Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America

Peter Washington

Washington traces the roots of New Age philosophy from Helena Blavatsky to Rudolf Steiner to Gurdjieff onward. Along the way he probes into the in-fighting and scandals that seemed to be a common occurrence among occult groups, such as C.W. Leadbetter’s passion for young men, Blavatsky’s chain smoking and general neglect of her health, and Krishnamurti’s shrugging off his mantle of world teacher. Throughout the book Washington also makes connections with Theosophy and other occult group’s influence on such people as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Frank Lloyd Wright and others.
One striking illustration of the old New Age meeting the new New Age is the instance when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM fame met Krishnamurti while leaving a plane in India. The Maharishi rushed to greet Krishnamurti clutching a flower. Krishnamurti rapidly made his apologies and left. Some time after this encounter he told his friends that he would like to see the Maharishi’s balance sheet.
Washington tends to focus on the inside dope and scandals within these groups but neglects to see any positive influence that they have had on our culture, such as Blavatsky’s reacquainting Indians with their own tradition, generally questioning the materialism of our society and worship of science as God, and fostering the rediscovery of the wisdom of ancient civilizations. The book is a lot of fun to read and many loose threads are connected, but it remains basically one-sided and lacking in wisdom about the subject matter. Incidentally, the title refers to a stuffed baboon Blavatsky kept in her parlor dressed in wing collar, tail and spectacles and holding a copy of The Origin of Species in its hand, a reminder to all who came in that in Blavatsky’s opinion Darwin was wrong: man was not descended from apes but from spirit beings. TC

Publisher: Schocken
Paperback: 470 pages

On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism

Gershom Scholem

“Scholem guides the reader through the central themes in the intricate history of the Kabbalah, clarifying the relations between mysticism and established religious authority, the mystics’ interpretation of the Torah and their attempts to discover the hidden meaning underlying Scripture, the tension between the philosophical and the mystical concepts of God, and the symbolism employed in mystical religion.”

Publisher: Schocken
Paperback: 240 pages

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

Amin Maalouf

“European and Arab versions of the Crusades have little in common. What the West remembers as an epic effort to reconquer the Holy Land is portrayed here as a brutal, destructive, unprovoked invasion by barbarian hordes. When, under Saladin, a powerful Muslim army—inspired by prophets and poets—defeated the Crusaders, it was the greatest victory ever won by a non-European society against the West… Amin Maalouf has combed the works of Arab chroniclers of the Crusades, many of them eyewitnesses and participants in the events they describe… Maalouf offers fascinating insights into the historical forces that even today shape Arab and Islamic consciousness.”

Publisher: Schocken
Paperback: 293 pages