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Chapter 17

I have described what image--always opposite to the natural self
or the natural world--Wilde, Henley, Morris copied or tried to
copy, but I have not said if I found an image for myself. I know
very little about myself and much less of that anti-self: probably
the woman who cooks my dinner or the woman who sweeps out my study
knows more than I. It is perhaps because nature made me a
gregarious man, going hither and thither looking for conversation,
and ready to deny from fear or favour his dearest conviction, that
I love proud and lonely images. When I was a child and went daily
to the sexton's daughter for writing lessons, I found one poem in
her School Reader that delighted me beyond all others: a fragment
of some metrical translation from Aristophanes wherein the birds
sing scorn upon mankind. In later years my mind gave itself to
gregarious Shelley's dream of a young man, his hair blanched with
sorrow studying philosophy in some lonely tower, or of his old
man, master of all human knowledge, hidden from human sight in
some shell-strewn cavern on the Mediterranean shore. One passage
above all ran perpetually in my ears--

Some feign that he is Enoch: others dream
He was pre-Adamite, and has survived
Cycles of generation and of ruin.
The sage, in truth, by dreadful abstinence,
And conquering penance of the mutinous flesh,
Deep contemplation and unwearied study,
In years outstretched beyond the date of man,
May have attained to sovereignty and science
Over those strong and secret things and thoughts
Which others fear and know not.

MAHMUD
I would talk
With this old Jew.

HASSAN
Thy will is even now
Made known to him where he dwells in a sea-cavern
'Mid the Demonesi, less accessible
Than thou or God! He who would question him
Must sail alone at sunset where the stream
Of ocean sleeps around those foamless isles,
When the young moon is westering as now,
And evening airs wander upon the wave;
And, when the pines of that bee-pasturing isle,
Green Erebinthus, quench the fiery shadow
Of his gilt prow within the sapphire water,
Then must the lonely helmsman cry aloud
'Ahasuerus!' and the caverns round
Will answer 'Ahasuerus!' If his prayer
Be granted, a faint meteor will arise,
Lighting him over Marmora; and a wind
Will rush out of the sighing pine-forest,
And with the wind a storm of harmony
Unutterably sweet, and pilot him
Through the soft twilight to the Bosphorus:
Thence, at the hour and place and circumstance
Fit for the matter of their conference,
The Jew appears. Few dare, and few who dare
Win the desired communion.

Already in Dublin, I had been attracted to the Theosophists
because they had affirmed the real existence of the Jew, or of his
like; and, apart from whatever might have been imagined by Huxley,
Tyndall, Carolus Duran and Bastien-Lepage, I saw nothing against
his reality. Presently having heard that Madame Blavatsky had
arrived from France, or from India, I thought it time to look the
matter up. Certainly if wisdom existed anywhere in the world it
must be in some such lonely mind admitting no duty to us,
communing with God only, conceding nothing from fear or favour.
Have not all peoples, while bound together in a single mind and
taste, believed that such men existed and paid them that honour,
or paid it to their mere shadow, which they have refused to
philanthropists and to men of learning?

I found Madame Blavatsky in a little house at Norwood, with but,
as she said, three followers left--the Society of Psychical
Research had just reported on her Indian phenomena--and as one of
the three followers sat in an outer room to keep out undesirable
visitors, I was kept a long time kicking my heels. Presently I was
admitted and found an old woman in a plain loose dark dress: a
sort of old Irish peasant woman with an air of humour and
audacious power. I was still kept waiting, for she was deep in
conversation with a woman visitor. I strayed through folding doors
into the next room and stood, in sheer idleness of mind, looking
at a cuckoo clock. It was certainly stopped, for the weights were
off and lying upon the ground, and yet as I stood there the cuckoo
came out and cuckooed at me. I interrupted Madame Blavatsky to
say. 'Your clock has hooted me.' 'It often hoots at a stranger,'
she replied. 'Is there a spirit in it?' I said. 'I do not know,'
she said, 'I should have to be alone to know what is in it.' I
went back to the clock and began examining it and heard her say
'Do not break my clock.' I wondered if there was some hidden
mechanism, and I should have been put out, I suppose, had I found
any, though Henley had said to me, 'Of course she gets up
fraudulent miracles, but a person of genius has to do something;
Sarah Bernhardt sleeps in her coffin.' Presently the visitor went
away and Madame Blavatsky explained that she was a propagandist
for women's rights who had called to find out 'why men were so
bad.' 'What explanation did you give her?' I said. 'That men were
born bad but women made themselves so,' and then she explained
that I had been kept waiting because she had mistaken me for some
man whose name resembled mine and who wanted to persuade her of
the flatness of the earth.

When I next saw her she had moved into a house at Holland Park,
and some time must have passed--probably I had been in Sligo where
I returned constantly for long visits--for she was surrounded by
followers. She sat nightly before a little table covered with
green baize and on this green baize she scribbled constantly with
a piece of white chalk. She would scribble symbols, sometimes
humorously applied, and sometimes unintelligible figures, but the
chalk was intended to mark down her score when she played
patience. One saw in the next room a large table where every night
her followers and guests, often a great number, sat down to their
vegetarian meal, while she encouraged or mocked through the
folding doors. A great passionate nature, a sort of female Dr.
Johnson, impressive, I think, to every man or woman who had
themselves any richness, she seemed impatient of the formalism, of
the shrill abstract idealism of those about her, and this
impatience broke out inrailing & many nicknames: 'O you are a
flapdoodle, but then you are a theosophist and a brother. 'The
most devout and learned of all her followers said to me, 'H.P.B.
has just told me that there is another globe stuck on to this at
the north pole, so that the earth has really a shape something
like a dumb-bell.' I said, for I knew that her imagination
contained all the folklore of the world, 'That must be some piece
of Eastern mythology.' 'O no it is not,' he said, 'of that I am
certain, and there must be something in it or she would not have
said it.' Her mockery was not kept for her followers alone, and
her voice would become harsh, and her mockery lose phantasy and
humour, when she spoke of what seemed to her scientific
materialism. Once I saw this antagonism, guided by some kind of
telepathic divination, take a form of brutal phantasy. I brought a
very able Dublin woman to see her and this woman had a brother, a
physiologist whose reputation, though known to specialists alone,
was European; and, because of this brother, a family pride in
everything scientific and modern. The Dublin woman scarcely opened
her mouth the whole evening and her name was certainly unknown to
Madame Blavatsky, yet I saw at once in that wrinkled old face bent
over the cards, and the only time I ever saw it there, a personal
hostility, the dislike of one woman for another. Madame Blavatsky
seemed to bundle herself up, becoming all primeval peasant, and
began complaining of her ailments, more especially of her bad leg.
But of late her master--her 'old Jew,' her 'Ahasuerus,' cured it,
or set it on the way to be cured. 'I was sitting here in my
chair,' she said, 'when the master came in and brought something
with him which he put over my knee, something warm which enclosed
my knee--it was a live dog which he had cut open.' I recognised a
cure used sometimes in mediaeval medicine. She had two masters,
and their portraits, ideal Indian heads, painted by some most
incompetent artist, stood upon either side of the folding doors.
One night, when talk was impersonal and general, I sat gazing
through the folding doors into the dimly lighted dining-room
beyond. I noticed a curious red light shining upon a picture and
got up to see where the red light came from. It was the picture of
an Indian and as I came near it slowly vanished. When I returned
to my seat, Madame Blavatsky said, 'What did you see?' 'A
picture,' I said. 'Tell it to go away.' 'It is already gone.' 'So
much the better,' she said, 'I was afraid it was medium ship but
it is only clairvoyance.' 'What is the difference?' 'If it had
been medium ship, it would have stayed in spite of you. Beware of
medium ship; it is a kind of madness; I know, for I have been
through it.'

I found her almost always full of gaiety that, unlike the
occasional joking of those about her, was illogical and
incalculable and yet always kindly and tolerant. I had called one
evening to find her absent, but expected every moment. She had
been somewhere at the seaside for her health and arrived with a
little suite of followers. She sat down at once in her big chair,
and began unfolding a brown paper parcel, while all looked on full
of curiosity. It contained a large family Bible. 'This is a
present for my maid,' she said. 'What! A Bible and not even
anointed!' said some shocked voice. 'Well my children,' was the
answer, 'what is the good of giving lemons to those who want
oranges?' When I first began to frequent her house, as I soon did
very constantly, I noticed a handsome clever woman of the world
there, who seemed certainly very much out of place, penitent
though she thought herself. Presently there was much scandal and
gossip, for the penitent was plainly entangled with two young men,
who were expected to grow into ascetic sages. The scandal was so
great that Madame Blavatsky had to call the penitent before her
and to speak after this fashion, 'We think that it is necessary to
crush the animal nature; you should live in chastity in act and
thought. Initiation is granted only to those who are entirely
chaste,' and so to run on for some time. However, after some
minutes in that vehement style, the penitent standing crushed and
shamed before her, she had wound up, 'I cannot permit you more
than one.' She was quite sincere, but thought that nothing
mattered but what happened in the mind, and that if we could not
master the mind, our actions were of little importance. One young
man filled her with exasperation; for she thought that his settled
gloom came from his chastity. I had known him in Dublin, where he
had been accustomed to interrupt long periods of asceticism, in
which he would eat vegetables and drink water, with brief
outbreaks of what he considered the devil. After an outbreak he
would for a few hours dazzle the imagination of the members of the
local theosophical society with poetical rhapsodies about harlots
and street lamps, and then sink into weeks of melancholy. A fellow
theosophist once found him hanging from the window pole, but cut
him down in the nick of time. I said to the man who cut him down,
'What did you say to one another?' He said, 'We spent the night
telling comic stories and laughing a great deal.' This man, torn
between sensuality and visionary ambition, was now the most devout
of all, and told me that in the middle of the night he could often
hear the ringing of the little 'astral bell' whereby Madame
Blavatsky's master called her attention, and that, although it was
a low silvery sound it made the whole house shake. Another night I
found him waiting in the hall to show in those who had the right
of entrance on some night when the discussion was private, and as
I passed he whispered into my ear, 'Madame Blavatsky is perhaps
not a real woman at all. They say that her dead body was found
many years ago upon some Russian battlefield.' She had two
dominant moods, both of extreme activity, but one calm and
philosophic, and this was the mood always on that night in the
week, when she answered questions upon her system; and as I look
back after thirty years I often ask myself 'Was her speech
automatic? Was she for one night, in every week, a trance medium,
or in some similar state?' In the other mood she was full of
phantasy and inconsequent raillery. 'That is the Greek church, a
triangle like all true religion,' I recall her saying, as she
chalked out a triangle on the green baize, and then, as she made
it disappear in meaningless scribbles 'it spread out and became a
bramble-bush like the Church of Rome.' Then rubbing it all out
except one straight line, 'Now they have lopped off the branches
and turned it into a broomstick arid that is Protestantism.' And
so it was, night after night, always varied and unforseen. I have
observed a like sudden extreme change in others, half whose
thought was supernatural, and Laurence Oliphant records some where
or other like observations. I can remember only once finding her
in a mood of reverie; something had happened to damp her spirits,
some attack upon her movement, or upon herself. She spoke of
Balzac, whom she had seen but once, of Alfred de Musset, whom she
had known well enough to dislike for his morbidity, and of George
Sand whom she had known so well that they had dabbled in magic
together of which 'neither knew anything at all' in those days;
and she ran on, as if there was nobody there to overhear her, 'I
used to wonder at and pity the people who sell their souls to the
devil, but now I only pity them. They do it to have somebody on
their sides,' and added to that, after some words I have
forgotten, 'I write, write, write as the Wandering Jew walks,
walks, walks.' Besides the devotees, who came to listen and to
turn every doctrine into a new sanction for the puritanical
convictions of their Victorian childhood, cranks came from half
Europe and from all America, and they came that they might talk.
One American said to me, 'She has become the most famous woman in
the world by sitting in a big chair and permitting us to talk.'
They talked and she played patience, and totted up her score on
the green baize, and generally seemed to listen, but sometimes she
would listen no more. There was a woman who talked perpetually of
'the divine spark' within her, until Madame Blavatsky stopped her
with--'Yes, my dear, you have a divine spark within you, and if
you are not very careful you will hear it snore.' A certain
Salvation Army captain probably pleased her, for, if vociferous
and loud of voice, he had much animation. He had known hardship
and spoke of his visions while starving in the streets and he was
still perhaps a little light in the head. I wondered what he could
preach to ignorant men, his head ablaze with wild mysticism, till
I met a man who had heard him talking near Covent Garden to some
crowd in the street. 'My friends,' he was saying, 'you have the
kingdom of heaven within you and it would take a pretty big pill
to get that out.'

William Butler Yeats

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