Interview with Leslie Price
By K.P. Johnson and Brigitte Muehlegger
1) Q: What was your background in esoteric history and parapsychology prior to your involvement with Theosophical History Centre, and how did you come to focus your interest on Theosophical history in the mid-80s?
A: I described my intensive work in the Theosophical field
in a note published in "Theosophical History" in April 2000 to mark 15 years of TH. But prior to 1980, when I joined the T.S. I had some slight acquaintance with the Theosophical scene that went back to perusing Madame Blavatsky's books as a schoolboy in the local library in the early 1960s.
My interest in metaphysics was crystallised by the books of Raynor Johnson after I found in the library "A Religious Outlook for Modern Man" about 1963. Johnson whose birth centenary will be marked in 200l, had links with psychical research, Spiritualism , and Theosophy, and though resident in Melbourne, was hugely influential in Britain.
At the University of Sussex (1965-8) where I changed from sociology to religious studies on arrival, I founded a psychical research society , joined the London SPR and met the leaders of what is now the College of Psychic Studies in London. where I went to work briefly as librarian in graduation. I owed this appointment to Paul Beard the new president, although sadly he and I did not get along well in the decades ahead. Later I trained as a librarian.
I retired from the psychic field in 1972. Working by then as a junior health service administrator, I had concluded that the future lay mostly with postgraduate parapsychologists. Moreover I had foolishly quarrelled with the office staff of the SPR. Having formed a relationship with a lady who was a later librarian of CPS, and having (like A.P. Sinnett) been badly wounded by an earlier attachment to a princess of the Spiritualist Movement) I had no further public goals. But a visit to an Iona conference seemed to move something internally, and by 1974 I was turning again towards work in the psychic field.
A new cycle of activity began with twin emphases on the SPR and on the Churches' Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies. After I had suggested to the SPR that it should have an annual conference, (they said no) the Society asked me first to organise a study course and then to set up such a conference which took place in 1977. It has been held annually ever since. One of the CFPSS psychical researchers pressed me to join their sub-committee, and out of this came the quarterly " The Christian Parapsychologist" (1975), still published, which I edited until 1978. This ended with me jointly starting an unsuccessful bookshop in Hove, Sussex and disagreeing with CFPSS about the editing of their internal "Quarterly Review".
Looking back on this, I was probably too quick to disagree with people in earlier years, and even to resign from bodies. Some people were enthusiastic about my contribution, while others saw me as a threat, too young, bad-mannered etc. But much of the continuing pattern was established in those years and survived any temporary stresses. My concern was always "to push to boat along", whatever the precise type of work.
2) Q: Since the editorship of Theosophical History passed to Jim Santucci, how have your research interests developed?
A: At present, my main focus is the Psychic Pioneer
Project, ( www.psypioneer.com)
launched in 1999 to promote the study of earlier workers in such fields as
Spiritualism, psychical research, Theosophy and mesmerism. There is a series
of booklets - the third , a short piece by A.J. Davis was printed last week
- which will both reissue old material and offer new studies. The web site
will serve chiefly as a clearing house for news items and requests for information, though we hope to create an on line biographical resource of obituaries and
other sources about middle-level personalities who have tended to be neglected.
The site is designed by my old friend Tony Hern, who in 1993 found the secret Blavatsky "spy" reports in the India Office. It is important to note that without his generously donated professional skills the site would not been created.
We are undertaking this project at a time when large amounts of primary sources, such as bound volumes of old journals, are becoming too rare or fragile for general use. Some libraries are withdrawing access - others are introducing hefty charges.
We enjoy the cordial support of major players like the London SPR and the College of Psychic Studies. But The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, for example, in Hartford, USA, were airmailed complimentary copies of our first booklet on the occasion of their seminar on Victorian Spiritualism, but did not advise the scholars present (who included Ann Braude, author of "Radical Spirits"). Over time, I hope it will be accepted that we have no agenda outside the historical one.
The idea of the Pioneer had been in my mind for some years - I wrote about in Psychic News (PN) in July 1995 and discussed it with some participants in the London Theosophical History weekend of that month. It was Gladney Oakley who encouraged me to take the on-line route rather than be paper-based.
I finally went ahead after I dreamt that PN had closed down. This was not a precognitive dream. I don't have them, and PN is very much still with us; they recently had a competition in which our booklets were prizes. I interpret it to mean that in this particular work, where PN and other periodicals, including the SPR Journal, often carry historical items, there was a nevertheless a need for a specialist channel like the Pioneer project. The morning after the dream I stopped dithering and began to make phone calls.
I have also been working on two individuals who had wide metaphysical interests - G.N.M. Tyrrell, who was president of the London SPR in 1945 and who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Dr J.B. Rhine that he would not understand ESP by his lab methods- and Dr Raynor Johnson, whose birth centenary falls next year and who in some ways inherited the mantle of Tyrrell.
3) Q: What are in your opinion some important open questions regarding the early history of the Theosophical Society and also of Psychical Research?
A: The systematic investigation of psychic phenomena began with people like Professor Robert Hare (American) in 1855 and William Crookes (British) in 1875, who typically used the latest scientific apparatus where possible. It peaked with French savant Dr Osty's work on the physical medium Rudi Schneider in 1930.
But I think we can identify a problem much earlier in working with gifted people. Although researchers were able to get on with mediums like D.D. Home and Rudi, they famously failed to do with Blavatsky. And in our own time, there has been a failure of relationship with such subjects as Uri Geller and Matthew Manning, with whom the output of scientific papers has been (for this reason?) far less than might be hoped. Edgar Cayce is another with whom the scientific legacy was not commensurate with the gifts.
The scientific method has always proved difficult to adapt to paranormal studies. Despite sophisticated tools in parapsychology, such as meta-analysis, I doubt if the minor statistical effects achieved in many tests will ever sway scientific opinion. And this type of enquiry, as Tyrrell came to feel despite his own leadership as an experimenter, appears only to touch the fringes of the psychic realm.
We can see in retrospect that the conditions in which much earlier work was done would not be adequate for scientific purpose today, and (not unconnected) that stage magic had a larger role in producing effects than was generally realised. That is not to suggest that the rhetorical attack on psychical research by the sceptical community is always justified - just that we can all learn even more from each other. I welcome the work of those sceptics like Massimo Polidoro of Italy who publish their findings through JSPR and other scholarly journals.
Gross underfinance has largely crippled research in these areas for many years. It is therefore possible that any major breakthrough will come from mainstream science, using the more generous sources of funding available to it.
4) Q: We have the Ganzfeld experiments showing that psychic abilities exists. But what else can be proven to date?
A: Proof is a controversial concept, about which researchers have had many discussions - in the end, it boils down to what individuals are prepared to accept. I agree that the Ganzfeld experiments suggest the reality of ESP, but there is a wide range of other evidence including crisis apparitions, and sittings with mediums.
I tend to believe in most phenomena in principle, while doubting particular cases and interpretations. Tyrrell thought that humanity was programmed by evolution to focus on the here and now real life, and not such nebulous matters as survival of death, and certainly it has been my experience -and that of many others- that what seems convincing today, appears uncertain after exposure to everyday life for a while.
I would list as proven both extrasensory perception and psychokinesis. I am not sure what would be proof of survival, but I do believe survival is a fact of life. In fact I would define life as an effect made on this world from a higher level, and when that effect is withdrawn, inevitably the original impulse remains on the higher level. You will appreciate that height is a metaphor here- I could have said "inner".
If one accepts the primacy of mental levels, over physical levels, then a wide range of possibilities open up. To give a couple of less common examples - I believe in psychic photographs. This is an area which peculiarly lends itself to fraud and error. I also see no reason to doubt that people see fairies - even, in the case of Gilbert Anderson, a well-known English healer, at the bottom of the garden; (George Russell, the Irish poet saw them in the countryside.) It is the interpretation of what is seen that is the problem. And of course, as the example of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reminds us, it is unwise to be dogmatic about cases that are brought to one's attention.
5) Q: Is there a difference and how would you describe the current status of parapsychological and psychical research in the various parts of the world?
A: Psychical research was not an English or American invention. Continental scholars were well represented among the early students of mesmerism and its so-called higher phenomena - and Spiritualism, as Podmore points out, had mesmeric roots. But Anglo-Saxon dominance was established with the formation of the SPR in 1882. Carlos Alvarado, the Puerto Rican parapsychologist, has repeatedly called attention to the neglect, indeed the prejudice, against work in foreign languages. Early volumes of SPR Proceedings contained careful reviews of foreign work, and attempts are made all the time to keep English readers acquainted with what is happening in the German- speaking say, or the Spanish -speaking world. But it is a continuing struggle, and if a researcher wishes to become known, they usually choose to publish in English or they are relatively neglected. This I am sure is to the impoverishment of the English readers who in general (despite the international efforts of the parapsychological Association) have no clear idea what is happening among parapsychologists of most other countries.
One of the inspirations of the Pioneer project is Emma Hardinge Britten's work "Nineteenth Century Miracles" which has chapters for each part of the world. Careful reading suggests she used mainly English-language sources. But nevertheless, she took a global perspective.
6) Q: How did the Psychic Pioneer come about? What has the response been thus far?
A: Psychic Pioneer is born of thirty years frustration at
the wealth of data largely unknown and inaccessible in old journals and books. We live in an age which on the one hand glories in "heritage" but on the other
perpetrates grossly inaccurate versions of historical events in the media.
New technology gives us a chance to change this.
The reception from nearly all sides had been sympathetic. It would not be possible, incidentally, to have the web site without the technical input of my old friend Tony Hern. The potential is recognised - it is now up to us to realise it.
7) Q: In one of the first issues of THJ you commented about the importance of the Krishnamurti phenomenon for THJ. After so much more literature that came out about Krishnamurti with so many varying viewpoints, including a book by Dr. Vanamali Gunturu "Husserl and Krishnamurti", claiming an influence by the philosopher Husserl in Krishnamurti's viewpoints, or the even more recent work by Aryel Sanat, what is your current overall opinion on this subject?
A: The late Walter Carrithers had a theory about Krishnamurti- that the source of his early teaching was the "philosophical" literature he read which was generally available around 1920 - a writer such as Count Keyersling, for example. Whatever sources may be traced, it is obvious that Krishnamurti reacted against the structured, authoritarian and institutionalised world in which he was brought up by the Theosophists.
I am not aware of any evidence that he ever read the core Theosophical literature such as Madame Blavatsky. Nor that he read the New Testament, though
he presumed to put these and other religious systems in their place. I consider him a medium, behind whom stood entities.
Some admirers want to give a high status to those inspirers, calling them masters for example, and that may be the case. Mediums, however gifted, are commonly more ordinary than their highest inspirers, so we should not put Krishnamurti on too high a pedestal, and should treat critically what he has to say.
8) Q: How do you assess the development of Theosophical history as a subdiscipline in the last 15 years? Where do you see signs of progress, if any, and where have you felt disappointment?
A: With the magazine TH, its occasional papers, and even more occasional conferences acting as an anchor, the study of theosophical history has been given a focus and the sheer persistence of this is a great achievement. It is disappointing that theosophical organisations and their members, and the academic community have not been willing to invest more - the low TH subscriber figures speak for themselves. Nevertheless, something like peer pressure does exist. Anyone can still publish a silly book about say, HPB, and give her age as 60 and write of her drinking, but there is a community of scholars out there now who (whatever their view of personalities) are sensitive to inaccuracies great and small and will point out that she was 59 at death and teetotal!
9) Q: In your years of research on Blavatsky, have your views of her changed and if so how?
A: Madame Blavatsky remains largely unexplored - there is for example, no journal devoted to the scholarly discussion of her book The Secret Doctrine. I still find appealing the view of her espoused by Barborka and prefigured by Olcott that she was an expression of tulku (or avesa) as I mentioned in my booklet "Madame Blavatsky Unveiled?" I say this as one now taking an orthodox Christian view and disagreeing with her metaphyhsics profoundly.
10) Q: What do you regard as the most promising directions for future research in Theosophical history? In the broader field of esoteric history?
A: I am sure it is right to promote this subject area within
the academic community, and to see it as part of wider cultural developments. Of course Theosophy was mostly a democrat movement - in some countries quite
poor people could join, and it is never going to have the snob value of some
of those esoteric streams that were limited to the rich or the intellectual.
An interesting feature of the field is that major contributions are still coming from scholars whose current links to the universities are tenuous (Pat Deveney, Paul Johnson, Jean Overton Fuller, Michael Gomes for example.) I hope this will continue to be the case and there is no academic divide.
11) Q: What are your views on the search for historical identifications of HPB's Masters?
A: As I observed in reviewing Dr. Vernon Harrison's book for SPR Journal not long ago, I believe HPB was the agent for a group of people. I hope attempts will continue to identify them. Even if it fails, we will end up with a better understanding of the context in which she worked.