Everything you always wanted to know about Michael Gomes, but were afraid to ask.
An Interview with theosophical historian, Michael Gomes
[I sat down with Michael Gomes after he gave this year’s Blavatsky Lecture at the Summer School of the TS in England (2007). The wooded grounds of the University of Leicester, where we talked, provided the setting.
Katinka Hesselink ]
- How did you get into theosophical history?
- That’s an unusual story. It happened when I was in Canada. I came in contact with Theosophy before I knew there was such a thing as the Theosophical Society. I got my parents to give me a copy of Isis Unveiled for a Christmas present when I was sixteen. I had already come across a picture of HPB and Olcott (the one where they are sitting together in England, 1888).
- Everything I had read about Blavatsky said that she was a discredited medium, but reading Isis led me to want to know more about her. I found out that there was such a thing as the Theosophical Society still in existence. The Toronto TS was actually one of the oldest surviving lodges in North America, its charter having been signed by HPB in April 1891. It had a wonderful library. That’s how I became involved with theosophical libraries. I helped them pack their books to their new location.
- This in turn led me to meet a number of veteran theosophists who would give me my first old theosophical books and warn me about the dangers of neo-theosophy. There was for instance Ted Davy, who was then the General Secretary of the Canadian Section of the Theosophical Society. I became interested in the work of Beatrice Hastings and after much investigation found that her collection survived in Vernon, British Columbia [Canada]. I went out to visit the custodian of the library and was able to catalogue her papers. I met old Mrs. Edith Fielding, who had been a pupil of the founder of the library, who, in turn, had been a pupil of Alice Cleather, one of HPB’s Inner Group pupils.
- But I wanted to know the truth about HPB. I wanted to know whether she was a fraud. That has led me on a lifelong pursuit for the truth about Madame Blavatsky. This eventually led me to the SPR [Society for Psychical Research] archives, which were then in London, now in Cambridge. I went through Hodgson’s papers. It led me to Adyar where HPB’s scrapbooks, Olcott’s diaries, and other material still exist. I have touched her hair and smelled her tobacco. Madame Blavatsky has become a good friend of mine.
- You started out in Theosophy as a young lad, but that wasn’t your occupation was it?
- It being the 1960’s I was interviewing musicians for a Canadian magazine. One of them was performing in New York in 1973 and suggested I cover their act. I have remained a New Yorker ever since. I worked as an assistant to the designer Charles James, which led me to an interest in archives maintenance, because his files spanned 50 years of work. Still involved in the music business, I became publicity director for a record company till 1983. Once freed of that I pursued my lifelong interest in Theosophy and went to Adyar in 1984.
- How long have you been librarian at the New York Lodge of the Theosophical Society?
- Twelve years, I started there in 1995.
- What did you do before that?
- I was retired from my job and wrote books and researched. This was my labour of love. Before retirement I was in India from 1990 to 1992. I did research in the Adyar Library and the Archives at the headquarters there and in TS [Theosophical Society] libraries in India. I was working on my book HPB Teaches , which was planned for the centenary of Blavatsky’s death in 1991, although it came out in 1992. It’s an anthology of her work. My bibliography of Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century came out in 1994. For that I went to libraries in India: Bombay [Mumbai], Benares, Calcutta (which was capital of India in the nineteenth century), and Adyar. My bibliography doesn’t only cover Blavatsky, but everything published by theosophists in the nineteenth century.
- The Mrs Walter Tibbits Memorial Library in Benares, for instance, was very interesting. Mrs Tibbits was a fascinating lady. Chakravarti had three main Western pupils: Annie Besant, Bertram Keightley and Mrs. Tibbits. She (Mrs. Tibbits) said that one left Chakravarti (Annie Besant), one stayed loyal (Bertram Keightley) and one was in the middle (Mrs. Tibbits herself). Bertram Keightley lived till 1940 in Benares by the way. Chakravarti’s wife became a spiritual teacher in her own right. She started an ashram which still exists. Her successor was Sri Krishna Prem, an Englishman who wrote Man: the Measure of All Things .
- How did we get on this subject?
- You insisted.
- Before I came to India I studied at Columbia University and also worked in the main library. There I wrote The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement . The library was very good. It didn’t have much theosophical material, but it did have a lot of background information. For instance: HPB quotes Movers 1841 Die PhoŽnizer a lot in Isis Unveiled , they have it. They have Norberg’s translation of the Codex Nazaraeus that she cites. They also have a lot of nineteenth century newspapers and journals.
- At Columbia I had classes with people like Alex Wayman, who was an expert on Esoteric Buddhism. He translated important parts of the Lam Rim by Tsong Kha Pa. He was also interested in Theosophy and told me he had found the origin of the theosophical word “fohat.” The other great expert on Esoteric Buddhism at the time who had an influence on my approach was Hajime Nakamura of the University of Tokyo. Their research contributed to the current scholarly recognition of the subject today. They were pioneers. They did the chapters on Esoteric Buddhism in Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion .
- I loved being in India. It made theosophical history come alive for me. I have been into the Vishwanath temple, regarded as one of the holiest places in India; it is where Shiva resides. Even Annie Besant wasn’t allowed in. I can pass for an Indian when I’m in Indian dress. Knowing a bit of Hindi helps as well.
- What was it like, researching in the Adyar Library?
- Interesting. I am one of the few people who has been through the entire card catalogue at the Adyar Library and seen all the material relevant to my research. That’s how I spent my first year there, going through the archives and the library. I’ve been back a number of times.
- Did you find out anything you did not know?
- Well, the teacup that they have that is shown as the precipitated cup is actually a soup cup. There are so many things, it would take up all the space on your website to list them.
- You must have quite a library yourself?
- Not really. Most people are surprised that I don’t have a lot of books. In fact, the major part of my books are on South Asia: history, literature, religion, philosophy, and related areas to my study at Columbia. Very early in my career I had to make a conscious decision whether to be a collector or not. Because I was so young, space and finances decided my decision, and I am quite happy to make notes or have copies of what I needed. Plus, things I would regard as special other people wouldn’t, such as the Indian comic book edition of young Nehru’s life, depicting F.T. Brooks influence on him, that I found when I was there. It led me to do a piece on it.
- You lived for some years in Blavatsky’s old home in New York, the Lamasery. What was that like?
- Yes, I’ve spent time at a lot of the locations that she lived after the TS was started. Before it was recently remodeled out of recognition, I lived at the Lamasery on 47th and 8th Avenue for seven years. At the time I was there, the building had had little renovation. The rooms were almost as HPB and Olcott left them. You could still see where the gas jets were. The rooms had never been wired for wall outlets. Can you imagine! In New York! And as recent as thirty years ago. But the place still had a certain atmosphere. Of course, I chose the location knowing HPB had lived there, but it was also convenient to where I worked and lived at the time.
- I have always been a strong believer in doing on-site research. Early in her writings, Blavatsky says that a single journey to the East, done with a specific end in view, could produce more results than years of book study. In the same way, on-site research does the same thing. It brings the picture into focus, bringing out details, clues, that were formerly unnoticed.
- What are you working on right now?
- I’m working on transcribing the originals of the transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge. About one fourth of that material is published. It’s fascinating stuff. It includes names of the questioners and answers by Blavatsky on The Secret Doctrine . Yet even the part as published is different from the originals. They cleaned it up a lot by fitting the questions to the answers and things like that. I hope this will be published in 2008.
- I’m also working on a biography of HPB, which I hope will be published in 2031 for her birth bicentenary. She was born in 1831 so that’s two centuries after Blavatsky’s birth. There really is no good biography of HPB. The current books tell you everything about her, except who she was.
- Have you ever been married?
- No, not yet. Are you proposing?
- On my salary I couldn’t afford a wife.
- So how old are you then?
[Michael looks like he could be in his 40’s. Some people I talked to were quite definite in stating that he is 65. One person was sure he was in his late 50’s. From the below it becomes clear that in the 1960’s he would have been at the end of his teens going into his twenties. That would give a probable year of birth around 1945 and his age now around 63.]
- I was born in the nineteenth century, I don’t mean that literally, but the world of the nineteenth century. The region was called “Little Europe” of South America: French Guiana, Dutch Guiana, and British Guiana. When I was a child I spent time at my grandfather’s plantation in a remote area of Trinidad. It was very much like the nineteenth century. Even though it was considered luxurious there was no electricity, there were kerosene lamps. When I started school we used slates to write on, so when I read about the slate phenomenon I knew exactly what they were talking about: the weight, the texture, the sound that chalk made on it. Many of the things we are told about the world Blavatsky lived in I knew first hand. How it looked, smelled, worked.
- From that wonderful idyllic world at the edge of the jungle I was taken up into modern times when my parents went to Canada. But Canada in the 1960’s was like the United States in the 50’s. A lot of the things on television I saw were made in the U.S. in the 1950’s. I saw snow for the first time. I’m actually a pretty good ice skater and although I was born in a tropical country I have a low tolerance of heat.
- So when I went to India in 1984 for the first time (in this life) I experienced a wave of euphoria. I thought to myself: this is what Devachan must feel like. All kinds of suppressed memories rose up. It was overwhelming. For instance the Cannonball tree on the Adyar estate that produces a large waxy, sweet-smelling flower: it’s from South America, so I recognized it from my childhood. The sounds and the smells were familiar. And although my mother isn’t Indian, she is a good cook of Indian food. She used to make Indian food for me when I was sick, and it always seemed to make me better. I love India because the Indians consider me one of their own. They have often told me: these Westerners don’t understand us. I almost got a Brahmin thread. Old Mr. C.R.N. Swamy, who had been treasurer of the TS in 1975 and was still living at Adyar, a real old-style theosophist, wanted to adopt me into his gotra (clan). I got as far as practicing for the ceremony. Mr. Swamy told me it’s the only surviving example of a real initiation ceremony. Luckily the sun moved southward and because the ceremony had to be done at a certain auspicious time of the year, I didn’t have to embarrass myself standing half-clothed in front of a group of people.
- So where in India have you been?
- Benares the holy (Varanasi). I’ve been up to Darjeeling in the Himalayas, crossed into Sikkim. I even crossed the Runjeet river that leads to Tibet. Bombay, Calcutta. I’ve recently been to Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj. I found [A.O.] Hume’s home. This was my first holiday in 20 years. The only time I wasn’t working on some project or the other. People don’t realize what a lot of work research really is. Real research, not just summarizing a couple of books. Then there is the psychic toll. On that last trip I went to Amritzar, circumambulated the tank at the Sikh Golden Temple; it is huge. That’s where Col. Olcott saw the master in 1880. Yes, it’s been a wonderful life. Because India for me is not “The Other”. It Is. I wouldn’t change a single thing, because it led me to where I am today.
- What do you feel your contribution has been?
- I’m not dead yet! When I started researching this field forty years ago, the public image of HPB was very different than what it is today. It was a very negative one. Academics wouldn’t touch her. In my books I argued for a reappraisal based on the new documentary material I was able to bring out and shift the discourse from one based on personality to her influence.
- The first thing one does when one wants to know the extent of the field one is studying is to see what has been written about it, and so you turn to bibliographies on the subject. Unfortunately we had no real bibliography on Theosophy, just a few attempts dealing with HPB. This need has been met with Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century, which is also the first attempt to delineate the output of other theosophical writers at the time. Now HPB is at least a subject for consideration among academics and courses are being offered recognizing her contribution, this then influences the media’s approach, which finally informs public perception. The Theosophy seminar organised by James Santucci at the Annual Meetings of the AAR [American Academy of Religion] helped.
- In what way would you say Theosophy is important for your day-to-day life decisions?
- I don’t approach Theosophy as a blind believer. Studying it does impact my approach to life though. It gives a certain awareness or insight. Blavatsky said that occultism is the science of life, the art of living. It’s not so much about rules and regulations as it is about the approach to life. Even if you know all about the rounds and the races in the Secret Doctrine , you can still be a back stabber. I think Krishnamurti’s challenge to members in 1929: in what way has this belief made you any different (than the man in the street who doesn’t have it), is central. It’s not about learning stuff by heart. It’s about living.
- So whom should I interview next?
- Madonna. I met her when I was in the music business. I didn’t think she was remarkable then. She was a shy person, but has since shown herself to be a tremendous businesswoman. She made Kabbalah fashionable and accessible to the masses. She was the first prominent woman in that field.
[If anyone can actually get Madonna to agree to such an interview, I would obviously be delighted - Katinka Hesselink]