Friday, January 15, 2010

The Books in the Cellar #3

Of the Little Blue Books, I think I will start with one of the hardest, #477. Not hard because it consists of tedious, tendentious and flaccid prose. Though it is all those and more.
Hard because it raises all sorts of difficult questions and the only people able to answer those questions are either dead or unwilling.
Little Blue Book #477 is The Nonsense called Theosophy, written by Joseph McCabe.
Of all the Little Blue Books in the cellar, this is the only one with a name inscribed: Madeleine de Couville. Madeleine was a maiden aunt (sort of). More accurately, she was my paternal grandmother’s niece, or maybe a half-niece or step-niece (if such a thing exists). Whichever it was, she came from France to spend a summer with my grandparents at some time in the 1930’s, and never went back to live in France again. As far as I know, Aunt Madeleine was devoted to her aunt.
And if her books are any indication, my grandmother was a devoted Theosophist. I seem to have read quite a lot about Theosophy by now, and still I have only the vaguest notion of what it might be. It is a religious, metaphysical, spiritualist philosophy developed by Madame Blavatsky and others around 1875.
I quote from the Encyclopedia Brittanica: “theosophical speculation reveals certain common characteristics. The first of these is an emphasis on mystical experience. Whether ancient or modern, theosophical writers have agreed that a deeper spiritual reality exists and that direct contact may be established with that reality through intuition, meditation, revelation, or some other state transcending normal human consciousness. A second characteristic is an emphasis on esoteric doctrine. A distinction between an inner, or esoteric, teaching and an outer, or exoteric, teaching is commonly accepted, and much attention is devoted to deciphering the meaning concealed in sacred texts. Modern theosophists claim that all the world religions, including Christianity, contain such an inner teaching. A third characteristic is an interest in occult phenomena. Most theosophical speculation reveals a fascination with supernatural or other extraordinary occurrences and with the achievement of higher psychic and spiritual powers. It is held that knowledge of the divine wisdom gives access to the mysteries of nature and humankind's deeper being. A fourth characteristic is a preference for monism—the view that reality is constituted of one principle, such as mind or spirit. Despite a recognition of basic distinctions between the exoteric and esoteric, between the phenomenal world and a higher spiritual reality, and between the human and the divine, which suggests dualism, most theosophically inclined writers have affirmed an underlying, all-encompassing unity that subsumes all differentiation.”

It may help to think of Theosophy has a pre-cursor to much of ‘New Age’ thinking.

Like many new religions, factions split off and the in-fighting could get nasty. In Theosophy, no one was burned at the stake, but feelings did get hurt. One splinter group was led by Annie Besant; and there are several of Anne Besant’s books in the cellar in question. Many of these, according to the name on the flyleaf, belonged to Chester Green in 1926. But they are otherwise filled with notes and marginalia in my grandmother’s tiny and very recognizable script.
Who was Chester Green?
And why, of all the Little Blue Books, did Aunt Madeleine lay claim to the one that aggressively debunks Theosophy in general and Madame Blavatsky in particular?
And what of Joseph McCabe, the writer of: The Nonsense etc? He was a Catholic priest who left the priesthood in 1896 and went on to write numerous Little and Big Blue Books denouncing Catholicism in countless ways, and came to be known as one of the “giants of atheism”.
(Is there something paradoxical about that pairing, or is that just me?)
Have I mentioned that my grandfather (estranged husband to my grandmother, but never divorced on account of being Catholic) frequently entertained priests and was a great friend of the then-prelate of Boston, Cardinal Cushing? They shared a taste for a certain Grouse Whiskey.

Today is the feast of Saint Alexander Akimetes (ca.440) who founded an order of “sleepless’ monks, which seems to me one of the worst ideas ever. In their monastery on the shore of the Euphrates, Alexander divided his monks into 6 choirs so that one choir was always singing the Divine Office, day and night, keeping up the racket.

1 comment:

Rebecca Rice said...

I loved this post, not only because I have a passing familiarity with Madame B. (Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, despised and denounced her, though I expect MBE was very jealous of her), but also because I love the literary detective work revealed here. Madame B. left(but never divorced) her much older husband, and took several lovers. Maybe that's another reason why your granny was so taken by her!