Theosophy and Denis Saurat
Theosophy and Denis Saurat
A long-time interest of mine has been the life and work of Denis Saurat. Many of my scholarly friends vaguely wondered why I spent more than three years of my spare time researching the achievements of this Anglo-French litterateur who was so well known in France and Britain from the 1930s to the 1950s and who is now so little known anywhere else and, truth to tell, even there. The fact that he seemed to my mind to be a man of intrinsic interest who had produced a body of work of continuing interest to anyone with any interest in literature and the occult with a body of work in two languages which the poet Wallace Stevens says are “two halves of one whole” but had yet to leave a permanent mark among intellectuals and artists continues to baffle me. Anyway, I took up the cudgel and made his battle my own in the form of three quite-original publications that are described below.
The present text served as the basis for a presentation that I made on M. Saurat to the members of the Edmonton Theosophical Society on April 10, 2006. It leans on Theosophy because Saurat did the same. it is not a surprise in his varied life that Saurat also leaned (a bit) on George I. Gurdjieff, who himself was indebted to Theosophy, writing a remarkably insightful account of everyday life at the Priory at its peak. Regard M. Saurat as a curio, if you will, or a curiosity if you must, but it is amazing how interesting are the man’s publications, something like twenty-eight books in French and English not to mention translations into friendly foreign languages. Let me add that I had the good luck to be able to correspond with his son Harold and then converse with him at his home at Croissy sur Seine. A retired petrol engineer, Harold told me two things that I cherish. The first thing that Harold said when we began to work together is, “I am glad you came along when you did because my health is faltering and I always hoped someone would appear to tell my Father’s story.” When we completed our work, to the extent that such work is ever completed, he said, in a burst of friendliness, “My father would have liked you.” I felt rewarded.
There will be more discussion in this article of Denis Saurat than there will be of Theosophy. There are two reasons for this imbalance. The first reason is that I know more about Saurat (a limited and little-known subject) than I do about Theosophy (a vast and well-known subject), despite devoting only a few years to studying the former and a great many years of exposure to the latter. The second reason is that readers of Fohat may be expected to know more about Theosophy than they do about Saurat. Let me set the stage and tell you about the man and the reason for my interest in him.
About 1965, in a used bookstore in Toronto, I bought a copy of one of Saurat’s early books, Literature and Occult Tradition (1930). I was attracted to the book because of its four-word title, which highlighted my own interests in literature, the occult, and traditional lore and learning. The four syllables of the author’s name, “Den-is Saur-at,” had no meaning for me at the time.
I must admit that when I began to read the book I had purchased, I was initially disappointed. I appreciated the author’s style, exuberant though flashy, but I noted the lack of scholarship, or at least the lack of source-notes, etc. As well, I was fresh from studying John Milton and William Blake with the best–A.S.P. Woodhouse at University College and Northrop Frye at Victoria College–and I was not all that surprised with what Saurat had to say about the English poets. I was less familiar with Victor Hugo so the discussion of him and his work, especially his decade-long psychical research, was new to me, yet I wondered how representative it all was of French scholarship.
Still, the author’s thesis stuck with me as interesting and important and brave. Basically what he wanted to demonstrate is the following proposition: There is an ancient system of belief or beliefs held by the European peasantry, held earlier in antiquity and in prehistory, which continues unabated despite social and cultural forces and pressures to the contrary; from time to time these beliefs are drawn to the attention of the bourgeoise and the intelligentsia, by leaders and teachers, by scriptures and literature, especially when they are given expression by great poets and authors like Milton, Blake, and Hugo, not to mention Spenser and Whitman. Saurat identified these poets as “philosophical poets” in the sense that they deal with the great issues that philosophers face rather than with the standard concerns of non-philosophical poets and authors, that is, human psychology and social interactions.
So it was the tributary of “philosophical poetry” that interested him rather than what might be described as the mainstream of “psychological poetry.” In time I would realize that Saurat in common with many metaphysical writers and occultists held the tributary to be the mainstream and the mainstream to be the tributary. After all, it is the headwaters rather than the downstreams that are of perennial interest, importance, and concern.
Briefly expressed, that was his thesis, not a novel one today perhaps; but bear in mind the notion was advanced publicly in 1930 not by a metaphysician, a Traditionalist thinker, or an occultist, but by “a somebody”–a forty-year-old professor with a doctorate from the Sorbonne and a professorship at King’s College London, as well as the directorship of the prestigious French Institute in London, an institution that continues to this day.
Over the decades I kept a “watching brief” on Denis Saurat. No one I knew had ever heard of him, except, oddly, Northrop Frye, one of the world’s leading literary critics, an authority on William Blake, and in the 1970s the world’s most cited academic scholar. (He was up there with Marx and Freud in citations in scholarly papers!) I learned that when Frye was a student at Victoria College he worked at the Toronto Reference Library, then located at the corner of College St. and St. George St., where he chanced upon Saurat’s Blake and Modern Thought (1929). Frye would arrive at the Library earlier than required to read Saurat on Blake. Excited by Saurat’s willingness to take Blake’s “Prophetic Books” seriously, Frye was encouraged to write an undergraduate paper on Blake and then devote many years to the study to Blake’s “Prophetic Books” which would culminate in the publication in 1947 of Fearful Symmetry, a great work of scholarship. I studied Blake under Frye but never once did he mention Saurat, though in later years, when interviewed, intregrity led him to acknowledge the Blake-Saurat-Frye lineage. Similar semi-evasive tactics are in evidence when Mircea Eliade, the scholar of archaic practices at the University of Chicago, took pains to ignore the impressive contributions made by René Guénon and Traditionalism to his own thought.
When I began to read the periodical literature published in Britain during the interwar years–the 1920s and 1930s–I would encounter passing references to Saurat. He had a hand in naming an important literary-social movement–the “Scottish Literary Renaissance.” In the 1940s, he wrote and delivered broadcasts on the BBC devoted to France, its society and culture. He was among the first French citizens in Britain to respond to Charles de Gaulle’s appeal broadcast over the BBC to form the Free French movement. (The first book I dedicated to his work includes a photo of De Gaulle and Saurat standing side by side, which, given the disparity of their heights, I like to call “six-foot-six and five-foot-five.”) Then there were his contributions to The New Age, edited by A.R. Orage, subsequently a disciple of G.I. Gurdjieff; and to The Listener, the BBC weekly founded by R.S. Lambert, the psychical researcher (who is the subject of my monograph Lambert’s Day). In the late 1950s, while an undergraduate at University College, I recall seeing a poster thumb-tacked to the bulletin board of the Department of French that drew attention to studies for foreign students to be held at the Centre international d’études françaises in Nice. Saurat was its director at the time.
I am a long-time subscriber to The Times Literary Supplement and I noticed at the time that a year did not go by without at least one passing reference in its columns to Saurat. “The cultural conference in 1936 was attended by Stephen Spender and Denis Saurat” is a typical note. Nobody felt the need to identify Saurat. In a sense, he was a “period piece,” part of the woodwork.
I found myself wondering about Saurat’s standing in French circles. It turned out the Chair of the Department of French at Victoria College knew nothing about him (though she tried to hedge rather than admit this understandable scholarly lapse of knowledge). I kept a “weather eye” open for references to Saurat, but nothing substantial came my way. I thought there must be some scholarly activity in French or English, perhaps an essay of appreciation, a monograph on his life or work, possibly a bibliography. Nothing. I wondered what Anglo-French scholars were doing with their spare time. About 1990, I opened two files – a filefolder and an electronic file – and began to list his books and my impressions of them.
One day I asked Alice, my researcher, an older woman who has in turn been a Presbyterian, an Anglican, a Mormon, a Theosophist, etc., to undertake research for me at the Toronto Reference Library, to begin to photocopy biographical entries on the man and reviews of his books in the periodical literature. With the arrival of the Internet and its two treasures – the research engine Google and the website Advanced Book Exchange – I was able to learn a lot more about him and his achievements. After all, there were some 800 references to him on Google. Most of these “hits” were passing notices of the availability of his books, which I began to purchase, spending over a thousand dollars to build up a library of his twenty-eight publications in French and English. In comparison, at the same time, for “Theosophy,” Google offered 1,110,000 “hits” in all.
I soon had the bare outline of his life. He was born of French peasant stock in Toulouse in 1890. He died in Nice in 1958. He took his doctorate (in the work of John Milton) at the Sorbonne and began his association with the French Institute in London and Kings College London. The Institute became the meeting place in London for francophones and francophiles in England. He was well known and well respected in various circles: for his promotion of Scots literary nationalism; for his studies of Milton, Blake, and Hugo; for his work on “philosophical poetry”; for his classic interview with G.I. Gurdjieff at the Prieuré at Fontainebleau-on-Avon; for his tracing the influence of the Cabala on imaginative literature; for his interest in folklore, dream lore, and psychical research; for his championing of Charles de Gaulle and the Free French; for his BBC Radio broadcasts especially during the Second World War; for his efforts on behalf of the revival of the Occitan language of Languedoc; for writing highly original poems in that language or tongue; for his postwar efforts to promote a pan-European federation, a pre-configuration of the UN and the EU; for his theories of Atlantis and giants of the prehistoric era.
I began to read his books and digest their contents, preparing abstracts of their arguments. There was no problem doing this, though the fact that some titles appeared only in French slowed me down considerably. (Saurat translated many of his own books from French to English or from English to French.) All the while I kept expecting a breakthrough in the form of encountering a major essay on the man’s life and work, but none appeared. No festschrift; not even an appreciation of his achievement.
Establishing the bibliography was straight-forward enough, but learning even the most elementary biographical facts was more difficult than I had expected. Did he die on June 5 according to The Times of London or June 7 according to The New York Times? It was June 6. Was he married to Ella Bocquet, Ella Smith, or Alice Helena Schmidt. (The latter.) Did their union produce two, three, or four children? (Four, three daughters and one son.) Why was he so little regarded in his native France? (A question for another occasion.) It was frustrating, and many a time I silently cursed the fact that I was marooned in Toronto far from the great libraries and resource centres of Paris and London. No funds were forthcoming for research or travel.
I was determined to self-publish my commentaries on his publications in semi-print format (to satisfy my own curiosity and also to make their arguments accessible to people who had no ready access to the books and periodical contributions). But I needed more biographical and other information. I also felt impelled to establish a connection with the Saurat family. In turn I wrote to the Collège Denis Saurat (a high-school named in his honour, it being the French government’s policy to so honour its literary figures, both major and minor) and to the French Institute (which houses the Bibliothèque Denis Saurat) but received no reply to my queries, even though I had taken pains with the letters of inquiry and had them rewritten by a French scholar.
Then it occurred to me to place a personal advertisement in The Times Literary Supplement to request reminiscences and information about family members. It cost about $28 and it duly appeared. Even before my copy of the TLS arrived from London, I had an email from a family friend in Canterbury, England, that led me to the author’s son. Harold Saurat was glad to hear from me. He is now in his mid-eighties, a retired petroleum engineer, a resident of Croissy-sur-Seine outside Paris. We began a correspondence, tentative at first, initially complimentary on both sides, soon friendly, then warm and most accommodating. It resulted in the pooling of information and manuscripts. In brief, Harold blessed the project.
(I had reason to believe that he was secretly relieved that someone, if an unlikely Canadian with limited French, had blundered onto the scene determined to do justice to his father’s memory.) On our visit to France in September 2005, Ruth and I finally met Harold and his friend Claude Oyer and were entertained by them in style. We were prepared to meet a French gentleman; we were unprepared to meet an English gentleman, as Harold had been born in Glasgow and raised in Kensington! He had spent much of the Second World War in a prisoner-of-war camp. After the war he worked as an engineer with British Petroleum and contributed the entries on oil-related subjects to the Larousse dictionaries.
I had in mind issuing the work that I decided to call O Rare Denis Saurat in semi-print form, but as luck would have it, in the nick of time, a medical doctor named George A. Vanderburgh arrived on my doorstep in style, not in his capacity as a general practitioner, but in his chosen work as a reprinter of pulp literature and a publisher of quality books of limited interest, especially scholarship related to the Sherlock Holmes “canon.” He said he would be pleased to issue my manuscript as a trade paperback in record time. He did it in better-than-record time. We met for the first time on our front porch in North Toronto on a Tuesday afternoon. A few hours later he drove back to Shelburne, a town distance of about 100 km. The next morning he phoned and asked me to check my email, which I did while we chatted on the phone. There, as an attachment, was the first half of the book on the screen, formatted and paged! I had loaned him a disk of the first half of the book. I was still working on the second half, but had that been ready for him, he too would have formatted within eighteen hours the entire work! It seemed like a visual hallucination!
A short run of O Rare Denis Saurat was published, then The Denis Saurat Reader, a selection of the man’s writings, and finally Early Earth. The latter volume translates in full for the first time Saurat’s last two books: Atlantis and the Race of the Giants and The Religion of the Giants and the Civilization of the Insects. These are instances of “speculative non-fiction” in the vein of Immanuel Velikovsky. I will resist summarizing their arguments in favour of concentrating on Saurat and Theosophy.
Saurat was not a member of the Theosophical Society. One did not have to be a member in Western Europe during the first half of the 20th century to be a lower-case theosophist and to take its ideas seriously. It was enough to be a reader of The Secret Doctrine – Saurat was in his eightieth year when it was published – and sufficient to have metaphysical interests, which he did and had.
Does the word “theosophist” describe someone who speculates on the evolution and devolution of life on Earth? Does it describe someone who is sympathetic to notions like karma, reincarnation, and secret wisdom? Does it describe someone who saw in intuition and imagination forms of knowledge compatible with and superior to science and reason? Does it describe someone who considers himself a pilgrim in the supersensate world of values and realities? I believe it does, perhaps, all of these things, and as Saurat took such subjects and interests seriously, I have no hesitation considering him a lower-case theosophist. Another person who has no such hesitation to so declare is Ted Davy, TS historian and member of the Calgary Lodge. As he wrote in Fohat, the quarterly publication of the Edmonton Theosophical Society (“Book Review,” Spring 2004, p. 23):
The Lamp magazine once ran a series of profiles under the general title “Unenrolled Theosophists.” They were intended to identify those who – such as Mark Twain in the editor’s opinion – might have been attracted to the Theosophical Movement had it lived up to its initial promise – “public men whose ‘facilities of observation’ have given ‘a greater breadth of view, a more pronounced and imperial, a more widely spread humaneness.’” [The source is Albert E.S. Smythe’s The Lamp, Aug. 1900.] A first impression after reading John Robert Colombo’s new book is that Denis Saurat could well be described as an unenrolled theosophist.”
Davy concluded: Colombo observes that “[I]n Saurat’s eyes Blavatsky is something of a philosophical poet.” A rather unusual assessment, but probably few readers of the thousands of pages of her writings will argue with it. O Rare Denis Saurat is a most interesting study. It imparts much useful information of an unusual – no, extremely ‘rare’ scholar and his work. Not for the first time John Colombo has succeeded in reviving interest in one who might quality as an ‘unenrolled Theosophist.’”
If I had to go further and explain Saurat’s particular approach to the subject of “the occult,” I would make the following two points:
1. Saurat’s curiosity knew few bounds. He was interested in the Cabala, Buddhism, and Hinduism; in the “philosophical poets,” Milton and Spencer; in the eccentricities of the English and the peculiarities of the French. He was blessed with what someone called “holy curiosity.” He was quite learned in the mainstream of European thought as well as in the tributaries of Eastern and esoteric thought, but what surprises me is that it seems he knew nothing about Traditionalism and Perennialism, movements that were specially favoured by the French at the time. Krishnamurti did not impress him; the triumvirate of Freud, Jung, and Adler failed to excite him. One may be curious, I guess, but not about everything.
2. Saurat’s specific interests lay in recovering the folklore of the peasantry of France – familiar to him from his childhood – and in relating it to four spheres of interest: (a) to the lore of dreams; (b) to the revelations of spirit mediums; (c) to the literature of Western Europe; and (d) to the definitions of man provided by the great religions of the East. Now these interests (especially the influence of folklore on contemporary learning) are part and parcel of the spirit of Modernism of the interwar years: Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartok in music; Nicholas Roerich and Lawren Harris in fine art; Yeats and Kathleen Raine in poetry; revived interest in poets like William Blake and Walt Whitman; anthropologists like Franz Boas and folklorists like Millman Parry; such theorists as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade. His interests were in keeping with his times but hardly ahead of them. To my sorrow, it seems he has never been identified as a member of the (fabled) Priory of Sion!
Saurat is one of the few scholars to acknowledge in print the influences and contributions made by Madame Blavatsky. What follow are some explicit references to her and her work.
The title of Literature and Occult Tradition: Studies in Philosophical Poetry (1930) has always struck me as unidiomatic. I continue to think it should be called “Literature and the Occult Tradition” or possibly “Literature and an Occult Tradition.” By “philosophical poetry” he means poetry that addresses grand ideas usually associated with philosophical inquiry and interest. There are four reasons why poets are attracted to ideas that are philosophical, theosophical, metaphysical, or occult:
1. Poets balance a “primitive” side with “contact with the classics.”
2. Poets are attracted to occultism because it offers “a whole world of artistic possibilities.” He says, interestingly, “Occultism is the place of refuge of all vanquished religions and philosophies.”
3. Poets are “rebels against Christianity.”
4. “The philosophical poets are by their nature destined to remain heretics even in the bosom of heresy, and consequently independents.” (ORDS, p. 141)
Saurat traces these ideas not to primitive, savage, pagan, shamanistic, or archaic practices, as we would today, or even to Classical Antiquity, Greece and Rome, but to the neo-Platonic revival of the Renaissance – Pico della Mirandola, etc. When he looks directly at “Occultism and Literature,” he offers what I feel to be a brilliant insight into the personality and character of Blavatsky. The first two words offer a key to the entire passage:
I imagine Madame Blavatsky in her unhappy youth, in the depths of the Russian country, shut up in the castle of one of those nobles of the time of Catherine II, who had collected for herself vast libraries of French works published between 1750 and 1800. In such a retreat this effervescent brain was able to formulate its doctrine at leisure, and to acquire that passion for things Indian which had raged in Europe at that time. A certain amount of travelling in the East must have enabled her to convince herself of the identity of the doctrine of visionary encyclopaedists with Indian ideas; if one is looking for them, the resemblances are striking, and we shall see our poets from Blake to Whitman following the same path. In any case the theosophical synthesis allows us to compare the idea of our philosophical poets with a complete doctrine. This procedure has the advantage of giving us as evidence not a synthesis made in abstracto by a scientific mind but a living and fairly widespread religious system. (ORDS, p. 142)
This is a powerful passage based on intuition and imagination. I am tempted to parse the ideas here, for every sentence, every phrase, indeed every word, is relevant and pregnant with possible meaning. Instead, I will resist the temptation and offer his following assessment:
Therefore we have in Madame Blavatsky a precious witness: she gives us in a genuinely rough state the only material in the great occultist quarry which was capable of being worked by the poets. What she rejected was, no doubt, almost totally impossible for the modern mind to assimilate. (ORDS, p. 142)
Theosophy and the Cabala
The study that inspired Northrop Frye is Blake and Modern Thought (1929). In this work Saurat presents his theory that the Cabala was an important influence on Milton and Blake, a novel but not unique notion at the time but one that has since become widely accepted.
During Saurat’s student years the Cabala was published in French translation, so he was familiar with the Zohar, the 14th-century work of the Spanish Jew Moses of Leon. A central notion that Saurat took from the Cabala is familiar enough to Theosophists. Here is what he writes:
… the Zohar is our great encyclopaedia of occultism and we are tempted to use it to explain many things which perhaps come from other, though parallel, sources. For instance, there is hardly anything in the general ideas of H.P. Blavatsky which cannot be explained by the Zohar, if we allow for a rather slight admixture of Indian lore. So we are tempted to say that Madame Blavatsky, although rather contemptuous in her tone towards the Cabala, derived most of her ideas from it. Perhaps this is not fair to her, but until we have more documents, how can we judge? (ORDS, p. 122)
Saurat finds the following notion to be central to the Cabala and Theosophy:
The conception of the Many into the one: devolution and evolution, as theosophy names it. (ORDS, p. 122)
Saurat’s most popular book was A History of Religions (1934) – six editions in two languages during his lifetime – but it is also the weakest. It is not a “history of religions” at all, but “the story of religions,” for it describes the outer forms of the world’s major religions – the fixed religions – in the manner of such popularizers of the period as Will Durant, H.G. Wells, and Lin Yutang. Christianity is given the lion’s share of its pages, informed by the fact that Christianity once embraced the principles of Gnosticism:
All the conquered religions: Gnostic beliefs, Neo-platonism, Hermeticism, Manichaeism, Mithraism, Zoroastrian, Judaism to a certain extent, will go to subsisting under official Christianity right down the centuries. They are the constituting elements of what is known as occultism; they came to strange and monstrous alliances and we shall find them again and again ready to burst through the crust of official religion. Dead beliefs to not disappear: they rot. (ORDS, p. 162)
Near the end of this popular history, Saurat returns to occultism.
None of the ideas of theosophy is new. But style and imagination make The Secret Doctrine a remarkable book. (ORDS, p. 166)
He then yields to the temptation to offer the Theosophical world-view:
The history of the human race is perhaps the most original part of the system. It is a mixture of Hindu legends, cabalistic myths, geological data and classical tradition, which works up into a fascinating historical novel on a cosmic scale. The Earth was first inhabited by hyperborean races, which were not sexed, and were made of a vaporous substance; then came the Lemurians, races in which each individual had two sexes, and who lived in a continent now destroyed, but of which Australia was a part – which explains many queer things in Australia; then came the Atlantis, in whom the sexes were at last separate, but whose country is now under the Atlantic; and then our own race came: the fourth of seven. Three more are yet to come. There are seven races, seven bodies to each man, seven astronomical cycles, etc., in the true Indian manner. Immortality is a series of reincarnations which bring each soul seven times through each race of each cycle, and so on. But the whole process is not unpleasant, and the general tone is vigorously optimistic. (ORDS, p. 166)
“The Occult in English Literature” is the title of the published version of one of Saurat’s BBC broadcasts on the Third Programme. The transcript appeared in The Listener, 14 Aug. 1947. Here is how it begins:
What is the occult? The word merely means “hidden” and has come to mean a secret doctrine, to use Madame Blavatsky’s title, a belief or a knowledge given only to a few. We find many references to such knowledge in literature, both contemporary and classical. (TDSR, p. 239)
Saurat then discusses some popular imaginative books written by C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, John Masefield, John Buchan, and H. Rider Haggard, distinguishing along the way the different meanings of the words “spiritual,” “psychic,” “occult,” and “mystic.” He then says:
Occultism proper has a double source: tradition and personal experience. The occultist is never quite sure that he is not crazy, and nothing reassures him like a text from Plato or Plotinus. Occult tradition goes back to antiquity and is made up of the remnants of ancient religions which were banned by Christianity. (TDSR, p. 240)
He makes an interesting point:
A learned neoplatonist of the sixteenth century could find confirmation of his ideas in the practices of an uneducated village witch. (p. 241)
And then he asks a question:
How can we account for this persistence and popularity of occult themes in literature, from the highest poets of classic times to the most popular novelists of today? I have recently published a book, Gods of the People, which attempts an explanation. The masses of the people everywhere preserve a fund of ancient ideas, images, facts and superstitions which no official education succeeds in eradicating. I believe it is one of the official delusions that the masses progress, become more and more reasonable and scientific. They do not. The modern mania for betting in all forms, on racehorses or on football teams, carries with it a belief in “luck” which has nothing Christian in it, which is rank occultism, or paganism if you will, of the worst and most powerful kind. And many people who do not bet yet carry this belief in the extremities in their own lives. (TDSR, p. 243)
In the essay ominously titled “The End of Occultism” included in Perspectives (1938), there are a number of passages of particular interest to Theosophists. The first passage places in an historical context our contemporary notion that it was not until late in the 20th century that occult ideas became commonplace notions in Europe and the Americas. It happened earlier than that, early in the 20th century, and even much earlier than that, in the 15th century.
But in another sense, they are still secrets in a room without walls, like a theatre. One can plainly see more or less what they are doing. (TDSR, p. 244)
Hermeticism per se must be dead; it is hardly ever mentioned. The hermetic books have been public property since the Renaissance. In our time, only Buddhism and the cabala still remain to be exposed. Buddhism, studied at first by scholars, has made little impression on anyone, but it exploded on the public in the form of theosophy. The derivative theosophy of Madame Blavatsky is simply a sect of Buddhism: The letters of the Tibetan founders, possibly forged, were published in 1923. In 1883, A.P. Sinnett, the first of the Theosophists, had called his book Esoteric Buddhism. In 1888, Madame Blavatsky published The Secret Doctrine, which then, of course, was no longer secret. Madame Blavatsky, who had come to Buddhism after a very venturesome intellectual journey, amalgamated it with classical occultism derived from neo-Platonism and the Jewish cabala, but it was all cast in a Buddhist mold. At the same time, Edouard Schuré, more cultured and more timid than Madame Blavatsky and without her fiery temperament, brought us revelations of the same kind. (TDSR, pp. 244-5)
What, then, is the situation of occultism today? Occultism is no longer occult. It is a set of doctrines which is out in the world, in competition with other religious systems and, in Europe, clearly in competition with Christianity. Its active and organized centre is the Société de Théosophie (for the Jewish cabalists, true to their traditions, are not propagandists). But the theosophists, unfortunately for them, are even more opposed to all the data of modern science than they are to Christianity. They try to promote a fantastic story of human races, in which sexless Hyperboreans gave way to questionable Lemurians, then to hypothetical Atlantans, with geology coming to the aid of history to mingle races with continents. Their physiology is even more interesting, with its seven bodies fitted one inside the other to form the human organism. Free, secular, and compulsory primary education is the effective antidote to theosophy. (TDSR, p. 245)
Occultism, then, naturally attracts unstable people, whom the primary educational system had found refractory. However, the exposure of occultism is a cause for rejoicing. That has enriched our intellectual world, while complicating the intellectual and sentimental history of our fathers. The poets, who are often unstable (and are poets because it is in chaos that they know exactly how to find an equilibrium like that of flying birds), will benefit from it as well. Flying, like walking, is an interrupted fall, with alternating states of equilibrium and disequilibrium. In the same way, poetry is the equilibrium of the soul in accelerated breaks. (TDSR, p. 245)
But the land of occultism is still vast. Poets in search of subjects, and bored with Christianity, science, philosophy, and history, will find unpublished adventures there. The Secret Doctrine of Madame Blavatsky and Jean de Pauly’s translation of Le Zohar are waiting for imaginations that dote on myths and for artistic masters of words and rhythms. And this material is so unrefined that the poet’s work still has to be done in its entirety. The poets will find a profound meaning in these grotesque or fantastic concepts, of which the imagination has only skimmed the surface. (TDSR, pp. 245-6)
I will not consider Saurat’s use of Theosophical theories and insights with respect to the history of early earth and lunar disturbances. These are fully discussed in the chapter “The Theosophists” in Atlantis and the Reign of the Giants (written in the 1950s but translated for the first time in 2006). But I would be doing the man an injustice if I failed to quote a couple of his prescient statements:
With Helena Blavatsky, at least we touched on poetry; we may have even fully entered the poetic realm. (EE, p. 135)
Then there is Saurat’s view of the importance for mankind of occult thought:
If there is any value in occultism, it lies in the fact that occultism keeps alive, under some prevailing official philosophy or religion, a separate tradition, an element of deep thought which has been neglected by conventional thinking. (EE, p. 317)
As an aside, I offer the following analogy or correspondence, which spans the mythic and mystic and the ironic and sardonic.
Madame Blavatsky had a profound experience in London’s Hyde Park on August 12, 1851. As she expressed it in correspondence: “I saw my blessed Master.” In Gods of the People (1947), Saurat describes passing London’s Marble Arch where he encountered “a man in rags … talking with sublime omniscience” and haranguing the crowd alongside a poster that bore the following message: “A Society for the Conversation of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindoos, Totemists, Christians, Catholics, Mahomedans, Jews and other misbelievers.” He felt he was in the company of Blake “come to earth again.” To each age its revelation. L’Envoi.
In conclusion, Saurat may be considered an “Unenrolled Theosophist.” I like to express the same notion in the words of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who referred to poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Saurat is one of the “unacknowledged theosophists of the world.” Saurat shares this characteristic with many another student, seeker, or metaphysical thinker. Such men and women are to be taken seriously. Theosophists are in a position to learn from them. After all, they are legion – more numerous than are all the members of all the Theosophical societies, fraternities, chapters, and lodges, past, present, and future, combined.
A Note on The Mahatma Letters:
Evidence is lacking that Saurat was ever a member of the Priory of Zion, the secret confraternity of the “holy blood” familiar to readers of the phenomenally successful novel The Da Vinci Code. But there is evidence that links Saurat with The Mahatma Letters.
Saurat made a weekend visit to the Chatêau du Prieuré at Fontainebleau-Avon, the community established George I. Gurdjieff. The visit was arranged by the editor A.R. Orage, a friend of both Saurat and Gurdjieff, and it took place on February 17-8, 1923. Saurat interviewed Gurdjieff and published his impressions in both French and English ten years later, following Orage’s death.
The Mahatma Letters is a collection of the texts of 148 letters of the teachers, the masters Morya and Koot Hoomi, to and from A.P. Sinnett, editor of The Pioneer, the largest English-language newspaper in India in the 1880s, and A.O. Hume, founder of India’s National Congress. Four decades later, the task of editing the correspondence fell into the hands of A. Trevor Barker, a Theosophist, who joined Gurdjieff at the Prieuré. Here he worked on the manuscript of the correspondence, begun the previous February 1922 in London but finished at the Prieuré at Fontainebleau in September 1923. Saurat was there. Did he confer with Barker about the letters? Later that year the Theosophical Society published The Mahatma Letters to considerable controversy.
Saurat was certainly familiar with the correspondence, and so was Gurdjieff, as argued by Seymour B. Ginsberg, author of Gurdjieff Unveiled: An Overview and introduction to the Teaching (Lighthouse Workbooks, 2005).
EE: Early Earth (Shelburne, Ont.: TBSDB, 2003).
ORDS: O Rare Denis Saurat (Shelburne, Ont.: TBSDB, 2004).
TDSR: The Denis Saurat Reader (Shelburne, Ont.: TBSDB, 2006).
TBSDB: The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box is a publishing imprint, based in Shelburne, Ont., which issues print-on-demand publications. Check the company’s website for further details.
John Robert Colombo is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. He is the author, editor, and translator of more than 180 books. Among his publications are such collections as The Midnight Hour and Terrors of the Night, as well as “The Native Series” (a six-volume set of studies of Inuit and Indian lore and learning). In 2006, he hosted the Space Channel’s weekly TV series Unexplained Canada. For more information, check the author’s website: < www.colombo.ca >
19 April 2006