This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Among the various changes that have happened at Chaosium since they went under new management has been the appointment of a new Executive Editor for their fiction line, James Lowder. Much of his work since the takeover has apparently focused on handling wayward payments to contributors and contractural issues; if these problems were anything like those that had infamously affected their RPG publishing efforts, Lowder had a big job on his plate. He has now issued new submission guidelines for Chaosium’s line of tie-in books, with an eye to relaunching it in 2018.
Many tabletop RPG companies have taken a sidestep into the world of producing more conventional books – if you can arrange to get an RPG rulebook printed, after all, you’ve got most of the logistical issues licked – and back in the day Chaosium were no exception. Starting in 1993, their non-gamebook releases included both original fiction and reprints of old material, with game lines like the Arthurian-themed Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu each, as a result of being based on various literary traditions (of very different vintages), having a strong body of material available for Chaosium to republish.
Just as Call of Cthulhu has consistently been Chaosium’s biggest-selling game line, their Cthulhu Mythos tie-in line was consistently the best seller among their non-game book releases. The Book of Dzyan is a curious entry in there, since it’s actually non-fiction – part of a prospective line of non-fiction releases entitled the Miskatonic University Archives, though based on Lowder’s recently-issued submissions guidelines it sounds like there may be some interest in rekindling the idea.
So far as can be made out, the intent behind the Miskatonic line was to put out material delving into the real-world Fortean and occult ideas that Lovecraft made extensive use of as fodder for his fiction; despite declaring that he did not believe in any of it, he was clearly fascinated enough by the stories suggested by such material that he was reasonably well-versed in such material, and would include nods to such in his fiction – The Book of Dzyan having been mentioned alongside entirely invented Mythos tomes like the Necronomicon as a source of ancient pre-human lore.
The story of the Book of Dzyan is inextricably linked to the story of Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society. If you’ve read Lovecraft, you’ve probably come across the passing reference he drops in The Call of Cthulhu to a Theosophist colony in California apparently being affected somehow by Cthulhu’s influence – there is, in fact, a small town in California called Halcyon that was founded by the Temple of the People, a Theosophical splinter group.
Blavatsky was the scion of a Russian noble family who made great waves in the 19th Century as a medium and an occultist. Blavatsky had an interesting spin on the usual medium schtick; rather than claiming to speak to the dead, she claimed instead to be in touch with the Secret Masters of the world, based in Tibet, who due to their high levels of psychic power could not only communicate with Blavatsky but could also make things appear and disappear at will. Devotees could write letters to the Secret Masters, which would disappear and then reappear with answers written on them, and various other little acts of teleportation would happen in the vicinity of Blavatsky and other Theosophical leaders.
This was a scam, but a scam with some exceptionally clever advantages: it meant that Blavatsky could never be caught out by claiming to be in contact with a dead person who was still alive, or by failing to spot something which the dead person she claimed to be getting messages from would have noticed. Furthermore, the letters from the Secret Masters were a good way to claim authority for assertions that Blavatsky herself was making – provided, of course, you accepted that they were written by the Secret Masters, and not Blavatsky herself. (Handwriting experts decided that they totally were just written by Blavatsky.)
Blavatsky’s first major outlining of her ideas was in Isis Unveiled, an extensive text that was heavily plagiarised. Riding out the controversy, she established a Theosophical Society headquarters in India, since much of her system involved appropriating ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism, and related faiths (or at least dressing her original ideas up in a quasi-Vedic aesthetic). This played into the then-current fascination that many Westerners had with Indian culture (typically fed through an Imperialist lens), distanced Theosophy from Christianity (which Blavatsky was implacably hostile to), and allowed Blavatsky to amp up the air of exoticism she wove around the Society.
However, after a Society for Psychical Research investigation uncovered incontrovertible evidence of Blavatsky faking the various supernatural manifestations associated with the Theosophical Society, it was rocked by scandal. After returning to Europe, Blavatsky would put out a tome, focusing much more on arcane philosophy and putting much less weight on supernatural phenomena than her previous works. The Secret Doctrine was a massive text which offered a sprawling, rambling commentary on the stanzas of the Book of Dzyan, a book which Blavatsky supposedly had been allowed to read by the Secret Masters but which nobody has demonstrated had any prior existence outside of her head.
This Book of Dzyan is not a reprint of The Secret Doctrine – that would be tedious and pricey – so much as it is a collection of interesting material concerning Blavatsky, Theosophy, and the Book compiled by Tim Maroney, and whilst curious Call of Cthulhu gamers may find it inspirational for their tabletop RPG campaigns it’s also a fascinating read in its own right.
Maroney kicks off the book with a substantial introductory essay, working in a biographical sketch of Blavatsky and the circumstances surrounding the writing of The Secret Doctrine, then giving an overview of what happened to the Theosophical Society after she died and how her ideas percolated through New Age and occult circles from the Golden Dawn right down to Heaven’s Gate. He finishes the piece off with a very welcome attempt to provide an outline of her appallingly confusing account of the creation of humanity and the universe.
Maroney tries to create an argument that some of Blavatsky’s mediumistic behaviour was not a put-on, but a sort of self-induced dissociation – effectively a sort of dissociative identity disorder, only under Blavatsky’s own control and therefore not really a “disorder” in any meaningful sense. Maroney then posits that her Secret Masters and other visionary sources were dredged up from her unconscious as distinct personalities with their own view on things. This is in the service of trying to push two conclusions: firstly, that Blavatsky sincerely believed in her otherworldly revelations (but may have misinterpreted where they came from), and secondly that there might be some legitimate wisdom of spiritual value in what Blavatsky had to say.
On the first point, Maroney acknowledges Blavatsky’s regular, lifelong involvement with charlatanry and conjuring tricks as a component of her work, but wants us to believe that she might have had good ideas which provided people with spiritual and philosophical succor anyway.
My response is this: if Blavatsky genuinely believed what she was saying had truth to it, conflating it with her charlatan’s tricks was massively irresponsible, because anyone could predict that if the tricks were uncovered the teaching would be marred by association. If you feel like you have to deceive someone in order to get them to accept your ideas, that suggests that you don’t have much faith that the ideas will stand up by themselves. If Blavatsky’s Theosophy was really all that satisfying on a philosophical and spiritual level, it would not have needed tricks to attract people, and it would have not been abandoned by so many adherents once the tricks were exposed.
On the second point, Maroney seems to argue that we shouldn’t discount Blavatsky’s teachings just because – in his armchair psychology theory – they were provided by parts of her own unconscious mind, because those parts could have had wisdom she herself didn’t. However, the possibility that they had this wisdom doesn’t mean that they necessarily did; any random person in the street could have such wisdom, so why struggle through Blavatsky’s writing – which she admitted and Maroney admits was a horrible disorganised mess – to get to these specific personalities’ wisdom? Why are they special?
One would think that the personalities’ wisdom was limited by the fact that they had the same exposure to the outside world as Blavatsky herself – they had no access to exterior information independent of her senses, and so anything they could come up with, Blavatsky herself could have thought up. Maroney’s point can only stand if one of two things are the case. The first possibility is that the legitimate wisdom is about interior self-knowledge and personal insights and contemplation. This is not unique to Blavatsky, and is expressed with far greater clarity by other thinkers. It’s also not what Blavatsky claimed – her writing made extensive claims about exterior reality and was not mere personal introspection.
The second possibility is that these personalities had some sort of amazing cosmic insight arrived at from exterior sources – in other words, something supernatural was happening. It really feels like that this is what Maroney wants to believe, since whenever he describes whatever kernel of legitimacy he thinks exists in Theosophy he describes it as being spiritual rather than merely Theosophical. But here he is merely relocating the supernatural somewhere that debunking investigations could have never reached.
Unable in the face of the evidence to assert that exterior, physical manifestations of spiritual forces were taking place around Blavatsky, Maroney wants us to believe that something supernatural was happening inside her head. Based on her consistent involvement with fraudulent methods, I think whatever was going on inside her head was more larcenous than spiritual in character. Again, the question of “why not go to a spiritual teacher who is not trying to deceive you?” arises.
Ultimately, I think Maroney is trying too hard here; diagnosing historical figures with psychological conditions that hadn’t actually been reported or conceptualised in their lifetime is extremely difficult at the best of times, since even under the best circumstances you would be basing your assessment off their own words and the observations of others who wouldn’t have necessarily known what to look for in making the diagnosis. You’re already going out on a limb at the best of times – but when you try to do it with someone who, based on all the available evidence, made a habit of presenting a false front to the world… well, that’s when you shake hands with danger.
The centrepiece of this book are the extracts from The Secret Doctrine, which include both the segments of the Book of Dzyan presented therein and sample tastes of Blavatsky’s footnotes and commentary on it. The Dzyan stanzas are flavourful and fragmentary; the commentary is an utter mess, Blavatsky clearly being very erudite but also very keen to mash together information freely until it fits the story she wants to tell. It is utterly disorganised, and Blavatsky could not provide clear explanations of her ideas if her life depended on it.
That may be intentional – Scientology manuals are written in just such a highly technical manner, and her writing style is certainly consistent with an attempt to play on a sort of “Emperor’s New Clothes” effect, where by writing in a very technical and erudite-sounding style she creates the impression that she knows what she’s talking about, thus discouraging dissent and counterargument. Maroney blames Blavatsky’s disorganised writing style on the dissociative identity disorder he diagnoses Blavatsky with, but it seems a bit too consistent and calculated for that. He seems to think that Blavatsky must have been in touch with something significant, otherwise the material here wouldn’t have been as substantially better (in his view) than the various later imitators’ purported continuations of her work, but I have to disagree; just because Blavatsky was more competent than some of her later followers doesn’t mean she was special and miraculous, it just makes them pathetic.
Speaking of wild and wacky additions, we’re also treated to one of those in the form of the stanzas promoted by Californian Theosophical splinter group the Temple of the People. This proposes a Theogenesis to correspond to the Cosmogenesis and Anthropogenesis of Blavatsky’s stanzas, and that’s about the only stylistic feature they have in common, with the various cosmic powers being presented in vastly more anthropomorphised terms than the impersonal, formless cosmic forces of Blavatsky’s material.
It also feels like it amps up the racism – “The black and brown shall be no more, and the golden-hued shall awaken from sleep, and rules as they ruled of yore” – and towards the end starts shuffling in a quasi-Christian direction, with a rather Messianic figure emerging to smooth over all the conflicts. Still, you have to admire the sheer audacity of a group who tries to pass off as holy writ material like “To and fro have the first-born run, darting behind each Flaming Sword that sprang from the head of the Mighty One, while seeking for Pasture against the day of the birth of the great Red Cow”.
The best and most substantial piece in the book comes last – the masterful Hodgson Report into Blavatsky’s activities at her retreat in Madras. The primary investigator in this was Richard Hodgson, a lawyer and a member of the Society for Psychical Research, a group friendly to Spiritualism and Theosophy. Hodgson himself was a believer in the paranormal; in the report he talks about his own belief in telepathy, and in subsequent years he would endorse at least one medium as being at least potentially genuine, and the SPR committee initially dispatched him to investigate after a preliminary report concluded that the paranormal phenomena surrounding Blavatsky might be real.
All this background makes the report all the more damning. Typically, mediums are quick to discount sceptical debunkings on the grounds of bias on the part of the investigators, even to the extent of claiming that their powers don’t work around non-believers – but Hodgson wasn’t a sceptic. If anything, he went out there eager to believe; had anything genuine been going on, he would surely have latched onto it hard.
Hodgson’s investigation relied on a combination of professional handwriting analysis that found that the mystery letters from the Secret Masters had in fact just been penned by Blavatsky, extensive witness interviews (including interviews with former accomplices of Blavatsky’s who exposed her after a personal dispute blew up), and personal investigation. As well as leaving out ancillary interviews of lesser import, the abridged version of the report here omits most of the discussion of handwriting analysis, which is a good call – for one thing, it was apparently quite a dry and technical discussion of a science which is, at any rate, highly inexact.
Moreover, in some respects a version of the Hodgson Report that curtails the handwriting stuff was called for. As Maroney documents, right up to the modern day Theosophical responses to the report have largely fixated on nitpicking problems with the handwriting analysis – but actually, none of Hodgson’s conclusions exclusively rely on the handwriting, and he would uncover far more damning evidence with his interviews and legwork.
Even with the handwriting material omitted, this is a devastating takedown and an excellent bit of detective work so far as the comprehensive debunking of the supernatural claims of Blavatsky goes. His explanations of how various tricks were accomplished are clear and convincing, as is the way he establishes through interviews how various incidents end up growing in the telling and re-telling. It’s this sort of insight which makes this section of the book by far the best read, and also the best resource for gaming purposes – the excerpts from the Book of Dzyan, at the end of the day, aren’t as interesting as any dark lore Lovecraft and his imitators made up themselves, but gamers who want some pointers on how a Victorian hoaxer might operate could do a lot worse than reading the Report.
Hodgson arrives at more tenuous conclusions concerning Blavatsky’s motives. He is able to substantiate very well that the Theosophical Society leadership was very supportive of Indian independence; between that and various bits of circumstantial evidence, such as her curious response to news about Russian army activity on the Afghan border, Hodgson suggests that she was acting to further Russian interests by destabilising British colonial rule in India.
It is entirely possible that this was a motive – Blavatsky could conceivably have been a professional spy, her acquisition of US citizenship a ruse to make it seem like she had left Russia behind and to get a US passport and her previous establishment of a similar society in Cairo a less ambitious take on the same scheme. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that her pro-independence sympathies were entirely genuine, and that any attempt made to support independence or undermine British rule were done of her own accord.
Still, I think Hodgson is entirely too quick to discount monetary benefit as a motive. So far as I can tell, he undertook no deep investigation of the Theosophical Society’s finances. He notes that it is claimed that the Society had received money from Blavatsky, and not vice-versa; then again, L. Ron Hubbard claimed the same with respect to Scientology. Ultimately, in dealing with someone as habitually deceitful as Blavatsky, it feels like reaching definitive answers concerning her motives is near-impossible from observing her behaviour, because you’d never be able to have confidence that what you were witnessing wasn’t just another act. Perhaps we should know her by the fruits of her actions – international fame, waves of donations, being treated like a voice of divine truth, and smoking massive amounts of weed.
Although I don’t agree with his conclusions, I do think Tim Maroney did an excellent job here when it came to presenting the reader with enough information to draw conclusions of their own on the subject matter. Unfortunately, his untimely death a few years later put paid to him producing any more such compilations of intriguing material, and may go some way to explaining the fact that the Miskatonic University Archives never saw a followup release. Hopefully, Lowder will be able to find someone to step up and pick up Maroney’s torch.