more was elicited at that time.
On a pleasant afternoon, in early autumn, some months later, I was alone in the house. The bell was rung, and I answered at the door. Colonel Henry S. Olcott was there with an errand to myself. I did not recognize him, as I had never had any occasion to make his acquaintance, but he having had some governmental business with one of my employers several years before, had known me ever since. He had never suspected, however, that I took any interest whatever in unusual subjects; so completely successful had I been in keeping myself unknown even to those who from daily association imagined that they knew me very thoroughly. A long service in journalism, familiar relations with public men, and active participation in political matters, seemed to have shut out from notice an ardent passion for mystic speculation, and the transcendental philosophy. I think that Colonel Olcott had himself been taken somewhat by surprise.
He had been referred to me by Mr. Bouton. Madam Blavatsky had compiled a work upon occult and philosophic subjects, and Mr. Bouton had been asked in relation to undertaking its publication. Why it had been referred to me I could never well understand. Mr. Bouton had taken passage for England a few days before, and I had visited him several times, even going over from Newark to bid him farewell the morning that he left. Yet he had not said a word to me about the manuscript. Did he really expect me to read it, or was he merely endeavoring to shirk having anything to do with it without actually refusing outright? I am now inclined to the opinion that he referred Colonel Olcott to me to evade saying "No." At the time, however, I supposed that, although the mode of proceeding was not that of a man of business, Mr. Bouton really meant that I should examine the work, and I agreed to undertake the task.
It was truly a ponderous document and displayed research in a very extended field, requiring diligence, familiarity with the various topics, as well as a purpose to be fair to the writer. Regarding myself as morally obligated to act for the advantage of Mr. Bouton, I showed no favor beyond what I believed justice to demand. I regarded it a duty to be severe. In my report to him, I stated that the manuscript was the product of great research, and that so far as related to current thinking, there was a revolution in it, but I added that I deemed it too long for remunerative publishing.
Mr. Bouton, however, presently agreed to publish the work. I never learned the terms, but subsequent occurrences led me to presume that they were not carefully considered. He procured the copyright in his own name, which enabled him to control the price, and he refused every proposition afterward to transfer the ownership to the author, or to cheapen the cost. He placed the manuscript again in my hands, with instructions to shorten it as much as it would bear. This was a discretionary power that was far from agreeable. It can hardly be fair that a person acting solely in behalf of the publisher should have such authority over the work of an author. Nevertheless, I undertook the task. While abridging the work, I endeavored in every instance to preserve the thought of the author in plain language, removing only such terms and matter as might be regarded as superfluous, and not necessary to the main purpose. In this way, enough was taken out to fill a volume of respectable dimensions. In doing all this, I consulted only what I supposed to be Mr. Bouton's advantage, and believed that he so regarded it, as I had only his instructions. But it proved to be only a "labor of love."
Colonel Olcott was very desirous that I should become acquainted with Madam Blavatsky. He appeared to hold her in high regard closely approaching to veneration, and to consider the opportunity to know her a rare favor for any one. I was hardly able to share his enthusiasm. Having a natural diffidence about making new acquaintances, and acting as a critic upon her manuscript, I hesitated for a long time. Finally, however, these considerations were passed over and I accompanied him to their establishment in Forty-seventh Street.
It was a "flat," that unhomelike fashion of abode that now extends over populous cities, superseding the household and family relationship wherever it prevails. The building where they lived had been "transmogrified" for such purposes, and they occupied a suite of apartments on an upper floor. The household in this case comprised several individuals, with separate employments. They generally met at meal-time, together with such guests from elsewhere as might happen to be making a visit.
The dining room was furnished in simple style with no affectation of anything unusual or extraordinary. Perhaps, I ought to add that later in the year following, this condition was quite considerably modified. The autumn of 1879 was characterized, as I have never since observed it, by the richness of color in the foliage. Numerous parties visited the woods around to gather the tinted leaves for ornamental purposes. One of the inmates of the flat, a foreigner who was in rapport with the Theosophical fraternity, had in this way, procured a large quantity and set herself to use them to decorate the dining room. She made several emblematic figures, the double triangle being the principal one of these. Then she followed with an Oriental landscape extending the length of the apartment. There were to be seen the figures of an elephant, a monkey, and other creatures, and a man standing as if contemplating the scene. This decoration remained through the winter till the household had broken up. I then brought it away to Newark and set it up in a hall. Here it remained several years. It was there when Mr. G. R. S. Mead visited me. I sent it afterward to Miss Caroline Hancock at Sacramento, and she in turn presented it to the Theosophical Society at San Francisco. Doubtless it has long since met the fate of wornout furniture. But it had notoriety in its earlier days, from the admiration of visitors for its ingenuity and oddness of conception, and descriptions of it were published in several newspapers.
The study in which Madam Blavatsky lived and worked was arranged after a quaint and very primitive manner. It was a large front room, and being on the side next the street, was well lighted. In the midst of this was her "den," a spot fenced off on three sides by temporary partitions, writing desk and shelves for books. She had it as convenient as it was unique. She had but to reach out an arm to get a book, paper or other article that she might desire, that was within the enclosure. The place could not accord with a vivid sense of beauty, except after the ancient Greek conception that beauty is fitness for its purpose, everything certainly being convenient and handy. In this place Madam Blavatsky reigned supreme, gave her orders, issued her judgments, conducted her correspondence, received her visitors and produced the manuscript of her book.
She did not resemble in manner or figure what I had been led to expect. She was tall, but not strapping; her countenance bore the marks and exhibited the characteristics of one who had seen much, thought much, traveled much, and experienced much. Her figure reminded me of the description which Hippokrates has given to the Scyths, the race from which she probably descended. Her dress I do not feel competent to describe, and in fact never noticed so as to be able to remember. I am a man and seldom observant of a woman's attire. My attention is given to the individual, and unless the clothing should be strikingly different from the current style, I would be unable to speak of it intelligently or intelligibly. All that I have to say is that she was completely dressed. Her appearance was certainly impressive, but in no respect was she coarse, awkward, or ill-bred. On the other hand she exhibited culture, familiarity with the manners of the most courtly society and genuine courtesy itself. She expressed her opinions with boldness and decision, but not obtrusively. It was easy to perceive that she had not been kept within the circumscribed limitations of a common female education; she knew a vast variety of topics and could discourse freely upon them.
In several particulars, I presume that I never fairly or fully understood her. Perhaps this may have extended further than I am willing to admit. I have heard tell of her profession of superhuman powers and of extraordinary occurrences that would be termed miraculous. I, too, believe, like Hamlet, that there are more things in heaven and earth than our wise men of this age are willing to believe. But Madam Blavatsky never made any such claim to me. We always discoursed of topics which were familiar to both, as individuals on a common plane. Colonel Olcott often spoke to me as one who enjoyed a grand opportunity, but she herself made no affectation of superiority. Nor did I ever see or know of any such thing occurring with anyone else.
She professed, however, to have communicated with personages whom she called "the Brothers," and intimated that this, at times, was by the agency, or some means analogous to what is termed "telepathy." It is not necessary to show or insist that this mode of communication has been known and even carried on from antiquity. The Khabar is well known in the Orient. I have supposed that an important condition for ability to hold such intercourse was abstinence from artificial stimulation such as comes from the use of flesh as food, alcoholic drink and other narcotic substances. I do not attach any specific immorality to these things, but I have conjectured that such abstemiousness was essential in order to give the mental powers full play, and to the noetic faculty free course without impediment or contamination from lower influence. But Madam Blavatsky displayed no such asceticism. Her table was well furnished, but without profusion, and after a manner not differing from that of other housekeepers. Besides, she indulged freely in the smoking of cigarettes, which she made as she had occasion. I never saw any evidence that these things disturbed, or in any way interfered with her mental acuteness or activity.
At my first visit, her reception was courteous and even friendly. She seemed to become acquainted at once. She spoke of the abridgements which I had made of her manuscript, extolling what I had done far beyond what it deserved. "What had been taken out was 'flapdoodle,' " she declared. My judgment, certainly, had not been so severe as that. I had not looked for defects, or found them, but only to ascertain how the manuscript might be "boiled down," without affecting the general purpose. In other cases, it has been my rule to scrutinize unprinted manuscript in quest of faults, but to look when it has been printed, to find out its meaning and merits. In this instance, however, I had aimed only to shorten without marring the work. It should be stated, however, as a fact in the publication of this work, that Madam Blavatsky continued to add matter, after Mr. Bouton began the undertaking, and I think that much of the second volume was then written. I have no recollection of much of it except in proof sheets at a later period.
It was no easy matter to give the publication a fitting title. I do not remember that my services were asked in this matter, and certainly they would not have been worth the asking. It is a department in which I am particularly weak. Nor do I think the name unexceptionable which was adopted.
Mr. Bouton is entitled to that distinction. He was a skilful caterer in the bookselling world to which he belonged, but he had business ability rather than a sense of fitness. He once published the treatise of R. Payne Knight on Ancient Art and added pictures relating solely to Hindu mythology, entirely foreign to the subject. This work of Madam Blavatsky is largely based upon the hypothesis of a prehistoric period of the Aryan people in India, and in such a period the veil or the unveiling of Isis can hardly be said to constitute any part. On the contrary, it is a dramatic representation peculiar to the religion and wisdom of Egypt and perhaps is allied to the Syrian Hyksos enormities. Certainly the problems of Egyptian lore are to be considered with other pens than those with which " Isis Unveiled " was written.
After the work had been printed and placed on sale, there was discussion in regard to the actual authorship. Many were unwilling to acknowledge that Madam Blavatsky could be sufficiently well informed or intellectually capable of such a production. True that women like Frances Burney had composed romances of high merit. Miss Farley had conducted successfully the " Lowell Offering." Mary Somerville had written on Physical Science, and Harriet Martineau on Political Economy.
A clergyman in New York, a member of the Russian Greek Church, I have been told, affirmed that I was the actual author. That report, however, can hardly have gone far. It would be refuted after the manner that the late Henry Ward Beecher put a stop to a similar one. He tells us that when Uncle Tom's Cabin was published there were many who insisted that he, and not Mrs. Stowe was the author. "Then," says Mr. Beecher, "I wrote Norwood," which entirely disposed of the matter. So, too, nobody familiar with my style of writing would ever impute to me the authorship of Isis Unveiled.
I would hesitate, likewise, to be considered in any noteworthy sense as an editor of the work. It is true that after Mr. Bouton had agreed to become the publisher, I was asked to read the proof sheets and make sure that the Hebrew words and terms belonging to other languages were correctly given by the printer, but I added nothing, and do not remember that I ventured to control anything that was contributed to the work. Without her knowledge and approval, such action would have been reprehensible.
While she was engaged in the work, she had many books relating to the various topics, evidently for consultation. There were Jacolliot's work on India, Bunsen's Egypt, Ennemoser's History of Magic and others. I had myself written papers upon a variety of subjects for the Phrenological Journal and other periodicals, and she had procured many of them. We often discussed the topics, and their various characteristics, for she was a superior conversationalist and at home on every matter about which we discoursed. She spoke the English language with the fluency of one perfectly familiar with it, and who thought in it. It was the same to me as though talking with any man of my acquaintance. She was ready to take the idea as it was expressed, and uttered her own thoughts clearly, concisely and often forcibly. Some of the words which she employed had characteristics which indicated their source. Any thing which she did not approve or hold in respect she promptly disposed of as "flapdoodle." I have never heard or encountered the term elsewhere. Not even the acts or projects of Colonel Olcott escaped such scathing, and in fact he not unfrequently came under her scorching criticism. He writhed under it, but, except for making some brief expression at the time, he did not appear to cherish resentment.
In regard to the genuineness of her authorship, a story was once told me, which has been imagined by some to have a direct relation to the matter. I suppose this to be the occasion of several letters addressed to me upon the subject. My informant was the late Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson of Boston. Mrs. Thompson was a woman of wealth, abounding with benevolent purposes, but eager for novelties that were more or less visionary, shifting from one pursuit to another, and accessible to flattery. For example, she gave the money which enabled a medical college to hold several lecture terms, and then let the enterprise die out; she paid for building a chapel for the sessions of the Summer School of Philosophy at Concord, and then tired of the enterprise; she aided Dr. Newbrough with money to print his new bible Oahspe, and employed the artist, Mr. Frank Carpenter, to paint the picture of President Lincoln and his cabinet, which she presented to Congress. The wealth which her husband had bequeathed to her became a bait for all manner of parasites to seek her, and flattery artfully bestowed was often like the magical words: "Open, sesame," sure to find the way to her purse. But she quickly dropped one for another.
For a little time she was attracted to Madam Blavatsky. This was somewhat to be wondered at, for it is hard to conceive that Madam Blavatsky flattered anybody. She did not hesitate to tell Henry Ward Beecher when he was at the height of his popularity, that he was not an honest public teacher.
It might be questioned whether Mrs. Thompson herself was quite sincere. I remember meeting her one day at dinner at the flat. A statement which I made was imputed by Colonel Olcott to the "Astral light."
Some days later, I saw Mrs. Thompson at her own premises, and she asked me my opinion in a manner that impressed me that she was hardly straightforward in her relations with the Theosophical household.
A year or so afterward, they had left New York for India. Mrs. Thompson had become an inmate of the family of Dr. Newbrough on West 34th Street. He was endeavoring to push the "new Bible" into circulation. I called there one day by invitation, and learning that she had rooms in the house, paid her my respects. In our conversation, Madam Blavatsky was mentioned, and Mrs. Thompson spoke of her in these terms:
"If Madam Blavatsky should come in at that door I should kiss her affectionately. At the same time I believe her to be a perfect humbug."'
She then related the following story: Baron de Palm, a German gentleman, who spent some time in this country, had died in Roosevelt Hospital. He had devoted much attention to arcane subjects, and had written upon them. He was intimate with the party on 47th Street, and made them recipients of his property, but with the assurance that his body should be cremated. There was a woman in the household who seems to have become unfriendly and ready to talk at random. She told Mrs. Thompson that after the death of the Baron she was with Madam Blavatsky while examining the contents of his trunks. One of these, the woman said, was full of manuscripts. Madam Blavatsky looked at a few of the pages, and then hastily closed the trunk, making an effort to divert attention in another direction.
Mrs. Thompson apparently believed that this manuscript was the material of the work Isis Unveiled. Certainly she endeavored to give me that impression. But I am not apt at taking hints, and do not like others to suppose that I imply what I do not explicitly say. The giving of hints is hardly an honorable practice; it is an evasion, and often simply the affectation of knowing something beyond which is directly communicated. I never made use of this story, and repeated it only to Dr. R. B. Westbrook, of Philadelphia, and to Colonel Olcott when I next met him in New York.
Several individuals have written letters, as though I knew something that would discredit the sincerity of Madam Blavatsky and the genuineness of the originality of Isis Unveiled. My reply was that she had always dealt justly with me, and I had no disposition to speak unkindly of her. I mean always to avoid being sycophantic or credulous, but I will not recompense fair treatment by evil or unfriendly speaking.
It will readily be perceived that there was really no evidence sufficient to warrant the imputing of the authorship of Isis Unveiled to Baron de Palm. I do not know whether, being of foreign birth, he could write fluently in the English language. It is not known that the manuscript in the trunk was written for publication, or was in any proper book form. Indeed, I have never been informed whether he contemplated such a work, or even that he had sufficient capacity. All this would require to be taken for granted, before it would be permissible to presume any imposture in the authorship.
The manuscript which I handled I am very sure was in the handwriting of Madam Blavatsky herself. Anybody who was familiar with her, would, upon reading the first volume of Isis Unveiled, not have any difficulty in recognizing her as the author. Nor was the manuscript, voluminous as it was, sufficiently extensive to include a large trunk full of written paper. Besides, a full third, or even more, of what was published, was written by Madam Blavatsky after Mr. Bouton had set about putting the work in type. She was by no means expert in preparing her material. She patched and changed, making a very large bill for "alterations." Indeed, she never actually finished the work, the publisher declared to me, till he told her that she must stop.
It had been desired of me that I should read the proofsheets. It was not my province to dictate or even suggest what should be included in the work, and I do not remember taking exception but once. She had described certain medical treatment, with apparent approval, in which mercury was a factor. To this drug I entertain a lifelong antipathy. I have seen individuals "railroaded" out of life by its use as medicine, and others crippled hopelessly. My protestations may have induced her to qualify her eulogy.
She always treated me with courtesy. When her work was most urgent, or she had been wearied with visitors, she commanded the woman at the door to turn off all callers. That prohibition was repeatedly spoken to me, but as she heard my voice, she would call out to admit me. This occurred when the call was not a matter of business. She was ready in conversation, and was at home on any topic, however abstruse. Few persons in any walk of life are as well supplied with material for discourse. Even Colonel Olcott, who was by no means inferior or commonplace, was not her equal except in his own profession.
Believing that the main body of the work would not be sufficiently attractive to purchasers, I urged her to include in it accounts of the marvellous things which she had observed in India. But this she invariably declined to do, saying that it was not permitted by "the Brothers." That was a tribunal that I could not question; my wisdom in the matter was that of the market-place. But she was always ready to hear what I had to say, whether in relation to her work, or to philosophic questions, or to subjects of everyday life. When the printer had placed everything in type, I was employed to prepare the index. Others must judge whether this was done with fidelity. As the author paid for this, and the publisher refrained from advancing a cent for all that I had done in the matter, though careful to make sure of all the proceeds from the sales, it is but just to render the acknowledgement where it is due.
The work was finally completed, and Isis Unveiled was duly issued. The household began at once to make arrangements for leaving New York. Madam Blavatsky visited the Bureau of Naturalization and there became a citizen of the United States. This astonished me, partly because I knew her to be contemplating to leave the country permanently, and partly because she had freely criticized our ways of doing and our politics. She explained that the American nation had the best government. There were probably matters of law involved that I did not know about. Colonel Olcott was a skillful lawyer, and had been employed by the administration at Washington to ferret out alleged violations of law, he knew what would be necessary abroad for a safeguard. As the party after their arrival in India became objects of suspicion as possible spies of the Russian Government, it is not unlikely that the precaution was wise.
Madam Blavatsky wrote to me several times after their arrival at Bombay. She told of many matters of interest to a student in comparative religions, such as I am, and her letters were entertaining as well as instructive. But as time passed, new duties took the place of old recollections. Such events occurred as the break with Dayananda, the leader of the Arya Samaj, an alliance unnatural for Americans of Protestant antecedents, who do not like any one to exercise dominion over their religious beliefs. The Theosophist, however, came regularly to me and was preserved from its first number. This enabled me to keep track of the party, and their doings — till the closing of their present earthly career.