On this day…7 May

On 7 May 1901 Joyce dated his copy of Henry Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism.

This copy of Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism according to the Sinhalese Canon, published by the Theosophical Publication Society, was one of a number of volumes of Theosophy that Joyce owned. From them, he took ideas that he used in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.

Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) had been a colonel during the American Civil War and afterwards worked as a lawyer. In 1874 he met Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) who was interested in the occult and in esoteric religions. Together with others, Blavatsky and Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. The society aimed to conduct research into esoteric religions, and to introduce the ideas of these religions to Westerners.

In 1878 Olcott and Blavatsky left for India where the Theosophical Society set up its headquarters in Adyar on the southeast coast of India, and in 1880 they went to Sri Lanka. Olcott was interested in the Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka, and he was instrumental in the revival of Buddhism in the area.

In 1881 he published his Buddhist Catechism, the aim of which was “to enable beginners to understand and appreciate the noble ideal taught by the Buddha…” His catechism was written in the same question-and-answer style as the Catholic Catechism with which Joyce was familiar.

Theosophy took its ideas not only from Buddhism but also from Christian mysticism and from the Kabbalah, and the Theosophical Society was only one of many popular organisations that promoted interest in the occult and in esoteric religions at the time. WB Yeats, George Russell, and James Cousins were all involved in the Dublin Theosophical Society, and Yeats was also a member Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen recalls that audience members shouted “We want no amateur atheists” and “We want no budding buddhists” in protest against Yeats at a performance of his play The Countess Cathleen on the opening night of the National Theatre. While Joyce and Stephen Dedalus are disparaging about some of the more sensational esoteric aspects of Theosophy, some ideas that are found in Buddhism (such as universal brotherhood, and metempsychosis) became important in Ulysses.

Not only did Joyce have a copy of Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism, he also had two books by Annie Besant, a later President of the Theosophical Society, and there are several references to Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant in Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake.


Sources & Further Reading:

Herr, Cheryl T., “Theosophy, Guilt, and ‘That Word Known to All Men’ in Joyce’s Ulysses,” James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 1, Fall 1980, pp. 45-54.

Olcott, Henry S: A Buddhist Catechism according to the Sinhalese Canon, London: Theosophical Publication Society, 1881.

Platt, Len, “Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy in Finnegans Wake: An Annotated List,” James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 2, Winter 2008, pp. 281–300.