‘Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939’ by Jill Roe

Roe_theosophy

1986, 388 P.

20190823_150525A couple of months back, I went with my Unitarian fellowship to a retreat near Springbrook in south-east Queensland, owned by the Queensland Theosophical Society. Curious about theosophy and wondering if it has any parallels with Unitarianism, I decided to read Jill Roe’s book Beyond Belief. (Thank you for asking: no, Unitarianism  is completely different in terms of philosophy although maybe it does have similarities in terms of public profile). Roe herself was not a Theosophist, so this book is no ‘insider story’ – in fact, it is written with a dry, dispassionate but not hostile air of curiosity. And curious the history of Theosophy in Australia certainly is, but given its attraction to politicians, judges and some academics in the first decades of the 20th century, it can’t be discounted either.

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Mme. Blavatsky, Wikimedia Commons

Roe’s book covers the years 1879-1939. Its starting point is 1879 when the Theosophical Society, an international organization, enrolled its first Australian member.

Established in  America in 1875 and eventually based in India, with the so-called psychic Mme Helena Blavatsky as its founder, people joined the central Society as individuals rather than joining a local satellite.  When Mme. Blavatsky was pronounced a fraud for manipulating her seances, she fled to Europe and never returned to India,  and the Theosophical Society continued on without her.

Between 1891-1894 Theosophy gained an effective foothold in Australia with small groups established in various states. Success was mixed. Melbourne, with its solid network of liberals and secularists might have seemed a fertile ground for Theosophy: think Alfred Deakin, Henry Bourne Higgins, Vida Goldstein etc. However, in Melbourne the experimental spiritual space was already occupied by Charles Strong’s Australian Church, the Melbourne Unitarian Church and the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists.  Sydney was a more fractious place, with either hardline churches or frankly ‘nutters’ (have things changed?) and a “freer market for heterodoxy”. The surprising thing to me was that Brisbane became a stronghold for Theosophy (evidenced perhaps by the continuing presence of the retreat I visited in Springbrook?), and it attracted professional and commercial people like judges, doctors, lawyers etc.

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Annie Besant, Wikimedia Commons

The real international “catch” for Theosophy world-wide was the recruitment of Annie Besant (did you know that it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘pleasant’?), already well-known for her activism on contraception and championing the cause of the British Match-Girls. (I’m still haunted by a picture I saw in primary school fifty years ago of a girl my then-age, suffering phossy jaw).  She visited Australia quite often in her role as President of the Theosophical Society and was well received as an excellent public speaker. There was a personal connection too: her daughter had married English journalist Ernest Scott, who ended up the first Professor of History at Melbourne University. He had eschewed both Theosophy and his double-barrelled surname Besant-Scott by the time he received his university appointment , and the marriage had broken up.

Now, for me as a non-Theosophist, this all gets pretty weird. Not only the clairvoyance, but also a belief in Lemuria- an Atlantis-like mega-continent encompassing the Himalayas, Madagascar, Tasmania, Greenland and Siberia before sinking into the sea because of volcanic activity. Then there’s the onward evolutionary cycle of rise and fall of dominant civilizations, with the Aryan world in decay, waiting for the sixth cycle which would be presaged by the arrival of the Coming Christ, the World Teacher. There was the connection with Co-Masonry;  the esoteric offshoot ‘The Order of the Star in the East’; and the takeover of the Old Catholic Church, renamed the Liberal Catholic Church complete with Bishops, mitres and ‘mysteries’.

Then there was the World Teacher himself, whom the Theosophical Society identified as Jiddu Krishnamurti born around 1895 in India and adopted by Annie Besant and fellow Theosophist Charles Leadbeater (no relation to the possum). Expectations of the arrival of the messiah reached their zenith in the 1920s, which was also the high point of Theosophy in Australia. The Star Ampitheatre was built on prime harbourside Balmoral Beach in Sydney for the World Teacher “when he comes” (see image here), but not for Jesus walking through Sydney Heads as the legend goes.  The land cost £7000 and the ampitheatre building itself cost £20,000.  It was demolished in 1951.

During the heady 1920s Theosophy was strongest in Sydney (despite schism) and prominent real estate was purchased in all the capital cities.  It owned and controlled 2GB (home of Alan Jones -HUH!). It moved into education, particularly kindergarten education, with a later offshoot into Anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner education. It encouraged art (particularly the Arts and Crafts movement) and dance (especially eurhythmics). Despite claims to being ‘progressive’, it was a rather straitened progressivism by today’s standards: vegetarian, teetotal, dislike of ‘luxury’, anti-vaccination, proponents of ‘racial hygiene’ and attracted to some of  Mussolini’s ideas.

By the 1930s Theosophy was in decline, and has remained that way. Anthroposophy attracted many of its leading lights; the World Teacher Krishnamurti rejected Theosophy himself and went off in a different spiritual direction; the Society lost 2GB and people drifted into other religions or apathy. It had become an anachronism. Theosophy is, as Roe says “best understood as an alternative religious position dating from the age of imperialism. The ground it stood was undermined by the crises of the early twentieth century” (p. 378)

Quite apart from my curiosity about this esoteric (and in my opinion eccentric) philosophy, the book highlights three interesting themes.  First- here is a church where the major figures are women (Mme Blavatsky and Annie Besant) although, as Roe points out, women only held 1/3 of the officebearing positions in the organization.  Second, this is an imperial endeavour, with India at its heart. The frequent communications and visits between Australia (particularly Brisbane) and India are a different way of looking at empire, largely ignoring the metropole. Finally, there are those rich intersections between Australian intellectual life in the early 20th century and Theosophy- a veritable Who’s Who of connections.

This book was published in 1986 as part of the NSW University Press ‘Modern History Series’. It has the look and feel of a typed manuscript or thesis, with very dense text and footnotes at the end of each chapter (as used to always be the case). Apparently Wakefield Press are crowd-sourcing for a revised edition edited by Marion Quartly  (I wonder how they’ll get around the problem that Wakefield already have another book under their imprint called ‘Beyond Belief’?)

This is an academic text, and it is more an institutional history than a bottom-up, personalized history.  However, in our increasingly rabid religious world, perhaps there will be a readership for this strange history which has so many intersections with early 20th century intellectual history. After all, in an interview with the Australian Humanities Review in 2004, Roe said

if you want to understand the norm, you should look at what isn’t the standard. It’s very illuminating to look at those who have taken a position to the edge, it casts a different light on what really is in general.

AWW2019I have read this book as part of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 November 2019

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC) Series 3 has started! This time Matt Bevan is looking at Putin’s strategy of destabilization in the west- how prescient, given that Ukraine now lies at the heart of the Democrat’s impeachment case.  In Episode 1 (21/10/19) , A Cold Wet Day in Salisbury Matt returns to the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skipral, the event that first drew his attention to Putin and his reach.  Episode 2 From Spymaster to President (28/10/19) looks at Putin’s need to always have an enemy against which to mobilize Russian society.

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Source: Wikipedia

In Our Time I’ve just read a book about the Irish Famine, and so I finally got round to listening to this episode The Great Irish Famine, dated 4/4/19. Among other things, most of which were covered in the book by Enda Delaney that I read, they do discuss whether the Irish Famine constituted a genocide. One of the historians (they’re often hard to distinguish in this program) argued very strongly that it was not genocide because, despite the disdain for the Irish, there was no intent to kill them off. However, there was a strong determination to implement dramatic social change in Ireland as a way of solving what seemed the intractable problem of poverty.  Instead of seeing migration (especially to America) as a penalty, they argue that there would have been many, many more deaths without that escape valve.

’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Harari_21-lessons-for-the-21st-century

2018, 318 p

This is the third book written by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Hariri. His first, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was published in Hebrew in 2011, and translated into English in 2014. His second book, published in 2016, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow subverts the idea of ‘history’ to look to the future (a no-no amongst historians). In this third book, he returns to the present and the immediate future with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Historians are certainly getting around! As with The Road to Unfreedom (my review here), it seems that historians no longer restrict themselves to things that have already happened, but are venturing into prediction. I don’t know that I’m particularly persuaded that a historian has any particular skill for prognostication, beyond an awareness of precedence and a span in their view. Hariri is an academic military historian – a historical genre that I am not fond of, but he wanders far from his origins here.

The book itself is divided into five parts. Part I, The Technological Challenge, mounts for me what was the most insightful part of the book, where he marries the broadening provided by Big Data (‘infotech’) and the narrowing provided through algorithms (‘biotech’) to argue that the world will soon have a large “useless” class, which will need to be managed socially and politically. Many of the professions and skills that we assume are based on human insight can, in actually, be reduced to a series of algorithms, and this even extends into the creative sphere, where music, art and film can be tailored to a market ruled by algorithms. (I think of Spotify and how it can easily provided me with a whole afternoon of listening pleasure without me even thinking about it).

Part II The Political Challenge looks at globalisation.  He refutes the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations’, arguing that all 21st societies (with the exclusion of Islamic State) subscribe to the same economic template. Nationalism, religion and immigration all challenge globalisation, exemplified by the current tensions within the European Union.

Part III, Despair and Hope looks first at terrorism and war, but then argues instead for a spirit of humility, especially in advancing ‘God’s’ claims. Although he is Israeli, he holds all religions at a skeptical distance.  Part IV, Truth, examines ignorance and fake news, and the manipulation of political opinions through algorithms and popularism. His final section, Resilience, emphasizes that during the 21st century, people will be exposed to relentless expectations of change that our current education system cannot prepare them for. He finishes what was, for me, a rather limp recommendation of meditation – a  disappointing ending to what was, in places, an insightful book.

This book felt like a series of essays, a bit like a chocolate ripple cake concertinaed together with an introduction and bridging paragraph launching you off into the next essay. I thought that the first two parts of the book were much stronger than the other sections. Even though I am open to deepening my spirituality, his promotion of meditation just felt ‘off’ in this book.

One very sobering thought, though. My grandchild, due in late 2019/2020 has every chance of living into the 22nd century. I really fear for him/her. I don’t think that we’ll learn the 21 lessons here well enough to offer a world better than what we have now.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Movie: Birds of Passage

I’ve avoided watching Narcos and all those drug films set in Colombia. This is one different, however. It shows the effects of the drug trade on an indigenous family over a number of decades, as they become more affluent and family loyalties are stretched and broken.  Mainly in Wayuu dialect, there isn’t much Spanish, and it’s pretty fast and indistinct.

Interesting, both as a story and as visual anthropology.

My rating: Four stars

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 22-31 October

Empires of History Podcast. The Ottoman Series. I’ve decided to join a class at my U3A on the History of the Ottoman Empire. I missed the first class and am feeling a little out of my depth, so I’ve downloaded this series. It’s American and I’m not sure whether it’s complete or whether he ran out of puff, because the last one was in June this year. Who knows, perhaps it’s a long time between episodes. Even though many of the names are unfamiliar, he doesn’t move so quickly that they all merge into a big muddle. He’s obviously reading it from pages (which you can hear rustling) and the production values are pretty basic, but I’m finding it interesting and useful. However, the special episode with historian John McHugo was pretty ordinary.  I’m up to Episode 8 The Thunderbolt Strikes, Dec. 19, 2018.

In Our Time Another podcast that’s been hanging around on the phone for ages, and first recorded in 2016 is 1816: The Year Without A Summer. During 1815 Mt Tambora erupted in Indonesia, the largest eruption in recorded history. This episode has a volcanologist , a historian and a professor of literature who discuss the world-wide ramifications of this eruption. It caused famines in post-Napoleonic Europe, it might have triggered the west-ward movement of anti-slavery Americans across the mid-west, and the wild weather it provoked kept the Romantics inside their holiday home in Geneva, making up stories like Frankenstein.  It’s an interesting application of big history onto an abrupt environmental intervention.

Earshot (ABC). I must confess that you’re NOT likely to hear “Quick- an emergency!- we need a historian!!”  But in the case of Mosul, when it felt to ISIS, a historian was just what was needed to report the facts of what was happening, on the ground, when journalists could not get there. At great personal danger Omar Mohammed created the Mosul Eye blog (which still operates).  This Earshot Episode Mosul Eye This is his story.

99%Invisible Apparently Toronto has a love/hate relationship with its raccoons. Who knew?- I didn’t even see a raccoon while I was there. In fact, have I EVER seen a raccoon? Anyway, apparently they get into the rubbish and strew it around, so the City authorities contracted a design company to design a raccoon-proof compost bin.  They had to lock securely, so that the raccoons couldn’t get in, but they also had to open automatically because they were collected by a truck with a motorized arm (like the trucks we have here in Melbourne) The resulting bin, described in Raccoon Resistance had a sort of dial-lock, but would it defeat the raccoons??  The website has videos which had me cheering for the raccoon. (The answer is no…)

The Documentary (BBC). Professor Elizabeth Dore conducted the first large-scale oral history project in Cuba in thirty years, and this podcast Cuban Voices is based on some of the interviews she conducted. This episode was put together after the selection of Miguel Diaz-Canel to replace Raoul Castro in 2018. Her respondents talk about the shortages during the Special Period, and some speak with nostalgia of the time before Cuba was opened up to tourism.

Assignment (BBC)  Genoa’s Broken Bridge. In August 2018 the Morandi bridge in Genoa collapsed. Opened in 1967, it was one of the longest concrete bridges in the world, connecting Genoa with the rest of Italy, and Italy with Northern Europe.  When it collapsed, killing 43, questions began to be asked about its construction methods and the effects of privatizations.

The History Listen (ABC) Historian Ruth Balint talks about her mother’s recipe book in Cooking for Assimilation. Her mother Evi, came to Australia with her husband and baby son in 1938 after Hitler marched into Vienna, before the wave of post-war European immigration from 1945 onwards.  Her recipe book, written first in Hungarian but increasingly in English, documents her mother’s growing network of neighbours and friends in that time-honoured tradition of recipe-swapping.

Letters of Love in World War II. I can’t bear to keep listening because I’m using them up and there’s only two more left after this.  But I can’t bear to not listen because I want to hear what happens next. In Episode 6 Germany: On the Approach, it is 1944 and Cyril is in Europe, going through France and then across to Germany as the German army is in retreat. Interestingly, they start re-numbering their letters to each other from ‘1’ again after Cyril’s short break in England.

Outlook (BBC) I’m quite claustrophobic, and the idea of diving INTO an iceberg makes me feel lightheaded. It might look beautiful, but all that calving and grinding and moving….no thanks. The Diver Trapped Inside an Iceberg tells the story of Jill Heinerth, photographer and explorer who eventually decided that perhaps it was dangerous after all.  30 Oct 2019

 

‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmimara)

pilkington_rabbit

1996, 135P.

Am I the only person in Australia who has not read ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ or seen the movie? I suspect that I am.

First published in 1996, reprinted in 2000 and released as a movie in 2002, it is the story of Molly (14), Daisy (11) and Grace (8) who were forcibly removed from their families and taken to Moore River Native Settlement in 1931. The three girls escaped and walked home 1600 km in three months through the West Australian desert, orienting themselves in the huge expanse by following the rabbit-proof fence, a long fence intended to stop rabbits from entering the West Australian pastoral district.

Doris Pilkington is Molly’s daughter, but she knew little of her mother’s history until her aunt told her. Pilkington, like her mother and aunt, was also part of the Stolen Generation. She, too, ended up at that same Moore River, having been separated from her mother Molly at the age of four, and not seeing her again for more than twenty years. She didn’t learn the story of her mother and aunt’s escape for another ten years after that. (You can read more about the writing of the book here).

I was surprised that much of the book was history- it took up to p. 75 (in a 135 page book) for the girls to escape.  This history started with white invasion, tribal leader Kundilla (I’m not sure whether he was a historical figure or a narrative device); whalers; Swan River; and the decline of Aboriginal society.  She emphasizes the Mardudjara people as the traditional owners when white settlers brought their cattle, and describes the ‘coming in’ to the stations. Her focus is particularly  Jigalong station between 1917-1931. I was reminded here of Ann McGrath’s 1987 history Born in the Cattle which provides a nuanced account of Aboriginal cattle workers, the texture of station life, and the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and workers.

From p. 75 on, the story fits into a more familiar ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative. Once the girls have started on their trek, she uses historical documents to support her narrative e.g. the correspondence of A. O. Neville (Protector of Aborigines) and copies of telegrams that criss-crossed W.A. The girls are by no means lost: they know where they are, and so do many other people in the homesteads, who offer them hospitality and then go on to report them to the Protector. In the end, the bureaucratic decision is made that it would be too expensive to retrieve them, and they are just let go.

In many ways, the postscript is most damning. Molly, along with her two daughters, was sent again to Moore River. She absconded again taking her 18 month old daughter and leaving Doris  behind. She retraced the walk that she did nine years earlier to return to Jigalong, only to lose her remaining daughter as well, when she was taken by the authorities. Both Daisy and Gracie would have been viewed as ‘successes’ under the assimilation policy of the time. Both married and were employed as domestic help. Daisy ended up moving to a Seventh Day Adventist Mission after her husband’s death.

This book has been a favourite on school reading lists for many years. Larissa Behrendt has written an essay for this school audience, which raises some interesting points.

I imagined that this book would be more emotional and angry than it is. The front-loading of history at the start of the story does make it somewhat abstract, and there is a flatness in the telling that I didn’t expect. I’m sure that on the screen, the landscape would be stark and featureless, but in the book more emphasis is placed on how Molly ‘reads’ the country, rather than on what it lacks. I look at some of the blurbs for later editions and the movie, which highlight ‘adventure’ and ‘courage’. These things are here in the book, but so too is unspoken love and knowledge for country, a quiet and stubborn determination, and a slow-burning injustice.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge database.

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 7-21 October 2019

I’ve fallen behind so I’ll compress these into one entry

Letters of love in World War II. In Episode 5 D-Day Visitations we are now in 1944 and Olga is surprised and delighted by Claude’s fleeting visit home to take control of a new tank. The short visit rekindles their relationship which was looking inexplicably rocky in the last episode.  I’m enjoying this so much that I only listen to one episode at a time to make it last longer.

Rough Translation. This podcast seems to have changed direction this season. It used to be about a concept and how it was expressed in different cultures. The episode Mom in Translation is more about how the individual changes when in a different culture. In this episode, an American mother married to a soldier of Filipino background shifts with their young children to Japan, where now she is the odd one out with her blonde hair and pale conmlexion. Her little primary-school-aged son, who never fitted into the American schools on army bases, decided that he wanted to attend a Japanese school, which meant that she had to readjust her ideas about mothering.

Revolutionspodcast. The Tsar might have done the progressive thing by emancipating the serfs (one of those give-with-one-hand-take-with-the-other arrangements whenever some powerful group is threatened by losing an ‘entitlement’) but he was still the No. 1 Assassin Target amongst radicals.  In The Tsar Must Die, we hear about the multiple near misses that man had…. for a while.  In Episode 10.16 The Russian Colony we hear about the different radical groups in the 1870s and 1880s. I found this one a little hard to follow – too many Russian names to listen to!

History Workshop  In Concentration Camps and Historical Analogies, historian Dan Stone unpacks the idea of a ‘concentration camp’, challenging the accusation that Trump’s migrant detention centres qualify as such. His definition has the inmates of a concentration camp removed completely from judicial oversight and any system of justice. He distinguishes between the Nazi extermination camps and concentration camps, arguing that people did not stay for any length of time in the Nazi camps, and that these should not be used as the template for a concentration camp. He demonstrates the wide range of concentration camps across 19th and 20th century history.

Outlook (BBC) Identical twins often have a special bond, and when Alex Lewis lost his memory after a road accident, his identical twin Marcus helped him to rebuild his lost memories.  In The painful secret I hid from my twin, there’s a very textured story of memory, secrets and identity.  It’s difficult listening, but very good. It’s the basis of a documentary released on Netflix and some cinemas called “Tell Me Who I Am”.

Earshot. While we’re into some difficult listening, ‘The Call: Inside the Christian Brothers‘ is also very good but challenging. The Christian Brothers have really been brought into disgrace in the Royal Commission against Institutional Sex Abuse, and this program has interviews with two former Christian Brothers who joined as mere pre-adolescent boys.  What a stuffed-up system.

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Carbonaceous chondrite (Murchison Meteorite) by James St John https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/14601493358

Off Track When I was in the Atacama Desert in Chile (says she casually), I visited a meteorite museum. In The unlikely tale of the Murchison meteorite, we learn that good old Murchison also has a very rare meteorite that sits in its local historical society. 4.6 BILLION years old. I can’t even think of a number that big. Meteorites from this shower have ended up in museums in many countries.