I’ve been reading Peter Washington’s book Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the emergence of the western guru. It is a very entertaining book, which I can recommend for that reason alone (entertainment). While reading, I constantly asked myself why it is that hardly any films are made about these eccentric gurus — their lives (and the stories they invented about their lives) are perfect for that medium. They’re crazy enough, interesting enough; they’re tactless, impatient, adventurous, enticing, sometimes cruel, and expensive (for their fans); they’re mostly, it would seem, egotists who are in it for the kick… while the overt reason, and the reason their followers take them so seriously, is an attempt at explaining the entire world, man, life — and the universe. About Gurdjieff, Washington notes: ‘Gurdjieff needed his pupils as much as they needed him: to combat the ordinariness of life.’ Isn’t that very true? And who can blame them? It’s difficult to envision anyone, any human being, who does not try to combat the ordinariness of life. Or perhaps that’s me.
Anyway, Washington writes very entertainingly about Blavatsky, Besant, Gurdjieff, Leadbeater. But when he writes about Steiner, I almost get the impression he doesn’t find Steiner as entertaining as the others; I believe I detect a vague attitude of boredom and disinterest. Steiner’s too dry, too sober, not spaced-out in the same fashion as the others and not living as eccentric a life as they appear to have been doing. Or so Washington seems to think, which is a pity, because Steiner is certainly not second to these others in being funny and a character in his own right; perhaps he’s not so blatant and obvious, but he has a charm, I’m afraid Washington has missed (again: maybe it’s me). Although Steiner is actually on the cover (along with Blavatsky), neither he nor his movement get a lot of attention.
But the others, though, oh, they’re certainly an entertaining crowd. I recommend a book review in The Independent for further illumination:
It is a marvellous ensemble. Blavatsky, a wisecracking mixture of Russian grande dame and country-cute Kalmuck; her ‘chum’, the lugubrious old soldier Colonel Olcott, straight from Anthony Powell; the unspeakable C W Leadbeater, writing hectic letters to small boys encouraging masturbation as a path to spirituality; James Wedgwood, the same but more so (caught cottaging by the police – 18 lavatories in two hours – he said with hauteur that he was searching for a friend known in a previous life); the elusive Krishnamurti, man made god; the brilliant spoofer Gurdjieff, inventor of the ashram as high-fashion labour camp; the literal- minded Ouspensky, dervish-dancing to a ‘higher’ plane of consciousness; A R Orage, coiner of the ‘New Age’ slogan.