Candidate of Philosophy,
International Centre of the Roerichs,
United Scientific Centre for Cosmic Thinking
Problems, senior research fellow,
Laureate of Charitable Foundation
named after Helena Roerich (Moscow)
English translation of Russian original:
Oksana Danilovich (Chernivtsi, Ukraine)
TO THE PROBLEM OF SPECULATION ON SPIRITISM
AND THE ROERICHS’ NAME
Different figures who try their best to cast a shadow on the name and the heritage of the Roerichs got used to a certain set of methods. One of the methods is following: while they don’t have serious arguments at their disposal, they begin to invent some details and interpret events in their own way, though these events were on the edge of a person’s life course and didn’t play a distinguishing role in person’s spiritual biography. We are talking about so widely-spread in the society some time back phenomenon of spiritism and about the attitude of two great Russian philosophers and scientists – Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947) and Helena Roerich (1879–1955) towards this phenomenon. Ignoring simple ethic principles and demonstrating an extreme degree of ignorance and literary unscrupulousness, such authors as, for example, A.I. Andreev1, E. von Waldenfels and others, try to show the readers the attitude of the Roerichs to spiritism in a distorted way, artificially exaggerating the importance of such phenomenon in their lives. Ignorant, deliberately planned, slanderous conclusions of these authors are intended first of all for a lack of knowledge of a wide readership. All their unscrupulous set of instruments is directed to it: a specific choice of sources, a crafty design of artificial logical constructions, unhidden prejudice etc... These methods are a trite tactics of modern blackeners and they can’t invent anything new.
It is well-known if one wants to deeper understand any phenomenon including the attitude towards it of social circles, one must consider it in the general context of the epoch. In other words we will consider the problem of spiritism in the last quarter of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX century. And when considering this phenomenon the Russian context is of particular importance as from the birth till numerous expeditions beyond the borders of the Motherland, Nicolai Konstantinovich lived in Russia for 44 years and Elena Ivanovna for 39 years. (In December 1916 the family moved to Karelia which soon, in 1918, seceded from Russia.)
It is well known that spiritism, being a peculiar way of entering into another space (another reality in comparison with the physical world) and contacting those who were considered to be in this unknown space, began to form at the end of 1840s in the USA and since 1850s it was widely spread not only in the USA but in Europe as well. Meanwhile this phenomenon did not come out of nowhere. On the one hand the development of spiritism was influenced by a number of Western European and American folk motives which found their wide spread in an oral tradition and spoke about noisy spirits, houses with ghosts etc. On the other hand, there was an influence of practical medical investigations of an Austrian doctor F.A. Mesmer (1733–1815) and his followers2. A “magnetic” therapy of Franz Mesmer included some actions directed to healing diseases and some actions of a pure technical character (which do not reflect the essence of F. Mesmer’s practice) which were probably borrowed by spiritism. Apparently the roots of the above mentioned folk motives may go back to the Middle Ages or even earlier and the whole point of these motives is the attempt of a man, who had views appropriate for the epoch, to comprehend this or that mysterious phenomenon. This comprehension could find its manifestations in different forms; the main thing was that it was continual. Attempts to penetrate beyond the bounds of the visible world in all epochs were inherent cognitive desire of a man and were taken repeatedly. Perhaps the main reason for this is that a person himself has in his fine structure the states of the substance, which correspond to specific, and as a rule, invisible, levels of the being (though it is known that there are exceptions to this rule), but which can be perceived by the thinnest instrument of microcosm.
Russian cultural space containing the knowledge accumulated from multiple attempts to penetrate into a very core of another reality (ritual practices of pagan times, spiritual enlightenment in the Christian tradition, beliefs of multilayer folk culture), of course, could not remain indifferent to the new ideas and practices brought from the outside (we won’t analyze a quality of these practices in the present research though) and one way or another associated with this comprehension. Furthermore, considering that we are talking about the 19th – early 20th centuries – the time of significant strengthening and great development of scientific worldview, it would be mistakable to separate the practice of spiritism from a certain search in this space and particularly from theoretical developments in medicine (if we talk about the beginning of the 19th century it is still the “magnetic” therapy of F. Mesmer and his followers). We should note here that spiritism was brought to Russia during the times of Catherine the Great probably in the form of “magnetic somnambulism”, a method presented by one of the followers of Dr. Mesmer. In the first half of the 19th century theoretical and practical aspects of mesmerism, despite the difficult process of adaptation to a new cultural space, continued to prevail in Russia, gradually gaining popularity. This was expressed in the stormy discussions on the topic of magnetism in the salons of St. Petersburg and its active presence in the Russian literature (for example, it could be found in works of such authors as A.Pogorelskiy, V.Odoevskiy, A.Pushkin and others)3.
If we talk about the genesis of spiritism, then, apparently, we should imply mainly the USA and Western Europe where mesmerism had a considerable influence on the formation of the spiritualist practice. Magnetism and spiritism both were brought to Russia from the West and since the middle of the 19th century there was a practice of spiritism, which followers were certainly connected with previously popular mesmerism. But a wide spread of spiritism was noticed in Russia later, in 1870s. It’s necessary to mention that 70s of the 19th century were the time when both Nicholas Roerich and Elena Shaposhnikova4 were born. It is possible that in the subsequent years they could more than once come across the information about the phenomenon, especially living in St. Petersburg, where everything relatively new and moreover mysterious was actively discussed in cultural circles. At the same time there is no evidence indicating that Nicolas and Helena Roerich were into spiritual séances during their life in Petersburg. But occasional acquaintances with the phenomenon might as well be the case. It is known that young Nicholas Roerich participated in a spiritual séance at Losskoy’s apartment in Paris in 1900, about what he mentioned in a letter to his future wife. However, it is clear that this episode of his biography wasn’t followed by any purposeful aspirations of Nicholai Roerich in the development of this practice. By the way, one can mention a lot of famous names in different extent involved in the circle of the unknown, outlined by the means of spiritism in the Russian public consciousness. Among them are public figures, writers, scientists: a Decembrist F.Glinka, a scientist and a writer V.Dal, A.Pushkin’s sister O.Pavlishcheva, a writer and a philosopher V.Odoevskiy; S.Aksakov’s nephew, a publicist and a translator A.Aksakov; a professor of Petersburg University, a zoologist and a writer N.Vagner; a famous chemist professor A.Butlerov; an outstanding psychiatrist, physiologist and neurologist, academician V.Bekhterev; writers: F.Dostoevski, N.Leskov, L.Tolstoy, a poet and a literary critic V.Bryusov and others. We should emphasize that every person had his/her own motives and his/her own measure of touching to the given phenomenon, and as a result they had an individual process of comprehension and a peculiar estimation. It is obvious that no serious investigator should make any speculations out of this fact, but it has to be studied together with life of these famous and outstanding in integration with the epoch, and only thus try to understand the reasons of their attention to the phenomenon.
By the way, a wide spread of spiritism in Russia is connected with the activity of A.Aksakov, N.Vagner and A.Butlerov in the first half of 1870s in Petersburg. It’s paradoxical but apparently, the opponents of this phenomenon played an active part in this process: namely Dmitry Mendeleev who in 1875 initiated the creation of “Commission for consideration of medium phenomena” by the Physical society at Petersburg University. The public discussions, disputes and even scandals between opponents of spiritualism represented by Mendeleev and his supporters on the one hand, and the adherents of this phenomenon, in particular, already mentioned A.Aksakov, N.Vagner, A.Butlerov on the other hand, apparently only attracted the society’s attention to the subject of the discussion. As a result of these hot discussions spiritism began to spread widely in Russia since the middle of 1870s, becoming a mass phenomenon. And in the first decades of the next XX century this phenomenon became habitual in different layers of the Russian society and manifested itself in particular in the activities of many special circles as well as publications in periodicals. We emphasize once again that all these decades of spread and strengthening of the spiritism practice in Russia (the last quarter of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century) chronologically coincide with the elder Roerichs’ Petersburg period of life. It’s quite natural that the spread of this practice in Russia couldn’t pass unnoticed by the Roerichs as well other intelligent people who tried to understand still unknown sides of microcosm’s complicated nature, each on their own way. And though the Roerichs in their young years lived and worked in the space and time of spiritism existence and wide spread in Russia, we want to emphasize again the fact that they were not into this practice. We must say definitely that there are no real evidence that spiritism itself took any important place in the spiritual search of the Roerichs.
We may ask: Did Nicolas and Helena Roerich come across spiritism later and if they did – what was their attitude towards such a phenomenon?
Apparently, the main source to investigate this matter should be found at the first place in the evidence coming from the Roerichs themselves and not in some speculations of detractors of Roerichs’ times or biased modern interpreters, as well as those irresponsible individuals who simply repeat these speculations. Helena Roerich’s epistolary heritage is of particular interest among the source materials, and based on it the following conclusion can be drawn. From November 1920 till spring of 1921 (then the Roerichs were in the USA5) Nicholas and Helena Roerich from time to time participated in the spiritual séances. Besides, based on some letters of the American period about the Roerichs’ life and work we can conclude that they were also present on such séances during their stay in London. (The London period in the Roerichs’ life lasted from summer of 1919 till September 1920). From the USA the Roerichs moved to Europe in 1923 and the same year they went to Asia where a famous Central-Asian expedition was to be held in 1924–1928. During the expedition diaries were kept by Nicholas Roerich (“Altai – Himalaya” and “Heart of Asia”) as well as by his elder son, a member of the expedition George Roerich (later published by the name “Trails to Inmost Asia”). The content of these diaries makes it clear that during the expedition spiritism per se did not attract the Roerichs’ attention at all. N. Ryabinin who participated in one of the stages of Central Asian expedition, performing the duties of a doctor, made a note in his diary clarifying the attitude of the Roerichs to the phenomenon at that period: “We talked about spiritism of Russian scientists Butlerov, Vagner, Aksakov; we were sorry that such a great field of psychological knowledge that should be processed on the scientific level was reduced to the level of a friendly curiosity. N.K. [Roerich] spoke against spiritism as being dangerous as well as against different prejudices both on the right and on the left which equally hindered the study of basic energy laws”6. After the Central Asian expedition, as well as throughout further life, the Roerichs not only did not attend any séances but in general spoke extremely negatively against the spiritism. The evidence of this fact can be found in particular in the letters of Helena Roerich.
Actually, the following happened with spiritism. While at one time it was in the general flow of human breakthrough into the unknown, in the form of a certain mode of communication with the beyond realms, it remained in a rigid, ritualized form and slowed down this general stream of comprehension of other world from the scientific point of view as well. This form of penetration beyond the physical world, of course, in one way or another affected many educated and sensitive personalities of their epoch, in the end “dropped out” (as a mass passion) from the further process of cognition. The Roerichs could not help but feel it, because they developed a clear and unambiguous position towards spiritism.
Studying the letters of Helena Roerich addressed to different correspondents as well as facts of the Roerichs’ life we find definite evidence of this position. The Roerichs proceeded from the fact that this phenomenon as well as anything unknown, needed to be thoroughly investigated, and as they noted, any civilized person had to be opened and friendly for all kinds of cognition. Everything found out by these curious researchers, whether it's a human psyche, a nature of human’s thoughts, physiology, or the phenomenon of spiritism, will become the facets of the future science only under a serious and unprejudiced approach7. Besides, Helena Roerich emphasized that in many developed countries (e.g. the USA, Great Britain, France, and Sweden) universities had opened the departments and there were special university courses of psychical phenomena investigation. She drew the attention of her correspondents that almost in all European countries along with the USA the Societies of Psychical Phenomena Research had been working for quite a long time and very interesting science results were already received; she also wrote about the scientific publications of famous scientists in recent years8. Helena Roerich had an encyclopedic knowledge in various fields and noted in 1937: “…one may confirm that now when so many scientists show a serious interest in all the spheres connected with the field of mental demonstrations, we are sure to be the witnesses of great discoveries. More than 40 professors only in the USA are busy with the question of thought transmission at a distance. More recently the initiator of such experiments, Professor McDougall, was ridiculed by his colleagues and was even deprived of the department at the University”9. At the same time Helena and Nicholas Roerich clearly indicated a negative attitude towards participation in spiritual practices of ignorant and irresponsible individuals who wanted only to satisfy their curiosity. There are many letters of H. Roerich where we find a very negative evaluation of spiritism as a phenomenon coming into the masses10, phenomenon harmful for the subtle structure of a man11. Helena Roerich emphasized that both her and Nicholas Roerich did not support any societies dealing with spiritism 12 and repeatedly pointed out that even the Great Masters whom the Roerichs cooperated with “not only encouraged but forbade any contact with spiritism and magic”13. Based on the analysis of the main sources we came again to the main point of our article: Helena and Nicholas Roerich supported only a thorough scientific investigation of the psychical phenomena and of spiritism itself - the investigation that had place in all developed countries in 1930s.
1. Detailed analysis of A. Andreev’s methods was given by the author in the following article: Соколов В.Г. Невежество против нового научного мышления. О книге А.И.Андреева «Гималайское братство: Теософский миф и его творцы» // Электронный ресурс: http://www.icr.su/rus/protection/reviews/Sokolov_2.pdf.
2. Q.v.: Панченко А.А. Спиритизм и русская литература: из истории социальной терапии // Труды Отделения историко-филологических наук РАН. М., 2005. С. 530–531.
3. Q.v.: Ibid. С. 531.
4. Shaposhnikova was the maiden surname of Helena Roerich.
5. American stage of Nicholas and Helena Roerich’s life occupied in total a period from October, 1920, to the beginning of May, 1923.
6. Рябинин К.Н. Развенчанный Тибет. Магнитогорск: Амрита-Урал, 1996. С. 122.
7. Q.v.: Рерих Е.И. Письмо З.Г.Лихтман, Ф.Грант, К.Кэмпбелл, М.Лихтману от 20–21.06.1936 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. [В 9 т.] Т. 4 (1936 г.). М.: МЦР; Мастер-Банк, 2002. С. 240.
8. Q.v.: Рерих Е.И. Письмо Ф.А.Буцену от 03.12.1937 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. [В 9 т.] Т. 5 (1937 г.). М.: МЦР; Мастер-Банк, 2003. С. 318; Рерих Е.И. Письмо З.Г.Лихтман, Ф.Грант, К.Кэмпбелл, М.Лихтману от 20–21.06.1936 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. Т. 4. С. 240.
9. Рерих Е.И. Письмо Ф.А.Буцену от 03.12.1937 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. Т. 5. С. 318–319.
10. Рерих Е.И. Письмо А.М.Асееву от 20.12.1934 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. [В 9 т.] Т. 2 (1934 г.). М.: МЦР; Мастер-Банк, 2000. С. 532.
11. Q.v.: Рерих Е.И. Письмо В.А. Дукшта-Дукшинской от 12.12.1934 // Рерих Е.И.Письма. Т. 2. С. 511; Рерих Е.И. Письмо Е.А.Зильберсдорфу от 14.08.1936 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. Т. 4. С. 293; Рерих Е.И. Письмо А.И.Клизовскому от 04.09.1939 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. [В 9 т.] Т. 6 (1938–1939 гг.). М.: МЦР; Мастер-Банк, 2006. С. 493.
12. Рерих Е.И. Письмо Н.К. и Ю.Н. Рерихам от 30.08.1934 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. Т. 2. С. 333.
13. Рерих Е.И. Письмо В.М.Сеплевенко от 04.11.1935 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. [В 9 т.] Т. 3 (1935 г.). М.: МЦР; Мастер-Банк, 2001. С. 626; about this Q.v. Ibid: Рерих Е.И. Письмо В.А. Дукшта-Дукшинской от 12.12.1934 // Рерих Е.И. Письма. Т. 2. С. 511.