I want to be real

Rosemary Dinnage

  • Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru by Peter Washington
    Secker, 470 pp, £20.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 436 56418 1

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, kept in her New York apartment in the 1870s a stuffed baboon with a copy of The Origin of Species under its arm, along with a platonically infatuated colonel, a golden Buddha, and piles of esoteric books. The baboon represented the science and materialism which were creeping up on the late 19th century and which Blavatsky and many others felt to be threatening and arid. At the end of his survey of a century of cults and gurus, of sincerity and fraudulence, of hopes and disappointments, Peter Washington detects the faint sound of Blavatsky’s baboon having the last laugh.

Washington presents his subject as the rise of the Western guru: in fact, charisma, faith, leader and follower, have never been absent from religion or from history. In the period when Theosophy was founded, though, conditions were right for a really grand outburst. Washington outlines the background: the slow bombshell of Darwinism, the undermining of Christianity by Biblical scholarship, decades of growing interest in the underpinnings of psychology, the beginnings of psychical research.

Blavatsky was an odd figure to step into the gap, but Theosophy prospered and became very influential. Nor was she really a Western guru. Daughter of Russian aristocrats, she ran away at 17 from a middle-aged husband and spent years (she said) travelling in the East and amassing wisdom. ‘A sort of old Irish peasant woman, with an air of humour, and audacious power’, Yeats called her, as he did the rounds of occult groups; Chesterton called her ‘a coarse, witty, vigorous, scandalous old scallywag’. She was in her forties when she washed up in New York, where the platonic military flatmate, Colonel Olcott, had been drawn to her by her psychic tricks part genuine, perhaps, part conjuring. Together they founded the Theosophical Society, acquired Indian connections, produced a journal, set up London premises, and attracted respectable aspiring members. Blavatsky wrote Theosophical texts, astrally dictated to her, she said, by Tibetan masters. They told tales of universal electricity (Fohat) and a secret language (Senzar), the seven Dhyan-Chohans and seven subraces, the Grand White Brotherhood and the Lords of Karma, the Hyperboreans, Lemurians and Atlanteans. Theosophists did not read this part, but were attracted by the society’s benign general aims of uniting religions and promoting brotherhood.

As Theosophy prospered and spread, two important cults diverged from the main stream. In 1913, the German branch, led by Rudolf Steiner, broke away and renamed itself Anthroposophy. (In his diary Kafka reports, deadpan, a visit to Sterner: he tells Steiner of his passion for writing, his dead-end insurance job, his attraction to Theosophy; Steiner nods, sniffs, his nose runs, he works his handkerchief ‘deep into his nose, one finger in each nostril’. End of anecdote.) Anthroposophy survives today remarkably efficiently, here and on the Continent, running schools, colleges, nursing-homes, shops, training courses, homes for the handicapped. Washington traces its history through the building of the great Goetheanum in Switzerland, its burning down and Steiner’s death of heartbreak, up to its present-day success.

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