Wednesday, March 1, 1995

Book Review: Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America by Peter Washington (Schocken Books, NY, 1995, 480 pages $27.50)

1848 was a special year. In Europe, revolutions were breaking out. In the United States spirits were breaking through. In 1848, using the adolescent Fox sisters as vehicles, the Devil — referred to as Splitfoot by the girls — and the dead tapped out messages in Hydesville, New York. The news from beyond was good: death was change rather than cessation. Better yet, the dead lived on in an atmosphere free of fire and brimstone, Splitfoot having run out of hot stuff, or the will to use it, long ago.

P.T. Barnum put the Fox sisters on tour. Mediumship and seances became favored nineteenth century pursuits, as influential, perhaps, as television is today and much more interactive. In Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, Peter Washington traces the spiritualist movement from the Hydesville tappings to contemporary pronouncements by the likes of Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, whose Movement for Inner Spiritual Awareness the author refers to in his introduction.

As Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon shows, Ms. Huffington’s fusion of politics and spiritualism is peculiar only in its conservative orientation. (Is Splitfoot, out of hellfire but not necessarily mischief, responsible for Rush, Newt, and — since he’s said to flourish in the details — even the Huffingtons?) Politics and spiritualism were allied from the start, joined in “an ‘alternative synthesis’ which included vegetarianism, feminism, dress reform, homeopathy and every variety of social and religious dissent.” America, from the Fox sisters on, never lacked for a New Age.

The Russian born Madame Blavatsky was a central figure of the spiritual movement, larger than life and maybe even larger than afterlife. As a child, she gave notice of prowess in spiritual affairs by disclosing the past lives of her stuffed animals. As an adult, she became the dominatrix of occultism, bringing strong men to heel and stealing their hearts despite her increasing obesity. Thomas Edison was member of Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, as was Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s collaborator, and Abner Doubleday, credited with inventing baseball.

Spiritualism was one of the few venues in which women could openly exercise authority over men, and they seized on the opportunity. Role reversal was the norm, a kind of transcendental kinkyness quite common. The author notes that “the electricity provided by variations on the male/female, submissive/dominant combination was central” to the success of the spiritualist enterprise.

Disdaining Charles Darwin’s materialism, spiritualists believed the next step in human evolution could not be accomplished without the guidance of strong, often authoritarian leaders endowed with mastery of esoteric doctrine. After Madame Blavatsky, the lineage described by Mr. Washington includes Annie Besant, Krishnamurti, and George Gurdjieff, with a supporting cast that numbers Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley.

Mr. Washington is good at the memorable vignette, describing Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy’s Vermont farm, for example, as a spiritualist’s vaudeville, where levitation was so common it amounted to a kind of sleep disorder. “No sooner were the children tucked into bed at night,” he writes, “than they tended to float up to the ceiling.” He is well-versed in intellectual history, informing us, for example, that the Steiner schools, established after World War I and suriving until today, were founded, in part, to spare the next generation the temptations of war.

The major weakness of Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon lies in the author’s tendency to wink at the reader, letting us know he knows a charlatan when he sees one. And this would be a better book if Mr. Washington let the principals speak more often in their own words. Finally, the pattern of groups forming, hopes rising, leaders clashing, hopes collapsing occurs so often as to impose a kind of uniformity on the narrative.

Nevertheless, at a time when interest in the Course on Miracles is sufficient to fill large halls, when The Celestine Prophecy is a bestseller in perpetuity, and Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington is offered her own television show, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is a provocative guide to an aspect of our history we had best not forget.

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