The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology; The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935
The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement
Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification
Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America
With the publication in 1995 of Peter Washington’s admirable study Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, readers now at last have access to a judicious as well as an entertaining account of Theosophy, a late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century movement that conjoined religious syncretism to esotericism on the one hand and liberal idealism on the other. The Theosophical Society was created in 1875 by Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who exerted a charismatic sway over converts until her death in 1891. In England, the United States, and India as well as elsewhere, Washington shows, Theosophy generated much bizarre metaphysics, absurd pomp, and petty factionalism, but it also exerted a surprisingly invigorating effect within the lives of many adherents. And its political influence, too, appears to have been largely benign; Theosophy allied itself not just with moralizing personal betterment but also with pacific internationalism and the self-determination of colonized “natives.”
Or so the indigenous activists were at first led to believe. But as they sooner or later discovered, Theosophy was never meant to be a catalyst of revolution. Madame Blavatsky had no taste for violence or even for social disorder, and her anti-imperialism was so flimsy and opportunistic that at different times she volunteered to serve as both a British and a Russian spy. And more generally, Theosophy sent the world a mixed message about human equality—a contradiction, we might say, between brotherhood and “the Brotherhood,” those distant Mahatmas who allegedly served as deputies of the Rulers of the Universe and who deigned to communicate telepathically only with the top level of Theosophical initiates.
As Washington observes, furthermore, the emergence from Central Asian obscurity of the conflict-thirsty G.I. Gurdjieff during World War I suggested, however faintly, a potential opening of Theosophy toward the militant right. In practice, to be sure, Gurdjieff remained a one-man movement and took little interest in the great powers and their bloodbaths. Indeed, whether he found himself in the turmoil of revolutionary Russia or in Nazi-occupied Paris, he showed a notable talent for placating whichever Caesar happened to be ruling at the moment. But Washington perceptively glimpses an affinity between Gurdjieffian cruelty and the ethos of purgative primitivism that led D.H. Lawrence among others—and the later Yeats could have been mentioned in the same connection—to flirt with proto-fascist authoritarianism as an alternative to bourgeois soul-death.
Nor should we ever be surprised when occultism does link arms with reactionary ideologies. Sooner or later, the gnostic habit of thought battens upon vitalism, the belief in a life force that cries out to be unshackled from convention. And fascist doctrine stands ready to give vitalism a nationalistic and nostalgic twist: we must inhale the spirit of our warrior ancestors, who knew no democratic legalism and harbored no pity for the unfit and the foreign.
As it happens, this is something more than a theoretical scenario. If we retrace our steps to the 1880s and follow the vogue of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888) not in …