OLD DIARY LEAVES, First Series (1874-78)
by Henry Steel Olcott
PUTATIVE AUTHOR OF “ART MAGIC”
I SHALL now redeem my promise (See Chap. VIII) to say something about Mrs. Hardinge Britten’s Art Magic, and its production. It has been mentioned above that the book was launched almost coincidently with the formation of the Theosophical Society, and the circumstances are a little curious. Mrs. Britten was particularly struck by them, and testifies to her surprise in the following passages in a letter to the Banner of Light:
“So amazed and struck was I with the coincidence of purposes (not ideas), expressed in the inauguration of the Theosophic Society, at which I was present, with some of the purposes, though not the ideas put forth in my friend’s work, that I felt it to be my duty to write to the President of that Society, enclose a copy of the still un-published advertisement, and explain to him that the publication of the book in question anticipated, without concert of action or even personal acquaintance, with the parties concerned, whatever of Cabalistic lore the said Theosophic Society might hereafter evolve.”
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The coincidence consisted in the fact that the book and our Society simultaneously affirmed the dignity of ancient Occult Science, the existence of Adepts, the reality of, and contrast between, White and Black Magic, the existence of the Astral Light, the swarming of Elemental races in the regions of air, earth, etc., the existence of relations between them and ourselves, and the practicability of bringing them under subjection by certain methods long known and tested. It was, so to say, an attack from two sides simultaneously upon the entrenched camp of Western ignorance and prejudice.
Mrs. Britten affirmed that Art Magic had been written by an Adept of her acquaintance, “a life-long and highly honoured friend,”1 whom she had first met in Europe, and for whom she was but acting as “Translator” and “Secretary.” His name, she said, was Louis, and he was a Chevalier. A piquant Prospectus, calculated to switch the most jaded curiosity to the buying-point, was issued, and the bibliophile’s cupidity excited by the announcement that the Author would only permit five hundred copies to be printed, and even then should reserve the right of refusing to sell to those whom he might find undeserving!2 This right he seems to
1Nineteenth Century Miracles, p. 437.
2“To prevent his recondite work from falling into the hands of such heterogeneous readers, as he felt confident would misunderstand or perhaps pervert its aims to evil uses.” (Nineteenth Century Miracles, p. 437.) And in a letter to myself, of September 20, 1875, about her copy of Cornelius Agrippa that I wished to borrow, she calls Louis “The Author of the book of books (italics hers), just advertised in the Banner,” and says, “This man would far sooner burn his book and die amidst its ashes than spare it even to a favoured 500.”
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have exercised, since, in another published letter to “The Slanderers of Art Magic,”—whom she calls “little pugs”—she tells us that “some twenty names have been struck off by the Author.” The fact that some persons, more cavilling than well-informed, had hinted that her book had been hatched in the Theosophical Society, provoked her wrath to such a degree that, with a goodly show of capitals and italics, she warns all these “whisperers who dare not openly confront us,” that she and her husband “had laid the case before an eminent New York legal gentleman,” who had instructed them “to say publicly that, free as this country may be to do what each one pleases (sic), it is not free enough to allow the circulation of injurious libels”—and that they “had instructed him to proceed immediately against any one who hereafter shall assert, publicly or privately, that the work I have undertaken—namely, to become Secretary of the publication of Art Magic, or Mundane, Sub-Mundane and Super-Mundane Spiritualism—has anything to do with Col. Olcott, Madame Blavatsky, the New York Theosophic Society, or any thing or person belonging to either those persons or that Society” (vide her letter in Banner of Light, of about December, 1875; the cutting in our Scrap-Book being undated, I cannot be more exact).
This clattering of pans was kept up so persistently—she and her husband actually being all the while executive members of the Theosophical Society—that, despite the fancy price put upon the book—$5 for a volume of
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467 pages, in pica type heavily leaded, or scarcely as much matter as is contained in a 7s. 6d. volume of the London publishers—her list was soon fined up. I, myself, paid her $10 for two copies, but the one now before me is inscribed, in Mrs. Britten’s handwriting, “To Madame Blavatsky, in token of esteem from the Editor [herself] and the Author [?].” The Prospectus stated that, after the edition of 500 copies was run off, the “plates” were to be destroyed. The imprint shows the book to have been “Published by the Author, at New York, America,” but it was copyrighted by William Britten, Mrs. Britten’s husband, in the year 1876, in due form. The printers were Messrs. Wheat and Cornett, 8 Spruce St., N. Y.
I have given the above details for the following reasons: 1. The book marks a literary epoch in American literature and thought; 2. I suspect that good faith was not kept with the subscribers, myself included; since the work—for which we paid an extravagant price—was printed from type forms, not plates, and Mr. Wheat himself told me that his firm had printed, by Mr. or Mrs. Britten’s orders, 1500 instead of 500 copies—the truth of which assertion his account-books should show. I only repeat what her printer told me, and give it for what it may be worth; 3. Because these and other circumstances, among others the internal evidence of the matter and execution of the work, make me doubt the story of the alleged adept authorship. Unquestionably there are fine, even brilliant, passages in it, and a deal
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that is both instructive and valuable. As a neophyte in this branch of literature, I was, at the time, deeply impressed with it, and so wrote to Mrs. Britten, but the effect of these upon me was afterwards marred by my discovery of the unacknowledged use of text and illustrations from Barret, Pietro de Abano, Jennings, Layard, and even (see plates facing pp. 193 and 219) from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper1; also by the unspiritual personification of God, “the eternal, uncreated, self-existent, and infinite realm of spirit” (p. 31), as a globe, that is to say, a limited sphere or central sun related to the universe as our sun is to our solar system; by much bad spelling and grammar; by such mistakes as the making of “Chrishna and Buddha Sakia” heroes of an episode identical with that told of Jesus, viz., a
1The book-reviewer of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a New York journal of the day, in noticing the appearance of Art Magic uses very severe language in regard to the reputed Author, whom he indentifies, whether justly or unjustly, I cannot say, with Mrs. Britten. The book, he says, “is simply a rehash of books accessible to any student of even limited means, and (which) can be readily found in almost any book-store, or on the shelves of any public library. Ennemoser’s History of Magic, Howitt’s Supernatural, Salverte’s Philosophy of Magic, Hargrave Jenning’s Rosicrucians, Barrett’s Magus, Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy, and a few others are the real sources of this wretched compilation, which is full of bad grammar and worse assumptions. We unhesitatingly assert that there is not a single important statement in the book which cannot be discovered in already-printed books.” This is exaggerated censure, for the book does contain passages worthy of Bulwer-Lytton; in fact, one would say they were written by him; and while the forced loans of illustrations and matter from the authors cited are palpable, there is much sound occult doctrine sententiously put, to reward the patient reader.
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“flight and concealment in Egypt and their return to work miracles,” etc.1 also by the declaration, which contradicts every canon of Occult Science ever taught in any school, that for becoming a Magician, or Adept, the “first great pre-requisite is a prophetic or naturally mediumistic organisation” (p. 160); and that the sitting in “circles,” mutual mesmerism, the cultivation of intercourse with spirits of the dead, and the acceptance of spirit guides and controls, are substantial and lawful aids to the development of Adept powers. Whatever Adept may have written this book, most assuredly it became in the
1But I really must quote, for the edification of the High Priest H. Sumangala, and other unenlightened Buddhist scholars, the whole passage: “The births of these Avatars through the motherhood of a pure Virgin, their lives in infancy threatened by a vengeful king, their flight and concealment in Egypt, their return to work miracles, save, heal and redeem the world, suffer persecution, a violent death, a descent into Hell, and a re-appearance as a new-born Saviour, are all items of the Sun God’s history, which have already been recited, etc. etc.” (Op. cit., p. 60). Fancy Buddha Gautama concealed in Egypt, suffering a violent death, and then descending into Hell! And this Art Magic is claimed to be the work of an Adept, who had studied in the East, and been initiated in its mystical lore! An Adept, moreover, who, when cholera was raging in London, “adjourned to an observatory”—in London—where he and “a select party—all distinguished for their scientific attainments,” made “observations through an immense telescope, constructed under the direction of Lord Rosse” (Ghost Land, p. 134, by the same Author); which telescope happens to have never been nearer London than its site at Birr Castle near Parsons Town, Kings County, Ireland! The fact is that the Author of this book seems to have borrowed his (or her) alleged facts—even to the misspelling of the names of Krishna and Sakya Muni—from Chapter I of Kersey Grave’s veracious work, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours, which H. P. B. satirised so merrily in Isis Unveiled.
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process of “editing” and “translating” a panegyric upon mediumship, and upon those phases of it which Mrs. Britten’s mediumistic history seems to illustrate. One has but to compare it with Isis Unveiled, to see the vast difference in favour of the latter as a trustworthy elucidation of the nature, history, and scientific conditions of magic and magicians, of both the Right and Left Hand paths. To affirm that mediumship and adeptship are compatible, and that any Adept would permit himself to be guided or commanded by departed spirits, is an absurdity only equal to that of saying that the North and South Poles are in contact. I remember very well pointing this out to Mrs. Britten upon first reading her book, and that her explanation was not at all convincing. She makes one statement, however, which Spiritualists often deny, but which is doubtless true, nevertheless:
“It is also a significant fact, and one which should commend itself to the attention alike of the physiologist and psychologist, that persons afflicted with scrofula and glandular enlargements, often seem to supply the pabulum which enables spirits to produce manifestations of psychical power. Frail, delicate women—persons, too, whose natures are refined, innocent, and pure, but whose glandular system has been attacked by the demon of scrofula, have frequently been found susceptible of be-coming the most remarkable instruments for psychical demonstrations by spirits.”
The author had seen astounding phenomena exhibited
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by “rugged country girls and stout men of Ireland and North Germany,” but careful scrutiny would often reveal in the mediums a tendency to epilepsy, chorea, and functual derangements of the pelvic viscera.
“It is a fact, which we may try to mask, or the acknowledgment of which we [Adepts?] may indignantly protest against, that the existence of remarkable medium powers augurs a want of balance in the system, etc.”
Yet (p. 161), we are told that, “To be an ‘Adept’ was to be able to practise magic, and to do this was either to be a natural prophet [or medium, as above declared], cultured to the strength of a magician, or an individual who had acquired this prophetic [mediumistic?] power and magical strength through discipline.” And this soi-disant Adept, says (p. 228) that if “the magic of the Orient combine with the magnetic spontaneity of Western Spiritism, we may have a religion, whose foundations laid in science and stretching away to the heavens in inspiration, will revolutionise the opinions of ages and establish on earth the region of the true Spiritual Kingdom.”
But this will suffice to show what manner of Adept is the reported Author of Art Magic, and what weight should be given to Mrs. Britten’s current sarcasms and pifflings against H. P. B., her teachings, and the pretensions of the Theosophical Society which she helped us found. In the early days, she declared her acquaintanceship with us “a great privilege,” her membership something to be proud of, and her office in the T. S.
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“a mark of distinction” [Letter on “The Slanderers of Art Magic” in Spiritual Scientist]; and, as late as the year 1881 or 1882, she calls herself, in a letter introducing Professor J. Smyth, of Sydney, to H. P. B., her unchanged friend, for whom she ever feels “the old time affection”; yet she has been anything but that of later years; and it is her attitude towards Theosophy which has created the necessity for my recording these several reminiscences, both in the interest of history, and for the profit of her friends and herself.
The author, we are told, had had “more than forty years” of occult experience (p. 166), after having “learned the truth” of magical science; so that he might reasonably be taken as at least fifty or sixty years of age when Art Magic was published; yet, from an alleged portrait of him, obligingly sent me by Mrs. Britten from Boston to New York, in 1876, for examination,1 he seems a young man of about twenty-five. Moreover, all those years of profound study ought to have made his face embody the acquired masculine majesty one finds in the countenance of a true Yogi or Mahatma; whereas in this portrait, of a pretty man with mutton-chop whiskers, the face has the vapid weakness of a “sick sensitive,” of a fashionable lady-killer, or, as many say who have seen it, that of a wax figure such as the Parisian barber sets in his shop window to display his wigs and whiskers upon. One who has ever
1Her conditions were that I was to show it only to those living in our house and then return it to her.
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been face to face with a real Adept, would be forced by this effeminate dawdler’s countenance to suspect that either Mrs. Britten had, faute de mieux, shown a bogus portrait of the real author, or that the book was written by no “Chevalier Louis” at all.
The portrait is far less interesting in itself than in its relation to a remarkable phenomenon, which H. P. B. did upon the provocation of a French lady, a Spiritualist, then a guest at our New York Headquarters. Her name was Mlle. Pauline Leibert, and her place of residence at Leavenworth, in Kansas, a distant Western State. H. P. B. had known her in former years at Paris, where she took the deepest interest in “spirit photography.” She believed herself to be under the spiritual guardianship of Napoleon Bonaparte, and that she possessed the power of conferring upon a photographer the mediumistic faculty of taking the portraits of the spirit-friends of living sitters! When she read in the papers H. P. B.’s first letters about Dr. Beard and the phenomena, of the Eddy family, she wrote to her and told about the wonderful success she had had in Kansas, St. Louis, and elsewhere among the photographers, in getting spirit portraits. Mr. H. J. Newton, the Treasurer of the T. S. was a distinguished and scientific amateur photographer, and had fitted up a very excellent experimental gallery in his own house. Upon hearing from me about Mlle. Liebert’s pretensions, he asked us to invite her to pay us a visit and give him sittings, with a view to testing her claims in the interest of science. H. P. B. complied,
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and the eccentric lady came to New York at our expense, and was our guest during several months. The erudite calumniator of the Carrier Dove, whom I have above mentioned in another connection, published (C. D., vol. viii, 298) an alleged assertion of Mlle. Liebert to himself, that H. P. B.’s phenomena were tricks to delude me along with others, that her pictures were bought or prepared in advance and foisted on us as instantaneous productions, etc., etc.; in short, a tissue of falsehoods. He parades her as an intelligent person, but the fact is that she was credulity personified, so far as her spiritualistic photographs were concerned. Upon her arrival at New York, she began a course of photographic sittings at Mr. Newton’s house, confidently prognosticating that she should enable him to get genuine spirit portraits. Mr. Newton patiently went on with the trial, until, with the fiftieth sitting, and no result, his patience gave way and he stopped. Mlle. Liebert tried to account for her failure by saying that the “magnetism” of Mr. Newton’s private gallery was not congenial to the spirits; notwithstanding the fact that he was the foremost Spiritualist of New York City, the president of the largest society of the kind. With Mr. Newton’s obliging help, I then arranged for a fresh series of trials in the photographic gallery of Bellevue Hospital, the manager of which, Mr. Mason, was a man of scientific training, a member of the Photographic Section of the American Institute, and anxious to test Mlle. Liebert’s pretensions in a sympathetic spirit. His success was no
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better than Mr. Newton’s, despite seventy-five careful trials under the French lady's prescribed precautions against failure. All these weeks and months that the two series of experiments were going on, Mlle. Liebert lived with us, and almost every evening she used to bring out and lovingly con over a handful of so-called spirit photographs that she had collected in divers places. The ignominious collapse of her hope3 as to the test trials in progress seemed to make her dote upon what the poor deluded creature regarded as past successes, and it was an amusing study to watch her face while handling her thumb-worn piéces de conviction. H. P. B. had naturally but small pity for intellectual weaklings, especially little for the stubborn dupes of mediumistic trickery, and she often poured out the vials of her wrath upon the—as she called her—purblind old maid. One cold evening (Dec. 1,1875), after a fresh day of failures at Mr. Mason's laboratory, Mlle. Liebert was, as usual, shuffling over her grimy photographs, sighing and arching her eyebrows into a despairing expression, when H. P. B. burst out: "Why will you persist in this folly? Can't you see that all those photographs in your hand were swindles on you by photographers who did them to rob you of your money? You have had every possible chance now to prove your pretended power,—more than one hundred chances have been given you, and you have not been able to do the least thing. Where is your pretended guide, Napoleon, and the other sweet angels of Summer land; why don't
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they come and help you? Pshaw! it makes me sick to see such credulity. Now see here: I can make a ‘spirit picture’ whenever I like and—of anybody I like. You don't believe it, eh? 'Well, I shall prove it on the spot!" She hunted up a piece of card-board, cut it to the size of a cabinet photograph, and then asked Mlle. Liebert whose portrait she wished. "Do you want me to make your Napoleon?" she asked. "No," said Mlle. L., " please make for me the picture of that beautiful M. Louis." H.P.B. burst into a scornful laugh, because, by Mrs. Britten's request, I had returned to her through the post the Louis portrait three days previously, and it being by that time in Boston, 250 miles away, the trap set by the French lady was but too evident. "Ah!" said H.P.B., "you thought you could catch me, but now see! " She laid the prepared card on the table before Mlle. Liebert and myself, rubbed the palm of her hand over it three or four times, turned it over, and lo! on the under side we saw (as we then thought) a fac-simile of the Louis portrait. In a cloudy background, at both sides of the face were grinning elemental sprites, and above the head a shadowy hand with the index-finger pointing downward. I never saw amazement more strongly depicted on a human face than it was upon Mlle. Liebert's at that moment. She gazed in positive terror at the mysterious card, and presently burst into tears and hurried out of the room with it in her hand, while H.P.B. and I went into fits of laughter. After a half hour she returned, gave me
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the picture, and on retiring for the night I placed it as a book-mark in a volume I was reading in my own apartment. On the back I noted the date and the names of the three witnesses. The next morning I found that the picture had quite faded out, all save the name" Louis," written at the bottom in imitation of the original: the writing, a precipitation made simultaneously with the portrait and the elves in the background. That was a curious fact—that one part of a precipitated picture should remain visible, while all the rest had disappeared, and I cannot explain it. I locked it up in my drawer, and Mr. Judge, dropping in a day or two later, or, perhaps, the same evening, I told him the story and showed him the defaced card; whereupon he asked H.P.B. to cause the portrait to re-appear and to "fix" it. It needed but a moment for her to lay the card again face down upon the table, cover it with her hand, and reproduce the picture as it had been. He took it by her permission, and kept it until we met him at Paris in 1884, when—as he had fortunately brought it with him-I begged it of him for the Adyar Library. From Paris I crossed over to London, and, going one evening to dine with my friend Stainton Moses, he showed me his collection of mediumistic curios, among others, the very original of the Louis picture, which I had returned to Mrs. Britten by post from New York to Boston in 1876/ On the back was written" M. A: axon, March 1, 1877, from the Author of Art Magic, and Ghostland." The next day I brought and showed Stainton Moses the H. P. B. copy, and he kindly gave
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me the original. Thus, after the lapse of eight years, both came back to my hand. Upon comparing them, we found so many differences as to show conclusively that the one was not a duplicate of the other. To begin with the faces look in opposite directions, as though the one were the enlarged and somewhat deranged reflection of the other in a mirror. When I asked H.P.B. the reason for this, she said that all things on the objective plane have their images reversed in the astral light, and that she simply transferred to paper the astral reflection of the Louis picture as she saw it: the minuteness of its accuracy would depend upon the exactness of her clairvoyant perception. Applying this test to these two pictures, we find that there are material differences in horizontal and vertical measurements throughout, as well as in the curl of the hair and beard and the outlines of the dress: the "Louis" signatures also vary in all details while preserving a general resemblance. When the copy was precipitated, the tint was infused into the surface of the whole card as a sort of pigmentous blur, just as the background still remains, and H. P. B. touched up some of the main lines with a lead-pencil; to the artistic improvement of the picture, but to its detriment as an exhibit of occult photography.
I am fortunately able to cite an account, hitherto unpublished, by Mrs. Britten herself, of the incidents connected with the taking of the portrait. It is given in a letter to Lady Caithness, Duchesse de Pomar, who copied it out at my request:
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"I now enclose you a faint shadow of our 'archmagus.' I deeply regret my inability to send you anything better, for, indeed, his face is wonderfully beautiful. He has raven hair, superb eyes, a very fine complexion, and the sweetest smile imaginable-you may judge therefore what a poor representation this picture forms of him. It only resembles him as he lay fainting in the carriage1 when we left the photographer's. There was a very curious incident about this picture. When the negative was finished, I insisted on the photographer making me a proof, then and there, in order that I might judge of its resemblance; that proof I took away with us, requesting my friend, who is a fine artist, to make me an enlarged crayon sketch for myself, —this he agreed to do. I wondered why the photographer did not send me any more pictures, and waited for many days for them. I knew it only represented my poor sufferer as he then was, not as he generally appears, still he entreated me to send it as it was for his Madonna—as he calls you-because he had made such a great exertion to have it taken, and only for you. Still he did not come. The photographer might have been prevented from executing the pictures, I thought, by bad weather. At last I called on him when, with a strange and singular air of reluctance, he acknowledged that almost immediately after we had left, the picture on the negative FADED ENTIRELY OUT, leaving only some very faint indications or marks, which looked like Cabalistic characters. He was very angry
1A fainting adept would indeed be a novelty in the East!
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about it, complained that these spiritualists were always playing tricks when they came for pictures, and he could not bear to have anything to do with them. I demanded to see the negative which he reluctantly showed me. He then, at my request, developed the plate [Note above that it had already been developed and printed from H.S.O.], but the figures or signs are so faint that they are scarcely perceptible. He added, in a frightened way, that he 'did not want the gentleman to come again, for he didn't think he was a mortal man anyway.'
I was terribly disappointed, but had no resource but submission. I had half resolved to have my miniature copied, when I received from Cuba, where Louis went first, the chalk-drawing he has made from the proof. He added to it a statement that the proof he took with him has most strangely faded out, leaving nothing but a faint indication of some Cabalistic signs too faint to make out.
"Is not that very strange? Determined not to be balked, I have had the chalk-drawing photographed, and though it is somewhat inferior in softness to the proof, it is an equally good resemblance of our invalid. What momentous times we are living in! "
Momentous, indeed, when Adepts of forty years' experience are made to look like a school-girl's hero, and photographic negatives are twice developed, each time giving a different print!