P.10: Theosophical Fights

As far as the President of the Spiritist trial was concerned, "hallucinations" had no place in the law. In his closing statement, Dubols summarized the President's treatment of the Spiritist witnesses:

He opposed their testimony to the competing truth of the documents in the trial. The witnesses may have thought their images were authentic, but by asserting that authenticity in the face of palpable evidence of fraud, they seemed to be in the grip of a powerful delusion. To choose to believe in the reality. of a particular image, despite the evidence, became a profession of unreasoning faith - not the logical deduction a court case demanded.

Belief in Spiritism," was not In itself illegal; but it also could not be invoked as a rebuttal against charges of escroquerie, particularly in a case as clear-cut as this. Many of the witnesses at the trial, he asserted, were "unfortunates" who "have been driven to such a state of exaltation by their reading [of Leymarie's journal] that they remain convinced of the role supernatural intervention played in these photographs - despite the revelation of Buguet's fraudulent procedures, and his own confessions. The Revue Spirite's bizarre effusions had in fact created a disturbingly large coterie of fanatics. In its judgment, the Tribunal accepted the substitin's version of the case, asserting that all three of the accused had shamelessly exploited---the credulity of the idle and the poor," a crime that the testimony of the Spiritist witnesses had only made more evident. (La Gazette des tribulaire. Jun. 17, 1875. 2.)

In the weeks after the trial, reports of it appeared in most major Parisian newspapers. For an overview of the French press during this period. along with a guide to the political affiliations of various newspapers, see Claude Bellanger, Jacques Godechot. Pierre Guiral and Fernand Terrou, eds., Histoire generale de la presse francaise, tome 3 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972, 149-238.)

Spiritists found the newspaper reports disconcerting. Every camp, from Right to Left, appeared to misconstrue their ideas, and the Spiritists saw their practices become a kind of comic shorthand for illusion.

Despite the vigorous republican claims to the contrary, Spiritists continued to see themselves as standing at the forefront of human progress. Eventually, they believed, the republicans would see the error of their ways, and realize that Spiritism was in fact a powerful complement to their rationalistic, democratic vices. Georges Cochet, for example, insisted that Spiritism would emerge triumphant, largely because -physical phenomena confirm it as a fact, and therefore place it in the experimental domain of the positive sciences.

The setback of the trial, however, was only temporary. The 1880s and 1890s would see a dramatic resurgence of heterodoxy, but in very different forms. The troubles of the 1870s, it seems, brought an end to the centralized world of Early Third Republic Spiritism, paving the way for the emergence of a considerably more complex situation, Theosophy.

The Universal Exposition of 1889 is justly celebrated for giving Paris the Eiffel Tower; it is less well known for having inspired a  Congres Spirite et Spiritualiste International, 40,000 believers the world over signed petitions in support of the gathering. Considering that the world population was only about ¼ of what it is now, this was a lot.

But Spiritists were no longer unified, while Leymarie's societies and the Revue Spirite remained important, an array of competing Spiritist organizations and journals had begun to appear alongside them. More importantly still, as the official name of the Congress indicates, they had to acknowledgc the  incompatible ideas of a growing number of spiritualistes. (For attendance figures, see Le Journal des Debals, Sep.18.1889,3.)

The bulk of the new movements represented that the organizers referred to as Occultisme, applied to a small but disproportionately vocal assortment of Theosophists, Cabalists, Hermeticists and students of esoteric Christianity. (On occultisme in France this period see Christophe Beaufe’s, Josephini Peladan, 1993).

The purpose of the 1889 Congres, according to Leymaric and the other organizers, was to demonstrate the essential unity of these increasingly divergent forms of heterodoxy. While this union seemed feasible in theory, it proved considerably more difficult to achieve in practice. All delegates to the Congres publicly affirmed the immortality of the soul and the reality of the phenomena that occurred in seances, but, beyond these rudimentary points, they agreed on very little.

In line with the suggestion presented in the September 2002 introduction to this website this article series attemps not only to present a history of ideas (an understanding) but also the social aspects, the sociology of ideas.

The first people in France to explore Theosophy were Spiritists. Blavatsky, who had an upper-class Russian's command of French, established a preliminary connection with this group while visiting Paris in 1873. During her stay, she became particularly friendly with Leymarie and his  wife. (Quoted in Charles Blech, Contribution d 1'histoire de la Societe Theosophique en France (Paris: 1933), 39. This text is a compilation of private correspondence. memoirs and journal articles from the early years of French Theosophy.)

By 1879, Leymarie and others had formed a small Societe Theosophiqie desSpirites de France." As long as no Theosophical texts were available in French, the Spiritists could imagine that their movement and Blavatsky's were, as Leymarie wrote, -similar forces that must unite.

Blavatsky had earlier started a spirititist group  based of Alan Kardec, in Cairo. But accused of fraud she felt compelled to leave Egypt.

Later Blavatksy and Colonel Olcott attempted to start a similar spiritist endeavour in New York, which H.P. Blavatsky claimed she had been told to do by a "Master."

About her own activities as a medium Blavatsky  wrote in a letter to the Russian Secret Police when she asked for a job there; "And thus I must confess that three-quarters of the time the spirits spoke and answered in my words and out of my own considerations, for the success of my own plans. Rarely, very rarely, did I fail, by means of this little trap, to discover people's hopes, plans and secrets." (Maria Carlson , No Religion Higher Than Truth, p. 316.)

In September, at Blavatsky's rooms in New York, following a lecture on "The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians", the Miracle Club was voted into existence, with Olcott as its chairman. At its next meeting it was named the Theosophical Society. By Olcott's account, the word "Theosophy" was picked by flipping through a dictionary. The word may have been chosen by Charles Sotheran based on the title "Thosopher" used in the Masonic Rite of Memphis, to which he belonged.

Shortly thereafter Blavatsky started work in earnest on her first book, Isis Unveiled., A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology. This two-volume set was largely derived in form and title from the monumental two-volume work of comparative religion by Godfrey Higgins entitled Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis,- or an Inquity into the Origin of Languages, Nations, and Religions, published in 1833 and 1836. Leslie Shepard wrote:

[Anacalypsis] has a special interest as the first comprehensive formulation of the materials of Theosophy; it was clearly a fundamental sourcebook and inspiration for the major works of Madame Blavatsky some forty years after Higgins. Her debt to Higgins is acknowledged only by a few stray references on points of detail. At the time that Madame Blavatsky wrote her own encyclopedic works the Anacalypsis was scarce and not generally known. Higgins gives correct and generous acknowledgment on all his materials. Madame Blavatsky's books have been severely criticized by the Encyclopedia Britannica as "a mosaic of unacknowledged quotations."

It had been claimed that many of Madame Blavatsky's materials were drawn from akashic records, but G. R. S. Mead-the greatest scholar of the Theosophical movement-later admitted that three of his friends had "'devilled' assiduously for H. P B. at the British Museum." This is not the place to revive old controversies of ghost-writing and supernatural reference. The plain fact is that Anacalypsis is the important prototype of the Theosophical framework. Throughout his book Higgins insists on "a secret doctrine" of esoteric knowledge guarded by the priests; it is significant that the phrase itself should form the title of Madame Blavatsky's second large treatise. It must be said that she brought to her writings a splendid genius and insight of her own, and her books have rightly had tremendous influence. It is time, however, to give Higgins his own credit.

Anacalypsis has been described as the last great scholarly work of nineteenth-century comparativism. International contact breeds syncretism, the combination of similar religious symbols from different cultures. One great international culture before the British Empire was the Roman Empire. In its popular mystery religions, it was common to pray to deities such as Isis with a slew of names of similar figures drawn from various traditions spread over thousands of miles. In the nineteenth century, the train and the steamer created much the same effect that the Roman roads and the sailing trade had centuries before.

Everyone was looking for a science of religion, a unifying principle that would weave all the confusing and superficially dissimilar threads of world religion into a common whole. One approach was abstract monotheism, as practiced by Freemasonry and the Baha'i movement. All prophets were true messengers of the one God, and all religions were distorted reflections of a single truth of divine revelation. Another was abstract atheism, which derived the masks of world religion not from God but from some great impersonal principle.

The aims of the Theosophical Society where described by Blavatsky as dealing with Magic and the "Jewish and Egyptian" Cabala, Blavatsky wrote on Sept. 23, 1875:

"We want to make an experimental comparison between spiritualism and the magic of the ancients by following literally the instructions of the old Cabbalas, both Jewish and Egyptian."

A new journal, The Theosophist  did quite well, and its popularity led the Theosophical Society to expand rapidly.

However, the teachings of Allan Kardec did not square at all with those of Blavatsky's later Mahatmas. Once the avid Theosophist and army officer D.A. Courmes began to translate substantive articles from the Theosophist for publication in the Revue Spirite, this dissonance became increasingly clear.

Blavatsky sought to resolve the problem by authorizing the formation of two new Parisian branches. One presided over by Dr. Fortin, a Theosophist of pronounced anti-Spiritist leanings, and the second under the presidency of Lady Caithness, Duchess of Pomar, a wealthy aristocrat, medium and hostess. This effort to neutralize the Spiritists through competition did not prove successful, however. Fortin's group did not succeed 'In creating a purely Theosophical journal, as Blavatsky had hoped it would, and Caithness' circle remained too socially exclusive to serve as an entirely viable flagship branch.

At this point, Blavatsky and Olcott decided to address the conflicts in French Theosophy by intervening personally. They arrived in Marseille on March 12, 1884; after several weeks spent at Lady Caithness' villa in Nice, the two founders went on to Paris. Olcott did not stay, there long, because a second, considerably graver Theosophical controversy in London demanded his attention (controversy in London involved the charismatic medium and visionary Anna Kingsford, who had just repudiated Theosophy because of its anti-Christian approach. As we will see, a similar problem would occur in France several years later ).  Blavatsky, however, visited London only briefly, then returned to Paris, where she set about addressing the situation of French Theosophy. With Olcott's approval, Blavatsky supervised the dissolution of both Fortin's branch and the Spiritist group, leaving Caithness' circle as the only official representative of the Theosophical Society in France. Caithness, however, had a separate quarrel with Olcott, which led her to resign from the Theosophical Society in September 1884, after Blavatsky had returned to Adyar. By the end of the year, therefore, the Theosophical Society,. had no official branches in France.

In mid- 1886, the Theosophical Society's situation in France began to improve when Louis Dramard, a socialist journalist who had joined the group two years before, decided to finance the creation of a French Theosophical journal. Since he lacked the money to establish a new publication, he instead chose to give a donation to a small Spiritist jounal called L'Aliti-Matirialiste. At the time, the journal had only 250 subscribers, and its editor, a retired engineer named Rend Caillid, was running short of funds. In exchange for this subsidy, Caillid agreed to change the name of his publication to La Revue des Hautes Etudes, and to begin publishing articles on Theosophy. As part of the agreement, however, Caillid insisted on retaining full editorial control of the journal. (See the 1910 memoir by, Alfred Froment in Blech. 145-146 La Revue des Hautes Etudes: 32.)

Also of influence on French Theosophy however became Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre, in his  1884 book Mission des Jeufs, Saint Yves constructed a sweeping history of humanity from 7500 BCE to about 70 CE, which devoted particular attention to the rise and fall of an imagined ancient theocratic empire established by an Indian ruler named Ram. It concluded, however, with a paean to France, which Saint-Yves presented as the nation destined to lead the future progress of humanity. France occupied this crucial role, he argued, because it was the sole European country to have hearkened to the teachings of the "Social God" by reconciling Christianity, reason and social reform. "France," he wrote,

Is catholic in the profoundly religious, scientific, synthetic, antisectarian and anti-political sense of the word: with her it is All or Nothing. The Revolution itself is civil Catholicism, the Encyclopedia itself is rational Catholicism, her Language is an instrument of universal precision, and when she asserts herself in Science, it is again by placing her Mind in relation to all the Earth, and by determining the Unity of Measure, of Weight and of Number for all peoples of the world.'

France, for Saint-Yves, was the universal nation. Its values were the essential, transcendent values of all humanity. Its true religion, in his view, was not orthodox Catholicism, but instead an esoteric "Judeo-Christianity" based on the "Spirit," rather than the letter, of the old and new testaments.' (see Yves-Fred Boisset, A la Rencontre de Saint- Yves d 'Alveydre el d son eovre. 2 vols. Paris:  1996).

This conception of the Theosophical project did not sit well with Dramard, because it was entirely at odds with the teachings of Blavatsky-'s Mahatmas. The agreement Dramard had reached with Caillid, however, made it impossible for him to influence the content of the Revue directly. His only option was to cease his funding altogether, which forced the journal to close.

Next Dramard set about organizing a new French branch of the Theosophical Society, which would be called the Isis Lodge. The group's fifty members held their First meeting on July 19, 1887; the organization received official recognition from Olcott in October. Dramard, among the oldest members of the group, was elected president. Most of the other Lodge officers where in their twenties.

The opening salvo in this new offense was Blavatsky's first article written exclusively for the Lotus  their new journal. In it, she unstintingly condemned the Western faith in progress, and with it Saint-Yves' influential vision of France.

Unless the French renounced their misguided faith in progress, reason and secular democracy, Blavatsky argued, they would never be able to follow the path of true wisdom, as revealed by the esoteric traditions of the East.

The notion of Christ as unique incarnation of God, and the concomitant "dogma of the Word made flesh," Blavatsky declared, was fundamentally at odds with the teachings of "the archaic Wisdom. " The West's stubborn acceptance of this recently-devised "legend" had created an---abyss between Orient and Occident. The only way to bridge this divide was to abandon the notion of a unique Christ altogether, and return to the ancient notion that the state of---Christos" - of divine light - was accessible to any spiritual seeker who had reached a sufficiently high level of moral purity and esoteric knowledge.  Indeed, for believers in the true wisdom, as taught by the Mahatmas, Blavatsky asserted, Christianity was a form of blasphemy.

This view provoked a great deal of disagreement within the Isis Lodge, since many of its members remained sympathetic to Saint Yves ideas and sources. The extent of the conflict first became clear in 1888, when Gerard Encausse published an essay on Saint-Yves in the Lotus. Gaboriau printed the essay, but festooned it with critical footnotes, added without the author's permission. This move proved intensely controversial, and precipitated a fullblown schism in the Lodge.  (Le Lotus, vol.3 Apr. 1888:19)

Encausse working on a new image for himself adopted the pseudonym "Papus," which he had found in Eliphas Levi’s translation of the Nuctemeron, a text ascribed to the third century Greek image Apollonlus of Tyana. And  late in 1887, a group of his friends, many of whom were also members of the Theosophical Society, began to gather on Sunday mornings in his small apartment near the Gare de I'lEst. Writing many years later, the poet Victor Emile Michelet, a regular guest at these gatherings, described the group as a "boiling cauldron," full of idealism and youthful energy:

We would show the modem world what the great initiates of antiquity knew!

In May 1888, when Gaboniau added the infamous editorial notes to the article Papus had written in praise of Saint-Yves, Papus and several friends chose to launch a public attack on the Theosophical Society. They did this by printing a false copy of the Isis Lodge bulletin, which they mailed to every Lows subscriber. Perhaps because of its inflammatory content, no copies of the document have been preserved.

Indignant responses by Gaboriau and his friend Edouard Coulomb who used the pen name Amaravella - however, give a sense of what the document might have contained. In addition to a number of personal attacks against Gaboriau, the false bulletin denounced the excessive influence "foreigners" wielded in French Theosophical circles, accused the Society of shady financial dealings, and even threatened legal action. Blavatsky's Theosophy was far superior to the ideas espoused by the regions of Spiritists, scientists, Jesuits and Cabalists" with whom Papus and his supporters wished to ally. themselves. Trying to placate the unenlightened in this way, Coulomb argued, would only lead them away from the great truths they sought. (Le Lotus, vol.3 ,Apr. 1888-N far. 1889: 194)

At Blavatsky's insistence, the Society's two founders made Gaboriau president of the Lodge, and gave him a number of extraordinary powers, including the ability to expel individual members of the group.

In September, Olcott decided to visit Paris and intervene directly in what was becoming an increasingly virulent feud. Since Gaboriau's sweeping presidential powers made it impossible to reorganize the Isis Lodge, Olcott decided to establish a new organization for Papus and his circle. This group, which called itself the Henniis Lodge, held its first meeting on September 17, 1888.  Papus chose not to run for the group's presidency, opting instead to be corresponding secretary.

Olcott's actions made Blavatsky furious. "As for P[aptisl," she wrote to Olcott, you have put yourself entirely in his hands, and you have sacrificed Theosophy, and even the honor of the T.S. in France, out of fear of that wretched little. In retaliation, Blavatsky decided to create a new "Esoteric Section" of the Society, under her exclusive control. The now-unseated Gabon'au, who remained a favorite of Blavatsky's, received one of the first charters to establish a branch of this new organization. Even the promise of unparalleled access to the secrets of the Mahatmas, however, failed to win him enough followers to compete with the new Hermes Lodge, which quickly won the allegiance of most French Theosophists.

When Gabodau had realized the extent of his defeat, he published a strongly worded condemnation of Olcott's actions in the Lotus. By embracing the unprincipled, intellectually inferior Paptis faction, Gaboriau wrote, Olcott had debased the Theosophical Society as a whole.

See also:

Crossing Over P.1: The Making of Spiritism

Crossing Over P.2: Christian Spiritist Conversion

Crossing Over P.3: Taming the Wild Spirits

Crossing Over P.4: Revelation of the Revelation

Crossing Over P.5: Phenomena on Trial

Crossing Over P.7: The Esoteric

Crossing Over P.8: The Never Ending Story?

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