Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America
By Peter Washington
Shocken. 470 pp. $27.50
Madame Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, kept a stuffed baboon in her study to symbolize her rejection of Darwinian materialism. The baboon was dressed in formal clothing, and held a copy of The Origin of Species in its hand. Blavatsky accepted evolution in a sense, but she insisted it was part of a process by which humans can evolve into higher spiritual beings under the guidance of a secret brotherhood of spiritual masters. When it was convenient, Blavatsky could produce letters from angelic beings like the “Lord Maitreya” and “Master Koot Hoomi”-letters magically precipitated into her possession. These communications frequently instructed her friends and disciples to agree to her whimsical demands without complaint.
Sometimes Blavatsky was caught red-handed in forgery or in staging ghostly appearances at her seances, but any disgrace was only temporary. The faithful were aware that she cheated at times, but they remained convinced that at least some of the psychic gifts she displayed were genuine. Part of the explanation may have been that her collaborators and disciples could not totally repudiate her as a mountebank without exposing themselves as accomplices or dupes, and they preferred to think well of themselves. Many of these followers were so eager to be convinced of the reality of the spirit guides that to Blavatsky it may have seemed harmless as well as profitable to give them what they wanted. As her spiritual descendant George Ivanovich Gurdjieff said of his own followers, over whom he ruled with a comic sadism, “They are sheep fit only for the shearing.”
I keep an artifact very much like Madame Blavatsky’s baboon sitting on top of my office bookcase: an ape in formal clothing smoking a cigar. The ape was a gift from students at the Davis campus of the University of California, given to commemorate a public debate I had there over Darwinism with the anthropologist Vincent Sarich. (The students gave Sarich a stuffed elephant with a book of “Just-So” stories.) Although I never thought of the point before reading Peter Washington’s history of Theosophy, I suppose that my ape and Blavatsky’s baboon symbolize something similar. You are making a monkey of yourself if you are not skeptical of people who claim to be in communication with a spirit world, but it may be equally foolish to believe that a science based upon materialism can explain everything.
Madame Blavatsky’s successor as the world’s most famous spiritualist was the delightful Annie Besant, a true believer who spent her long life going from one ideological obsession to another. Annie was an inviting target for satire and yet hard to dismiss as a mere nitwit. She played a significant minor role in the politics of Indian independence, and always had important friends with money, political influence, and artistic gifts (like Shaw and Yeats) to lend support. Annie shared leadership of the Theosophy movement for a long time with the pederast Charles Leadbeater, founder and self-appointed Bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, who fixed upon a handsome Indian boy (known to the world as Krishnamurti) to be the World Teacher, avatar of Lord Maitreya, and new Messiah.
Krishnamurti in adulthood settled in a gorgeous rural area of Southern California called Ojai. He eventually repudiated Theosophy, and with it the messiahship Besant and Leadbeater had chosen for him. Thereafter he preached a pacifistic philosophy with such appealing earnestness that he became more famous than ever. Krishnamurti’s social circle during the World War II years included many celebrities: Bertrand Russell, Christopher Isherwood, Bertold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Igor Stravinsky, and Greta Garbo. His closest colleague was the novelist Aldous Huxley, a religious seeker who saw the need for something better than agnosticism or materialism. Huxley was unimpressed by Besant’s “bunkum about astral bodies, spiritual hierarchies, reincarnations and so forth,” but he nonetheless concluded that “a little judicious theosophy seems on the whole an excellent thing.”
Other characters in Peter Washington’s history include the autocratic Gurdjieff and his rebellious disciple Peter Ouspensky. Ouspensky wrote incomprehensible treatises that still sell forty thousand copies a year. Then there was the impressively learned Rudolph Steiner, who left Theosophy to found a rival movement he unpronouncably called “Anthroposophy.” Steiner seems to have had more of substance to say than the others, and some of his ideas have been taken seriously by thinkers outside the spiritualist tradition.
If Steiner was the most intellectually accomplished of the spiritualists, Gurdjieff certainly possessed the most colorful personality. According to Washington, the Theosophy of Besant and her crowd reflected in its way the sort of idealistic liberalism of the early twentieth century that brought the League of Nations into being. Gurdjieff in contrast represented “the complementary fascination with barbarism and primitivism which colors the politics of Fascism and works of art from Lawrence’s novels to Stravinsky’s early ballets.” Gurdjieff seems to have been most at home in chaos and conflict. He possessed a knack for escaping from impossible circumstances and landing on his feet. This was mainly due to his formidable ability to persuade or intimidate people to do whatever he wanted. His method of spiritual leadership was to stir up strife and bully his disciples mercilessly while they performed endless menial tasks.
Peter Washington’s account of these characters is highly amusing at times, especially when he reports the fantastic doings of Madame Blavatsky and her successors in a dry factual style, rightly trusting the reader to see the joke. By the end of the book, however, I lost interest. This was partly because the Theosophists were so tame in comparison to what we are used to in the late twentieth century: no mass suicides or gun battles, no poison gas or dynamite, no drugs or kinky sex orgies. Leadbeater’s adventures with boys would stir up no more than a minor scandal today in the most respectable religious and secular organizations. Several times a week my San Francisco newspaper reports something that tops for zaniness anything Besant ever dreamt of doing. Even Gurdjieff seems almost responsible in comparison to some of the cult leaders of more recent times.
For that matter, the science-based secular religions of the late nineteenth century that attained so much prestige among intellectuals demanded almost as much credulity as Theosophy, and they did a lot more harm. Judged in comparison to some of the manifestations of Marxism and Freudianism, for example, Theosophy’s absurdities look relatively innocent. If one must believe in something ridiculous, it may be safer to believe in the communications of Master Koot Hoomi than in promises of a workers’ paradise or in the kind of psychiatry that Freud practiced on his own patients. May Madame Blavatsky and her baboon rest together in peace.
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law at Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California at Berkeley.