Books: That old charismatic feeling

EET OF CLAY: A Study of Gurus by Anthony Storr, HarperCollins pounds 18
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What is a guru? "One who brings light out of darkness" is the original Sanskrit meaning. "A spiritual teacher; a venerable person" says Chambers. The Collins definition is prefaced by "often derogatory", an implication with which Anthony Storr's title would seem to concur. Yet the title misleads, because some of his gurus are heroes, and two are psychotherapists from the same neck of the woods as Storr himself. Feet of Clay is no facile piece of iconoclasm: it's a psychoanalytical rumination on the charisma of certainty.

Yet its opening essay accentuates the negative. David Koresh, who died with his followers in the firestorm at Waco, and Jim Jones, who died with his in the mass suicide of Jonestown, were case-studies in sinister paranoia. Koresh was a persecuted runt at school and Jones was a debonair success, but both acquired followings through the power of their oratory, both developed delusional belief-systems (Koresh's based on the Book of Revelation), both believed they were God. Both, moreover, were sexually rapacious, and both were extraordinarily cruel - Jonestown sounds like a Second World War Japanese prison-camp.Yet Jonestown survivors had no regrets: being part of that community cured their drug-addiction, salved their racial stigma, and gave them an identity.

Storr turns next to Eastern sages who have fascinated Western intellectuals: Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff in the Twenties, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the Seventies. Gurdjieff was a con-man with an inexhaustible supply of money-making wheezes - such as dyeing sparrows yellow to sell them as canaries - but he was also a great healer of emotional wounds. Rajneesh died a monster of greed with 93 Rolls-Royces, and his free-love ashrams degenerated into squalid criminality, but there was much good in his original vision of how life should be lived. Storr's ramble continues with portraits of Rudolf Steiner, Freud, Jung, Ignatius of Loyola, Jesus, and it winds up with a couple of "spiritual leaders" of whom I had not heard.

As Storr points out, many of these people show common traits: an isolated childhood, deep narcissism, intolerance of criticism and a "creative illness, resolved through a Eureka-type revelation". Most have promulgated their insights through what psychoanalysts call transference - the inexorable process whereby the patient turns the analyst into a parent. But they're an odd selection, and their differences are often more significant than their similarities.

Steiner, whose schools still flourish 100 years on, was a saintly polymath who accumulated disciples through the force and beauty of his ideas; his bizarre view of the universe was incidental. Jung may have passed through a schizoid crisis after his break with Freud, but neither he nor the emotionally well-adjusted Freud sought to set up a "church" of followers: they too exerted power through their ideas. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits, was no orator, but a man of uncompromising probity; his hallucinatory visions were a strength. Storr's Jesus is a "charismatic prophet, convinced of his "personal intimacy with God" and totally uncorrupted by power; but when Storr asserts that "no one could have been less prone to sexual temptation", I wonder a little. Some men get a kick out of having their feet washed with the tears of fallen women.

As one would expect from Storr, this book is studded with insights, but its style is plodding, and its focus shifts uneasily between gurus as social manipulators and questions of communal credulousness. The message he wants to convey "is to distrust characters who are both deeply self- absorbed and also authoritarian". Indeed, his favourite guru seems to be a girl called Meera who never speaks: a screen onto which disciples project their fantasies.

Gurus, Storr concludes, will flourish so long as they can gain disciples: he must have finished this book before Shoko Asahara emerged in Japan. And he has still only scratched the surface. Let's hear it now for Rasputin and L Ron Hubbard, R D Laing and Sun Myung Moon, and for Brigham Young and his Mormons. And what about Joanna Southcott, the charismatic Devon kitchen- maid who died in 1814 leaving a box containing the secrets of the universe? But let us also not forget - vide the gassing on the Tokyo tube - that among the ranks of gurus great dangers may lurk.