OLD DIARY LEAVES, First Series (1874-78)
by Henry Steel Olcott
OUR search for mediums resulted in our selection of Dr. Henry Slade for the St. Petersburgh test. Mr. Aksakoff sent me $1,000 in gold for his expenses, and in due course he departed on his mission. But, through greediness, or vanity, perhaps, certainly most unadvisably, he stopped in London, gave séances, created a great public excitement, and was arrested on the complaint of Professor Lankester and Dr. Donkin on the pretence of trickery. C. C. Massey was his counsel, and saved him on a technical point, on appeal. Slade subsequently gave at Leipzig the famous tests by which Professor Zöllner proved his theory of the Fourth Dimension, and visited The Hague and other places before going to St. Petersburgh. Before we sent him abroad he submitted his mediumistic powers to the scrutiny of a special committee of the Theosophical Society, which with one dissentient, who made a most unfair minority report, certified to Mr. Aksakoff its belief in his
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genuineness. A most instructive account, showing long and intimate familiarity with his powers, was supplied by his former business partner, Mr. James Simmons, to the issue of the Theosophist for November, 1893.
I had quite forgotten until I came to write the present chapter, at what period in the year 1875 the Eastern theory of sub-human and earth-bound spirits was brought to public attention, but I now find in our Scrap Books that the term “Elementary Spirits” was first used by myself in a letter to the Spiritual Scientist of June 3, 1875, reference being made to the sub-human spirits of the elements, or what we now call, “the elementals.” It was but a bare reference, without the giving of any explanatory details, and intended as a caution to Spiritualists against swallowing as they had been doing previously, without proper sifting and analysis, the messages of real or pretended mediums as trustworthy communications from departed spirits. The publication of the “Luxor” circular (in the Spiritual Scientist, April 17, 1875), provoked some private correspondence and public comment, the most important example of the latter being a scholarly and interesting article by a young barrister named Failes, writing under the pseudonym of “Hiraf,” which appeared in the Spiritual Scientist for 1875, p. 202, and was continued in the next week’s issue. It is full of theosophical ideas interpreted in terms of Rosicrucianism and under that title. The writer presents the Eastern philosophy of Unity and Evolution; and shows how it anticipated by many centuries the modern theories
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of force-correlation and conservation of energy. Its major importance, however, was the fact that it drew from H. P. B. a reply, which, in our Scrap-book, she calls “My first occult shot,” and which, in fact, laid open the whole field of thought since ploughed up by the members, friends, and adversaries of the Theosophical Society.
In tracing up H. P. B.’s literary history from that point until the close of her life, one important fact should be borne in mind by such as are willing to do her simple justice. She was not a “learned” woman, in the literary sense, when she came to America. When, long after Isis Unveiled was begun, I inquired of her ever-beloved aunt Mdlle. N. A. Fadeyef, where her niece had acquired all this varied knowledge of recondite philosophies, metaphysics, and sciences, this prodigiously intuitive comprehension of ethnical evolution, the migrations of ideas, the occult forces of nature, etc., she wrote me frankly that up to their last meeting, some four or five years previously, Helena had “not even thought of such things in her dreams,” that her education had been simply that of any young lady of good family. She had learnt, besides her native Russian, French, a little English, a smattering of Italian, and music: she was astounded at my accounts of her erudition, and could only attribute it to the same sort of inspiration as had been enjoyed by the Apostles, who, on the Day of Pentecost, spoke in strange tongues of which they had previously been ignorant. She added that from her childhood
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her niece had been a medium more extraordinary for psychical power and variety of phenomena than any of whom she had read in the whole course of a lifelong study of the subject.1 I had a better chance than any of her friends to know what were her actual literary attainments, having helped her in her correspondence and labours of authorship and corrected almost every page of her MSS. for years: besides which I had her confidence in a greater degree, from 1874 to 1885, than any other person. I can affirm, then, that in those early days she was not, in her normal state, a learned woman, and was never an accurate writer. This is à propos of her reply to “Hiraf,” in which she went into particulars about Occultism and explained the nature of elementary spirits. A learned but blindly vindictive critic of hers, stigmatises this article as “simply a rehash of the writings upon Magic of Eliphas Levi, and Des Mousseaux, and Hargrave Jennings’ “Rosicrucians.” In it, he says, “the Madame (sic) disclaim any authority as a teacher, calling herself ‘poor, ignorant me,’ and states that she desired simply to tell a little of the little she picked up in her long travels in the East. The statement that she derived any of this article from ‘the East’ is untrue; the whole of it was taken from European books.”
And whence did their authors get their knowledge, unless from other authors? And whence these authors? From the East, always from the East; not one of those mentioned was a practical occultist, an adept in practical
1Letter dated Odessa, 8/20 May, 1877.
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psychology; not even Eliphas Levi, save to the minor extent of being able (taking himself as the authority) to evoke spirits by the formularies of Ceremonial Magic. He was too much addicted to the pleasures of the table to be anything higher in Magic. Des Mousseaux was simply a most industrious and successful compiler for the Jesuits and Theatins, whose complimentary certificates he publishes in his works; and as for the late Mr. Hargrave Jennings, we all knew him for an estimable little gentleman, a London littérateur, with a book knowledge of occult subjects and not conspicuously accurate in his deductions. Whether H. P. B. did or did not acquire her practical psychical knowledge or powers in the East, it is undeniable that she had them, could practise them whenever she liked, and that her explanations of them were identical with those which are given in the teachings of every Eastern school of Occult Science. I, personally, can further testify that she was in relations with Eastern adepts, and that not only she, but even I, was visited by them, conversed. with them and was taught by them, before leaving America and after reaching India. To her, the books of Levi, Des Mousseaux, and all other modern and ancient writers were simply the tool-boxes from which she could take the tools she needed in building the Western structure for the habitation of Eastern idea: from one she could take one fact, from another, another. She found them but imperfect tools, at best, for those who knew, concealed, and those who did not, twisted and mutilated or misrepresented their
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facts. The Rosicrucian, Hermetic and Theosophical Western writers, producing their books in epochs of religious ignorance and cruel bigotry, wrote, so to say, with the headman’s axe suspended over their necks, or the executioner’s fagots laid under their chairs, and hid their divine knowledge under quaint symbols and misleading metaphors. The world lacked an interpreter, and H. P. B. came to supply the need. Having the clues to the labyrinth in her own trained consciousness and full practical experience, she led the way, torch in hand, and bade the morally brave to follow her.1 An American critic said of Isis that she quoted indiscriminately from the classical authors and from the current newspapers of the day; and he was right, for it mattered not what author or paragraphist she quoted from so long as his writing suggested an idea illustrative of her present theme. This answer to “Hiraf” was the first of her esoteric writings, as her answer to Dr. Beard was the first of her defences of mediumistic Spiritualism. The history of Literature furnishes no more surprising spectacle than that of this fashionably under-educated Russian noblewoman writing English at times like an Englishman; French so pure that French authors have told me her articles would serve as models of style in French schools; and Russian so enticingly brilliant as to make the conductor of the most important
1I say this with a reservation as to the actual degree of her own independent agency in the affair, about which I do not feel willing to dogmatise.
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of their reviews actually beseech her to write constantly for it, on terms as high as they gave Tourguénief. She was not always at those high-water marks, however; sometimes she wrote such bad English that her MSS. had to be almost re-written. Nor, as said, was she an orderly or accurate writer; her mind seemed to rush ahead at such a pace, and streams of thought came pouring from both sides in such force that confusion and want of method were the result in her writing. She laughed once, but confessed the justness of the comparison, when I told her that her mind was like Dickens’s image of Mugby Junction, with its ceaseless trains screaming in and screaming out, backing and shunting, and from morning to night keeping up a bewildering confusion. But beginning with the “Hiraf” article, and coming down to the last line she wrote for type, one thing must honestly be said—her writing was always full of thought-suggestion, brilliant and virile in style, while her keen sense of humour often seasoned her most ponderous essays with mirth-provoking ideas. To the methodical scholar she was exasperating, yet never dull or uninteresting. Later on, I shall have occasion to speak of the phenomenal changes in her literary and conversational moods and styles. I have said, and shall always reiterate, that I learnt more from her than from any schoolmaster, professor, or author I ever had to do with. Her psychical greatness, however, so overmatched her early education and mental discipline that the critics who knew her only in literature have done
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her bitter and savage injustice. X. B. Saintine writes, in Picciola, that the penalty of greatness is isolation; her case proves the aphorism: she dwelt on spiritual heights whither only the eagles of mankind soar. Most of her adversaries have only seen the mud on her shoes; and, verily, sometimes she wiped them even on her friends who could not mount on wings as strong as her own.
The “Hiraf” letter has another historical value in that she therein proclaims unequivocally “from personal knowledge” the existence of regular schools of occult training “in India, Asia Minor, and other countries.” “As in the primitive days of Socrates and other sages of antiquity,” she says, “so now, those who are willing to learn the Great Truth will ever find the chance if they only ‘try’ to meet some one to lead them to the door of ‘one who knows when and how.’” She corrects “Hiraf’s” too sweeping generalisation of calling all occultists Rosicrucians; telling him that that fraternity was but one of many occult sects or groups. She now openly styles herself “a follower of Eastern Spiritualism,” and foresees the time when American Spiritualism will “become a science and a thing of mathematical certitude.” Again, reverting to the question of adepts, she says the real Kabbala, of which the Jewish version is but a fragment, is in possession of “but a few Oriental philosophers; where they are, who they are, is more than is given me to reveal. Perhaps I do not know it myself and have only dreamed it. Thousands will say it is all imagination: so be it. Time will show. The only
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thing I can say is that such a body exists, and that the location of their Brotherhoods will never be revealed to other countries until the day when Humanity shall awake, . . . Until then, the speculative theory of their existence will be supported by what people erroneously believed to be supernal facts.” Her article conveys the warning that it is waste of time to seek to become a practical Kabbalist (or Rosicrucian, if you will) by acquiring a book knowledge of occult literature; it is as foolish, she says, “as to try to thread the famous labyrinth without the clue, or to open the ingenious locks of the mediæval ages without having possession of the keys.” She defines the difference between White and Black Magic and warns against the latter. Finally, she says: “But say what you (the ‘very orthodox priests and clergymen of various creeds and denominations, you who are so intolerant towards Spiritualism,’” [mark what meaning her context gives the term now] “‘the purest of the Children of Ancient Magic,’) will, you cannot help that which was, is, and ever will be, namely, the direct communication between the two worlds. We term this intercourse modern Spiritualism with the same force and logic, as when we say the ‘New World,’ in speaking of America.”
I am sure all earnest members of The Theosophical Society will be glad to know that as early as July, 1875, H. P. B. affirmed the existence of the Eastern Adepts, of the mystic Brotherhood, of the stores of divine knowledge in their keeping, and of her personal
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connection with them. She reaffirms this in a letter to the Spi. Sci (p. 64, but of what month of 1875 I cannot tell, as she has not dated the cutting in our Scrap-book; but she writes from Ithaca whither she went to visit Professor and Mrs. Corson, of Cornell University, in August or early September), and puts forth the important idea that “Spiritualism, in the hands of an adept, becomes Magic, for he is learned in the art of blending together the laws of the Universe, without breaking any of them and thereby violating Nature. In the hands of an inexperienced medium, Spiritualism becomes UNCONSCIOUS SORCERY; for. . . he opens, unknown to himself, a door of communication between the two worlds, through which emerge the blind forces of Nature lurking in the astral Light, as well as good and bad spirits.”
The occult Idea was now fairly launched, and our published writings and private correspondence henceforth teemed with such allusions. My first extended contribution on those lines was a letter entitled “The Immortal Life,” dated August 23, 1875, and published in the New York Tribune of the 30th of that month. I state in it that I had believed in the mediumistic phenomena for about a quarter of a century, but had discredited the assumed identification of the intelligences behind them. I affirm my belief in the reality of ancient occult science, and the fact that I had unexpectedly “been brought into contact with living persons who do, and had in my presence done the very marvels that Paracelsus, Albertus, and Appollonius are credited with.”
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In saying this, I had in mind not only H. P. B.’s multifarious phenomena, not only the beginnings of my intercourse with the Mahâtmas, but also the disclosure to my own eyes, in my own bedroom, in a house where H. P. B. did not live, and when she was not present, of the spirits of the elements, by a stranger whom I casually met in New York, one day shortly before penning the letter.
The stranger came by appointment to my chambers. We opened the folding doors which separated the sitting from the small bedroom, sat on chairs facing the wide doorway, and by a wonderful process of Mâya (I now suppose) I saw the bedroom converted, as it were, into a cube of empty space. The furniture had disappeared from my view, and there appeared alternately vivid scenes of water, cloudy atmosphere, subterranean caves, and an active volcano; each of the elements teeming with beings, and shapes, and faces, of which I caught more or less transient glimpses. Some of the forms were lovely, some malignant and fierce, some terrible. They would float into view as gently as bubbles on a smooth stream, or dart across the scene and disappear, or play and gambol together in flame or flood. Anon, a misshapen monster, as horrid to see as the pictures in Barrett’s Magus, would glare at me and plunge forward, as though it wished to seize me as the wounded tiger does its victim, yet fading out on reaching the boundary of the cube of visualised akâsh, where the two rooms joined. It was trying to one’s nerves, but after my experiences
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at Eddy’s I managed not to “weaken.” My stranger friend declared himself satisfied with the result of the psychical test, and, on leaving, said we might meet again. But until now we have not. He seemed a fair-skinned Asiatic, but I could not exactly detect his nationality, though I then fancied him a Hindu. He talked English as fluently as myself.