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BOOK REVIEW: "The Unlikely Occultist" by Isobel Blackthorn

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BOOK REVIEW: The Unlikely Occultist: A Biographical Novel of Alice A. Bailey by Isobel Blackthorn (Creativia) 2018

Back in the 1980’s and 90’s, just as the whole “conspiracy culture” was really getting started, a name that would pop up now and then was “Alice Bailey.” They said Bailey was essentially a sinister, anti-Christian monster hellbent on seeing a “New World Order” come to fruition via secret societies, Bilderberg types and, of course, the work conducted at the United Nations.

This, it was said, would lead to a “New Age.” And while that sounded positive, the cranks insisted it was all a ploy to enslave humanity. But had they actually read her more than 25 books? Had they studied them? Probably not. But then I would guess that few have.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s organization, the New York-based Lucis Trust, was originally “Lucifer,” rather than “Lucis” only changed to keep Christian fundamentalists from freaking out too much.

But who was Alice A. Bailey, really? Why was she so demonized, more so than other esotericists of the early-to-mid 20th century? Was it due to jealousy from others who wanted to be the center of attention and spiritual enlightenment? What of the accusations made against her by various people accusing her of elitist and anti-Semitic beliefs?

That last accusation is noted, specifically, by writer Hannah Newman, who states that the 1945 "Great Invocation," which is a "poetic New Age prayer for peace and oneness," and authored - through Bailey - by the divine spirits known as the "Hierarchy of Ascended Masters," is interpreted one way for the "uninitiated" and another way for initiates. The initiates, it is said, seek to end monotheism, of which Judaism is a part, so that the "Plan" will be achieved. It is no surprise, then, that Bailey's views have been taken to task and criticized over the years, and rightly so. (The Lucis Trust has responded to these criticisms of Bailey here).

Publicly, Bailey always rejected the accusations of anti-Semitism and said so, repeatedly in her writings with Blackthorn noting Bailey's deep concerns about the rapid rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Blackthorn addresses these issues through Heather, who even at the end of the book is not 100 percent sure of what she thinks about Bailey, "The Tibetan" and her voluminous writings. Both Blackthorn and Heather are troubled by the anti-Semitism accusations and seek to understand why Bailey and the Masters would share those views. Frankly, I think it will continue to hamper interest in Bailey's writings, at least beyond those who are esotericists already and seek to advance a New Age.

Interestingly, it was Swiss psychologist and coiner of the notion of "synchronicity," Carl G. Jung, who has faced similar accusations, but was also someone who would not meet with Bailey or take part in her lecture programs. A wealthy patron of Bailey's (linked to her Arcane School) is obsessed with Jung, ultimately to the exclusion of Bailey, as we learn in The Unlikely Occultist

Blackthorn, a writer based in Australia, does a tremendous job of outlining Bailey’s life, with its struggles, revelations, achievements and the esoteric “baggage” that her work seems to always be carrying around. Her first disastrous marriage. Her three daughters. Her experiences with the rigid hierarchy within the Theosophical Society. The fact that she never feels her writings and lectures are ever truly appreciated. It is as if she is not truly believed to be the real deal. After all, why Alice Bailey, of all people, a most “unlikely occultist.”

And rather than a straightforward biography, Blackthorn – a scholar of Alice Ann Latrobe-Bateman Evans Bailey, having completed her doctoral thesis on the British citizen who died in 1949 – has framed the story as a biographical novel involving a young woman from Melbourne, a archivist and researcher named Heather Brown, who has come into an inheritance, following her aunt’s death, while also organizing boxes of books and notes a professor at her school had collected – material related to Bailey and her writings.

Heather is reluctant at first to get sucked into the Bailey material that was being researched by the late Professor Samantha Foyle. But something pulls at her, particularly as she leafs through Bailey’s The Unfinished Biography.

Bailey, born to a prominent English family in 1880, is raised a strict Christian and a very conservative, proper and genteel woman. She considers herself spiritual, while also heeding the Christ-like call to serve others. But fate – and an ethereal spiritual “Master” known as “The Tibetan” -  have other plans, particularly as her Christian missionary work in India falls flat. Having been visited by The Tibetan (Djwhal Khul) at age 15, and later in Lucknow, India at a low point in her life, Bailey – like Blackthorn’s protagonist Heather – accepts the things that come her way, if only because of her intense “goodwill” and love of humanity. It’s as though The Tibetan – and the Masters, spoken of by Theosophy founder Helena P. Blavatsky – saw these qualities in Bailey and knew she would be a perfect human vessel to spread the word of the coming New Age.

As Blackthorn writes on page 99: “(Bailey) fought to overcome her frailties by ignoring them, focusing instead on her thirst for understanding. It wasn’t knowledge she was after, it was a penetrating awareness, as though all that she already knew was a veil behind which lay deeper truths and she wanted to rip that veil and see, really see into the meaning of things. Above all, she wanted to know what the Masters wanted.

I should note here that finding Blackthorn’s book on Bailey came at the perfect time for me. I have researched and written recently about Bailey’s impact on musicians I admire, including Lou Reed (The Velvet Underground), Van Morrison, Jonathan Richman (The Modern Lovers) and Dave Davies of The Kinks. Bailey's works were popular amongst the hip crowd hanging out at The Factory with Andy Warhol, according to this Dangerous Minds article noting the influence of Bailey's book A Treatise on White Magic, one of her many books featuring the simple blue cover and Lucis logo in the lower right corner.

And then there was mention of Bailey – her works and importance – as noted in John Keel’s writings from 1967 (as he was investigating the "Mothman" sightings in West Virginia), as noted in the re-release of those writings in a book titled The Big Blackout, which I noted in my Feb. 21, 2019 Dust Devil Dreams post “On approach” …

I just read The Big Blackout, and in light of the "white light" conversation, I found Keel's entry for August 25, 1967 of interest in that Paro had been contacted by "ultraterrestrials" or something to go to the Lucis Trust Library at the United Nations and look for the "middle chapter of the 32nd book on the first shelf." Well, Keel went himself went and found the book, dealing with color perception (no title given) and "the middle chapter was about colors beyond the visible spectrum." 

Keel also asked to borrow a book by the aforementioned Alice Bailey. This one was titled The Externalization of Hierarchy. Keel writes: "This is part of a set that - so help me - details the whole bloody mystery in occult terms." Now, for a guy like Keel to say this, well, is saying something. He seems genuinely baffled and distressed in writing that line. But beyond mentioning the Lucis Trust as being a "genuine outlet for contactees,"

Keel says little more on the matter. And that's something I keep noticing in all of this: when confronted with this seemingly mind-blowing information, the person, be it Whitley Strieber or Lou Reed or John Keel, well, they only go so far. I will note that there is a link to all those names - New York!

And as New York goes, Bailey – and Blackthorn’s plucky bookworm Heather – are drawn to the Big Apple. It is where the Lucis Trust is. It is where the United Nations is located, the global-minded organization that Bailey so strongly desired. This is where the decisions are made.

In fact, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was key in getting the UN’s Meditation Room, which he personally planned and supervised every detail, including the placement of the six-and-a-half ton block of iron ore that would serve as an “altar,” which Bo Beskow’s abstract mural in this “Room of Quiet” is utterly striking. And this is where Blackthorn's book begins, in that room that has dazzled and puzzled so many over the decades.

If Hammarskjöld was looking to find a place that equally embraced and transcended the belief systems of the day, this was it. And that's what Bailey was after, as Blackthorn writes: "(g)lobal ideas and projects that would transcend all the limitations of gender, race, class, color, creed and national boundary, yet manage to include them all. That, for Alice Bailey, was the essence of the New Age of Aquarius and she had taken it upon herself to make that vision a reality. It appeared she had taken the notions of Christian goodwill and service, and blended them with the Buddhist idea of right relations. She never left her old faith behind; she dressed it up in new clothes."

And while it sounds ideal, Bailey could not escape the fact that humans are very tribal. Very nationalistic. She was offering ideas and methods that were meant to "offset the rise of nationalism" while also fostering equality, and the "fair distribution of resources; religious unity" and "to temper the divisions between the faiths to help prevent the catastrophic consequences of religious war.

Remember, this was some 80-90 years ago as authoritarian ideologies such Nazism, Fascism and Communism were rapidly on the rise. And look at the world today. Rising nationalism. Economic, gender and racial inequality. Religious wars. Humanity never seems to be able to quite get it and never quite embraces the goodwill and global peace initiatives that Bailey promoted. I would not be surprised if renewed interest in Bailey's work experiences a renaissance is our increasingly divided and troubled world. 

Admittedly, this is a book that jumps around a bit. One page or chapter you are hearing Heather's thoughts and/or conversations with skeptical parents or colleagues. The next you are in Bailey's world of thinkers, intellectuals and New Age gurus in that period between the world wars, all doing very human things, when you get right down to it. And that's what I took away from The Unlikely Occultist: whether or not you believe in ethereal "Masters" or beings guiding humans toward a brighter, more egalitarian "day," we have to realize that on our plane of existence there is still much for us to work out, beginning with treating one another with dignity and respect, while also embracing love and rejecting fear.

If a belief spreads that is all about division and "the other" and exclusion, it is not coming from a good place, Bailey believed. Bailey - who was a very determined woman and desired to bring humanity up from its lowly state - had her work cut out for her. Her passion and determination - and sheer physical exhaustion - likely led to her frequent illnesses and death at age 69.

Blackthorn, interestingly, says in her online bio that she has always held Bailey's teachings "lightly" and does not consider herself an "adherent." Still, she says it took reading and researching Bailey to discover she had an esoteric disposition. She paints Bailey as down-to-earth, and one not entirely sure of what she is doing, although she believes, ultimately, her role is toward the betterment of humanity.

For the author to place Bailey in a "biographical novel" was a wise decision, particularly for the reason of giving Alice Bailey her humanity. Heather is written as curious, openminded and serious, much like Bailey herself. The two are almost one and it makes the story all the more interesting. Sure, Blackthorn could have given us a straightforward biography, but then how many people would have read it? Novels (many that are thrillers and very edgy, it appears) are more widely read and I think Blackthorn found a balance in The Unlikely Occultist for her subject and characters - a balance that works. 

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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