THE DWELLER ON THE THRESHOLD
By Gareth Knight
The Dweller on the Threshold is a menacing figure that is described by a number of leading esoteric teachers, not only Madame Blavatsky in her monumental “Isis Unveiled” and Rudolf Steiner in his “Knowledge of the Higher Worlds” but also Dion Fortune in her fiction and non-fiction. The first in “The Scented Poppies”, one of the stories in “The Secrets of Dr. Taverner” and later in her principal text book “The Mystical Qabalah”.
Although the concept may have been a reality of esoteric initiation from ancient times we owe the term itself, with certain minor variants, to the 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer‑Lytton and his famous occult novel “Zanoni” of 1842.
Bulwer‑Lytton, (1803-73) was a scion of one of England's stately homes that remains open to the public, Knebsworth, 29 miles north of London, near Stevenage. He was a pioneer historical novelist, and far more meticulous in his research and accurate in his facts than his contemporaries Sir Walter Scott or Harrison Ainsworth; his principal works in this genre including "Harold, the last of the Saxon Kings", "The Last of the Barons" and "The Last Days of Pompeii". He was also a successful politician, being Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1858, and for his achievements as a novelist, playwright and statesman was raised to the peerage in 1866.
He was also very knowledgeable in what we nowadays call the Western Esoteric Tradition, and it is said that the famous French occultist Eliphas Levi came to England to visit him, although the tradition of secrecy that veiled these matters in those day was such that it is difficult to ascertain the cause of their meeting or what may have happened as a consequence. However, many a true word is revealed in fiction, and so it is worth our while to seek what Lytton may have revealed in his occult novel, particularly in light of a few portentous hints that he drops in its introduction.
In reading one of his novels we have to adjust our minds to the fact that it is written in the elaborate and somewhat mannered style of a bygone age, and so may seem a trifle long winded and overblown to the modern reader. But it is worth persisting to make the necessary mental adjustment. It is to no great credit of a minor American University that they consider it a great jape to have hailed Bulwer-Lytton as the worst novelist in the English language and to award prizes for examples of turgid and verbose prose. A display of academic philistinism that serves only to demonstrate their own lack of historical sense in terms of style. Indeed some of Bulwer-Lytton lines have an evocative ring, and are unconsciously quoted by many people even to this day. Not least is the opening of one of his other novels: "It was a dark and stormy night..." to say nothing of "the pen is mightier than the sword."
The introductory chapter to the story of Zanoni recounts how the narrator, in his younger days, had been keen to become acquainted with the true origin and tenets of the Rosicrucians. In his search he frequented an obscure bookshop in Covent Garden, where he met an old man who hinted that he might well enlighten him should they happen to meet again. Indeed they do so meet very shortly afterwards at the foot of Highgate Hill and the old man invites the young man to his house, in a secluded part of Highgate overlooking London, and instructs him in esoteric philosophy.
He tells that the Rosicrucians still exist, but pursue their profound researches into natural science and occult philosophy in august secrecy. Yet however respectable and virtuous they might be, and ardent in the Christian faith, they are but a branch of another more transcendent, powerful and illustrious Order that derives from Plato, Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana.
On the death of the old man he bequeaths to the narrator a manuscript in cipher which turns out to be the text of the novel "Zanoni". It is described by its anonymous author as a romance and yet not a romance. As a source of truth for those who can understand it, but wild extravaganza for those who cannot. And so with this in mind we may well profit from examining the novel for its hidden truth.
The old man, referring to the works of Plato, has already explained that there are four stages for the soul in its return to its first state of happiness in God. The first is music, the second mysticism, the third prophecy, and the fourth love. And it is upon this outline plan that the story of Zanoni is constructed.
The novel divides into seven parts, which are entitled: 1. The Musician, 2. Art, Love and Wonder, 3. Theurgia, 4. The Dweller of the Threshold, 5. The Effects of the Elixir, 6. Superstition Deserting Faith, 7. The Reign of Terror. This last section is an evocation of the French Revolution, along with Bulwer-Lytton's close adherence to fact, in which the occult adept Zanoni goes voluntarily to his sacrificial death in an attempt to save the innocent from the guillotine.
His death is of considerable philosophical importance, for Zanoni is no ordinary mortal. He was born a star and fire worshipper in ancient Chaldea, and so is some 4000 years old, his occult powers having enabled him to avoid the ravages of time He is one of only two members of a great ancient esoteric Order who survive. The other initiate is named Mejnour and he, choosing a different path from Zanoni, may presumably still be living to this day. Whilst all this may sound fantastic, the esoteric status of Zanoni and Mejnour is much akin to that which is accorded by latter day occultists to Masters of the Wisdom, and what Lytton has to say about these Adepti predates by some forty years the celebrated Mahatmas of Madame Blavatsky or the Secret Chiefs of the Golden Dawn.
The heroine of the novel is Viola, a young Neapolitan girl, ignorant and uneducated but a supremely gifted singer. Its hero Zanoni, the master of mystic and prophetic arts, loves her for her youth, innocence and musical gifts, although his co-initiate Mejnour remains wedded to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake - looking upon human love as a weakness rather than a strength.
Having helped Viola to become a star of the Neapolitan opera, Zanoni, although he loves her, tries to divert her natural love for him by encouraging her courtship by a young Englishman, Glyndon. His grounds for this are that he, being virtually an immortal, cannot realistically form a lasting loving relationship with a young girl who will grow old wither and die in the natural course of life, whilst he himself remains relatively unaffected by the passage of time.
His selfless plans are aborted by the young Englishman however, an amateur artist of some talent but of solid respectable middle class stock, who cannot come to terms with taking a poor Italian girl for wife. How would she fit in on the English social scene? How would she be received by his parents or by his business associates? He hankers instead after the mysterious powers of Mejnour and Zanoni.
After some heart searching by all concerned Glyndon is eventually accepted for initiatory instruction under the adept Mejnour at a hidden temple in the mountains. In the meantime Zanoni marries Viola, hoping that perhaps he may be able to instruct her sufficiently in his secret sciences so that she too may avoid the march of time. Both these schemes founder in the test of hard reality and human fallibility.
Glyndon, although spurred on in his mystic quest by having an alchemist as a distant ancestor, proves himself to be lacking in the qualities required of an initiate. The Dweller on the Threshold proves too much for him. He cannot resist the lure of idle curiosity or the temptations of the flesh - tests that have been arranged by Mejnour. He is accordingly rejected and returned to the world, but having evoked the wind he reaps the whirlwind, and undergoes a slow moral degeneration. This manifests at first as drunken self indulgence and social ineptitude, and passes in the end to lust and treachery.
Viola, on the other hand, the simple Neapolitan girl, is disastrously influenced by the local priest, who condemns her involvement with a man who practices the occult arts. Despite the exemplary conduct of her husband she begins to fear his knowledge and his background, and refuses all thought of him teaching her any of his esoteric powers. So fearful does she become, for their child as much as herself, that she deserts Zanoni - an instance of what is described as "superstition deserting faith" in Bulwer‑Lytton’s section headings - the superstition of the ignorant priest over the faith in her wise and loving husband. By force of circumstances she ends up in Paris at the time of the worst excesses of the Revolution.
Here, partly through the perfidy of Glyndon, she is denounced and condemned to the guillotine. Zanoni arrives and, in a desperate attempt to save her, sacrifices his own life in the process but goes to his death with a new realisation of the meaning of human life, and above all of human death. Despite his efforts, by a quirk of fate, Viola also dies, and their child is left an orphan in the prison cell, although the book ends with the strong hint that he will grow up safely as "the fatherless are in the care of God".
Throughout all these colourful events the author stresses the theme of the quest of the ideal in the arts, as opposed to the servile imitation of nature, for nature is not to be copied but exalted. The aim of the arts should be to lift the perceptions of the beholder to the level of the gods, to the highest potential of mankind.
Yet the natural world is not to be rejected. Man's spirit is like a bird and cannot always be on the wing. They who best evoke the ideal also enjoy the most real. For true art finds beauty everywhere, in the street, the market place, or the hovel. Exemplary models are Shakespeare, Raphael, the sculptors of classical Greece; and Milton and Dante found inspiration for their song even in the mire of politics.
As to the powers of the mind, expressed in wisdom or prophecy, whoever can perceive the truths that are in him and around him can foretell what is likely to come. But the perception of truth is disturbed by many inner causes - vanity, passion, fear, indolence, ignorance. It is only a particular state of mind - of profound serenity - that is capable of perceiving truth. Glyndon, although seeking for higher truth, had a mind that was fevered by a desire for it. He sought the deepest secrets in nature without trial or preparation of himself. Yet truth can not be seen by the mind that is unprepared for it. Such a mind receives truth only to pollute it. In the words of the Neo-Platonist lamblichus: He, who pours water into a muddy well, only disturbs the mud.
Nor is this simply a matter of stirring up unresolved subconscious complexes as modern psychological analysts might have us believe; it has an objective side to it as well. Citing BulwerLytton's "Zanoni", Madame Blavatsky, in "Isis Unveiled", refers to the Dweller on the Threshold in the plural, as beings, some of them vicious, who surround us and move in the astral waves like fish in the water. Such astral currents can be controlled only by an adept, pure in mind and spirit, who knows how to direct these blind forces.
She asserts that Bulwer-Lytton is the only author in the world of literature to give such a truthful and evocative description of these astral beings, quoting directly from the adept Mejnour instructing the aspiring Glyndon:
"Man is arrogant in proportion to his ignorance. For several ages he saw in the countless worlds that sparkle through space like the bubbles of a shoreless ocean, only the petty candles ... that Providence has been pleased to light for no other purpose but to make the night more agreeable to man ... Astronomy has corrected this delusion of human vanity, and man now reluctantly confesses that the stars are worlds, larger and more glorious than his own ... Everywhere, then, in this immense design, science brings new life to light. Reasoning, then, by evident analogy, if not a leaf, if not a drop of water, but is, no less than yonder star, a habitable and breathing world - nay, if even man himself, is a world to other lives, and millions and myriads dwell in the rivers of his blood, and inhabit man's frame as man inhabits earth - common sense (if our schoolmen had it) would suffice to teach that the circumfluent infinite which you call space - that boundless impalpable which divides earth from the moon and stars - is filled also with its correspondent and appropriate life.
Is it not a visible absurdity to suppose that being is crowded upon every leaf, and yet absent from the immensities of space! The law of the great system forbids the waste even of all atom; it knows no spot where something of life does not breathe . . . Well, then, can you conceive that space, which is infinite itself, is alone a waste, is alone lifeless, is less useful to the one design of universal being . . . than the peopled leaf, than the swarming globule? The microscope shows you the creatures on the leaf; no mechanical tube is yet invented to discover the nobler and more gifted things that hover in the illimitable air. Yet between these last and man is a mysterious and terrible affinity...
But first, to penetrate this barrier, the soul with which you listen must be sharpened by intense enthusiasm, purified from all earthly desires ... When thus prepared, science can be brought to aid it; the sight itself may be rendered more subtile the nerves more acute, the spirit more alive and outward, and the element itself - the air, the space may be made, by certain secrets of the higher chemistry, more palpable and clear. And this too, is not magic as the credulous call it; as I have so often said before, magic (a science that violates nature) exists not; it is but the science by which nature can be controlled. Now in space there are millions of beings, not literally spiritual, for they have all, like the animalcula unseen by the naked eye, certain forms of matter, though matter is so delicate, air-drawn, and subtile, that it is, as it were, but a film, a gossamer, that clothes the spirit ... Yet, in truth, these races differ most widely ... some surpassing wisdom, some of horrible malignity; some hostile as fiends to men, others gentle as messengers between earth and heaven ... Amid the dwellers on the threshold is one, too, surpassing in malignity and hatred all her tribe; one whose eyes have paralysed the bravest, and whose power increases over the spirit precisely in proportion to its fear."
Such, says Madame Blavatsky, is a sketch of elemental beings void of divine spirit, given by one whom many with reason believed to know more than he was prepared to admit in the face of an incredulous public.
She returns to the subject with reference to psychic phenomena, which can be subjective or objective - a distinction which we must ever bear in mind.
"An impure medium," she says, "will attract to his impure inner self, the vicious, depraved, malignant influences as inevitably as one that is pure draws only those that are good and pure." And she cites as one of the latter kind, a contemporary, Baroness Adelma von Vay, who used her mediumistic powers to heal the sick and comfort the afflicted, and who for many years had seen and recognized nature spirits and cosmic elementaries and found them always friendly.
Others less pure and good had not fared so well at the hands of these apish and impish beings. And although spiritualists might not believe in their existence, these nature spirits are nonetheless realities. Bulwer-Lytton's Dwellers might be a modern conception but it derives from ancient Hebraic and Egyptian tradition. Orthodox Christians might call them devils, or imps of Satan, and the like, but they are nothing of the kind. They are simply creatures of ethereal matter, irresponsible, neither good nor bad, unless influenced by a superior intelligence. Such was known by one of the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, who remarked that it was absurd to call them devils for they were only inferior angels, "powers which inhabit elements, move the winds and distribute showers, and as such are agents and subject to God."
A further reference to their role in psychic phenomena occurs in early Theosophical literature in one of "The Mahatma Letters" to A.P. Sinnett. This was in connection with some slighting references to "Zanoni" that had been made by Stainton Moses, a leading spiritualist of the day.
Stainton Moses was no ordinary medium. A public school master and ordained minister, he began to experience trances which were accompanied by startling physical phenomena, from which emerged a sequence of spiritual teaching from a being known as Imperator. The tone of the teachings was of a neo-platonic nature and somewhat at variance with the Reverend Stainton Moses initial more orthodox Christian beliefs. In the early days of the Theosophical Society Madame Blavatsky had looked upon Stainton Moses as a possible important ally in her struggle against the forces of nineteenth century materialism. However, a rift gradually began to emerge between them regarding the comparative status of Imperator on the one hand and her Masters Morya and Koot Hoomi on the other.
This all too human controversy began to generate more heat than light, although it centred upon a fundamental question that is perennial to all occultism, as to exactly who the Masters, Inner Plane Adepti or Spirit Teachers are, their spiritual status and the nature of their being. Contemporaneously, Anna Kingsford was promulgating "The Perfect Way" in which she asserted that the source of such teachings was the Higher Self of each one involved, and was reluctant to admit credence or superiority to Imperator or the Theosophical Mahatmas alike. Be this as it may, it is of interest that there were three independent major influxes of teaching of this nature during the early 1880's.
As to the nature of the Dweller on the Threshold, Stainton Moses, who had also read Bulwer-Lytton, was inclined to be somewhat sceptical. Indeed he asked Madame Blavatsky if she thought Bulwer-Lytton's description of this being had been the result of the author's dreams after eating underdone pork chops! To this the old lady had prophesied that in a year's time he might have to face and fight the same thing. And sure enough thirteen months later he wrote her to say:
"I am fighting a hand to hand battle with all the legions of the Fiend for the past three weeks. My nights are made hideous with their torments, temptations and foul suggestions. I see them all around, glaring at me, gabbling, howling, grinning! Every form of filthy suggestion, of bewildering doubt, of mad and shuddering fear is upon me. . . I have not wavered yet ... and their temptations are fainter, the presence less near, the horror less..."
In a letter received by A.P. Sinnett in July 1881, Koot Hoomi analyses the reasons for this and claims all would have been well if Moses had asserted his own independent spiritual will by giving up mediumship. Imperator, he says, cannot preach the occult sciences and then defend mediumship, for mediumship is abnormal. It may represent a stage on the way in certain cases, (and we should recall that both Blavatsky and Dion Fortune were mediums in their time), but when by further development the abnormal has given way to the natural, spirit controls are shaken off, along with passive obedience. The medium learns to use his or her own will, to exercise his or her own power, to become an adept. The process is one of development and no initiate who is subject to trance can truly be called an adept.
The progress of the initiate upon the Path is taken up by Rudolf Steiner in his textbook "Knowledge of the Higher Worlds - How is it Achieved?", first published in 1909/10 as "The Way of Initiation” and “Initiation and its Results". The book culminates with two chapters describing the meeting of the Dweller on the Threshold, virtually as the end result of the initiation process. He prefers to use the term Guardian, (or at any rate his translators do) although he undoubtedly has BulwerLytton's "Zanoni" in mind
He describes the process as being in two parts, as there are two Thresholds, a Lesser and a Greater, each with its correspondent Guardian, and he writes that although descriptions sometimes given are enough to make timid souls shudder, dangers only exist if the necessary precautions are neglected. If a valid course of esoteric training is pursued then the ascent will proceed through experiences of increasing power and magnitude with no question of injury to health or life.
Such a course of training entails a sense of participation in the physical as well as the spiritual worlds, for the Earth is transformed by the initiate implanting within it what he or she discovers in the spiritual world, for the physical Earth is dependent upon the spiritual world. And anyone seeking to shirk the tasks of the outer world by escaping into another world will never reach the goal of initiation.
Until the soul crosses the first Threshold it has been directed and controlled by external forces of destiny, or karma, according to its desserts, good or bad. Crossing the first threshold is a taking of full responsibility for one's own actions.
In one sense this means becoming free from the forces of karma, as externally applied, but it also implies becoming aware of one's own true state of being, (in conjunction with the Delphic oracle's adage to "Know Thyself” and to take responsibility for it. The Dweller in this instance is a mirror image of the soul, "warts and all" but rather than being fearful of it the initiate at this stage should take responsibility for its transformation or redemption.
Here, in an interesting footnote, Steiner remarks that the Guardian, being an astral figure, could be made physically visible by an operation of lower magic, producing, by whatever means, a cloud of fine substance which may be moulded into the form and vitalised by the unresolved karma of the individual concerned. However, such operations are not to be recommended as they bring with them the risk of falling into evil byways. He cites Bulwer-Lytton's novel "Zanoni" as containing a description of such an operation in fictional form. This is when Mejnour lays on a demonstration of spirits for Glyndon, which forms part of his test of obedience to his teacher and resistance to idle curiosity, and seems in some respects closely akin to the physical phenomena of certain spiritualist circles and which habitually manifested about Stainton Moses.
One consequence of passing the first Threshold is a realisation of the existence of group souls, national souls, folk angels, the ancestors - and that the individual is part and parcel of a number of greater beings of the supersensual worlds. At the same time
there will come about a different attitude towards death, for after crossing this threshold the initiate becomes as a living dead man - a point also made in Dion Fortune's "The Cosmic Doctrine" ‑ macabre as this might seem to the "once born", the ordinary personality in the world that has not yet been opened up to higher consciousness.
The second Threshold leads on to a cosmic landscape and the initiate becomes a citizen of the higher worlds beyond the trammels of the flesh and the physical world. In one sense this corresponds to the initiation of Daath upon the Tree of Life beyond which are the Supernal of Formless Worlds, and some further hints about its possibilities may be found in "The Rays and the Initiations" by Alice A. Bailey, which builds in some detail upon some outline hints first given in Blavatsky's "The Secret Doctrine".
Our first concern however will be with the meeting with the first Dweller. In chapter 21 of "The Mystical Qabalah" Dion Fortune describes it somewhat ominously as a horror which confronts every adventurer into the Unseen, although her ensuing analysis of it makes clear that much depends upon our own psychological and philosophical preparation for it. That is to say, our realisation of just exactly what we are doing or seeking to achieve when we seek initiation.
In her eyes, in this function it unites in itself the functions of the Sphinx, presenting a riddle to the soul upon the answer to which hangs its fate, either returned to wander in the realms of illusion or permitted to pass on into the Light. This riddle of the Sphinx is, "Do you believe in the gods?"
If the initiate answers "Yes" or "No" then he or she will remain a wanderer in the planes of illusion, for the gods are not real persons as we understand personality yet nor, on the other hand, are they illusions. What then shall be the answer?
In search of this Dion Fortune enters into an analysis of the nature of what Theosophists call the Akasha or western occultists such as Eliphas Levi the Reflecting Ether. This may seem to make the Dweller or Guardian more of a philosophical problem than a grisly horror, but upon the successful resolution of it depends the future progress of the initiate, who stands at the threshold of a three-fold way. One way is to continue to wander in the illusory world of superstition and psychic self deception; the second is to abandon the inner quest and return to more materialist speculations, (which include various forms of psychology, whatever the transcendental veneer of some of them); whilst the third way leads to the opening up of higher consciousness in the objective realms of the Unseen.
In what we have seen so far, the various approaches of Bulwer-Lytton, Blavatsky, Steiner, and Dion Fortune to the Dweller, or Guardian, on or of the Threshold, reflect different facets of this stage of the initiatory progress of the soul. In Eastern terms it might be described as aid image, or indeed personification, of the karmic debit account. In traditional Christian terms it might be regarded as a vista of Purgatory. Whilst in Ancient Egyptian imagery it might be seen as the weighing of the soul in the ante-chamber of Osiris. All these are descriptions of an after death condition, which may however be experienced in life by the process of initiation.
The approach to the Dweller, it might be said, is a gradual one. It is only to be feared if the meeting is premature, a result of vaulting spiritual ambition, as in the case of Glyndon in the story of "Zanoni". In real life the consequences are hardly likely to be so immediate and dramatic as those described in the Dr. Taverner story, "The Scented Poppies".
Here Dion Fortune achieves a striking finish when a budding occultist, who is also a singularly nasty piece of work, at his own presumptuous request has his psychic faculties prematurely opened for him by Dr. Taverner. He is immediately confronted with the horrifying vision of the shadow side of his own soul, which Taverner casually refers to as the Guardian of the Threshold. As a result, the man runs screaming into the night although the story omits to say whether it was "a dark and stormy" one! And fortunately, it has to be said, this is not the usual result of an esoteric initiation.
However, as in most approaches to the unseen worlds, it is the manner of our approach to it that governs its response to us. Hence the emphasis upon right motive at the threshold of any responsible occult school.