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Reply to JHE re criticism

Dec 17, 1996 07:10 AM
by K. Paul Johnson

Dear Jerry,

I'm back on theos-roots for a week before signing off all lists
to revise my Cayce manuscript for the next several months.  By
inadvertently posting roots material on theos-l, you pulled me
back into the debate with Daniel Caldwell, which I did not wish
to pursue beyond my to-be-published reply.  But actually, it is
your comments to which I wish to respond rather than his or

I had commented that Daniel was publicizing his piece as
"debunking the thesis of Johnson," when in fact he was
attacking just two out of 32 proposed identifications of
Masters, and did not even identify "the thesis" he was
allegedly debunking.  You replied that
"It took Caldwell months of research and 42 pages to discuss
two people in your book.  At that rate, for him to discuss the
other thirty would take volumes and years to write."  Since
some of the material in *House of Cards* first appeared in a
letter I received from him in April 1993, the number of months
we are speaking of here is something like 42, which comes out
to one page per month.  But that is beside the point; my
intention was not to suggest that he should have attacked all
32 (God forbid, but it may happen) but rather that he was
making wildly excessive claims for his work.

As to Tim's comment, seconded by me, that the tone of
Caldwell's essay is inappropriately personal, snide, rabid,
etc., you replied that you "believe the tone... was within the
normal limits of what is being published today" based on the
experience of reading books and articles of literary
criticism.  Then you went on to praise John Algeo as a
respected scholar who has published widely, and "assure" me
that his review of my book was "professionally written and
within normal limits concerning its pejorative tone."
My career for the past twenty years has involved daily reading
of book reviews, as a basis for deciding what to buy for the
library.  That works about to about 100,000 reviews read at
work, not just in short-review media like Library Journal but
also in places like the New York Times Book Review.  Add to
that every review in Theosophical magazines, Gnosis, and so on.
I have *never* seen a review comparable in tone to Daniel's essay as
best I can recall, except for Mark Jaqua's self-published
magazine.  (Guess who the lucky target of that one was!)  As for Algeo's
I'll have to take your word for it that English professors are always so nasty
among themselves.  His TH review of TMR was in the top 1% for
long-windedness and hostility among all that I ever read.

But I suggest that you are placing these events in the wrong
context in order to minimize their severity.  What we have here
are attacks by Theosophists on another Theosophist whose
intentions were basically friendly.  Questions for you as a
1. Has any national president of the TSA ever published a 15
page attack on a book by a member of his section?  On any book
at all?
2. Has the *Theosophist* ever run a non-review, in which a
book's title is used as the article title, but the book itself
is never mentioned, although the article's author is clearly
attacking the book indirectly?  If this has ever been done
before, was the attacked author a member?
2. Has any Theosophical book in the last 50 years been attacked as
ferociously and longwindedly as mine by Algeo and Caldwell?

It is the inappropriateness of their attacks within the context
of Theosophical values and claims of openness that strikes me most.
You write that you doubt that Theosophists will follow the
example I have tried to set in answers to Algeo and Caldwell
(free of personal insults and appeals to authority, respectful
and patient tone, dealing with issues thoroughly but at reasonable
length) and expect that they will continue to follow "the norms."
THE norms?  What norms?  There were norms of civility in discourse that I had
seen observed for 17 years in Theosophical publications before
my books came along, and suddenly they are meaningless.  The
norms followed/exemplified by Algeo and Caldwell may strike you
as just fine, but they have not been the governing norms in
Theosophical writing.  If I had *ever* seen *any* author,
Theosophist or not, attacked by a TS official the way Algeo did me,
before joining the TS, I would never have wanted to belong to
it in the first place.

In your conclusion, you write:
"Actually, the only thing I see to be unusual about the
circumstances surrounding publication of your book has been the
extraordinary efforts you have made to defend it and to
criticize others who have been critical of it.  It is hardly
typical behavior for authors to carry on public debates with
their critics."

Extraordinary efforts?  All I did was let myself get sucked
into a week or two's worth of back-and-forth arguments with
Caldwell, in late 1993 or early 1994, before deciding this was
not worth my time and effort.  Later, at your request I think,
I did the same thing with you about one aspect of my work for a
week or so.  The Internet has certainly made authors a lot more
accessible to their critics, so what you call "typical
behavior," if based on print media, is anachronistic (ALAS!).
You criticized me back then for not giving Caldwell carte blanche,
answering every challenge and complaint until he ran out, even
if it took months.  Now you blame me for "extraordinary efforts" to
do what you once blamed me for not doing enough of.  Apart from those
brief mistaken forays into debates (debates that you implied I had a moral
responsibility to engage in for the good of Theosophical scholarship), I
haven't debated my critics publicly.  It is *absolutely* typical behavior
for authors to *answer* their critics, as I have with Algeo, Crews and now
Caldwell.  Look at the *New York Review of Books* or the Times
Book Review or any other literary rag and you will see that
authors answering their critics is "the norm" to use your
phrase.  Debate?  I'm not interested.  In fact, I offered to
let Daniel have my reply to him to put on his website, with the
condition that this be the end of discussion.  If he wants to
answer my answer, challenge me to explain more things,
generally continue to harass me as he has off and on for
years-- forget it.  I have better things to do.  He refused
this condition, apparently *will* answer my response, but I
won't get sucked into any more exchanges with him.

You conclude "Rather, they embrace both the critical and the
friendly reviews in the joyful knowledge that their book is
being read and debated."  I might be joyful about the reception
of my books if the attackers were a bunch of strangers, and the
praise came from people I had invested 17 years of my life in.
But when it's the other way around, can't you see that
circumstances affect response?  If I could have simply said "To
hell with them, they're just silly Theosophists" the amount of
pain in my lifetime would have been drastically lessened.  But
having acquired the illusion that this movement was one without
fixed dogmas, open to new ideas, and devoted to discussing them in an
atmosphere of mutual respect, I was motivated to struggle to *make* those
things a reality when it became clear that they were *not.*
Quite a waste of time and energy, but perhaps there has been a
karmic recompense for it all.

Jerry, your theme song about me has been "there is no problem
with any of your critics, the only problem is with you and your
books."  When I announced that I was writing about Cayce, you
said something like "Well, we'll just see if you get along any
better with the ARE than the TS"-- clearly implying that you
placed all the blame for my painful experiences with the TS on
my own shoulders, and predicted more of the same with the new
book.  How could things be different with the ARE, since the whole problem was
my [scholarly ineptitude, neurosis, argumentativeness] whatever
bad traits you consistently blame me for?

Well, here's some news I've been reluctant to post, for fear of
sounding "Nya na na na nah."  I interviewed Charles Thomas
Cayce in August, and just got a phone call from him last week.
In our half-hour talk, he said he was "just very excited" by my
manuscript, which he had read as a reader for SUNY.  He told me
that his column in the next Venture Inward would be devoted to
informing members about new scholarly approaches to Cayce,
including my own book and two other writers he had met
recently.  In his end of year letter to members, he listed 11
highlights of 1996.  One was working in the Edgar Cayce
Foundation with "an author whose book on the life and work of
Edgar Cayce will appear in the SUNY Press series on Western
Esoteric Traditions."  And when the book is about to come out,
it will get some sort of sendoff in one of the magazines.
You might think, "Surely this new book is less controversial and
critical than his other ones."  Not so.  This will be the most skeptical,
critical look at Cayce ever published-- and yet folks at ARE aren't scared,
or mad, but delighted.  They are enthusiastic about the
burgeoning of scholarly interest in Cayce, and accept my work
as a harbinger of future developments.  What this tells me is that there
*are* spiritual groups that don't share what you as a Theosophist
call "the norm."  Maybe you have gotten so accustomed to
the ugly features of Theosophical culture that you have become
completely cynical.  Even when you see someone who was once a
friend getting attacked and ostracized in a most untheosophical
manner, the most compassionate response you can come up
with is "Serves you right, should have known better."

Well, now I do.

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