Ghost Land, history, and propaganda

As indicated in my conference presentation in Albuquerque, most of my energy as a researcher will be focused in 2012-2014 on Sarah Stanley Grimke, Thomas H. Burgoyne, and Genevieve Stebbins. A chapter discussing Burgoyne and Stebbins will be included in a forthcoming collection, and a new edition of Grimke’s collected writings will follow.

But first I have the great privilege and pleasure of sharing editorial responsibility for a new edition of Ghost Land.  My professional background is not as an academic scholar but a public library director, and regardless of the historical interest of any author’s work, “is it fun to read?” is high among my criteria for recommending a book.  Ghost Land is the most fun read out of the entire body of Victorian occult literature, in my opinion. Much of the entertainment  is in the convoluted plot twists featuring occult brotherhoods in Europe, England, and India. The book portrays itself as a series of autobiographical sketches, but was generally perceived as being a novel. Novels often have some factual basis, however, and Emma Hardinge Britten’s life was rich in episodes involving paranormal claims and experiments. Sorting out the fact from the fiction in Ghost Land is a task reminiscent of what the Jesus Seminar has tried to do with the New Testament. Just as Bible scholars have four gospels to appraise, each with its own perspective on Jesus, students of Ghost Land can find four different “gospels” in distinct sections of the book. For the Church of Light, these “gospels,” however fictional they might be, are the only narrative accounts of the occult brotherhoods alleged behind the scenes of our origins.

The last book I wrote for the Western Esoteric Traditions series for SUNY Press was about Edgar Cayce (1877-1945); growing up in coastal Virginia I first learned of him from family members who had been acquainted with him as a neighbor and friend. Like the Brotherhood of Light lessons, Cayce’s readings emphasize ESP, astrology, and constructive work on attitudes and emotions.  Cayce was also a close contemporary of Elbert Benjamine (1882-1951), so many of the political and social issues raised by his readings overlap with those on which Benjamine comments. Much of the work I did on the Cayce readings involved appraising their reliability (and unreliability) in various dimensions like health advice, predictions of the future, and portrayals of the past. Since hundreds of those readings address the historical Jesus, in order to appraise them I had to delve into the vast literature of the Jesus Seminar and its critics. Divergent views of Jesus as a historical figure are no less prevalent now than at any earlier time, but in the scholarly world those views must be grounded on evidence and reason, unlike the purely theological faith-based disputes of the past. No one seems to be on the verge of any major breakthrough in Jesus studies that will sway opinion in one direction or the other, but many scholars are working on various aspects of the mystery. Likewise with Ghost Land, three other scholars will contribute essays to the new edition, and do not expect to provide many final answers but rather to elucidate the mysteries associated with the text.

A central mystery of the text is the complicated relationship of the Orphic, Berlin, and Ellora Brotherhoods of adepts portrayed in Ghost Land to the later Mahatmas of The Occult World, Esoteric Buddhism, the Mahatma Letters, etc. This brings me back to a subject that I address with reluctance after being labeled as “controversial,” a “Blavatsky-basher,” and so forth. Applying reason and evidence to the subject of the Theosophical Masters was explicitly denounced in official Theosophical media by a handful of propagandists. The Mahatmas and adepts must remain forever beyond the reach of historians and especially heretics or unbelievers; even asking historical questions about them implies spiritual incapacity. Yet the  majority of Theosophical reviewers of The Masters Revealed were favorable, and the “no historians allowed anywhere near our sacred Mahatmas” stance of the leaders does not seem to convince all members. Source questions about the Cayce readings have not brought any denunciations from ARE (Association for Research and Enlightenment) quarters, but a stance of indifference toward the subject has been evident in the organization—although not  in its affiliated Atlantic University.  After Edgar Cayce in Context  I was ready to forgo any further literary investigations related to organizations preserving a public image based on historical avoidance. For the past decade my research and writing have been directed elsewhere than occultism and religion.  Through a series of events I discovered and joined the Church of Light at the end of 2005. Its lack of a personality cult around the founding figures has made for a welcoming environment for someone like me who is always seeking “light, more light,” even on subjects others want kept in the dark.

Ghost Land tells its story through four narrative voices,  in addition to that of Emma Hardinge Britten: Chevalier Louis as an adolescent in Part 1, as an adult in Part 2, and as an elderly man in Book II, plus his associate John Cavendish Dudley in the transition from Part 1 to Part 2. Each of these gives a somewhat different view of our roots, and at this point Marc and I are making no assumptions about the relative amounts of fact and fiction in different sections of the book. Emma has been far too reliable as a witness to history in some contexts, and far too unreliable in others, to allow for any a priori assumptions about her as a truthteller or fabulist.  She was both, which makes working on Ghost Land such a pleasure, as well as a challenge.  For the rest of 2011, my posts in this blog will consist of reports about different aspects of Ghost Land.  Due to the preponderance of spam in blog comments, I have turned off that feature, but welcome comments by email at kpauljohnson@yahoo.com.  Please identify yourself as a CofL member and whether or not you would like the comment posted; comments are invited from those who wish them to remain private as well as anyone who cares to do so publicly.

In closing, I recommend these comments by Elbert Benjamine about bias in the study of history, and in the press, from the book Imponderable Forces:

“…the histories of two countries about the same war, or the same crises, in which they were antagonists, are always varnished in such a way as to convince the child that his nation is vastly superior and that the other nation is filled with detestable people.  Napoleon, who made considerable history of sorts, and therefore was entitled to his opinion, decided that history is mostly lies.  That is, like so much else we read, see, and hear, its chief concern is to convince us, regardless of the actual facts, that someone was right and someone else was wrong…. I have singled out history as a single example  in the schools, and corporate propaganda as a single example in the colleges…others might be cited, all going to show that from the time a child enters an educational institution until he leaves college he is more or less under the influence of those who are not impartial in their views.  Propaganda of some kind is constantly at work seeking to sway his thinking into biased channels.”(p. 84)

Emma, whatever her virtues, was a propagandist for Spiritualism, first and always.  Helena likewise devoted her considerable writing talents to propaganda for Theosophy, much of which was anti-Spiritualist.  The fact that these two quarreling founding mothers of the Theosophical Society were propagandists for opposing belief systems should dissuade us from taking sides in 19th century disputes.  Readers who are neither Spiritualists nor Theosophists perhaps stand to benefit most from the publication of a new Ghost Land edition that sheds new light on the origins of both.

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