“A thousand kisses darling”: Sex, scandal and spirituality in the life of Charles Webster Leadbeater – some conclusions
I’m going to close this series of posts on the Leadbeater scandals with some general observations. The Leadbeater scandal erupted at a time when, as Eve Sedgwick has argued, the ‘nameless abomination’ of homosexual desire was subject to increasing scrutiny – being named, pathologised, and (cautiously) celebrated through various scientific, medical, legal artistic and occult discourses. The discovery of the homosexual as a type of person was the subject of early sexological investigations, and at the same time there was an emergence of discourses which made a link between inversion and religious (in the writings of Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter, for example) – even mystical sensibilities – and the idea that the appearance of the invert or Uranian sensibility represented a new phase of human spiritual progress. The Leadbeater scandals emerged at a time when the many facets of the “sex question” were being hotly debated.
During the 1906 scandal, the central issue was that of Leadbeater’s morality. In the later scandals, Leadbeater’s opponents increasingly drew on the emerging medical-legal discourse of homosexuality as an aberration and Leadbeater’s behaviour as indicators of pathology – mania. Yet at the same time, the homosexual nature of Leadbeater’s offence could not be openly stated other than in allusions and inferences. ‘Sodomy’ remained an absent referent during the 1906 scandal – Theosophist leaders were reluctant, at that point to discuss the matter too openly, for fear of the damage it could do to public perception, and the obscenity laws meant that any documents that were circulated had offensive terms such as sodomy or self-abuse replaced by asterisks. Many members of the TS were unaware of the exact nature of the charges laid against Leadbeater; indeed, many of the facts of the scandal only emerged long after the events took place, due to the research of Gregory Tillett and other scholars. As much as homosexuality was under increased scrutiny and regulation, it remained a ‘nameless’’ offence which could not be directly voiced – a secret. 1
Yet, as the Leadbeater case shows, the secret could not be avoided through silence or omission, recalling Foucault’s comment on the discursive nature of silence: “that it is less the absolute limit of discourse … than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them, within overall strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says, and what one does not say.”
As the scandals erupted again and again, previous sets of allegations and suspicions were re-circulated – sometimes publically – so that they gained – at least for some of Leadbeater’s opponents – the status of evidential facticity.
Concealing the secret
Allegations of sexual misconduct pursued Leadbeater throughout much of his career as a Theosophist – beginning in 1906 and peaking in 1922. Leadbeater, at every turn, refused to either answer his critics publically, or take legal action against them. Many of his supporters were puzzled by this refusal, whilst others saw it as evidence of his high occult status. For his critics, Leadbeater’s silence was seen as an admission of truth. During the 1906 Committee meeting and during the Krishnamurti custody case, Leadbeater did admit that he taught masturbation; that this might have occurred with pre-pubescent boys who had not necessarily sought his advice on sexual matters and that some degree of indicative action may have been involved. Leadbeater’s admissions to the 1906 committee seems to have provoked so much shock and distaste that none of the members wanted to probe too deeply exactly what Leadbeater meant by his euphemistic phrases and equivocations.
Some of Leadbeater’s supporters shared his own view – that as an advanced occultist, he should not be judged as an ordinary person would be – accepting Mrs. Besant’s position that high occult status made any accusations of immoral behaviour impossible. Those who were not privy to Leadbeater’s psychic abilities and status as an adept simply would not understand – and nor should they presume to. Leadbeater, at various points during the scandals, often fell back on the argument that in certain matters of a ‘higher nature’ he was pledged to secrecy.
Other planes, past lives
In the contemporary occult milieu, access to the astral plane and “higher knowledge” has become democratised in the sense that anyone capable of developing the requisite skills is capable of doing so. In the doctrine of the Theosophical Society (and significantly, in Leadbeater’s presentation of Theosophical teachings) though, unrestricted access to the inner planes was the mark of a high adept – a condition that members could aspire to, but in practice, was the domain of rare individuals such as Madame Blavatsky and other leaders. Moreover, this access required policing. Alice Bailey for example, was dismissed from the TS because her assertion of communication with an inner-planes master she called “the Tibetan” were called into question by Mrs. Besant – who held Leadbeater as the only credible conduit for such contacts. It was not unusual, when other leading figures in the TS claimed astral or master-related authority which conflicted with the doctrines of Mrs Besant and Leadbeater, for these claims to be disparaged as messages from the “Lords of the Dark Face” the shadowy forces who were continually attempting to subvert the Theosophical mission on Earth. Appeals to the authority of the Masters, activity on the inner planes, or evidence of past lives were central strategies amongst Theosophical leaders – and particularly to Leadbeater, whose status as an adept was rooted in his clairvoyance – from which his pronouncements on the will of the Masters, past lives and astral events depended.
Theories of Reincarnation gave rise to occult explanations of sexual desire and affinities with notions such as the transition between male and female souls, and the idea that males souls could inhabit female bodies and vice versa. However, reincarnation not only allowed for the reinforcement of current relationships – Leadbeater’s allies and favourites (particularly boys who he was interested in) were shown to have shared previous lives in different relationships, but also allowed for changes of sex – although some Theosophists found instances of intimates changing sex and relationships across incarnations an alarming suggestion.
It is possible that the only way Leadbeater could frame and express his desires was through the esoteric ideologies which were central to his understanding of the world. Leadbeater’s Theosophical geneology, the Lives of Alycone can be read as an example of perhaps the only way Leadbeater could articulate his feelings for Krishnamurti and other youths – a vast history in which individuals are joined together time and again through various familial and conjugal relationships, unburdened from age, gender, or moral convention. Similarly, his story of his ‘discovery’ of Jinarasadasa – the reincarnation of a brother whom he never had – the culmination of a series of ‘psychic’ examinations of an (unspecified) number of Singhalese youths indicates the strength of the discourse of past lives for framing and legitimizing actions. Leadbeater’s story is strikingly similar to the explanation James Wedgwood gave as to why he had visited a series of public toilets in Sydney – that he was looking for a friend from a previous life. 2 Leadbeater also asserted that, in taking Jinarasadasa to England with him, he was implementing the will of the ‘Masters’ rather than merely acting on his own desires.
Leadbeater, during the 1906 scandal, had invoked a moral argument – that masturbation was a guard against prostitution or homosexuality. This argument disturbed Theosophists who had been actively campaigning for women’s rights and against the general acceptance of prostitution as the natural outlet for male desire. Mrs. Besant – whilst making it clear that she did not endorse Leadbeater’s advice – also pointed out that she condemned the casual acceptance of prostitution, and asserted that “there is no cure for vice except self-control”.
Even more troubling though, was the accusation that Leadbeater had led the boys in question to believe that his “advice” was theosophical – that it was part of their “occult training.” Both Mrs. Besant and Leadbeater denied that this was the case. However, Leadbeater did legitimate his advice on the basis that he could see the “thought-forms” generated from the “accumulation of pressure” gathering around the boys in question.
Both Leadbeater and Mrs Besant placed great stress on the fact that sex was not possible for Initiates and on the importance of moral purity in occult development. But many of Leadbeater’s habits – such as bathing with his boy pupils or sleeping naked with them led to much discussion. There has occasionally been speculation that Leadbeater was in fact, giving out – to selective pupils – an occult teaching relating to sexuality. For Dion Fortune, this was very much bound up with ideas about ‘black magic’. In Psychic Self Defence she comments:
“It may not generally be realised, but there is just as much danger of corruption in a Black Lodge for boys and youths as there is for women. There have been a number of cases so flagrant that the police have intervened, both here and abroad.”
Crowley seems to have concurred with this assessment, albeit for slightly different reasons. In a letter quoted by Martin Starr 3 he says:
About Krishnamurti. There is no objection to paederasty as such. This is a totally different matter. It is a question of the following practice, which I class as black magical because it is unnecessary, unrecommended from the magical standpoint, and likely to arouse highly undesirable forces as being in opposition to the Law of Thelema.
The practice consists in hypnotising a boy and masturbating him while in that condition. He then becomes lucid.
Some Theosophical critics thought that Leadbeater was practicing a kind of Tantra, which in Theosophical ideology was frequently related to black magic and immoral practices – particularly the spectre of so-called “Left-Handed” practices 4.
Gregory Tillett claims to have found evidence for the existence of such a teaching, in the diary records of one of Leadbeater’s pupils, Oscar Kollestrom, the recollections of those teachings by one of Kollerstrom’s widows, and the direct recollections of Dick Balfour-Clarke, another of Leadbeater’s pupils. According to Tillett, Leadbeater taught that masturbation may elevate the consciousness of an individual towards ecstasy and can be used to direct an outpouring of psychic force towards the Logos, which can be used for spiritual development. This occult knowledge of sex was considered to be dangerous for the average pupil, and so they were sworn to secrecy. Leadbeater’s secret teachings thus invoked the dual morality – that there was one rule for the ordinary person and another for the initiated occultist. 5 Tillett discusses intimations – gained from a variety of sources – that Leadbeater was “making occult use” of semen. He goes on to discuss these revelations in relation to Tantra, the Ordo Templis Orientis, and the so-called “Uranian” poets. Leadbeater apparently made much of a former incarnation as a disciple of Socrates, but there is no direct evidence that he expressed any sympathy towards the works of Uranians such as John Addington Symmonds or Edward Carpenter.
The problem of “occult explanations” is that they so often avoid dealing with issues such as the obvious imbalance of power between Leadbeater and his boy pupils. It is hard not to read Leadbeater’s actions – stripped of their occult justification – as anything other than sexual abuse – particularly in respect of the culture of secrecy in which the advice was imparted – and the way that Leadbeater made the advice a matter of “secret occult teachings.”
It is occult secrecy that is central to understanding the nature of the Leadbeater scandal. The Thesosophical Society was, after all, expounding a “secret doctrine” – making the claim to have access to a higher form of Truth which both surpassed and united religion and science. To become a member required initiation, and a commitment not only to one’s personal development but to further the ideals of the TS. In joining the TS, individuals to varying degrees, participated in the sharing of secrets. Being privy to ‘occult secrets’ became therefore, a powerful discourse in establishing authority and legitimacy.
From its outset, the Theosophical Society was steered by what was effectively a privileged elite – those individuals who had demonstrated their high occult status in terms of being able to pronounce the will of the Masters and dispense knowledge accordingly. Theosophical doctrines tended to prioritise the authority of secret knowledge over the merely exoteric. A common tactic that Leadbeater would make, was to hint that he had access to hidden knowledge, but could not more than make vague allusions, as he was under a vow of secrecy. In other words, he tried to reinforce his occult status by advertising that he had access to secrets – when, during the 1906 hearing he mentioned having gained knowledge about his teachings relating to masturbation through a Church organisation, the frank shock and disbelief of his examiners led to Leadbeater stating that he was ‘not free’ to give its name. In this particular instance, the gambit of claiming status through having secrets, seems to have failed.
Occultism and sex make an explosive combination; particularly when sexual behaviours are legitimated through strategies that act to centralise power and authority in the hands of a privileged elite and discourses that interpret sexual acts and intentions so that they effectively become other than sex – or at least not “ordinary” sex as done by non-initiates. When what would be in other circumstances understood to be a coercive abuse of power is reframed as an act of necessity for an individual’s occult training, or for a ‘higher purpose’. 6
The scandals had far-reaching effects on the TS as debates over Leadbeater’s moral and spiritual character spilled over into wider issues over leadership and doctrines within the society and led to increased scrutiny and comment from without. Members left, sometimes en masse, in protest over Leadbeater’s exalted position and Annie Besant’s seemingly unqualified support of him and some critics stated that Leadbeater, almost single-handedly, brought about the ruination of the TS. Contemporary Theosophists are still debating the facts of the scandal. The scandal also made it harder for frank discussions of matters relating to sex education and the overall relationship between sexuality and spirituality to take place within the boundaries of the TS. It also did much to shape emerging occult explanations of sexuality; particularly homosexuality and its link to “black magic” which which can be found in occult texts 7 and in addition, esoteric theories of the relationship between sexuality and past lives. Some of these theories endure today in contemporary occult texts – a testament perhaps to their appeal, and the invocation of appeals to ‘higher authorities’ and secret wisdom in shaping occult discourses – particularly in respect to sexuality and identity.
Joy Dixon Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001)
Michael Foucault The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (Random House 1978)
Alex Owen The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (University of Chicago Press 2004)
Eve Sedgwick Epistomology of the Closet (University of California Press, 1990)
Martin P Starr The Unknown God: Wilfred T Smith and the Thelemites (The Teitan Press, 2003)
Gregory Tillett The Elder Brother (Routledge Kegan Paul, 1982)
Gregory Tillett Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 : a biographical study (University of Sydney eScholarship Repository)
- When Mrs. Besant was challenged over her support of Leadbeater, she at one point stated that even the great Madame Blavatsky was not infallible in regard to these matters, saying: “I heard (Blavatsky) warmly invite Oscar Wilde into the T.S. at the very time, as afterwards proved, he was practising the nameless abominations that landed him in jail.” ↩
- See previous post ↩
- The Unknown God, pp153-154 ↩
- See this post for some related discussion ↩
- Tillett, 1986, pp908-929 ↩
- In modern occultism, sex has moved from a nameless secret to an advertised secret. ↩
- A classic example being Gareth Knight’s assertion that “Homosexuality, like the use of drugs, is a technique of black magic.” A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism (Helios Books, 1965) p156. Knight, in the preface to the revised edition (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2001) writes: “The draconian remarks on homosexuality seemed fairly commonplace at a time when this form of sexual expression was still a criminal offence. Society has since moved on quite radically in this respect, and it is a cause of great regret to me, if, as a result of my words, anyone has been given a bad time on account of their sexual orientation. Not that I necessarily endorse all that I see or hear about the wilder frontiers of human sexual activity, particularly when allied to quasi-magical practice (which was one of Dion Fortune’s concerns), but I have no desire to set myself up as an arbiter of public morals.” ↩