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MADAME BLAVATSKY'S BABOON: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought... Hardcover – January 31, 1995

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Around the turn of the century, renegade Russian aristocrat Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky declared herself the chosen vessel of the wisdom of the East through her reputed contact with a dematerializing Tibetan master, who unveiled a Hidden Brotherhood located in the Himalayas and Egypt. The Theosophical Society, which she cofounded in 1875 in New York City with Civil War veteran Col. Henry Olcott, attracted a wide following with its amalgam of Hinduism, Buddhism and occultism. In this enormously entertaining, witheringly skeptical, highly colorful chronicle, British journalist Washington deflates the self-mythologizing and woolly philosophizing of theosophists and rival schools and gurus, including flamboyant Armenian-Greek mystic George Gurdjieff, Austrian philosopher/holistic healer Rudolf Steiner and Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indian ex-theosophist turned California sage. Those who came under their influence include Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Christopher Isherwood, W.B. Yeats and Frank Lloyd Wright, making this a heady intellectual adventure as well as a clear-sighted saga of human foibles, charlatanry, bizarre antics and genuine spiritual hunger extending to New Age cults from the 1950s to the present. Photos.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

In this well-documented, readable history of spiritualism, Washington describes the lives and careers of such prominent figures as Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Rudolf Steiner, Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, Peter Ouspensky, and others. He makes clear the close association and influences that took place among these various leaders. The movement is traced from its beginnings in the 18th century to its resurgence in the present as New Age philosophy. While the author makes no attempt to hide his complete skepticism, his presentation of both the personalities and teachings are fair and historically accurate. He has created a fascinating chronicle of these strange and compelling people whose ideas still have a powerful influence. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
C. Robert Nixon, MLS, Lafayette, Ind.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 470 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken (January 31, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805241256
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805241259
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #386,347 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

62 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Ruth Henriquez Lyon VINE VOICE on June 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
A few years ago I went to a spiritually oriented week-long conference where there were a lot of New Age ideas being discussed and taught. I was open to some of these ideas, but what struck me as odd were the teachers themselves. Very few seemed to have learned the art of critical thinking, but no matter--their lack of intellectual depth was clearly compensated for by the strength of their belief in their special calling and powers.
I wondered about the evolution of these so-called "spiritual teachers" and their teachings, and I believe I have found in this book a good portion of what I wondered about. Peter Washington delves into the beliefs of the Theosophists, many of which ideas are quite similar to some of the current New Age ideas (such as the teaching of the Ascended Masters). He presents evidence that most of these ideas were made up by Madame Blavatsky herself. After being propounded by Madame, they were eagerly gobbled up by a large number of credulous followers. These followers were so taken with their new spiritual leaders that they refused to believe any evidence that they were being duped by tactics such as staged seances or missives from the Masters materialized out of thin air. They even held their tongues when it came out that those leaders were practicing child abuse. This book is not just a study in the power grabbing that often goes on among professional spiritual teachers, it also digs into the willingness of seekers to turn over their power to these teachers. In that sense it is a rather painful, sad study of human nature, yet written in a way that is sarcastic, and at times wickedly witty. I recommend this book to any reader who considers him/herself to be on a spiritual path, as there are many valuable lessons in it.
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57 of 70 people found the following review helpful By James Moore on June 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
To track the spoor of the Western guru from the late nineteenth century onward is the prodigious challenge which Peter Washington gamely accepts. Whether he is the right man for the job is another question. His study's title, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, signals an unfortunate tendency to reduce issues of psychological, historical and metaphysical complexity to a tract about twisters and duffers. Extrapolating his forgivable disdain for the turquoise track suit of David Icke, he cheerfully deconstructs major progenitors of the New Age: Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Rudolph Steiner, Piotr Ouspensky, Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley and Gurdjieff; seven at one blow. That Icke is to Krishnamurti as a nail is to requiem goes unremarked.

Resta's famous "Sphinx" photo of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky ensures a splendid book cover. What a woman! Much is to be forgiven a mystic who, apart from owning a stuffed baboon

"claimed to have ridden bareback in a circus, toured Serbia as a concert pianist, opened an ink factory in Odessa, traded as an importer of ostrich feathers in Paris, and worked as an interior decorator to the Empress Eugénie." But forgiveness is not Washington's strong suit. Just a spell of remission from his remorseless subtext écrasez l'infame would have doubled the value of this ambitious historical study. Almost everyone here is a "baddie"; it is only a question of degree. Blavatsky's obesity is grotesque, her cigarettes foul, her merits non-existent. Julia Ostrowska ("I think she is splendid", wrote Katherine Mansfield) is simply "a Polish prostitute".
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Edward G. Lengel on November 3, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book starts out well but becomes bogged down in details. Do we really need to know everything about J.G. Bennett's business partners, his mining projects, or learn the exact chronology of Gurdjieff's movements? Eventually the cast of minor characters becomes so confusing that the more important figures are obscured. Careful editing could have removed perhaps 100 pages of useless information and replaced it with more interesting material. Ironically, despite the author's almost pedantic attention to the obscure, several important literary and religious figures who deserved attention were left out.
Though confusing, Washington's focus is extremely narrow. He does very well at describing his characters, but seems unable to explain what really made them tick, or why others chose to follow them. In religious/intellectual terms, the big picture becomes lost in the details. I came away with no real sense of where these characters fit into the history of their time. Washington tells us, for example, every aspect of the foibles of gurus like Ouspensky and Gurdjieff with their tiny bands of disciples in the 20s and 30s, but explains nothing of the wider, pervasive effects of spiritualism on European and American society in those decades. Washington is no historian, and it shows in his floundering descriptions of events like the Great Depression and the world wars.
The most obvious issue is bias. Washington tries. Despite his criticism, I think he actually admires Steiner and Krishnamurti, and tweaks them reluctantly. But his often ribald mockery of the characters he dislikes - Blavatsky, Leadbeater, etc. - grows tiresome. I don't particularly care for them either, but find critiques without sneers more effective.
This is a history that needed to be written.
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