[Book jacket illustration; the face in the lower left corner is Annie Besant; the cartoon is of Darwin; the face on the globe is Rudolf Steiner. -dD-]
The New Age is not so new. Peter Washingingon traces it back to ideas that entered our cultural bloodstream just before the dawn of the twnetieth century, when a mysterious renegade Russian aristocrat named Madame Blavatsky appeared in America. Darwin was wrong, she claimed. Man was not descended from apes but from spirit beings. As a reminder, she kept a stuffed baboon in her parlor dressed in wing collar, tail-coat, and spectacles, and holding a copy of The Origin of Species in its hand.
Theosophy, the movement Madame Blavatsky founded, spawned competing gurus and sects which in the course of the century evolved into the New Age. Here is the incredible story of Rudolf Steiner and his breakaway anthroposophy, of the tyrannical and mysterious Gurdjieff with his Path, of Ouspensky, the rebel Gurdjieffian, and of Krishnamurti -- a future "world leader" spotted in India as a boy by the pederast and grand panjandrum of Theosophy, Bishop (self-appointed, of his own church!) C. W. Ledbetter.
These gurus and the alternative religions they founded had a powerful appeal particularly for women, who found in them a role denied them by conventional religions. They also attracted some of the most influential intellects of the age -- Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Frank Lloyd Wright, Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood -- all searching for an alternative to Western materialism and notions of spirituality. Needless to say, these movements also attracted a host of colorful adventurers, uncertified lunatics, wealthy and lonely spinsters, charlatans, and lost souls.
Well-researched, thought-provoking, and often hilarious, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon provides a fascinating and helpful perspective on the hopes and fears of our own day as well as those of a century ago.
PETER WASHINGTON lives in London, where he is the general editor of Everyman's Library. Author of a number of books of intellectual history, he is a professor of English and European Literature at Middlesex University and a reviewer and critic for The London Evening Standard and The Independent.