Do gurus worry you? You're on solid ground

August 04, 1996|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,special to the sun

"Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners and Madmen: A Study of Gurus," by Anthony Storr. 288 pages. New York: Free Press. $23. "I detest a man," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "who knows that he knows." "Feet of Clay" is full of the kinds of people Justice Holmes would have hated most. Anthony Storr is a practicing psychiatrist with a particular interest in men who "claim the possession of special spiritual insight based on personal revelation" and "promise their followers new ways of self-development, new paths to salvation." (Women, for some inexplicable reason, rarely set up shop either as gurus or serial killers.) His subjects range from St. Ignatius Loyola to Jim Jones, but most are closer in spirit to the latter than the former, and it is the nastiest pieces of work, predictably enough, who make for the most successful chapters of this reductive but nonetheless thoroughly readable book.

As befits a psychiatrist, Storr has a theory: Most gurus are crazy, or at the very least slightly foxed. To be sure, this observation may seem a trifle obvious, and in fact there is nothing about "Feet of Clay" that is especially original, least of all its conclusion: "If there is one message I want to convey, it is to distrust characters who are both deeply self-absorbed and also authoritarian." (If you haven't figured that out yet, reading a book on the subject probably isn't going to do you much good.)

Moreover, the thrust of "Feet of Clay" is consistently - though not vulgarly - anti-religious. You don't have to be a churchgoer to be struck by Storr's complete inability to take religion seriously, and though he usually writes about it politely enough, the mask occasionally slips: "When comparing the beliefs held by psychotics with the religious beliefs held by normal people, it is impossible to say that one set of beliefs is delusional while the other is sane."

But Storr is no less sparing of those members of his own line of work who peddle religion lightly disguised as science. He does not hesitate to number Freud and Jung among the top gurus of the 20th century, for instance, and his chapter on the inventor of psychoanalysis pulls no punches: "Although Freud revised his ideas on a number of occasions throughout his life, the revisions were always brought about by new insights of his own rather than as a consequence of criticism by others. ... As Freud himself might have remarked, but did not do so in his own case, this insistence that disciples accept a guru's message without criticism argues that the guru himself has secret doubts."

As for such bonafide loonies as Jim Jones and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Storr discusses them with skill, dry wit, considerable sympathy and a journalist's eye for detail. (Rajneesh's favorite // movies, Storr points out without cracking a smile, were "Patton" and "The Ten Commandments.") And for a man who puts so little faith in faith, he is unexpectedly willing to take seriously the reality of mystical experiences.

In short, "Feet of Clay" is an interesting and instructive book, and those unfamiliar with the personal histories of the gurus Anthony Storr portrays will find it a satisfactory read. But if you're looking for a searching discussion of the difference between Freud and Jesus, this isn't it.

Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary and writes th "Front Row Center" column for Civilization. He also writes lTC regularly about books for the New York Times Book Review, opera for Opera News and jazz for the Wall Street Journal. He is finishing "H. L. Mencken: A Life."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.