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Post-War Works - Part 2: Religious Mysticism

To understand this circle and the nature and purpose of Katharine Maltwood's interests one has to return to the late 19th Century. In the 1890's there was a growing interest in religious mysticism, with its background of occult practices, in the cultural centres of Europe. The curiosity in the occult was typified by the exotic speculations of the magician Eliphas Levi while Eastern thought was made fashionable by works such as Madame Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine.30 As a result the myths and monuments of Asia took the place of Greece as a source of inspiration for several artists in the Symbolist tradition and India became the mystical centre for many European intellectuals.

The philosophical background to this upsurge in religious mysticism was provided among others by Edouard Schuré, whose book The Great Initiates of 1889 exerted a strong influence in France and elsewhere.31 Schuré's dislike of the mechanized, civilized world and desire for the resurrection of spiritual life closely corresponded to Symbolist views. He believed art had lost its sense of the divine and that the present generation was without ideals, inspiration and faith. Thus he sought to rediscover the profound learning, the secret doctrine and the occult influence of the great initiates or masters of ancient wisdom. In this he was particularly influential on Katharine Maltwood's attitudes towards both her art and her professed "rediscovery" of the Glastonbury Zodiac and the knowledge it embodied.

Eastern thought had become increasingly appealing to many Westerners dissatisfied with their times, largely due to the foundation of the Theosophical Society in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky, in connection with Col. H. S. Olcott and others. The objects of the Society were set out as firstly to establish a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity which was conceived of in a transcendental rather than materialistic sense. Secondly to promote the study of comparative religion and philosophy and finally to encourage a systematic investigation into the mystic potencies of life and matter.

The intention to study comparative religion and philosophy soon crystallized in an exposition of a more or less definite system of dogmatic teaching. The leading thesis seems to have been that all the great religions of the world originated from the same supreme source, and that they were diverse expressions of one fundamental truth. In order to discern this original wisdom appeal was made to a secret doctrine and esoteric teaching which Madame Blavatsky proclaimed had been held for ages as a sacred possession and trust by certain mysterious adepts in occultism or "Mahatmas" with whom she said she was in psychical as well as direct physical communication.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a highly flamboyant, strong willed and somewhat enigmatic character. Born in the Ukraine in 1831 she was married at seventeen to a Russian official from Caucasia who was very much her senior. They separated after a few months and during the next twenty years Madame Blavatsky appears to have travelled widely in India, America and Mexico. She also made two adventurous trips to Tibet which she later alluded to as the veiled period of her life and spoke vaguely of as a seven years' Himalayan retreat.

In the early 1870's Madame Blavatsky gained prominence among the spiritualists of the United States for her occult powers. Several of her books such as Isis Unveiled, 1877, and The Secret Doctrine, 1888, reveal the influence of writings on magic, mysticism and masonry. She had studied occult and kabbalistic literature together with the sacred writings of India and decided to combine spiritualistic control with the Buddhist legends of Tibetan sages. Thus she claimed that her masters, two Tibetan mahâtmâs, supplied her with sound and ancient doctrine, exhibited their "astral bodies" to her, incited her to summon phenomena for the conversion of sceptics and precipitated messages which reached her from the confines of Tibet in an instant of time.

Madame Blavatsky believed she was chosen to use her spiritualism to combat the growing materialism of the world. This led to the establishment of the Theosophical Society in 1875 with headquarters firstly in New York and slightly later in Adyar, a suburb of Madras in India. Here Madame Blavatsky continued in her efforts to gain converts to theosophy. Although in 1884 an attempt was made by the Society for Psychical Research to prove her a fraud and a trickster, when Madame Blavatsky died in 1891 she was the acknowledged head of a community numbering almost 100,000, with journalistic organs in London, Paris, New York and Madras. After her death there was a split in the Society and several separate groups were formed, the one in England becoming more or less independent.

The principal tenets of theosophy are hard to define precisely but three of the most important were the constitution and development of the personality or ego; the doctrine of "Karma" or the sum of an individual's bodily, mental and spiritual growth; and the Way or Path towards enlightenment and emancipation. The basic belief in the "ultimate oneness" which underlies and sustains all phenomenal diversity was derived from various forms of Buddhist thought as was a large proportion of theosophical doctrine. In addition it involved an amalgam of other sources including Vedic, Egyptian, Greek, Occult and Kabbalistic literature.

The physical methods and spiritual exercises recommended by theosophists are those inculcated in the systems known in Hindu philosophy as Rája Yoga. The aim is that through denial of the evil forces of selfishness, antagonism and desire for material things, and through strenuous efforts to gain new knowledge, faculties and psychic control a higher wisdom will be obtained. The ultimate result will be absorption in the supreme unity or Nirvana.



All content on this page is copyright © 30 January, 2006
Rosemary Brown, the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery, and the University of Victoria

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