Kirkus Reviews QR Code


A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America

by Peter Washington

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-8052-4125-6
Publisher: Schocken

 With healthy skepticism and heavy-handed irony, Washington chronicles the tortuous history of the Theosophic movement. Madame Blavatsky differed from other late 19th century mediums in that, while she used parlor tricks as demonstrations of her mystical abilities, she also created a fecund pseudo-philosophy, drawing partially on Eastern religions, in a book, The Secret Doctrine. Her thick and inconsistent tomes were required reading for the Theosophical Society, which she and a partner formed in America and which, while never large, has had an incongruously pervasive influence. Washington (Literary Theory and the End of English, not reviewed) provides a perceptive intellectual background of 18th- and 19th-century occultism. The Society became a modest success but attracted more than its share of bizarre con men and converts, like the mystic flaneur G.I. Gurdjieff and the utopian Rudolf Steiner. Despite its subtitle, however, this history is mainly concerned with European Theosophy and its sects as the nexus of ``western gurus,'' even though the US was generally more receptive to Asian religious philosophy and charlatan gurus. Although the Society's leaders get full billing, and their numerous sectarian branches and infighting are chronicled, the great figures who were attracted to Theosophy--W.B. Yeats, G.B. Shaw, T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others--are treated peripherally, with little insight into either their drives or what it was about the Secret Doctrine that appealed to them. The exception is a chapter on the wartime exiles in Hollywood, such as Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, and the US career of Krishnamurti, an Indian of obscure origins whom the Theosophists adopted (and manipulated) as the messianic ``World Teacher.'' A plain history that doesn't take up the social and intellectual issues that drew so many to Theosophy and continue to draw people to its descendant--the New Age movement. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)