"A Blavatsky Revival: An Interview with Michael Gomes” Quest 100. 3 (Summer 2012): pg. 90-94.
by Richard Smoley
Michael Gomes is one of the world’s most distinguished scholars of Theosophy. A historian and author, he is also director of the Emily Sellon Memorial Library in New York. He is also one of today’s most respected writers on esoteric movements, well known to both students of esoteric literature and to scholars of religion. His works include an abridged and annotated version of H.P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (reviewed in Quest, Summer 2010) and an edition of The Secret Doctrine Commentaries: The Unpublished 1889 Instructions (reviewed in Quest, Spring 2011). After the publication of his book The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement he was awarded the Herman Ausubel Prize for historical achievement by Columbia University in 1989. He will be appearing at this summer’s annual convention of the Theosophical Society (see ad on page TK) to conduct a workshop on writing your own lodge history. The following interview was conducted by phone and e-mail in February-March 2012.
MichaelGomesRichard Smoley: Could you say a little bit about how you came to Theosophy?
Michael Gomes: I was introduced to H.P. Blavatsky through a photograph. It was the well-known one of her and Colonel Olcott in London, in 1888/89: he with his long gray beard, and she with her tobacco basket before her. There was something that seemed to call to me, like a voice from the past. I was about fourteen or fifteen at the time, and everything that could be located in encyclopedias described Mme. Blavatsky as a discredited medium. When I was sixteen, I got my parents to give me a copy of Isis Unveiled for Christmas. I read through it voraciously, and a year later, in 1968, when I was seventeen, I joined the Toronto Theosophical Society. This lodge had a long and distinguished history, so many of its members being contributors to the arts and literature of Canada. Its charter was one of the last issued bearing HPB’s signature.
My interest in Theosophical history was fueled by the work of Beatrice Hastings, an Englishwoman who had taken up the case for Mme. Blavatsky in the 1930s, comparing what had been written about her with the documented events. Hastings had outlined a number of studies taking up some critical issues, but her death in 1943 brought the project to an end. My search for her books and papers led me to eventually catalogue her papers in my early twenties, and I wrote an introduction to one of her projected studies when it was printed in booklet form. This led me to continue my research at a number of great libraries throughout the world. I was able to use the great resources of the reference division on the New York Public Library, the old British Museum Library in London, and the Adyar Library and Archives of the Theosophical Society in Madras, where I would spend three years.
Smoley: Who would you list as influences on your work?
Gomes: Beatrice Hastings, certainly. She showed that a well-documented narrative need not be uninteresting. We all owe a debt to Boris de Zirkoff, the compiler of the Blavatsky Collected Writings series. Aside from his compiling Blavatsky’s literary output in these volumes, the inclusion of his chronologies and biographies of the individuals involved were great time-saving devices. The chance to spend time with two of the leading researchers in the field of Blavatskiana, the late K.F. Vania in Bombay, India, and Walter Carrithers in Fresno, California, and our correspondence over the years helped shape my views on certain matters. The opportunity to work with so many distinguished colleagues on related panels over the years, and my exchanges with many of the independent researchers connected with this work could also be counted as influences.
Smoley: Of your books, what would you recommend to a new reader?
Gomes: The introduction to my edition of The Secret Doctrine puts Blavatsky and her theories in the context of her period. This being the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of my first book The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement, I cannot fail to mention it. For those who feel they are already familiar with the events that led to the meeting of Olcott and Blavatsky and the founding of the Theosophical Society, the book’s final chapter on HPB’s last days in New York will help make her seem more personable.
Smoley: What advice would you give to someone interested in researching this field?
Gomes: To be aware that aside from accessing the mental world that the people around Blavatsky existed in, there is the temporal aspect of the lives. The physicality of it, the place itself. This is why I have always stressed the value of on-the-ground research. Finding A.O. Hume’s home in Simla, India, walking through its grounds, gave a spatial understanding about the events that had occurred when Blavatsky was his guest there. In knowing the limitations and extremes of these situations, one begins to understand and appreciate the remarkable contribution of these early members, who risked ridicule and scorn so we could enjoy freedom of belief.
My work has been for a better appreciation of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. I hope that my contribution has been in the raising of awareness of how much documentation there is for Theosophy, and that I have helped by bringing some of this source material to light in my books and articles.
Smoley: What do you find most inspiring about Theosophy?
Gomes: That it offers freedom of thought in an area where belief is so strong. There is a great quote in Isis Unveiled that says, “It is not alone for the esoteric philosophy that we fight, but the inalienable right of private judgment.” There has been this tension in Theosophy. Blavatsky had certain definite beliefs, but the Society itself is an open house for freedom of belief. Although, as one old lady told me here at the New York lodge, “It’s freedom of thought as long as you keep it to yourself.”
Smoley: So there’s a kind of tension here between belief and the freedom to believe what you like.
Gomes: That has kept the movement healthy. In other groups, you believe this or you’re anathema. You can believe all kinds of crazy things if you’re a Theosophist. That much said, a lot of what Blavatsky writes about you’ll find in Neoplatonism, Mahayana Buddhism, Brahmanism, so there is this tradition. She took on the whole academic world; she took on leading orientalists like Max Müller. The irony is that she’s still being discussed while they’ve been superseded.
Then there’s the number of people she influenced.You always keep discovering new people. One of the pioneers of Mayan studies in America, William Gates (not to be confused with Bill Gates of Microsoft), was a Theosophist. The Buddhist scholar Edward Conze once told Mircea Eliade that he believed Blavatsky was the Tibetan master Tsongkhapa reincarnated.
Smoley: What do you admire most about Blavatsky?
Gomes: Her tenacity. Her remarkable contribution in opening the field up to women. There were other figures—Anna Kingsford, the women of the Golden Dawn, Emma Hardinge Britten—but no other big theorist who was able to pull it all together. None of the books by these other figures speak to people today.
I’ve seen Blavatsky’s picture in Manhattan penthouses and garlanded with marigolds in family shrines in little Indian villages; her influence has been far-reaching. Should I live long enough, I would like to address some of the other charges against her, as I did in my monograph on The Coulomb Case, such as plagiarism. It’s ironic: Blavatsky is charged with inventing her teachings, and at the same time she’s charged with plagiarizing.
Today she is finally starting to get the recognition she deserves. Twenty years ago, she was just considered a fraud, but today there’s an increased interest in her in academe. Mitch Horowitz has quoted me as saying that we’re in the throes of a Blavatsky revival. [See “New Yorkers Get a New Look at Madame Blavatsky,” Quest, Spring 2012.] I would say that today there’s more of an attitude that, “Well, she had this impact, and that we know for sure,” as opposed to “she was just a fraud.” But the fields of esoteric studies has changed too. Most of the people who are taking their degrees in these fields are coming from a practitioner’s viewpoint, so they’re more open to these ideas.
Smoley: The language of the classic Theosophical works by Blavatsky and others have a highly Eastern flavor, with many Sanskrit terms and so on. Yet many academic scholars see Theosophy as fundamentally a part of the Western esoteric tradition. Where do you think the truth is?
Gomes: Modern Theosophy is a good example of the hybrid spirituality that characterizes so much of the later manifestations. Its roots lie in the evolving spiritual tradition of the West, but it used Eastern terminology when no English equivalents existed. The ideal of the Mahatma harks back to Pico della Mirandola’s magus of the Renaissance—the idea that individuals could control their destiny. This was a powerful idea. But in truth there is no Western or Eastern esotericism, just gradations and aspects, as Blavatsky would have it, of the same theme.
Smoley: What is the connection between Theosophy and Western traditions such as Gnosticism and Kabbalah?
Gomes: As time moves on, the Theosophical movement has taken on an image of a classical example of modern esotericism. As a set of beliefs, some of the ideas presented could be traced back to the emanationism and theurgy of the Neoplatonists; the correlation of human and astral bodies owed much to Paracelsus. It is interesting to see what one of the modern exponents of the Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, had to say about Blavatsky in a 1944 letter to a colleague:
You are certainly too harsh on Madame Blavatsky, it is surely too much to say that the meaning of the cabala has been forgotten in the Secret Doctrine. After all, the Lady has made a very thorough study of Knorr von Rosenroth in his English adaption [sic], and of Franck’s “Cabale Juive.” She certainly knew more about cabalism than most of the other people you mention...I think it would be rather interesting to investigate the cabalistic ideas in their theosophical development. There is, of course, a lot of humbug and swindle, but, at least in Blavatsky’s writings, yet something more.
Smoley: One of the most powerful themes in Theosophy is human evolution as part of a much larger process of evolution of consciousness. This is a theme that seems to be absent from the esoteric traditions before Theosophy came along. Where did this idea come from, and what, if anything, does this concept of evolution owe to older traditions?
Gomes: Perhaps the early Theosophists like Blavatsky saw that in the coming century, space would be the final frontier, and that part of the esotericist’s work was to present an enduring mythos that could withstand materialistic science and dogmatic religion. The Greco-Roman world had precise systems of cosmology, but it hadn’t been relegated to the realm of esoteric, the fringe of belief. In India, cosmic origins permeate the tradition, especially Samkhya philosophy, which Blavatsky was certainly familiar with. Remember Giorano Bruno was burned only two and a half centuries earlier for expounding his cosmological beliefs.
Smoley: Could you talk a little bit about Blavatsky’s connections with Tibet? Do you think she actually visited the country?
Gomes: The remarkable thing about Blavatsky’s Tibetan narrative is how little she says about the matter. She briefly mentions visiting Shigatse, the seat of the Panchen Lama, but little else. Seven years is usually the length given for her stay in that country, but, as she points out, it was not continuous. We must remember that at the time of her Tibetan journey, areas such as Ladakh went under the name of “Little Tibet.” This is one of those mysteries in her life that may never be resolved. Then we have the testimony of Major-General Charles Murray, who was stationed in the Darjeeling hills in 1854-55 and remembers having to bring Mme. Blavatsky back from the Tibetan border. Beatrice Hastings believes that she was coming out of Tibet at the time.
Smoley: What do you think are the most common misconceptions about Blavatsky?
Gomes: That she was a medium, in the spiritualist sense, that is, a channel for the deceased to communicate with the living. In that case, no, her situation was closer to the “mind to mind contact” that is practiced by some occult groups. As she reminds the practitioner, “Space and distance do not exist for thought,” so it’s not impossible for individuals in sympathy to be able to exchange ideas.
Smoley: Where do you stand on the debate about the Masters? What kind of historical authenticity would you be inclined to grant them?
Gomes: I believe that the wide range of interpretation on the subject is the sign of a healthy movement. When I was in India I gathered together all the accounts by Indian members who had met the Mahatmas physically. I had the opportunity to meet some of their descendents, and the family tradition upholds their testament. This research was published by the Adyar Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1992 as Indian Chelas on the Masters. I hope one day to write more on this subject.
Smoley: What do you think are the most common misconceptions about Theosophy today?
Gomes: That it is some kind of religion or cult. This is the prevalent portrayal online at present. Usually after attending a Theosophical meeting people find that this is not the case.
Smoley: On the basis of your historical knowledge, where do you see the Theosophical movement headed at present? What kind of future does it have?
Gomes: I think we are in one of the most exciting periods in the history of the movement. To an extent, the Society’s outer work to educate the world that such as a thing as Theosophy exists is done. Hopefully the movement will become a smaller and more cohesive inner group that works to uphold the beacon light of Theosophy in an ever-changing world. The opportunity to be part of history lies before each of us.
 Scholem is referring to The Kabbalah Unveiled, translated by S.L. MacGregor Mathers and published in 1887. This was an translation of parts of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s 1684 work Kabbala denudata. Adolphe Franck’s Kabbale juive (“The Jewish Kabbalah”), first published in 1843, is available in various English editions under the title The Kabbalah: The Religious Philosophy of the Jews. The Scholem quotation is taken from Boaz Huss, “The Sufi Society from America,” in Huss et al., Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 190. –Ed.