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Book Review – Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen, A Study of Gurus.
Anthony Storr. Free Press, New York, 1996, 254 pages.
The author of this book is a well-credentialed, Brifish psychiatrist, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and an Emeritus Fellow at Oxford University. In Feet of Clay, Storr explores the world of charismatic leaders–good and evil-who have inspired and led people to change their lifestyles and basic beliefs. The book has an extensive subject index; a bibliography; and 10 pages of references for chapter footnotes. There are 10 photographs of the “gurus” described and analyzed.
The first chapter, “Paranoid Enclosures,” is a concise, yet comprehensive review of the isolated communities of Jim Jones in Guyana and David Koresh in Waco. Storr describes the psychological effects of isolation and continuing daily influence of a charismatic leader, using examples from current research and also based on Freud’s classic Civilization and Its Discontents.
Chapter 2 describes and evaluates the work of Armenian mystic Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and his disciple Ouspensky, whose influence is seen in the works of, among others, T.S. Eliot, who attended Gurdjieff’s meetings. Gurdjieff’s own account of his background is contradictory and largely unsubstantiated, as are his claims of having studied in Eastern monasteries. Gurdjieff taught that most people are “asleep” and resent being awakened. Here emerges the charismatic leader who alone knows the truth and shares it only with selected followers. He called his path to truth, “The Work”-an assortment of mystical and abstract ideas such as “the law of seven,” a basic 7-step rule that permeates the universe, evident in the musical scale. This is yet another sign of the guru: a secret body of truth known only to him. Storr’s conclusion: Gurdjieff was “by his own admission an accomplished confidence trickster … deceiving… and extracting money” (p. 43).
Chapter 3 explores the largely white, middle-class movement of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who espoused “technology, capitalism, and free love” (p. 47). Storr describes Rajneesh’s troubled youth and a “series of events that sound like a psychotic episode” (p. 49) from which Rajneesh emerged “enlightened.” He then went forth and shared his truth with others. At its peak, there were 6,000 followers at the 17-acre ashram in Poona, India, and 30,000 visitors per year. Enlightenment did not sustain Rajneesh, however, and he resorted to substantial amounts of valium and nitrous oxide.
The book continues to explore the “guruship” of Rudolph Steiner, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Igna6us Loyola, Jesus, and Paul Brunton. This fascinating assortment of personalities demonstrates the author’s ability to see parallels, similarities and dissimilarities, good and evil, in various types of leaders. Chapter 9, “Chaos and Order,” describes a guru’s “period of distress followed by illuminations the “process of creative discovery” where Jesus is the example; or the down side, where “irrational spiritual experience” and unconscious processes combine to create a delusional system, such as in the cases of Koresh and Jones. The “ecstatic experience” can occur in the nonreligious as well, evidenced in Byron, Whitman, and Koesfler; or in the mystical experience of Admiral Byrd, who alone in the arctic, saw the universe “as cosmos not chaos.” These dramatic perceptions can resemble delusions, and a value of this book is how it separates out the positive from the negatives healthy, selfless spirituality from destructive, self-serving subjectivity.
Chapter 10, “Delusion and Faith,” focuses on the conversion phenomenon, using John Henry Newman as an example. William James, Freud, Jung, and Steiner are also represented as “applying the methods of science,” but “actually promoting a belief system akin to religious faith.” “One man’s faith is another man’s delusion” and “delusion and normal perception are on a continuum” (p. 198). The chapter concludes with the observation that gurus can differ from each other, but share the conviction that they know what no one else does. This may be not so much genius as narcissism: the guru offering himself to be loved rather than to love.
Chapter I I brings the book to a close with Storr’s grand summation: “If there is a message I want to convey it is to distrust characters who are both deeply self-absorbed and also authoritarian.” Those who “divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and who preach that there is only one way forward or believe they are surrounded by enemies are particularly to be avoided” (p. 232). This clearly written, comprehensive, insightful book provides information to distinguish from negative spirituality, with many examples and references to support conclusions. Highly recommended.
Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of the Self
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1997