The Medium Is the Medium

Reaching across time and space to connect with another's spirit, Madame Blavatsky would have understood the Net perfectly - 100 years ago.

By Jon Katz

The next time you're alone in a room at night with only the hum of your computer for company, your face eerily lit by nothing but the screen, light a candle, close your eyes, wait, and listen. If you have patience, faith, an introspective bent, and spiritual yearning, you might receive a gruff but transcendent message from the late Madame Blavatsky, a 19th-century spiritualist, medium, and mystic. She died more than 100 years ago, but her spirit, as they say, lives on.

If she contacts you, don't be alarmed. Be nice and respectful. She can get huffy with skeptics. And don't be surprised if you hear an otherworldly shriek. That would be her baboon laughing.

A famous collection of stuffed animals graced her parlor - a lioness' head over the door, monkeys peering out of nooks and crannies, birds perched in every corner. But none was as elegant or charismatic as her baboon, which stood upright, dressed in the appropriate Victorian manner - wing-collar, morning coat, and tie - and carrying under one arm the manuscript of a lecture on The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

All this has been wondrously chronicled in a new book by Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America (Shocken Books, US$27.50).

As an associate of a spiritualist, the baboon was a statement against Darwin. Which is not to say Madame Blavatsky was not very much a scientist, fascinated by technology and hoping to forge a new kind of spiritual fusion between religion and science. One likes to think that she would have feasted on the Net, but she might as easily have hated it, filled as it is with a rich assortment of skeptics, mystics, cranks, shamans, spiritualists, and oddballs. Still, once Blavatsky realized that there were credit-card-owning "seekers" out there, she would probably have logged on for the ride.

The Net encompasses many strange things, but those who use it often and understand it well know it has a rich and haunting mystical side. Along with pornographers and teenagers, it attracts deeply religious people of countless denominations engaged in extraordinary searches into their own and others' souls. Ascetics, heretics, and true-believers searching for God (or his or her equivalent) flourish in zines, religious and mystical conferences, and on bulletin boards. Online séances, and laden, unexpected messages multiply into the ether. Some newsgroups focus on Germanic paganism, others on religious life in various parts of England; still others offer everything from religious books and products to diverse spiritual communities.

It's the spiritual side of the digital world that is little known and little explored by the legions of puzzled journalists who pore over the computer culture in search of fresh dangers to warn readers and viewers about. Yet, in some ways, it's potentially one of the most significant parts. The ability of one person's spirit to reach across space and connect with another's is, to many, a spiritual act in itself. And the business of sending and receiving messages has always been a core notion of mysticism and spirituality. Countless millions believe, or want to believe, that there are larger forces at work in the universe. And they want to chat with them.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, like all great spiritual entrepreneurs, intuitively understood this. She led one of those spectacular, romantic, bizarre lives that could come only from another time. Born a Russian aristocrat in 1831, Blavatsky was a mystic child, not a Cleaver or a Brady. Her description of her childhood in a letter to a friend is a classic.

"My childhood? Spoilt and petted on one side, punished and hardened on the other. Slick and ever dying til seven or eight, sleep-walker; possessed by the devil. Governesses, two.... Nurses - any number.... One was half a Tartar. Father's soldiers taking care of me.... Lived in Saratow when grandfather was Civil Governor, before that in Astrachan, where he had many thousands (some 80,000 or 100,000) Kalmuck Buddhists under him."

Speculation about her life - some of it assembled by distant relatives and followers - includes numerous mystical encounters during her time in America and Europe: meetings with Native Americans, long journeys by wagon through the West, joining Garibaldi's army in the Battle of Mentana (where she allegedly suffered sabre and bullet wounds), and a shipwreck off the Greek coast at Spétsai. Add to these spectacular scrapes run-ins with Egyptian cabbalists, Mexican bandits, vodun magicians from America's South, and Asian spies.

Blavatsky is widely credited with ushering in the age of spiritualism. It is a legacy that causes many to gag. But the philosophy still sells gazillions of books, tapes, herbs, rocks, crystals and it has, like it or not, evolved into a major American quasi-religious movement - one that offers important alternatives to often hierarchical, remote, or arrogant religious and medical institutions.

These days, Blavatsky would be a business enterprise: she would set aides to answering her voluminous e-mail; host a regular show on public television; pitch VCRs, channeling tools, and healing crystals over the Home Shopping Network; host online séances; record messages for her 800-PSYCHIC hot lines; and write bestselling paperbacks.

She would have drooled over 20th-century marketing possibilities. In her time, mystics and shamans had to be content with conjuring up spirits and voices, hustling true-believers for pennies in darkened parlors, and separating society people from their money. From spiritualist to televangelist, the line between the mystic truth teller and the con artist has always been tenuous in America. We've always wanted that extra bit of afterlife insurance in this world and are often willing to overlook the hustle that goes on in the hope that there still might be some truth to the message.

Madame Blavatsky was no exception. Like the best mystics, gurus, and spiritual salespeople, she seemed to lose track herself of precisely what was true and what wasn't. But she never lost track of this: we all, at some point, have to deal with this God business. The idea of God is ubiquitous. It shapes our lives more than most of us even realize. It permeates media, technology, sexuality, education, culture, and politics; it shapes what our society sees as permissible or forbidden, what we can do and what is taboo.

Like it or not, our books, heroes, villains, TV shows, music, perceptions of propriety, property, gender, and family, as well as our moral and legal boundaries, all bear this stamp, shaped by Him and His supposed teachings. Yet even though the notion of God pervades our culture, there is surprisingly little discussion about our belief in His existence: questions about God have all but disappeared from mainstream media, cropping up only rarely in peripheral or specialized publications and books. God has always been our biggest story - but it's one of our most poorly and gingerly covered - at least in America. Presidents are asked what kind of underwear they wear on national television, but frank discussions about God are practically unheard of in newspapers or on evening news broadcasts these days. A newspaper editor who ran a feature questioning the existence of God would be looking for work before the second edition hit the lawn.

Commercial television is filled with miracle cures and near-death experiences, but you'll never see a story that challenges or questions much theology on 20/20.

A news medium can say whether church attendance is up or down and in recent years, even report on priests and ministers who get into trouble. But the main event - Is He Real Or Not? - is virtually out of bounds as doctrinaire faith declines.

Yet even lost belief lingers, perhaps making the cultural landscape more fertile for the likes of Madame Blavatsky, who, a century ago, dared to reject contemporary notions of God and offered up her own.

It is not exactly clear how Madame Blavatsky came to America in 1873 or so (she talked of exotic but doubtful adventures in the Far East en route), but she claimed it was through the Brotherhood of Himalayan Masters, who chose her to communicate their message to the waiting world.

We owe them for that. They sent us one of the most vivid and idiosyncratic characters of that century. And America would surely be a harsher, less interesting place without the legions of Madame Blavatsky descendants, many of whom offer us gentle, hopeful paths through life's many challenges.

For Blavatsky, America was the right place at the right time. She was magnificently exotic, with piercing eyes and a taste for turbans and badly fitted robes. A chain-smoker who carried her cigarette materials in a furry pouch made from an animal's head, her hands were decked with rings. The effect, writes Peter Washington, was "a badly wrapped and glittering parcel." She talked incessantly in a rich and guttural voice, always careful to make clear that all communications, messages, and directions from the Masters come through her.

Madame Blavatsky was fascinated by science and technology, but horrified by Darwin's conclusions - she saw them not as blasphemous but as demeaning to the human spirit. Man was descended, she claimed, from spirit beings from the moon, not apes - thus her spiffy, satirical baboon.

When she arrived in New York in the summer of 1873, Madame Blavatsky was destitute and forced to live in a hostel for working women. She later settled in a New York City apartment and found a wealthy and generous gentleman believer - Colonel Henry Olcott. She went on to found the Theosophical Society, which spawned competing sects in the subsequent flowering of spiritualism. The movement evolved in a number of ways, eventually influencing a rich and international cast of 19th- and 20th-century writers, visionaries and philosophers, from Rudolf Steiner to G. I. Gurdjieff, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Frank Lloyd Wright, and even, indirectly, Mahatma Gandhi. These were disparate thinkers and seekers with one common human desire: they wanted an alternative to Western materialism and conventional Christian spirituality.

Theosophy (the movement that still exists today) calls itself a spiritual science. It offers a large body of religious knowledge acquired and transmitted by spiritual means, and it teaches spiritual methods that are designed to promote enlightenment through prayer, study, and meditation.

Madame Blavatsky, shrouded in dark robes and plain shawls, worshiped Master Morya, whom she identified as a member of the Great White Brotherhood of Masters. The Masters, she professed, can "inhabit material or semi-material bodies at will" and possess extraordinary clairvoyant skills.

Communicating with one another by means of a sort of cosmic radio, they form a link between human beings and the chiefs of the divine cosmos-ruling hierarchy. According to Madame Blavatsky, the brotherhood remains hidden from all but a few; she was one of the few and charged accordingly.

It's tough not to connect longstanding and deeply held spiritual searching with new ways to message. From Jefferson to Edison to Blavatsky to Yeats to Marconi to McLuhan, philosophers and scientists have long been entranced by the notion of moving across time and space. The old-fashioned parlor séance conducted by Madame Blavatsky isn't so far removed from the many online topics and postings of her legatees.

Notwithstanding the contemporary clucking about the onrushing Orwellian world of disconnected screen addicts, mind-to-mind meetings on the Net can often be exotic, satisfying, and wonderful. We, too, can instantly call up and connect with lost, distant, and missing people - today's analog to last century's spirits. Since we don't know what the person we're talking to looks, sounds, smells, dresses like, we connect with the pure spirit only, just as mystics claim to do.

This miraculous ability to connect is inevitably obscured by the gleaming, humming machinery that makes it possible. But for Madame Blavatsky, the technology is almost beside the point. Her vanishing doors and sliding bookcases were only the machinery through which she communicated - call it her Victorian equivalent of the modem. In fact, she would have taken particular joy in the idea that the medium is the message.

The late 1800s was a transitional time for religion in America. Organized churches had faltered, while spiritualism and mysticism became alternatives. We're in a similar period today: established faiths remain powerful, but are tired, politicized, and as confused as the rest of us. New ideas and original thinking are erupting outside of convention and sacred text. Technology and science continue to collide with dogma and doctrine, in some cases transcending both in terms of their ability to uplift and connect.

As were the Victorians, modern Americans are spiritually hungry. The truth is, most of us never quite know what to think about religion or why people cling to it so desperately. Just when we write it off as the self-serving posturing of irrelevant relics, some experience opens us up, or we encounter a close friend whose life is being transformed by religious belief. Being in cyberspace is introspective, spiritual, and deep: all sorts of presences and truths are close at hand; whether via the next message, Web site or newsgroup (alt.religion.shamanism, alt.satanism, alt.religion.zoroastrianism), through the last message of a dying man on The Well or the piercing wail of grief from the parent of a terminally ill child on AOL.

Unfortunately for Madame Blavatsky, intrigue and politics within her movement tarnished her reputation and marred her spiritual explorations. She fled the United States and eventually took her movement to India, where feuding remained incessant among followers, fellow theosophists, and the gullible who gave her money. All sorts of stories and rumors followed her, plagued her, and sullied the public's view of her.

A disgruntled employee claimed to have compromising letters. Other evidence strongly suggested Madame Blavatsky had set up phenomena to fool the public by using elaborate fake wall panels and manipulating dolls in the semi-darkness that she worked in to provide the Master's apparitions. She died in Europe, broke, lonely, and abandoned by most of her own movement.

Blavatsky is vaguely remembered today by mystics and theosophists and a few historians of the period, but she is virtually unknown to most Americans, particularly members of mainstream religions.

Madame Blavatsky's Baboon ought to change all that. It's a wonderful read - funny, poignant, richly researched and written. It opens a forgotten window to the now-ubiquitous seekers of spirituality in American life. The book tends to bog down once Madame Blavatsky passes away, but that's probably unavoidable - few of the spiritualists discussed in the book who followed her are any match for her.

So listen for her the next time you're out trawling the Net. And listen and watch for her cackling baboon, forever waving his cautionary finger at those who place machinery and science above the dignity and mysteries of the human spirit. n

Jon Katz is Wired's media critic. He can be e-mailed at

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