"Blessed are the solitary and elect, for you shall find the Kingdom; because you come from it, and you shall go there again"--
Gospel of Thomas, saying 49
Today I've been reading some art books which nacowafer kindly recommended to me. I have really enjoyed this, as the material has keyed into things I knew from other resources, while getting me thinking along new lines. I invite you to follow me as I initially wander, though I am less certain of my footing than intrigued by the path.
I find enormously interesting the way in which ideas from one tradition bleed into another tradition. Sometimes these same ideas then transmigrate into the culture as a whole, making a scarlet where before only a white sheet was visible.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was one of the most fascinating women of the late 19th Century. Madame Blavatsky, as she was called, had a considerable gift for invention and re-invention. She apparently had been born to Russian parents, and had had a varied life. According to her description, she had done a world of things, from voo doo in New Orleans to spirituality in Africa and Serbia. It appears likely that she did visit many countries, and do many things. But it is hard to tell just what her past truly was (she is apparently a biographer's dream), because she had little compunction about fabricating any details she wished to provide at any given time.
It is beyond question, however, that Madame Blavatsky was deeply interested in mediums and spiritual events. This was not an uncommon pursuit in the late 19th Century, as spiritualism (the belief that communication can be had with the dead) was all the rage, and a world of new faiths and old ideas were percolating in the ether of a rapidly changing culture.
In 1875, however, while attending a Vermont home where spiritual events were said to occur, Ms. Blavatsky met a Colonel Olcott, who shared her interest in spiritual phenomena. Together, they founded the Theosophical Society, one of the most influential groups to arise in its era.
Theosophism as presented by Madame Blavatsky had many components.
It drew liberally on 19th Century understandings of Hinduism and Buddhism. It had a strong affinity for the mystical side of Christianity, and for the western mysticisms such as Rosicrucianism. The faith drew heavily on spiritualist and new thought ideas, as well as notions of karma and reincarnation. In addition, Madame Blavatsky drew on a mix of western occult tradition and her own sheer invention to create an entirely new faith. The faith had two rather different "circles", or components. The outer faith preached religious tolerance, a search for religious truth, and a search for the mysteries in life. The faith had an esoteric component, however. A true believer would be introduced to occult mysteries, and learn inner secrets of reality. This "inner circle" pursued a more occult-oriented course.
Madame Blavatsky herself claimed to be in personal communication with a number of "Masters", beings who had transcended the plane of human existence, but now apparently sent her letters with their words of wisdom to read. In at least one instance, a strong proof was made that the "letters" so transmitted were fraudulent, and much in her life suggests that she was in many ways a charlatan and a sham. Nonetheless, the influence of her ideas ran in a strong cross-current throughout the 20th Century, and arguably casts a shadow even today.
Madame Blavatsky's initial work, Isis Unveiled, a number of successive works, and her "magnum opus", the Secret Doctrine, both suggested, in rather abstruse language, that the "masses" could only grasp the most basic doctrines of equality and tolerance, while the mystical and metaphysical notions of the order could only be perceived by a very few. This was not a new concept with theosophy, of course, as mystery religions, as well as branches of each of the major world religions, had preached variants of this doctrine for years. In theosophy, however, the notion that some initiates were in essence a more enlightened group of beings was carried to a precise pinnacle.
Theosophy bloomed during Ms. Blavatsky's life, and continued on past her death. It peaked in the 1920s in popularity, although theosophists and theosophical fellow-travellers are still much in evidence today. Indeed, a wonderful book of theosophical readings can be found at this website . Although its membership was never a substantial part of any population, it influenced many works of literature, music, art and fiction in ways we still see much in evidence today. Francis Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" is one of the best known children's books with a lot of theosophical ideas, but it is less well known that L. Frank Baum, the writer of the "Wizard of Oz" books, was a devotee of many theosophical ideas, and at one time a card-carrying theosophist. Among artists, Wasily Kandinsky's notions of a secret "higher knowledge" of art, mystically being discovered from the dross of then-modern culture, owed in its ideas a good bit to Madame Blavatsky's own notions of a mystical path which rejected much of then-modern western culture, as well as to the writings of prominent theosophist Annie Besant. Indeed,Madame Blavatsky herself had suggested that art was dead or dying, victimized by the change of the natural landscape by industrialization. Kandinsky wrote "Concerning the Spiritual in Art", an explicit endorsement of the artist as spiritual guide, bestowed with a higher state of being, more qualified to lead the masses from what was dross to what is real. He also suggested that one could "hear" color and "see" sound, which was derived from an analogous theosophical idea. Kandinsky was not alone in his influence by theosophy.
Piet Mondrian's neoplasticism was derived as a direct outgrowth of his interest in theosophical ideas. Mondrian spoke in a 1937 essay of the "great hidden laws of nature which art establishes in is own fashion". Mondrian's movement from a naturalistic painter of Dutch landscapes to a highly abstract artist was to be understood not as a rejection of nature so much as a rejection of the plastic representation of life. Mondrian in effect believed in a higher truth of art. The visual artists were not alone in this belief--Arnold Schoenberg, whose atonality in musical composition revolutionized music altogether, suggested that the "capacity for pure vision is very rare and only to be found in highly cultured people". In essence, his atonal compositions, by implication were by design inaccessible to the great mass of people--they were themselves an esoteric "secret knowledge". The artist's connection with the audience would be different from that in the past--the artist or musician would be communicating an idea directly to the audience, rather than merely representing a story or a "text" from another genre.
I do not want to belabor my little backdrop much longer, however, as I do not propose to show the ways in which theosophy splintered, the rise of Steiner's anthroposophy, the fascinating Krishnamurti story, nor the way that turn of the 20th Century art and music experienced in the succeeding decades dada, surrealism, constructivism or futurism, although each of these stories add to my point.
I instead am struck tonight by the concept of the Elect. We have all been exposed to the notion of predestination, to the idea that some are saved at birth, and some are damned. These issues of theology, along with many others, have played central roles in many aspects of western theology, including the reformation which created protestantism (and, by the strength of its opposition, revitalized a bloated and moribund Roman Catholic church). In the Bhavagad Gita, destiny requires Arjuna to slay even his relatives in war, because it is a matter of karma and destiny. The New Testament suggests that a grand sorting of the sheep from the goats will be a first order of business when the world ends. In some very pertinent ways, protestantism arose because of the notion that each person confronts God directly, rather than through the intercession of a priest or saint. Indeed, it can be argued that existentialism (if one accepts that 20th Century existentialism depends on a heritage from Kierkegaard and not merely extension of Cartesian principles to a materialistic world view) also arose from the idea of one's individual confrontation with the ultimate realities.
By the late 19th Century, traditional Christianity was losing its hold on much of the European intellectual community (intriguingly, during this same era, continuing through the 1920s, protestant revivalism was cementing Christianity's place among the American middle and lower classes). New movements, of which theosophy was but one, were rising to try to compete with traditional Christian spirituality. In contrast to Marxist/Leninist theory which was more avowedly materialistic, these movements in general promised a spiritual solution to the evils of capitalism and industrialization.
What intrigues me, though, is that as art, music, and literature evolved a new spirituality which purported to supplant the mainstream culture, they in fact borrowed the spiritual elitism that had been so objectionable in the culture they despised. Kandinsky does not speak of a gospel of the common person, but of a gospel for the intelligentsia to absorb. All the traditional forms, other than arguably the naive forms, are, by implication, sham and fraud, outmoded forms. As Franz Marc expressed it, "the inheritance is used up, and substitutes are making the world base". The new artists, musicians and writers proposed to save the world through a new spiritual vision, in which all their art was "true" and the crisis of "modern culture" was resolved. They had not abandoned the inheritance of a select salvation they received from the culture they rejected.
One is repeatedly struck if one reads Ms. Blavatsky, her acolyte Ms. Besant, Mr. Kandinsky, or, indeed, even the theosophical children's story "The Little Princess", by what a sense of personal importance these pioneers of new ideas ascribed to themselves. They were spiritual masters, leading the masses from a ditch onto a new road. Although it is my usual impression that anyone who tells me he or she is important is inevitably unimportant, it is impossible to underestimate what an impact these ideas had upon twentieth century culture. Yet art, music and literature all changed tremendously. The alteration from Ruskin's theory of art to that of the 20th Century writers is breathtaking. The controversy over the "legitimacy" of abstract art, seemingly resolved or resolvable by 1930 or so, actually rages on to this day, as conservative social critics in this country today still fight the battles over artistic expression when it comes to arts funding. On a darker note, Hitler himself denounced these works of modernity as "degenerate", and used them to justify his barbarous theories of ethnic hatred and rage. Although during its initial days the USSR seemed open to the new currents in art, Stalinist communists ultimately persecuted its practitioners, arguing for a pallid form of "social realism" instead. Ironically, the western bourgeoius culture which the theosophists and the early 20th Century artists sought to pillory have been the only place in which a reasonably tolerant reception for these works has been given. Even in this modern time, though, the notion of the purveyor of creativity as a higher order of being remains a mainstay in our intellectual culture, even as our material capitalist society denies any such claim.
I've tossed around a lot of names and references here, and I don't really mean to put together a unified field theory as to how all these snippets of carefully chosen citations (incomplete by design, as I do not mean to write a history here) somehow support a single thesis or notion.
But I can say that I am always as troubled by any current of ideas in which many are called, but few are chosen, regardless of whether they are religious, theoretical, spiritual or philosophical. I look for a world of ideas in which we do not consider those who disagree with us to be imbeciles or cretins. I do not see 1909 as the apex of our western spiritual crisis. The Jehovah's Witnesses have a concept that only 144,000 people will be saved. I am dismayed by a world view that suggests to me that the 144,000 is the right number, but that it shall be comprised of atonalists and abstract painters.
I wonder about the hubris that goes with theologians, with mystics, and with creativity in general. It seems a hubris that is inescapable--a sense that one is doing something that changes the face of reality, while other pursuits are lesser, or indeed damned. But isn't it possible to pursue the good and the true without personally feeling above one's neighbor?
I remember the woman I dated in college who routinely was assured that her atheism would land her in Hell by the "concerned" Christians she encountered. But I must admit that while mystical talk and mystical notions hold me spell-bound, I am attracted to the notions such as that of St. Anthony the Great, one of the desert fathers. He said: "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, "Humility."
I am just scratching the surface in my reading, and I have much more to learn. But tonight I wonder if Heaven might not save me from the Elect, the Ascended Masters, the artistic geniuses, and perhaps from those who are certain they are Saved.