Some time ago, a Theosophist, Mr. R_____, was travelling by rail with an American gentleman, who told him how surprised he had been by his visit to our London Headquarters. He said that he had asked Mdme. Blavatsky what were the best Theosophical works for him to read, and had declared his intention of procuring Isis Unveiled, when to his astonishment she replied, “Don’t read it, it is all trash.”
Now I did not say “trash” so far as I remember; but what I did say in substance was: “Leave it alone; Isis will not satisfy you. Of all the books I have put my name to, this particular one is, in literary arrangement, the worst and most confused.” And I might have added with as much truth that, carefully analysed from a strictly literary and critical standpoint, Isis was full of misprints and misquotations; that it contained useless repetitions, most irritating digressions, and to the casual reader unfamiliar with the various aspects of metaphysical ideas and symbols, as many apparent contradictions; that much of the matter in it ought not to be there at all and also that it had some very gross mistakes due to the many alterations in proof-reading in general, and word corrections in particular. Finally, that the work, for reasons that will be now explained, has no system in it; and that it looks in truth, as remarked by a friend, as if a mass of independent paragraphs having no connection with each other, had been well shaken up in a waste-basket, and then taken out at random and – published.
Such is also now my sincere opinion. The full consciousness of this sad truth dawned upon me when, for the first time after its publication in 1877, I read the work through from the first to the last page, in India in 1881. And from that date to the present, I have never ceased to say what I thought of it, and to give my honest opinion of Isis whenever I had an opportunity for so doing. This was done to the great disgust of some, who warned me that I was spoiling its sale; but as my chief object in writing it was neither personal fame nor gain, but something far higher, I cared little for such warnings. For more than ten years this unfortunate “master-piece,” this “monumental work,” as some reviews have called it, with its hideous metamorphoses of one word into another, thereby entirely transforming the meaning,l with its misprints and wrong quotation-marks, has given me more anxiety and trouble than anything else during a long life-time which has ever been more full of thorns than of roses.
But in spite of these perhaps too great admissions, I maintain that Isis Unveiled contains a mass of original and never hitherto divulged information on occult subjects. That this is so, is proved by the fact that the work has been fully appreciated by all those who have been intelligent enough to discern the kernel, and pay little attention to the shell, to give the preference to the idea and not to the form, regardless of its minor shortcomings. Prepared to take upon myself – vicariously as I will show – the sins of all the external, purely literary defects of the work, I defend the ideas and teachings in it, with no fear of being charged with conceit, since neither ideas nor teaching are mine, as I have always declared; and I maintain that both are of the greatest value to mystics and students of Theosophy. So true is this, that when Isis was first published, some of the best American papers were lavish in its praise – even to exaggeration, as is evidenced by the quotations below.2
The first enemies that my work brought to the front were Spiritualists, whose fundamental theories as to the spirits of the dead communicating in propriâ personâ I upset. For the last fifteen years – ever since this first publication – an incessant shower of ugly accusations has been poured upon me. Every libellous charge, from immorality and the “Russian spy” theory down to my acting on false pretences, of being a chronic fraud and a living lie, an habitual drunkard, an emissary of the Pope, paid to break down Spiritualism, and Satan incarnate. Every slander that can be thought of has been brought to bear upon my private and public life. The fact that not a single one of these charges has ever been substantiated; that from the first day of January to the last of December, year after year, I have lived surrounded by friends and foes like as in a glass-house, – nothing could stop these wicked, venomous, and thoroughly unscrupulous tongues. It has been said at various times by my ever active opponents that (1) Isis Unveiled was simply a rehash of Eliphas Lévi and a few old alchemists; (2) that it was written by me under the dictation of Evil Powers and the departed spirits of Jesuits (sic); and finally (3) that my two volumes had been compiled from MSS, (never before heard of), which Baron de Palm – he of the cremation and double-burial fame – had left behind him, and which I had found in his trunk!3 On the other hand, friends, as unwise as they were kind, spread abroad that which was really the truth, a little too enthusiastically, about the connection of my Eastern Teacher and other Occultists with the work; and this was seized upon by the enemy and exaggerated out of all limits of truth. It was said that the whole of Isis had been dictated to me from cover to cover and verbatim by these invisible Adepts. And, as the imperfections of my work were only too glaring, the consequence of all this idle and malicious talk was, that my enemies and critics inferred – as well they might – that either these invisible inspirers had no existence, and were part of my “fraud,” or that they lacked the cleverness of even an average good writer.
Now, no one has any right to hold me responsible for what any one may say, but only for that which I myself state orally, or in public print over my signature. And what I say and maintain is this: Save the direct quotations and the many afore specified and mentioned misprints, errors and misquotations, and the general make-up of Isis Unveiled, for which I am in no way responsible, (a) every word of information found in this work or in my later writings, comes from the teachings of our Eastern Masters; and (b) that many a passage in these works has been written by me under their dictation. In saying this no supernatural claim is urged, for no miracle is performed by such a dictation. Any moderately intelligent person, convinced by this time of the many possibilities of hypnotism (now accepted by science and under full scientific investigation), and of the phenomena of thought-transference, will easily concede that if even a hypnotized subject, a mere irresponsible medium, hears the unexpressed thought of his hypnotizer, who can thus transfer his thought to him – even to repeating the words read by the hypnotizer mentally from a book – then my claim has nothing impossible in it. Space and distance do not exist for thought; and if two persons are in perfect mutual psycho-magnetic rapport, and of these two, one is a great Adept in Occult Sciences, then thought-transference and dictation of whole pages, become as easy and as comprehensible at the distance of ten thousand miles as the transference of two words across a room.
Hitherto, I have abstained – except on very rare occasions – from answering any criticism on my works, and have even left direct slanders and lies unrefuted, because in the case of Isis I found almost every kind of criticism justifiable, and in that of “slanders and lies,” my contempt for the slanderers was too great to permit me to notice them. Especially was it the case with regard to the libellous matter emanating from America. It has all come from one and the same source, well known to all Theosophists, a person most indefatigable in attacking me personally for the last twelve years,4 though I have never seen or met the creature. Neither do I intend to answer him now. But, as Isis is now attacked for at least the tenth time, the day has come when my perplexed friends and that portion of the public which may be in sympathy with Theosophy, are entitled to the whole truth – and nothing but the truth. Not that I seek to excuse myself in anything even before them or to “explain things.” It is nothing of the kind. What I am determined to do is to give facts, undeniable and not to be gainsaid, simply by stating the peculiar, well known to many but now almost forgotten, circumstances, under which I wrote my first English work. I give them seriatim.
(1) When I came to America in 1873, I had not spoken English – which I had learned in my childhood colloquially – for over thirty years. I could understand when I read it, but could hardly speak the language.
(2) I had never been at any college, and what I knew I had taught myself; I have never pretended to any scholarship in the sense of modern research; I had then hardly read any scientific European works, knew little of Western philosophy and sciences. The little which I had studied and learned of these, disgusted me with its materialism, its limitations, narrow cut-and-dried spirit of dogmatism, and its air of superiority over the philosophies and sciences of antiquity.
(3) Until 1874 I had never written one word in English, nor had I published any work in any language. Therefore –
(4) I had not the least idea of literary rules. The art of writing books, of preparing them for print and publication, reading and correcting proofs, were so many close[d] secrets to me.
(5) When I started to write that which developed later into Isis Unveiled, I had no more idea than the man in the moon what would come of it. I had no plan; did not know whether it would be an essay, a pamphlet, a book, or an article. I knew that I had to write it, that was all. I began the work before I knew Colonel Olcott well, and some months before the formation of the Theosophical Society.
Thus, the conditions for becoming the author of an English theosophical and scientific work were hopeful, as everyone will see. Nevertheless, I had written enough to fill four such volumes as Isis, before I submitted my work to Colonel Olcott. Of course he said that everything save the pages dictated – had to be rewritten. Then we started on our literary labours and worked together every evening. Some pages the English of which he had corrected, I copied: others which would yield to no mortal correction, he used to read aloud from my pages, Englishing them verbally as he went on, dictating to me from my almost undecipherable MSS. It is to him that I am indebted for the English in Isis. It is he again who suggested that the work should be divided into chapters, and the first volume devoted to SCIENCE and the second to THEOLOGY. To do this, the matter had to be re-shifted, and many of the chapters also; repetitions had to be erased, and the literary connection of subjects attended to. When the work was ready, we submitted it to Professor Alexander Wilder, the well-known scholar and Platonist of New York, who after reading the matter, recommended it to Mr. Bouton for publication. Next to Colonel Olcott, it is Professor Wilder who did the most for me. It is he who made the excellent Index, who corrected the Greek, Latin and Hebrew words, suggested quotations and wrote the greater part of the Introduction “Before the Veil.” If this was not acknowledged in the work, the fault is not mine, but because it was Dr. Wilder’s express wish that his name should not appear except in footnotes. I have never made a secret of it, and every one of my numerous acquaintances in New York knew it. When ready the work went to press.
From that moment the real difficulty began. I had no idea of correcting galley proofs; Colonel Olcott had little leisure to do so; and the result was that I made a mess of it from the beginning. Before we were through with the first three chapters, there was a bill for six hundred dollars for corrections and alterations, and I had to give up the proof-reading. Pressed by the publisher, Colonel Olcott doing all that he possibly could do, but having no time except in the evenings, and Dr. Wilder far away at Jersey City, the result was that the proofs and pages of Isis passed through a number of willing but not very careful hands, and were finally left to the tender mercies of the publisher’s proof-reader. Can one wonder after this if “Vaivaswata” (Manu) became transformed in the published volumes into “Viswamitra,” that thirty-six pages of the Index were irretrievably lost, and quotation-marks placed where none were needed (as in some of my own sentences!), and left out entirely in many a passage cited from various authors? If asked why these fatal mistakes have not been corrected in a subsequent edition, my answer is simple: the plates were stereotyped; and notwithstanding all my desire to do so, I could not put it into practice, as the plates were the property of the publisher; I had no money to pay for the expenses, and finally the firm was quite satisfied to let things be as they are, since, notwithstanding all its glaring defects, the work – which has now reached its seventh or eighth edition, is still in demand.
And now – and perhaps in consequence of all this – comes a new accusation: I am charged with wholesale plagiarism in the Introductory Chapter “Before the Veil”!
Well, had I committed plagiarism, I should not feel the slightest hesitation in admitting the “borrowing.” But all “parallel passages” to the contrary, as I have not done so, I do not see why I should confess it; even though “thought transference” as the Pall Mall Gazette wittily calls it, is in fashion, and at a premium just now. Since the day when the American press raised a howl against Longfellow, who, borrowing from some (then) unknown German translation of the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, published it as his own superb poem, Hiawatha, and forgot to acknowledge the source of his inspiration, the Continental press has repeatedly brought out other like accusations. The present year is especially fruitful in such “thought transferences.” Here we have the Lord Mayor of the City of London, repeating word for word an old forgotten sermon by Mr. Spurgeon and swearing he had never read or heard of it. The Rev. Robert Bradlaugh writes a book, and forthwith the Pall Mall Gazette denounces it as a verbal copy from somebody else’s work. Mr. Harry de Windt, the Oriental traveller, and a F.R.G.S. to boot, finds several pages out of his just published A Ride to India, across Persia and Beluchistan, in the London Academy paralleled with extracts from The Country of Belochistan, by A. W. Hughes, which are identical verbatim et literatim. Mrs. Parr denies in the British Weekly that her novel Sally was borrowed consciously or unconsciously from Miss Wilkins’ Sally, and states that she had never read the said story, nor even heard the author’s name, and so on. Finally, every one who has read La Vie de Jésus, by Renan, will find that he has plagiarised by anticipation, some descriptive passages rendered in flowing verse in the Light of the World. Yet even Sir Edwin Arnold, whose versatile and recognised genius needs no borrowed imagery, has failed to thank the French Academician for his pictures of Mount Tabor and Galilee in prose, which he has so elegantly versified in his last poem. Indeed, at this stage of our civilisation and fin de siècle, one should feel highly honoured to be placed in such good and numerous company, even as a – plagiarist. But I cannot claim such a privilege and, simply for the reason already told that out of the whole Introductory chapter “Before the Veil,” I can claim as my own only certain passages in the Glossary appended to it, the Platonic portion of it, that which is now denounced as “a bare-faced plagiarism” having been written by Professor A. Wilder.
That gentleman is still living in or near New York, and can be asked whether my statement is true or not. He is too honourable, too great a scholar, to deny or fear anything. He insisted upon a kind of Glossary, explaining the Greek and Sanskrit names and words with which the work abounds, being appended to an Introduction, and furnished a few himself. I begged him to give me a short summary of the Platonic philosophers, which he kindly did. Thus from p. 11 down to 22 the text is his, save a few intercalated passages which break the Platonic narrative, to show the identity of ideas in the Hindu Scriptures. Now who of those who know Dr. A. Wilder personally, or by name, who are aware of the great scholarship of that eminent Platonist, the editor of so many learned works,5 would be insane enough to accuse him of “plagiarising” from any author’s work! I give in the footnote the names of a few of the Platonic and other works he has edited. The charge would be simply preposterous!
The fact is that Dr. Wilder must have either forgotten to place quotes before and after the passages copied by him from various authors in his Summary; or else, owing to his very difficult handwriting, he has failed to mark them with sufficient clearness. It is impossible, after the lapse of almost fifteen years, to remember or verify the facts. To this day I had imagined that this disquisition on Platonists was his, and never gave a further thought to it. But now enemies have ferretted out unquoted passages and proclaim louder than ever “the author of Isis Unveiled,” to be a plagiarist and a fraud. Very likely more may be found, as that work is an inexhaustible mine of misquotations, errors and blunders, to which it is impossible for me to plead “guilty” in the ordinary sense. Let then the slanderers go on, only to find in another fifteen years as they have found in the preceding period, that whatever they do, they cannot ruin Theosophy, nor even hurt me. I have no author’s vanity; and years of unjust persecution and abuse have made me entirely callous to what the public may think of me – personally.
But in view of the facts as given above; and considering that –
(a) The language in Isis is not mine; but (with the exception of that portion of the work which, as I claim, was dictated), may be called only a sort of translation of my facts and ideas into English;
(b) It was not written for the public, – the latter having always been only a secondary consideration with me – but for the use of Theosophists and members of the Theosophical Society to which Isis is dedicated;
(c) Though I have since learned sufficient English to have been enabled to edit two magazines – the Theosophist and LUCIFER – yet, to the present hour I never write an article, an editorial or even a simple paragraph, without submitting its English to close scrutiny and correction.
Considering all this and much more, I ask now every impartial and honest man and woman whether it is just or even fair to criticize my works – Isis, above all others – as one would the writings of a born American or English author! What I claim in them as my own is only the fruit of my learning and studies in a department, hitherto left uninvestigated by Science, and almost unknown to the European world. I am perfectly willing to leave the honour of the English grammar in them, the glory of the quotations from scientific works brought occasionally to me to be used as passages for comparison with, or refutation by, the old Science, and finally the general make-up of the volumes, to every one of those who have helped me. Even for the Secret Doctrine there are about half-a-dozen Theosophists who have been busy in editing it, who have helped me to arrange the matter, correct the imperfect English, and prepare it for print. But that which none of them will ever claim from first to last, is the fundamental doctrine, the philosophical conclusions and teachings. Nothing of that have I invented, but simply given it out as I have been taught; or as quoted by me in the Secret Doctrine (Vol. I, p. 46 [xlvi]) from Montaigne: “I have here made only a nosegay of culled (Eastern) flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them.”
Is any one of my helpers prepared to say that I have not paid the full price for the string?
April 27, 1891
Lucifer, May, 1891
H. P. Blavatsky
1 Witness the word “planet” for “cycle” as originally written, corrected by some unknown hand, (Vol. I., p. 347, 2nd par.), a “correction” which shows Buddha teaching that there is no rebirth on this planet (!!) when the contrary is asserted on p. 346, and the Lord Buddha is said to teach how to “avoid” reincarnation; the use of the word “planet,” for plane, of “Monas” for Manas; and the sense of whole ideas sacrificed to the grammatical form, and changed by the substitution of wrong words and erroneous punctuation, etc., etc., etc.
2 Isis Unveiled; a master key to the mysteries of ancient and modern science and theology. By H.P. Blavatsky, Corresponding Secretary of the Theosophical Society. 2 vols., royal 8vo., about 1,500 pages, cloth, $7.50. Fifth Edition.
“This monumental work . . . about everything relating to magic, mystery, witchcraft, religion, spiritualism, which would be valuable in an encyclopædia.” – North American Review.
“It must be acknowledged that she is a remarkable woman, who has read more, seen more. and thought more than most wise men. Her work abounds in quotations from a dozen different languages, not for the purpose of a vain display of erudition, but to substantiate her peculiar views . . . her pages are garnished with foot-notes establishing, as her authorities, some of the profoundest writers of the past. To a large class of readers, this remarkable work will prove of absorbing interest . . . demands the earnest attention of thinkers, and merits an analytic reading.” – Boston Evening Transcript.
“The appearance of erudition is stupendous. Reference to and quotations from the most unknown and obscure writers in all languages abound, interspersed with allusions to writers of the highest repute, which have evidently been more than skimmed through.” – N.Y. Independent.
“An extremely readable and exhaustive essay upon the paramount importance of reestablishing the Hermetic Philosophy in a world which blindly believes that it has outgrown it.” – N.Y. World.
“Most remarkable book of the season.” – Com. Advertiser.
“[To] Readers who have never made themselves acquainted with the literature of mysticism and alchemy, the volume will furnish the materials for an interesting study – a mine of curious information.” – Evening Post.
“They give evidence of much and multifarious research on the part of the author, and contain a vast number of interesting stories. Persons fond of the marvellous will find in them an abundance of entertainment.” – New York Sun.
“A marvellous book both in matter and manner of treatment. Some idea may be formed of the rarity and extent of its contents when the index alone comprises fifty pages, and we venture nothing in saying that such an index of subjects was never before compiled by any human being. . . But the book is a curious one and will no doubt find its way into libraries because of the unique subject matter it contains . . . will certainly prove attractive to all who are interested in the history, theology, and the mysteries of the ancient world.” – Daily Graphic.
“The present work is the fruit of her remarkable course of education, and amply confirms her claims to the character of an adept in secret science, and even to the rank of a hierophant in the exposition of its mystic lore.” – New York Tribune.
“One who reads the book carefully through, ought to know everything of the marvellous and mystical, except perhaps, the passwords. Isis will supplement the Anacalypsis. Whoever loves to read Godfrey Higgins will be delighted with Mme. Blavatsky. There is a great resemblance between their works. Both have tried hard to tell everything apocryphal and apocalyptic. It is easy to forecast the reception of this book. With its striking peculiarities, its audacity, its versatility, and the prodigious variety of subjects which it notices and handles, it is one of the remarkable productions of the century.” – New York Herald.
3 This Austrian nobleman, who was in complete destitution at New York, and to whom Colonel Olcott had given shelter and food, nursing him during the last weeks of his life – left nothing in MS. behind him but bills. The only effect of the baron was an old valise, in which his “executors” found a battered bronze Cupid, a few foreign Orders (imitations in pinchbeck and paste, as the gold and diamonds had been sold); and a few shirts of Colonel Olcott’s, which the ex-diplomat had annexed without permission.
4 I will not name him. There are names which carry a moral stench about them, unfit for any decent journal or publication. His words and deeds emanate from the cloaca maxima of the Universe of matter and have to return to it, without touching me.
5 A. Wilder, M.D., the editor of Serpent and Siva Worship, by Hyde Clarke and C. Staniland Wake; of Ancient Art and Mythology, by Richard Payne Knight, to which the editor has appended an Introduction, Notes translated into English and a new and complete Index; of Ancient Symbol Worship, by Hodder M. Westropp and C. Staniland Wake, with an Introduction, additional Notes and Appendix by the editor; and finally, of The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries; “A Dissertation, by Thomas Taylor, translator of ‘Plato,’ ‘Plotinus,’ ‘Porphyry,’ ‘Jamblichus,’ ‘Proclus,’ ‘Aristotle,’ etc., etc., etc.,” edited with Introduction, Notes, Emendations, and Glossary, by Alexander Wilder, M.D.; and the author of various learned works, pamphlets and articles for which we have no space here. Also the editor of the “Older Academy,” a quarterly journal of New York, and the translator of the Mysteries, by Jamblichus.