Wednesday, December 11, 2013

W.B. Yeats on Madame Blavatsky: The Trembling of the Veil

W.B. Yeats
How things have changed with the digital abundance! Back when I was writing The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, I found myself shelling out for books I knew I would need to consult often and at length. In addition to some (then) wildly expensive print-on-demand editions, I bought a number of rare books that probably were not the best investments. (Main lesson learned: if you're going to shell out for a rare book, get the best quality condition you can, first edition if possible, and make sure it has its dust-jacket.) But these days, much as I relish collecting rare books, I am thrilled to be able to find so many old books free, yes ~ ~ ~ free as the wind ~ ~ ~ on-line on sites such as gutenberg.org. One that is on my bibliography for Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution is Irish poet W.B. Yeats's memoir, The Trembling of the Veil (1,000 copies privately printed, 1922), which includes a spicy riff on Oscar Wilde, and this about his friend Madame Blavatsky (especially fun parts in bold):
I found Madame Blavatsky in a little house at Norwood, with but, as she said, three followers left—the Society of Psychical Research had just reported on her Indian phenomena—and as one of the three followers sat in an outer room to keep out undesirable visitors, I was kept a long time kicking my heels. Presently I was admitted and found an old woman in a plain loose dark dress: a sort of old Irish peasant woman with an air of humour and audacious power. I was still kept waiting, for she was deep in conversation with a woman visitor. I strayed through folding doors into the next room and stood, in sheer idleness of mind, looking at a cuckoo clock. It was certainly stopped, for the weights were off and lying upon the ground, and yet, as I stood there the cuckoo came out and cuckooed at me. I interrupted Madame Blavatsky to say, “Your clock has hooted me.”[Pg 61] “It oftens hoots at a stranger,” she replied. “Is there a spirit in it?” I said. “I do not know,” she said, “I should have to be alone to know what is in it.” I went back to the clock and began examining it and heard her say: “Do not break my clock.” I wondered if there was some hidden mechanism and I should have been put out, I suppose, had I found any, though Henley had said to me, “Of course she gets up fraudulent miracles, but a person of genius has to do something; Sarah Bernhardt sleeps in her coffin.” Presently the visitor went away and Madame Blavatsky explained that she was a propagandist for women’s rights who had called to find out “why men were so bad.” “What explanation did you give her?” I said. “That men were born bad, but women made themselves so,” and then she explained that I had been kept waiting because she had mistaken me for some man, whose name resembled mine and who wanted to persuade her of the flatness of the earth.
When I next saw her she had moved into a house at Holland Park, and some time must have passed—probably I had been in Sligo where I returned constantly for long visits—for she was surrounded by followers. She sat nightly before a little table covered with green baize and on this green baize she scribbled constantly with a piece of white chalk. She would scribble symbols, sometimes humorously explained, and sometimes unintelligible figures, but the chalk was intended to mark down her score when she played patience. One saw in the next room a large table where every night her followers and guests, often a great number, sat down to their vegetable meal, while she encouraged or mocked through the folding doors. A great passionate nature, a sort of[Pg 62] female Dr Johnson, impressive I think to every man or woman who had themselves any richness, she seemed impatient of the formalism of the shrill abstract idealism of those about her, and this impatience broke out in railing and many nicknames: “O you are a flap-doodle, but then you are a theosophist and a brother.” The most devout and learned of all her followers said to me, “H. P. B. has just told me that there is another globe stuck on to this at the north pole, so that the earth has really a shape something like a dumb-bell.” I said, for I knew that her imagination contained all the folklore of the world, “That must be some piece of Eastern mythology.” “O no it is not,” he said, “of that I am certain, and there must be something in it or she would not have said it.” Her mockery was not kept for her followers alone, and her voice would become harsh, and her mockery lose fantasy and humour, when she spoke of what seemed to her scientific materialism. Once I saw this antagonism, guided by some kind of telepathic divination, take a form of brutal fantasy. I brought a very able Dublin woman to see her and this woman had a brother, a physiologist whose reputation, though known to specialists alone, was European, and because of this brother a family pride in everything scientific and modern. The Dublin woman scarcely opened her mouth the whole evening and her name was certainly unknown to Madame Blavatsky, yet I saw at once in that wrinkled old face bent over the cards, and the only time I ever saw it there, a personal hostility, the dislike of one woman for another. Madame Blavatsky seemed to bundle herself up, becoming all primeval peasant, and began complaining of her ailments, more especially of her bad leg. But of late[Pg 63] her master—her “old Jew,” her “Ahasuerus”—cured it, or set it on the way to be cured. “I was sitting here in my chair,” said she, “when the master came in and brought something with him which he put over my knee, something warm which enclosed my knee—it was a live dog which he had cut open.” I recognized a cure used sometimes in mediaeval medicine. She had two masters and their portraits, ideal Indian heads, painted by some most incompetent artist, stood upon either side of the folding doors. One night when talk was impersonal and general, I sat gazing through the folding doors into the dimly lighted dining room beyond. I noticed a curious red light shining upon a picture and got up to see where the red light came from. It was the picture of an Indian and as I came near it slowly vanished. When I returned to my seat, Madame Blavatsky said, “What did you see?” “A picture,” I said. “Tell it to go away.” “It is already gone.” “So much the better,” she said, “I was afraid it was mediumship. But it is only clairvoyance.” “What is the difference?” “If it had been mediumship, it would have stayed in spite of you. Beware of mediumship; it is a kind of madness; I know for I have been through it.”
I found her almost always full of gaiety that, unlike the occasional joking of those about her, was illogical and incalculable and yet always kindly and tolerant. I had called one evening to find her absent but expected every moment. She had been somewhere at the seaside for her health and arrived with a little suite of followers. She sat down at once in her big chair, and began unfolding a brown paper parcel while all looked on full of curiosity. It contained a large family Bible. “This is a present for my maid,”[Pg 64] she said. “What a Bible and not even annotated!” said some shocked voice. “Well, my children,” was the answer, “what is the good of giving lemons to those who want oranges?” When I first began to frequent her house, as I soon did very constantly, I noticed a handsome clever woman of the world there, who seemed certainly very much out of place, penitent though she thought herself. Presently there was much scandal and gossip for the penitent was plainly entangled with two young men, who were expected to grow into ascetic sages.
The scandal was so great that Madame Blavatsky had to call the penitent before her and to speak after this fashion, “We think that it is necessary to crush the animal nature; you should live in chastity in act and thought. Initiation is granted only to those who are entirely chaste,” and so it ran on for some time. However, after some minutes in that vehement style, the penitent standing crushed and shamed before her, she had wound up, “I cannot permit you more than one.” She was quite sincere but thought that nothing mattered but what happened in the mind, and that if we could not master the mind our actions were of little importance. One young man filled her with exasperation for she thought that his settled gloom came from his chastity. I had known him in Dublin where he had been accustomed to interrupt long periods of asceticism, in which he would eat vegetables and drink water, with brief outbreaks of what he considered the devil. After an outbreak he would for a few hours dazzle the imagination of the members of the local theosophical society with poetical rhapsodies about harlots and street lamps, and then sink into weeks of melancholy. A fellow-theosophist once found him hanging from the windowpole, but cut him down in[Pg 65] the nick of time. I said to the man who cut him down, “What did you say to each other?” He said, “We spent the night telling comic stories and laughing a great deal.” This man, torn between sensuality and visionary ambition, was now the most devout of all, and told me that in the middle of the night he could often hear the ringing of the little “astral bell” whereby Madame Blavatsky’s master called her attention, and that, although it was a silvery low tone, it made the whole house shake.
Another night I found him waiting in the hall to show in those who had right of entrance, on some night when the discussion was private, and as I passed he whispered into my ear, “Madame Blavatsky is perhaps not a real woman at all. They say that her dead body was found many years ago upon some Russian battlefield.” She had two dominant moods, both of extreme activity, one calm and philosophic, and this was the mood always on that night in the week when she answered questions upon her system, and as I look back after thirty years I often ask myself, “Was her speech automatic? Was she a trance medium, or in some similar state, one night in every week?” In the other mood she was full of fantasy and inconsequent raillery. “That is the Greek Church, a triangle like all true religion,” I recall her saying, as she chalked out a triangle on the green baize, and then as she made it disappear in meaningless scribbles, “it spread out and became a bramble bush like the Church of Rome.” Then rubbing it all out except one straight line, “Now they have lopped off the branches and turned it into a broomstick and that is protestantism.” And so it was night after night always varied and unforeseen. I have observed a like sudden extreme change in others,[Pg 66] half whose thought was supernatural and Lawrence Oliphant records somewhere or other like observations. I can remember only once finding her in a mood of reverie, something had happened to damp her spirits, some attack upon her movement, or upon herself. She spoke of Balzac, whom she had seen but once, of Alfred de Musset, whom she had known well enough to dislike for his morbidity, and George Sand, whom she had known so well that they had dabbled in magic together of which “neither knew anything at all” in those days; and she ran on, as if there was nobody there to overhear her, “I used to wonder at and pity the people who sell their souls to the devil, but now I only pity them. They do it to have somebody on their side,” and added to that, after some words I have forgotten, “I write, write, write as the Wandering Jew walks, walks, walks.”
Besides the devotees, who came to listen and to turn every doctrine into a new sanction for the puritanical convictions of their Victorian childhood, cranks came from half Europe and from all America, and they came that they might talk. One American said to me, “She has become the most famous woman in the world by sitting in a big chair and permitting us to talk.” They talked and she played patience, and totted up her score on the green baize, and generally seemed to listen, but sometimes she would listen no more. There was a woman who talked perpetually of “the divine spark” within her, until Madame Blavatsky stopped her with—“Yes, my dear, you have a divine spark within you and if you are not very careful you will hear it snore.” A certain Salvation Army captain probably pleased her, for if vociferous and loud of voice, he had much animation. He had known hardship and spoke of his visions while starving[Pg 67] in the streets and he was still perhaps a little light in the head. I wondered what he could preach to ignorant men, his head ablaze with wild mysticism, till I met a man who had heard him talking near Covent Garden to some crowd in the street. “My friends,” he was saying, “you have the kingdom of heaven within you and it would take a pretty big pill to get that out.”

P.S. For those W.B. Yeats fans with some $$$, a first edition, autographed, with dust-jacket, of The Trembling of the Veil is listed on abebooks.com for USD $1,900.

PSS Update: and here is another first edition, also signed, for $2,951.

Read more blog posts about Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution

COMMENTS