Saturday, November 09, 2013

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Madame Blavatsky's Baboon

Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon
A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America

by Peter Washington 
Schocken Books, 1995

At the moment, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is out of print -- which seems unfathomable, since this tremendously entertaining book is also one of very few resources if you wish to puzzle out the cast of characters that launched the “New Age” in America.  If you despair of ever untangling the Rosicrucians from the Vedantists, Gurdjieff from Ouspensky, or St Germain from the Secret Masters, here is your book.

As a prospective reader, the most important thing to know about this book is that it is NOT primarily about Madame Blavatsky.  She is dead on page 100.  The primary pleasure and benefit of this book is Peter Washington’s ability to sketch out compelling life sketches of the main characters who brought spiritualism to America.  These include: Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Charles Leadbeater, Krishnamurti, Rudolf Steiner, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, J.G. Bennett, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Idries Shah.

Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is packed with rollicking jaw-dropping good stories and tremendously fun to read.  At the same time, it also presents a painfully bare view of human nature.  As you may have already discovered, our capacity for self-delusion turns out to be entirely perfectly limitless.  There is nothing so ludicrous, so obviously wrong, or so thoroughly debunked that we cannot believe it and go on believing it as long as we live.  If a belief makes us feel special or part of a group, we will sign on to absolutely utterly anything.  This book proves that on nearly every page.

For example, how amazing it is to learn how much of Helena Blavatsky’s worldview and philosophy is based, not on the teachings of disembodied Tibetan masters, but on the novels of Edward Bulwer Lytton.  In other words, a good part of what you’ll find in your local New Age bookstore originates from the man who wrote “It was a dark and stormy night.”

As a lifelong student of alternative spiritual traditions, I know that scandals are part of the territory.  Still, it is sobering to learn that the tradition of “renouncing the teacher but keeping the teaching” goes right back to the beginning.  In fact, it is very nearly universally practiced.  Almost every one of the teachers profiled here knew that their own teacher was painfully duplicitous, if not downright fraudulent.  The most charming teachers wore their own fraudulence lightly.  As Peter Washington writes, “Much of HPB’s life is a glorious comedy, as the tone of her letters often tacitly recognizes, but it could have tragic consequences for those who trusted her”. (86)  This turns out to be even more true of Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti than of Madame Blavatsky.

The life sketches Peter Washington paints are generally but not always well-rounded.  It is jarring to move from his scathing depiction of Charles Leadbeater to his almost reverential portrait of Rudolf Steiner.  (Peter Washington is not entirely to be blamed for this: Leadbeater the proselytizing pedophile is a remarkably despicable character.)  Washington is at his best when he tells the story of Krishnamurti, who comes across as a gifted spiritual teacher, a pathetic prisoner, and an aristocratic spoiled brat.  I simultaneously wished to bow to him, to embrace him, and to slap him across the face.

I hope very much that this book will one day be re-issued in a revised expanded version.  It often seems to me that the names of Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, and Krishnamurti are revered by people who often don’t know the first thing about who they actually were.  Or even wish to know.  What passes for respect is often just laziness and the desire to have an empty slate for our own projections.

For example, it’s much easier to revere Ouspensky and Gurdjieff if you can forget that they loathed each other.  Both claimed the other was a fraud.  (Ouspensky even came out at the end of his life and proclaimed himself to be a fraud, which his students piously ignored.)  

Ask your local mystic, intoning about the enneagram, who Gurdjieff actually was, and you’ll likely be offered a soy chai latte and told to listen to your own inner wisdom.  Don’t be bought off.  The truth is complicated, and not infrequently pathetic, but also fascinating.  It is necessary, too, to be reminded of the high cost of delusion.  Everyone who professes to be “a deeply spiritual person” should swap their rose-tinted lenses for reading glasses and sit down with this book.

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