Faith Healers

Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru
By Peter Washington
Reed, 470 pp.

In the aftermath of the gunfire-to-hellfire Branch Davidian stand-off, it would be comforting to think that such slavish devotion to so manifestly irrational a cause could only be an aberration, an isolated occurrence.

Comforting, but apparently mistaken.  As Peter Washington makes clear in Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, a timely study of the charismatic spiritual fanatic, the Branch Davidians are only the most extreme example of a durable Western tradition. Ours is a culture pockmarked with tiny communities founded on the synergy between a driven, domineering personality and a flock of devotees seeking succor or salvation.

Take as only one example the Church Universal and Triumphant, currently established on a 33,000-acre ranch in Montana under the spiritual direction of Elizabeth Prophet, who believes she will be reincarnated as a supernatural being, Guru Ma. In an eerie echo of the Branch Davidians, the ranch is patrolled by armed guards, houses a huge nuclear shelter in anticipation of the coming holocaust, and in the late 1980s was revealed to be a storehouse of illegal weapons.

There are scores of such groups, ranging from the benignly eccentric to the truly alarming, most of them all but invisible unless they come to the tragic ends of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.

Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is a top-flight and tragi-comic history of these fringe movements. Washington, general editor of the Everyman Library and the author of Fraud: Literary Theory and the End of English, charts their halting progress from the afterlife-obsessed mid-19th century and its craze for seances, to the New Age-addled present.

The individual he credits with really getting the crystal ball rolling, however, was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, co-founder in 1875 of the Theosophical Society, and the godmother of every mystic nutcase and charlatan occultist since. (The title is taken from the fact that she kept a stuffed baboon in spectacles and formal wear as an emblem of her distaste for Darwinism.)

It was the Theosophical Society (at its peak in 1928, it had 45,000 members) that established the model for spiritual cults. First, there is the belief that the leaders (in reality, bullying, mercurial egomaniacs) are the appointed agents of a higher spiritual plane. Initiates, on whose financial contributions the cult is invariably founded, first have to be debased before they can receive the otherworldly wisdom.

The campus for such instruction is typically a walled retreat where the acolytes live communally, and the teachings themselves are a baffling melange of crackpot theology laced with dire predictions of an imminent doomsday for all but the faithful. Carrot and stick, the over-all effect is to soothe the troubled soul and simultaneously scare it witless.

But at the core of every half-baked band of credulous believers is the strange charisma of the cult leader, and it’s in its portraits of these astonishing characters that Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon excels.

Blavatsky herself – fraud, sleight-of-hand artist, inveterate liar – in later life resembled a fish-eyed Queen Victoria, right down to her haughty imperiousness. She eventually became so fat that she had to be winched aboard a ship in Madras. It was true that she was the daughter of Russian nobility and that, at the age of 17, she fled her husband of a few weeks, the vice-governor of Yerevan, and wound up in Constantinople. Everything after that becomes a skein of half-truths and hallucinations.

She claimed to have ridden bareback in a circus, crossed the U.S. in a covered wagon, performed as a concert pianist in Serbia, opened an ink factory in Odessa, fought with Garibaldi in 1867, survived a shipwreck, rescued a Hungarian opera singer from assassins, and learned mystic esoterica at the feet of the Himalayan masters in Tibet.

Blavatsky was a colorful persona, to say the least, but in the annals of charismatic spiritualism she was hardly unique, and the book brims with characters every bit as arresting: the magnetic, half-mad G.I. Gurdjieff, whose passport, it was discovered on entering the United States, carried a birth date in the distant future; James Wedgewood, bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, who used his self-styled station as a screen for his pederasty, and who in the end, on the lam from charges of buggery, was reduced to smuggling cocaine in the head of his episcopal crozier; and the sweetly tragic Jiddu Krishnamurti, a young Indian boy torn from his family and installed as the Theosophist messiah, who eventually renounced the movement and lived until 1986 in California, a gentle and genuinely spiritual man.

It would be tempting to believe that those who fall under the spell of such charismatics are exclusively weak and frightened, but the list of dabblers and devotees is long and distinguished, extending from George Bernard Shaw and Frank Lloyd Wright to Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley. Certainly, it’s far too premature to write off the fascination for the spirit world in favor of more earthly concerns, as the poet Louis MacNeice did in “Bagpipe Music” (1937):

It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.


  • Montreal Gazette June 5, 1993