Peter Washington

Madame Blavatsky's Baboon

Theosophy and the emergence of the Western guru

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

The use of the word "guru" in the subtitle of this book reflects the fact that the Western world has its share of people who have claimed special access to esoteric knowledge and have made a profession of imparting it to others. The difference from the Eastern version is that in the West the guru is not institutionalized; there is no accepted pattern of behaviour, and this can lead to some very odd consequences. Peter Washington tells the story of some of the more notable examples of the genre in this entertaining book. He draws mainly on published sources and there will be few surprises for anyone who is already familiar with the field, though I did learn one or two details that were new to me.

As the title implies, Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical movement, is one of the main characters in the story; the baboon was a stuffed one, dressed to look like Charles Darwin, her pet aversion. The Theosophical movement, though it still exists, is now but a faint echo of its former self; up to the 1920s it had many thousands of members throughout the world and was a familiar name to almost everyone. It spawned at least one guru of world-wide fame, Krishnamurti, who was selected by the Theosophists to become its leader, but later he famously distanced himself from the movement and announced himself to be a kind of anti-guru, proclaiming the hopeless inadequacy of all systems whatsoever; although, paradoxically, he could not prevent the growth of a cult around his own person. His private life was, however, more colourful, and more human, that his public persona would suggest.

Another famous mystagogue of the inter-war years was G.I.Gurdjieff, who, like Madame Blavatsky, is now remembered only by a relatively small band of enthusiasts. At one time Gurdjieff, a mysterious Greek-Armenian from the Caucasus, had an Institute near Fontainebleau at which some of the leading intellectuals of the day were pupils; the writer Katherine Mansfield died there, of tuberculosis. Gurdjieff taught a "System" of astonishing complexity and obscurity, which had a fatal attraction for a certain kind of mind. He had a number of very influential pupils, all of whom eventually broke with him, or he with them, going on to found their own systems of esoteric knowledge. One of these was a Russian, Peter Ouspensky, who settled in England, and another was J.G. Bennett, also based in England. Shortly before his death Ouspensky disavowed the teaching he had made his life's work, but some of his followers, notably a strange man called Rodney Collin, regarded this as a kind of game or "test" in the Gurdjieffian style, and went on to teach their own versions of the system.

During the course of his long life Bennett tried almost all the esoteric systems on offer; each, at the outset, seemed to promise ultimate fulfillment, and each was ultimately found wanting. At the end of his life he concluded that he himself knew the Answer, although, paradoxically, he also became a Roman Catholic at this time. At one stage Bennett had his own Centre in Surrey, a place called Coombe Springs, where he taught his disciples a version of the Gurdjieff system. In the winter of 1965/6 he agreed to hand the whole thing over to a self-styled Sufi called Idries Shah, who promptly expelled Bennett and his pupils and then sold the property to developers for what was, at the time, a large sum of money. Washington suggests that Bennett was by this time tired of the Coombe Springs enterprise and wanted to move on to something new.

Idries Shah was a most successful mystagogue, who succeeded in deceiving a wide range of people. One of these was the poet Robert Graves, probably already beginning to suffer at the time from the dementia which was later to incapacitate him. Shah, together with his brother Omar, persuaded Graves that they had an ancient manuscript of the Rubaiat of Omar Khayyam, which had been preserved by their family in Afghanistan for generations as an heirloom. This manuscript was, not surprisingly, never produced, but Graves (who knew no Persian) agreed to "translate" it and it was published under his name. This was not the first literary scam that Shah perpetrated. Washington says that he was almost certainly "Rafael Lefort", the pseudonymous author of "The Teachers of Gurdjieff", a book purporting to describe a journey made to discover the sources of Gurdjieff's teachings in Asia. (I found this particularly interesting, because in the 1970s I was told by Livia Gollancz, who published this work, that she didn't know who Rafael Lefort was but that she could get in touch with him by letter if it was ever essential to do so.)

Washington has given us is an entertaining account of the excesses to which human gullibility can lend itself, but he doesn't explain what it is that prompts people to lend their belief to some of the more outrageous exploiters who take advantage of their credulity. This would be an even more interesting undertaking. (On this, see Feet of Clay, by Anthony Storr.)

%T Madame Blavatsky's Baboon
%S Theosophy and the emergence of the Western guru
%A Washington, Peter
%I Secker & Warburg
%C London
%D 1993
%G ISBN 0 436 56418 1
%P 470 pp
%K religion
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