Published by The Blavatsky Archives Online. Online Edition copyright 2000.
The Secret Doctrine.
by Henry S. Olcott
[Reprinted from The Theosophist (Adyar, Madras, India), January 1889, pp. 247-249.]
The personal relations existing between the authoress of this splendid production --- one of the towering pinnacles of modern literature --- and this Magazine, make it more seemly that we should copy the criticisms of third parties rather than put forth our own. But we may at least say that, however opinions may differ with respect to the philosophical and metaphysical value of the ancient esotericism, the unanimous verdict of our age must be that Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine are works of a phenomenal character. Whether we consider the advanced years of the Authoress, the comparative rapidity of its composition, the varied erudition, and the boldness and originality of thought they display, the sparkling of their literary style, the strong light thrown upon some of the most recondite problems of symbology, mythology, and comparative theology, biological and psychological science, and evolution, the reader is struck with amazement at the several features of this intellectual efflorescence of our times. To the intimate friends of Madame Blavatsky, who have been near her at the time [1876-7 and 1886-8] when the two books were being written, their production has been clothed with all the interest of psychic phenomena of a class infinitely higher than the vulgar wonders of physical thaumaturgy. Enfeebled by disease, and on several occasions pronounced moribund by the physicians, forced by them to leave India under warnings of probably sudden death by apoplexy, she has yet worked at her desk on The Secret Doctrine an average of about twelve hours daily, from 6-30 or 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and, while the work was passing through the press, often read fifty pages of proof a day. To see the hundreds of references to other authors one might naturally suppose her possessed of a very extensive library, whereas, in point of fact, neither for Isis Unveiled nor The Secret Doctrine, had she access to more than comparative handfuls. Her quotations have often been called in question by friends who had been permitted to read her MSS., but when they searched in the British Museum and American Libraries her accuracy was vindicated. A case in point. For a title-heading in one of her essays she wrote a certain verse and credited it to Tennyson. Two persons, one an authoress of repute, who thought themselves familiar with every line that Tennyson has published, vehemently protested against her committing such a blunder, one sure to be detected at once. On Madame Blavatskys persisting that it had so come into her mind and must be right, a gentleman of great literary experience --- Dr. C. Carter-Blake --- made a long search in the British Museum, which resulted in finding the verse verbatim et literim in a Magazine of the year 1831, The Gem, long since dead and forgotten. For some reason or other the poet had not cared to include it in any edition of his works.
Opponents of a calumnious diathesis have not scrupled to charge Madame Blavatsky with interested motives in her Theosophical work. To such, the following circumstances should be interesting. The first edition of Isis Unveiled was, to the pleased surprised of its publisher, Mr. J. W. Bouton of New York, exhausted within ten days or a fortnight of its appearance, and a second edition was demanded. Mr. Bouton came to Madame Blavatskys house and, in the presence of the present writer, made her the following liberal offer. If she would write another book, in a single volume, which should unveil Isis a little more, just enough to satisfy the mystical class of minds, he would bring out an edition of one hundred copies, sell them at $100 (about £20) each, and give her $50 per copy as authors copyright: in short, pay her a splendid literary fee of $5,000 (say Rupees 15,000) for a work which she could easily finish within a year. She refused on the ground that it was not permitted at that time to reveal more of the Esoteric philosophy than had been given out in Isis Unveiled. Yet just then she had not the money to pay her passage out to India!
There are some who say that the Book of Dzyan, upon whose majestic stanzas her work under notice is based, has no existence: that it is a literary fraud. Well, whether so or not, it is at least one of the most striking compositions in literature; its tone solemn and grandiose, like the organ-peals through a Cathedral, or the rythmic tone of Nature upon which ancient music is said to be founded. If it was written by her indeed, then a Hindu might be inclined to suspect that she is a reincarnation of some such sage as bequeathed to an admiring world the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, or other archaic classical works. It is not of the least consequence per se whether there is or is not a Book of Dzyan preserved in the hidden libraries of the Sages, whether or not there be any such libraries (though the writer has personal knowledge of the latter fact, and could, if he chose, point out the very spot of one of them from a railway carriage in passing). The book stands upon its own merits, and so solidly that it will take a mighty adversary to overset it. If there is one thing more hateful than another to the independent thinker, it is to have a book put forth as specially entitled to reverence because of its alleged infallible parentage, and apart from its intrinsic merits. A book is good or bad, sound or unsound, instructive or silly as a book, and all the gods of Olympus, and Recluses of all the Holy Mountains or Deserts, cannot make falsehood truth or imbecile nonsense Divine revelation. This is clearly Madame Blavatskys opinion also, as the special disclaimers of authority in her Secret Doctrine amply show.
The value of this book is so great to would-be Theosophists that if a single chapter, or portion of a chapter, were read at each meeting of a Branch, by some one who can read well and understand the text, they need seek no further for teachings or teachers in theoretical Occultism. It is a library in itself, unique, in the sense of a Dictionary or an Encyclopaedia, and if the Theosophical movement had produced only the two books of this authoress, it would, in the eyes of posterity, be regarded as an epoch-marking phase of human thought.
As no stress is sought to be laid upon the supposed primal source of Madame Blavatskys inspiration --- the school of Eastern Sages --- so her friends are not disposed to excuse her for any of the literary faults of her books; her discursiveness, unmethodical jumbling together of various topics, plethora of proofs adduced in support of a given proposition after her ground has been covered, so to say, three layers thick; her frequent lack of exactness in presentation of scientific theories and conclusions, and her sometimes contradictory language. Conceding all these, it is still most certain that she is one of the most brilliant conversationalists, most graceful and interesting writers of modern times, whether in her own Russian vernacular, or in French or English --- in all which three languages her pen seems equally facile. The critics of 1877 said that the prototype of Isis was the Anacalypsis of Godfrey Higgins, but while the magnum opus of that erudite yet neglected author never reached its complete second edition, and Mr. Bouton and Mr. Quaritch have still many unsold copies in stock --- fifty years after its appearance in 1836 --- the first edition of Isis Unveiled was sold within a fortnight, and the first of The Secret Doctrine (of 500 copies) sold actually in advance of publication. The times are certainly changed for the better, and the number of minds capable of grasping these high themes much larger than in the generation which not only misunderstood but socially persecuted Godfrey Higgins.