H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR — Vernon Harrison

Replies to Criticism

During the preparation of this work for publication I have received comments and criticisms, the which to answer I find convenient to put into the form of a dialogue.

CRITIC: If you look at Olcott's Old Diary Leaves you will find abundant evidence that HPB acted in the manner of a medium, put into trance states, etc., and that above all she was accustomed to writing long, indeed very long, passages in writings very different from her normal writing. This being so, I do not see how you can possibly establish the independence of the KH, M, and HPB writings just on the basis of analyzing a few specimens of HPB's "ordinary" writing.

VH: First, let me remind you that Hodgson's whole thesis was that HPB was an ingenious but common fraudster and impostor having no supernormal powers whatsoever. The KH Letters, he maintains, were written in a disguised form of her ordinary writing, a disguise acquired deliberately by practice over several years. To write such letters with intent to deceive can be, and usually is, a criminal offense. Writing received automatically, in trance, sleep, etc., unknown to the conscious personality until he or she reads it, does not involve deception and is not a culpable offense though it might be considered a case for psychiatric examination. There is a world of difference here that you fail to distinguish.

Second, the "few" specimens of HPB's "ordinary" writing to which you refer are nine letters preserved in the British Library. All are originals, not copies or facsimiles. All are complete and signed or initialed by HPB. All are written reasonably near in time to the period of the Mahatma Letters. All are consistent, both in handwriting and in literary style. Letter 138 tops 4,000 words and is HPB's farewell letter, written de profundis, to Mr. and Mrs. Sinnett. I have every reason to believe that all this is a good specimen of her ordinary, normal writing of the time, produced by her conscious volition, writing that she used for correspondence with friends, setting out her laundry list and giving instructions to the Coulombs.

The KH, M, and HPB scripts are quite different and, if they cropped up in any ordinary legal case, I would certainly attribute them to different persons. Whether trance personalities are independent of the conscious personalities is another matter.

Third, if we accept Olcott's testimony as evidence that HPB could write in altered states of consciousness, do we accept his further testimony in Old Diary Leaves (3rd revised edition, 2:365-7) that, in response to a request made on the spur of the moment, she received a letter precipitated on a blank sheet of paper held between her hands, from a person she had not met, in writing to her unknown? Do we accept this, and, if not, why not? I do not see how you can select or reject evidence to suit your argument: we are not politicians. Olcott's testimony is that HPB possessed psychic powers in abundance. You cannot accept both Olcott and Hodgson.

Please do remember that whenever I have been able to check Hodgson's statements against the direct testimony of the original documents preserved for us in the British Library, I have found Hodgson's statements to be false; and I have given my reasons why. They would still be false were the Mahatma Letters written by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky or Assur-bani-pal. They would be false whether the letters were written in normal consciousness, in trance, sleep, automatically, or in any other altered state of consciousness. These falsities are not trivial: they give the lie to the three cardinal statements on which Hodgson's thesis concerning the Mahatma Letters depends.

CRITIC: There is a need for these sorts of comparisons to be carried out by experts who can be assumed to have no preconceptions, who do not know what the "right" answer is. I don't believe that anyone, in any field of science, can be totally immune to the influence of prior expectations and hopes and I think that double blind methodologies should be used wherever possible.

VH: If we were asked to judge, by hearing it, whether the "Sophie Menter" piano concerto was written, not by Sophie Menter, but composed by Liszt and orchestrated by Tchaikowsky, I would agree with you. However, here we are classifying the geometrical outlines of certain individual letters by criteria capable of definition in terms of differential geometry.

If I gave you and others a selection of five hundred assorted triangles and asked you to deal them out into equilateral, isosceles, right-angled, and scalene, I would expect a large measure of agreement among you. Even Aunt Matilda would get the same result if she were shown what to look for.

Here I am asking you to classify the geometrical forms of certain letters according to definable characteristics. In the letter g we can notice whether it has a "tail" or ends in a straight down stroke; if it has a "tail," is it curved to the left or to the right; does it form an open or closed loop; is the width of the loop greater or less than its height? Instead of a smooth loop, do we have a "tail" constructed of two or three curves meeting to form sharp points (cusps)? Or do we have the entire letter formed by a continuous, unbroken curve without sharp changes of direction?

If a number of observers were asked to classify the letter g according to this scheme, I would not expect much variation in the results except in a few borderline cases. If one observer returned results widely different from the others, I would inquire into what he was doing wrong. You don't have to take my word for this. I ask you to examine the originals of these Letters in the British Library, going through them page by page in chronological order and deciding by direct observation whether there is evidence of:

(a) a gradual development of the KH style over a period of several years with the elimination of Blavatskian forms (Hodgson), or

(b) considerable variability of form in some of the characters in the first few Mahatma Letters received, a variability that was largely corrected in the course of the first fortnight without any obvious elimination of Blavatskian forms (Harrison).

Who is right, Hodgson or I?

CRITIC: Do I take the central issue of your study to be that you claim to demonstrate from an analysis of Madame Blavatsky's "ordinary" writing that she could not have been responsible for the KH Letters?

VH: No. The main issue is that the Hodgson Report is a BAD report that should never have been published, whoever its subject may have been. It is untrustworthy. If you ask, does it matter, after the passage of more than a century? I reply that it matters a great deal. The Hodgson Report is still accepted by many compilers of encyclopedias and dictionaries as the last word on Madame Blavatsky.

CRITIC: Since it is known that HPB wrote extensively in hands other than her own, your central claim is bound to collapse unless either (a) you can find specimens of the other writings and analyze them or (b) you can find reasons for denying that anybody, either as the result of practice or in trance (it doesn't matter which) can develop a style of writing so different from his normal writing that an expert (if I may use this term since you appear to be denying that there are any!) would fail to detect their common origin.

VH: I hold that as experts Hodgson, Netherclift, and Sims left a lot to be desired, and I have given my reasons for this opinion. There are good experts available, and you will find the names and addresses of some of them currently practicing in the UK Register of Expert Witnesses (JS Publications, Newmarket, Suffolk).

The only way we know that HPB wrote extensively in other hands is through the testimony of eyewitnesses whom Hodgson dismissed as credulous and unreliable. Chief of these is Olcott. If you accept Olcott's word, it is clear that HPB's writing in other styles was paranormal, not common fraud and imposture; and there was a case for HPB that was worth serious investigation.

Of course it is conceptually possible that HPB might have been able to perfect, by dint of much effort and practice, styles of writing and composition in which all evidence of her authorship was lost. I repeat that there is no evidence of common origin of the KH, M, and HPB scripts, and this means exactly what it says. Suspicions and remote, hypothetical, and unsubstantiated possibilities are not evidence. You cannot convict a person for forgery without hard evidence; and in English Law a person is presumed innocent until proved guilty. A "not proven" verdict is not allowed. Hodgson did claim abundant evidence of common origin of the HPB and KH scripts, and I still require to know what it is.

In all such problems which affect real life (and are not mere academic diversions) we have to distinguish between what is conceivably possible, however implausible and farfetched, and what is, in Eliza Doolittle's classic words, "not bloody likely."

Do, pray, remember that there are Letters which, as even Hodgson was forced to admit, HPB could not possibly have written, as she was too far away at the time and communications were bad. To circumvent this difficulty, HPB had (according to Hodgson) to train Damodar, and maybe others, to write with equal fluency in the KH style and to compose suitable letters for her while she was away. She had in addition to master the very different M writing and maintain the distinct differences in literary style between the KH and M Letters and her own. She would have to be able to compose original and consistent KH Letters of 16,000 words at a stretch without significant reversions to her normal style, in answer to specific questions on abstruse subjects.

And she did all this (according to Hodgson) in order to foment unrest against British rule in India.


Theosophical University Press Online Edition