- Recycled Lives: A History of Reincarnation in Blavatsky's Theosophy by Julie Chajes
Helena Blavatsky, Henry Olcott, Theosophy, reincarnation, the New Age, Kabbalah, Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, Spiritualism, Anthroposophy, metempsychosis, transmigration, Platonism, Naturphilosophie, Darwinism, Orientalism
Concepts such as "reincarnation" and "karma" have in past decades been cemented into anglophone popular imagination, even if many people ultimately hold other views on what happens after death or do not give these terms any thought. Julie Chajes's groundbreaking historical study on Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (née von Hahn, 1831–1891), specifically her teachings on reincarnation, demonstrate that the intellectual foundation of these concepts as currently understood in most Western cultural contexts is intertwined with related concepts like "metempsychosis," "transmigration," "spiritism," "astral [End Page 423] soul," and even "permutation," all of which at present remain much further removed from common discourse. As Chajes skillfully demonstrates, these, along with a wider variety of other concepts, have their own genealogical histories that are waiting to be critically excavated through a closer reading of Blavatsky's writings. Indeed, Chajes's book is explicitly intended to be part of a larger project that eventually supplies a "detailed analysis of Blavatsky's thought as a whole" (12), a project that is already helping to sort out the entangled web of metaphysical ideas left in the wake of her profound influence on modern occultism for almost a century and a half.
Recycled Lives is divided into an introduction, six chapters, and a final section of "Conclusions." The introduction supplies useful background information about and references to the controversy generated by the so-called Mahatma Letters that Blavatsky claimed to receive from enlightened masters, about her scope of influence on occultism and metaphysical milieus culminating in the advent of popular New Age spirituality, and about her engagement with Jewish and Christian Kabbalah. Chapter 1 tracks the development of Blavatsky's theories of rebirth; Chapters 2 and 3 supply what Chajes calls "internalist" data about Blavatsky's own views on reincarnation as contrasted in two of her principle works, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888); finally, Chapters 4 through 7 concentrate on currents external to Blavatsky's literature and are divided into four respective categories: Spiritualism, science, Platonism, and Orientalism. The chapters are followed by a concluding section that emphasizes the "historically and culturally contingent amalgamation" of her specific moment in time that supplied the foundation for later Theosophists, for the advent of Anthroposophy, and for writers on mediumship.
Chajes deserves much credit for her meticulous referencing of sources that reveal the scope of contested discourses on reincarnation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, throughout which Blavatsky and her Theosophical co-founder Henry Olcott (1832–1907) played a central role. One of her arguments that shines through with an especially clarifying force is the assertion that Blavatsky's views on reincarnation shifted away from the earlier doctrine, in Isis Unveiled, of metempsychosis, that is, the spirit and soul's conjoined ascent to subtle realms. Blavatsky's later model, as outlined in The Secret Doctrine, instead admitted the possibility of rebirth after death of an individual (the essential unit of which she called a "monad") onto a new spiritual level of a vast chain of evolutionary being according to one's karma incurred as a human being. I found Chajes's analytical intervention into the period's discourses surrounding this shift to be nothing short of extraordinary, especially her nuanced treatment (33–37) of the way in which Blavatsky's thought was engaged by the Spiritualist lecturer Edward Maitland (1824–1897). Maitland claimed that Blavatsky had adopted her theory of reincarnation [End Page 424] from a similar doctrine expounded by himself and his associate Anna Kingsford (1846–1888), author of The Perfect Way, based on the writings of Marie, the Countess of Caithness (d. 1895).
The book's chapters on the "external" factors of Spiritualism, science, and Platonism are well-researched explications of the many cultural ideas that Blavatsky drew upon to construct her theory of reincarnation, especially by the time...