The Esoteric She
The Late Mme. Blavatsky—A Sketch of Her Career
By William Quan Judge
New York Sun, Sept. 26, 1892
A woman who, for one reason or another, has kept the world—first her little child world and afterward two hemispheres—talking of her, disputing about her, defending or assailing her character and motives, joining her enterprise or opposing it might and main, and in her death being as much telegraphed about between two continents as an emperor, must have been a remarkable person. such was Mme. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, born under the power of the holy Tzar, in the family of the Hahns, descended on one side from the famous crusader, Count Rottenstern, who added Hahn, a cock, to his name because that bird saved his life from a wily Saracen who had come into his tent to murder him.
Hardly any circumstance or epoch in Mme. Blavatsky’s career was prosaic. She chose to be born into this life at Ekaterinoslaw, Russia, in the year 1831, when coffins and desolation were everywhere from the plague of cholera. The child was so delicate that the family decided upon immediate baptism under the rites of the Greek Catholic Church. This was in itself not common, but the ceremony was—under the luck that ever was with Helena—more remarkable and startling still. At this ceremony all the relatives are present and stand holding lighted candles. As one was absent a young child, aunt of the infant Helena, was made proxy for the absentee, and given a candle like the rest. Tired out by the effort, this young proxy sank down to the floor unnoticed by the others, and, just as the sponsors were renouncing the evil one on the babe’s behalf, by three times spitting on the floor, the sitting witness with her candle accidentally set fire to the robes of the officiating priest, and instantly there was a small conflagration, in which many of those present were seriously burned. Thus amid the scourge of death in the land was Mme. Blavatsky ushered into our world, and in the flames baptized by the priests of a Church whose fallacious dogmas she did much in her life to expose.
She was connected with the rulers of Russia. Speaking in 1881, her uncle, Gen. Fadeef, joint Councillor of State of Russia, said that, as daughter of Col. Peter Hahn, she was grand-daughter of Gen. Alexis Hahn von Rottenstern Hahn of old Mecklenburg stock, settled in Russia, and on her mother’s side daughter of Héléne Fadeef and grand-daughter of Princess Helena Dolgorouky. Her maternal ancestors were of the oldest families in Russia and direct descendants of the Prince or Grand Duke Rurik, the first ruler of Russia. Several ladies of the family belonged to the imperial house, becoming Czarinas by marriage. One of them, a Dolgorouky, married the grandfather of Peter the Great, and another was betrothed to Czar Peter II. Through these connections it naturally resulted that Mme. Blavatsky was acquainted personally with many noble Russians. In Paris I met three princes of Russia and one well-known General, who told of her youth and the wonderful things related about her then; and in Germany I met the Prince Emile de Wittgenstein of one of the many Russo-German families, and himself cousin to the Empress of Russia and aide-de-camp to the Czar, who told me that he was an old family friend of hers, who heard much about her in early years, but, to his regret, had never had the fortune to see her again after a brief visit made with her father to his house. But he joined her famous Theosophical Society by correspondence, and wrote, after the war with Turkey, that he had been told in a letter from her that no hurt would come to him during the campaign, and such turned out to be the fact.
As a child she was the wonder of the neighborhood and the terror of the simpler serfs. Russia teems with superstitions and omens, and as Helena was born on the seventh month and between the 30th and 31st day, she was supposed by the nurses and servants to have powers and virtues possessed by no one else. And these supposed powers made her the cynosure of all in her early youth. She was allowed liberties given none others, and as soon as she could understand she was given by her nurses the chief part in a mystic Russian ceremony performed about the house and grounds on the 30th of July with the object of propitiating the house demon. The education she got was fragmentary, and in itself so inadequate as to be one more cause among many for the belief of her friends in later life that she was endowed with abnormal psychic powers, or else in verity assisted by those unseen beings who she asserted were her helpers and who were men living on the earth, but possessed of developed senses that laughed at time and space. In girlhood she was bound by no restraint of conventionality, but rode any Cossack horse in a man’s saddle, and later on spent a long time with her father with his regiment in the field, where, with her sister, she became the pet of the soldiers. In 1844, when 14, her father took her to London and Paris, where some progress was made in music, and before 1848 she returned home.
Her marriage in 1848 to Gen. Nicephore Blavatsky, the Governor of Erivan in the Caucasus, gave her the name of Blavatsky, borne till her death. This marriage, like all other events in her life, was full of pyrotechnics. Her abrupt style had led her female friends to say that she could not make the old Blavatsky marry her, and out of sheer bravado she declared she could, and sure enough, he did propose and was accepted. Then the awful fact obtruded itself on Helena’s mind that this could not—in Russia—be undone. They were married, but the affair was signalized by Mme. Blavatsky’s breaking a candlestick over his head and precipitately leaving the house, never to see him again. After her determination was evident, her father assisted her in a life of travel which began from that date, and not until 1858 did she return to Russia. Meanwhile her steps led her to America in 1851, to Canada, to New Orleans, to Mexico, off to India, and back again in 1853 to the United States. Then her relatives lost sight of her once more until 1858, when her coming back was like other events in her history. It was a wintry night, and a wedding party was on at the home in Russia. Guests had arrived, and suddenly, interrupting the meal, the bell rang violently, and there, unannounced, was Mme. Blavatsky at the door.
From this point the family and many friends testify, both by letter and by articles in the Rebus, a well-known journal in Russia, and in other papers, a constant series of marvels wholly unexplainable on the theory of jugglery was constantly occurring. They were of such a character that hundreds of friends from great distances were constantly visiting the house to see the wonderful Mme. Blavatsky. Many were incredulous, many believed it was magic, and others started charges of fraud. The superstitious Gooriel and Mingrelian nobility came in crowds and talked incessantly after, calling her a magician. They came to see the marvels others reported, to see her sitting quietly reading while tables and chairs moved of themselves and low raps in every direction seemed to reply to questions. Among many testified to was one done for her brother, who doubted her powers. A small chess table stood on the floor. Very light—a child could lift it and a man break it. One asked if Mme. Blavatsky could fasten it by will to the floor. She then said to examine it, and they found it loose. After that, and being some distance off, she said, “Try it again.” They then found that no power of theirs could stir it, and her brother supposing from his great strength that this “trick” could easily be exposed, embraced the little table and shook and pulled it without effect, except to make it groan and creak. So with wall and furniture rapping, objects moving, messages about distant happenings arriving by aerial port, the whole family and neighborhood were in a constant state of excitement. Mme. Blavatsky said herself that this was a period when she was letting her psychic forces play, and learning fully to understand and control them.
But the spirit of unrest came freshly again, and she started out once more to find, as she wrote to me, “the men and women whom I want to prepare for the work of a great philosophical and ethical movement that I expect to start in a later time.” Going to Spezzia in a Greek vessel, the usual display of natural circumstances took place, and the boat was blown up by an explosion of gunpowder in the cargo. Only a few of those on board were saved, she among them. This led her to Cairo, in Egypt, where, in 1871, she started a society with the object of investigating spiritualism so as to expose its fallacies, if any, and to put its facts on a firm, scientific, and reasonable basis, if possible. But it only lasted fourteen days, and she wrote about it then: “It is a heap of ruins—majestic, but as suggestive as those of the Pharoahs’ tombs.”
It was, however, in the United States that she really began the work that has made her name well known in Europe, Asia, and America; made her notorious in the eyes of those who dislike all reformers, but great and famous for those who say her works have benefited them. Prior to 1875 she was again investigating the claims of spiritualism in this country, and wrote home then analyzing it, declaring false its assertion that the dead were heard from, and showing that, on the other hand, the phenomena exhibited a great psycho-physiological change going on here, which, if allowed to go on in our present merely material civilization, would bring about great disaster, morally and physically.
Then in 1875, in New York, she started the Theosophical Society, aided by Col. H. S. Olcott and others, declaring its objects to be the making of a nucleus for a universal brotherhood, the study of ancient and other religions and sciences, and the investigation of the psychical and recondite laws affecting man and nature. There certainly was no selfish object in this, nor any desire to raise money. She was in receipt of funds from sources in Russia and other places until they were cut off by reason of her becoming an American citizen, and also because her unremunerated labors for the society prevented her doing literary work on Russian magazines, where all her writings would be taken eagerly. As soon as the Theosophical Society was started she said to the writer that a book had to be written for its use. Isis Unveiled was then begun, and unremittingly she worked at it night and day until the moment when a publisher was secured for it.
Meanwhile crowds of visitors were constantly calling at her rooms in Irving Place, later in Thirty-fourth street, and last in Forty-seventh street and Eighth avenue. The newspapers were full of her supposed powers or of laughter at the possibilities in man that she and her society asserted. A prominent New York daily wrote of her thus: “A woman of as remarkable characteristics as Cagliostro himself, and one who is every day as differently judged by different people as the renowned Count was in his day. By those who know her slightly she is called a charlatan; better acquaintance made you think she was learned; and those who were intimate with her were either carried away with belief in her power or completely puzzled.” Isis Unveiled attracted wide attention, and all the New York papers reviewed it, each saying that it exhibited immense research. The strange part of this is, as I and many others can testify as eyewitnesses to the production of the book, that the writer had no library in which to make researches and possessed no notes of investigation or reading previously done. All was written straight out of hand. And yet it is full of references to books in the British Museum and other great libraries, and every reference is correct. Either, then, we have, as to that book, a woman who was capable of storing in her memory a mass of facts, dates, numbers, titles, and subjects such as no other human being ever was capable of, or her claim to help from unseen beings is just.
In 1878, Isis Unveiled having been published, Mme. Blavatsky informed her friends that she must go to India and start there the same movement of the Theosophical Society. So in December of that year she and Col. Olcott and two more went out to India, stopping at London for a while. Arriving in Bombay, they found three or four Hindoos to meet them who had heard from afar of the matter. A place was hired in the native part of the town, and soon she and Col. Olcott started the Theosophist, a magazine that became at once well known there and was widely bought in the West.
There in Bombay and later in Adyar, Madras, Mme. Blavatsky worked day after day in all seasons, editing her magazine and carrying on an immense correspondence with people in every part of the world interested in theosophy, and also daily disputing and discussing with learned Hindoos who constantly called. Phenomena occurred there also very often, and later the society for discovering nothing about the psychic world investigated these, and came to the conclusion that this woman of no fortune, who was never before publicly heard of in India, had managed, in some way they could not explain, to get up a vast conspiracy that ramified all over India, including men of all ranks, by means of which she was enabled to produce pretended phenomena. I give this conclusion as one adopted by many. For any one who knew her and who knows India, with its hundreds of different languages, none of which she knew, the conclusion is absurd. The Hindoos believed in her, said always that she could explain to them their own scriptures and philosophies where the Brahmins had lost or concealed the key, and that by her efforts and the work of the society founded through her, India’s young men were being saved from the blank materialism which is the only religion the West can ever give a Hindoo.
In 1887 Mme. Blavatsky returned to England, and there started another theosophical magazine, called Lucifer, and immediately stirred up the movement in Europe. Day and night there, as in New York and India, she wrote and spoke, incessantly corresponding with people everywhere, editing Lucifer, and making more books for her beloved society, and never possessed of means, never getting from the world at large anything save abuse wholly undeserved. The Key to Theosophy was written in London, and also The Secret Doctrine, which is the great text book for Theosophists. The Voice of the Silence was written there too, and is meant for devotional Theosophists. Writing, writing, writing from morn till night was her fate here. Yet, although scandalized and abused here as elsewhere, she made many devoted friends, for there never was anything half way in her history. Those who met her or heard of her were always either staunch friends or bitter enemies.
The Secret Doctrine led to the coming into the society of Mrs. Annie Besant, and then Mme. Blavatsky began to say that her labors were coming to an end, for here was a woman who had the courage of the ancient reformers and who would help carry on the movement in England unflinchingly. The Secret Doctrine was sent to Mr. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette to review, but none of his usual reviewers felt equal to it and he asked Mrs. Besant if she could review it. She accepted the task, reviewed, and then wanted an introduction to the writer. Soon after that she joined the society, first fully investigating Mme. Blavatsky’s character, and threw in her entire forces with the Theosophists. Then a permanent London headquarters was started and still exists. And there Mme. Blavatsky passed away, with the knowledge that the society she had striven so hard for at any cost was at last an entity able to struggle for itself.
In her dying moment she showed that her life had been spent for an idea, with full consciousness that in the eyes of the world it was Utopian, but in her own necessary for the race. She implored her friends not to allow her then ending incarnation to become a failure by the failure of the movement started and carried on with so much of suffering. She never in all her life made money or asked for it. Venal writers and spiteful men and women have said she strove to get money from so-called dupes, but all her intimate friends know that over and over again she has refused money; that always she has had friends who would give her all they had if she would take it, but she never took any nor asked it. On the other hand, her philosophy and her high ideals have caused others to try to help all those in need. Impelled by such incentive, one rich Theosophist gave her $5,000 to found a working girls’ club at Bow, in London, and one day, after Mrs. Besant had made the arrangements for the house and the rest, Mme. Blavatsky, although sick and old, went down there herself and opened the club in the name of the society.
The aim and object of her life were to strike off the shackles forged by priestcraft for the mind of man. She wished all men to know that they are God in fact, and that as men they must bear the burden of their own sins, for no one else can do it. Hence she brought forward to the West the old Eastern doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Under the first, the law of justice, she said each must answer for himself, and under the second make answer on the earth where all his acts were done. She also desired that science should be brought back to the true ground where life and intelligence are admitted to be within and acting on and through every atom in the universe. Hence her object was to make religion scientific and science religious, so that the dogmatism of each might disappear.
Her life since 1875 was spent in the unremitting endeavor to draw within the Theosophical Society those who could work unselfishly to propagate an ethics and philosophy tending to realize the brotherhood of man by showing the real unity and essential non-separateness of every being. And her books were written with the declared object of furnishing the material for intellectual and scientific progress on those lines. The theory of man’s origin, powers, and destiny brought forward by her, drawn from ancient Indian sources, places us upon a higher pedestal that that given by either religion or science, for it gives to each the possibility of developing the godlike powers within and of at last becoming a co-worker with nature.
As every one must die at last, we will not say that her demise was a loss; but if she had not lived and done what she did humanity would not have had the impulse and the ideas toward the good which it was her mission to give and to proclaim. And there are today scores, nay, hundreds, of devout, earnest men and women intent on purifying their own lives and sweetening the lives of others, who trace their hopes and aspirations to the wisdom-religion revived in the West through her efforts, and who gratefully avow that their dearest possessions are the result of her toilsome and self-sacrificing life. If they, in turn, live aright and do good, they will be but illustrating the doctrine which she daily taught and hourly practised.