Sergei Prokofieff: Rudolf Steiner and the Founding of the New Mysteries

From the looks of it, Sergej Prokfieff seems to have been a man who experienced no doubts and had no appreciation for ambiguity; one filled with blind conviction and religious devotion, a pedantic and humourless literalist, uncompromising and adverse to the world. That is quite a way to begin, I guess.

The Russian, a former member of the executive council of the Anthroposophical Society in Dornach, was excessively popular among some anthroposophists, and equally disliked by others. While some anthroposophists admired him and were impressed by his supposed gifts in the occult realm, others have been dismissive, considering him a destructive force in the movement. Prokofieff’s equals in religious fervor and self-proclaimed clairvoyants have also found various reasons to dislike him; to some extent, it seems to have been mutual. But many have fallen, spiritually speaking, at his feet; admiring him, even worshipping him, as a high initiate, even the highest since Steiner himself, possibly boosted by the old anthroposophical belief that the Russian folk-soul will be the dominant spiritual force in the coming cultural epoch. Depicting Steiner as a saint and martyr, the impression is that Prokofieff would not be unhappy to see such an image brush off on himself. He passed away, relatively young, a couple of years ago. He was the intellectually gifted version of the die-hard anthroposophical fanatics with their religious zeal.

All of this alone was reason enough for me to read Prokofieff’s first book, Rudolf Steiner and the Founding of the New Mysteries,* the work that propelled him to anthroposophical fame in the 1980s and made him rise to the higher echelons of the Society at a rather young age. The origin of the book is a series of lectures held for the first time in the late 1970s. Familiarizing myself with it is, after all, essential to understanding some of the rifts in anthroposophy: perhaps, actually, how diverse anthroposophy is and how much anthroposophists have differed in their outlook.

So I began to read but, alas, the reading took a while: I’ve rarely suffered through such a dreadfully dull tome. Prokofieff drones on endlessly in the most monotonous fashion, and if you could extract the essence of his book and turn it into a pill, I’m sure you would have invented a successful remedy against sleeplessness. I almost invariably fell asleep after about seven to ten pages, until I took to reading it sitting on a hard, wooden chair on the balcony, where it was impossible to nod off. It rather pains me to say this, but I began to think I was inflicting unforgivable cruelty on myself, but then reminded myself of people having their heads chopped off, and despite feelings of unpleasantness, I plugged along bravely, considering myself lucky after all. That said, worse drivel is hard to come by, even by anthroposophical standards.

This work contains a supposedly esoteric interpretation (or vision perhaps being the appropriate word) of the life of Rudolf Steiner and of the development of the Anthroposophical Society, especially concerning the pivotal Christmas meeting (”the major spiritual event taking place in the physical world in the 20th century”). Prokofieff attempts to achieve this through extensive quoting and parroting of Steiner’s texts and lectures – chosen selectively and with an obvious slant, intended to give credence to Prokofieff’s own religious-fundamentalist anthroposophy (as so often: it’s more interesting to ponder the things people leave out, than what they include!) – seasoned with mildly exotic occult speculations, or should I say fantasies, some possibly original for Prokofieff, some of it decidedly old stuff or rehashed mythologies, such as Steiner’s supposed previous incarnations, accepted, naturally and without question, as uncontroversial facts.

Perhaps it’s worth saying that the book is quite impenetrable unless you have some familiarity with anthroposophy. And even if you do, reading Steiner himself is generally more accessible, even the more esoteric lectures intended only for members. This has as much to do with style as it has to do with content. Prokofieff, of course, has not written this book for outsiders, not even interested outsiders; highly committed anthroposophists, to whom tedium is not off-putting but rather part of the allure, are his exclusive target audience. He doesn’t need to be rhetorically convincing or poetically gifted; all he needs to do is to offer a pretense of esoteric depth and an appeal to vanity. Steiner, in that way, is more straightforward to deal with, has retained a sense of humour, and is less awkward in style.

So who is Steiner? To Prokofieff, an emissary of God; a kind of reincarnated Christ; the one and only saviour of all of humanity; the One whose life was planned by the angels with extraordinary care. I mean this quite literally; he does go on quite a bit about Steiner and Christ. A Steiner who is elevated to divinity but deprived of his humanity. I’ve grown quite fond of the guy; he certainly is exceptional and highly intelligent. But – and there is a but – for all that is good about him, and wise and fascinating, as well as for those things that are less appealing (but still often interesting), he is human. Not to question the ”facts” he puts forth nor the process by which he attains them and the logic he follows, is a refusal to take him seriously – in a very real sense. Prokofieff is, it seems to me, poking with a stick at a corpse; revealing moths and worms. The holy man is but a ghost; the real (human) man nowhere to be seen.

By virtue of being Steiner’s disciples, anthroposophists are the rightful leaders of mankind; they – the members of the Anthroposophical Society – are called, by divine cosmic powers, to be the superior humans who shall be the rulers of a flock of sheep. In fact, and Prokofieff assures us that this is not racist – because it is spiritual! – anthroposophists will form their own race; I need not tell you that this race is spiritually elevated above the rest of humankind, which will stay behind, as it were, just like the animals did when present man moved on. The way he describes it, I get the impression that the rest of us are just props in an anthroposophical theatre production – or pawns in a game that anthroposophists imagine they’re playing. We’re here to fulfill their aims, figurantes in their vision of leaders and followers, but (it seems to me) of little value as individuals in our own right, with our own aims and goals. So much for the much-touted love.

Be that as it may (we may certainly doubt that anthroposophists are inherently superior by merit of being anthroposophists, or we may doubt in the blessings of being ruled by this spiritual aristocracy), it is a powerful appeal to vanity. In a dead serious tone, Prokofieff inflates the importance of anthroposophy and anthroposophists to cosmic proportions. He provides plenty of esoteric inspiration for anyone who gets a high out of contempt of his fellow (non-anthroposophist) men – that very special contempt that comes with a lofty smile and a pastel-coloured garb. Natural for a cult, of course, but anthroposophy claims not to be one. Or perhaps it’s just human nature. But let’s put it succinctly: in more ways than one, Prokofieff’s book provides ample ammunition for anyone wanting to prove that, indeed, anthroposophy can be a religious cult. He believes; he does not doubt. He calls on anthroposophists to take on their mission. There is a creed, certainly; a revelation. There’s a millennial perspective, an apocalyptic vision. There is a way to be a real anthroposophist, the one adhering to Prokofieff’s visions and ideals. There’s the one and only right way – and the many wrong ways. If anthroposophists don’t choose the former, the world will be plunged into destruction, darkness and decay and end in annihilation.

He’s a preacher without poetry; a monotonous visionary. What strikes me perhaps most of all is the cold, relentlessly mechanical quality of Prokofieff’s account. He may be learned, in a theoretical way, possessing a huge storage of cold, technical knowledge, resembling the knowledge reservoirs of an autistic savant, but nothing comes alive; there is a selection of trees, not a wide, wild variety, just a decent selection, but there’s no forest, no life. A feeling permeates me that despite the (certainly correct, but selective) details of his tediously elaborate treatise, he gets it all so very wrong. I wouldn’t even say he misunderstands his object of study; I don’t think he does, I’m sure it’s as ”valid” a reading of Steiner as any other, they’re all selective, they’re all interpretations, all about people’s own desires. I simply think he suffocates and kills it. Characteristically, Prokofieff is entirely impersonal. This is not about him, but about cosmic, higher truth. As far as the individual human being is concerned, it is all on the surface. Do I think it is ”spiritual”? No.

The impression of a game, cold and technical, with winners and losers, pawns without heart and blood, remains. It is the kind of anthroposophy that would scare the hell out of me if it had any influence at all in the world. I can understand, I certainly can, the attraction that this kind of anthroposophy has, as it plays to vanity, superiority, exclusiveness, but I can also see, and that even more clearly, how it turns anthroposophy in on itself, becoming alien to the world, perhaps satisfied as such, but isolated and ever more detached.


*I read the Swedish translation, because it was available at the library (Sergej Prokofjev: Rudolf Steiner och grundandet av de nya mysterierna). I guess this sloppy review ought to have been preceded by a trigger warning – to protect people who cannot abide seeing their heroes disrespected. But that, you see, is not my cup of tea, so you’ll have to find a way to survive. As for people who don’t want to read a whole book themselves, they can find some of Prokofieff’s articles online; I particularly recommend ‘The being of the internet’ (and the hilarious response written by waldorf teacher Eugene Schwartz).

With this post, I’ll take a brief break again. A few days, a week possibly, I don’t know. I’ll ponder the dangers of mysticism – a topic of some contention, internal and external, as of late –, the weaknesses of my soul and my belligerent melancholic-choleric disposition.