Anthony Storr’s Solitude is a basic and reliable descriptive approach to the topic by a psychologist, a book that can be highly recommended. But another Storr book also of compelling interest is Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen: A Study of Gurus (1995).
Feet of Clay offers the same calm and open-minded approach from its author. Like Oldham’s methodology. Storr uses the premises of modern psychiatry — wherein mental illnesses, objectively defined and characterized, can then be placed on the extreme end of a spectrum, with characteristics identified for the opposite functional end of the spectrum for personality. Storr is writing biography as much as psychology, however, so an apparatus is not obvious, and like Oldham, his method is sound and information, even entertaining.
What is a guru? Storr’s approach is comparative psychohistory or psycho-biography that identifies what gurus have in common. Storr begins at the dysfunctional end with Jim Jones and David Koresh, and works his way back to personality characteristics. Creativity is an important criteria for functionality in Storr (see his The Dynamics of Creativity) and places an important role in the development of the unique ideas of the gurus he discusses: Gurdjieff, Rajneesh, Rudolf Steiner, Jung, Freud, Ignatius Loyola, Paul Brunton. Creativity, indeed, is the touchstone of sanity in Storr’s estimate. The eccentricity of ideas have their sphere for criticism, but it is the integrity of their creators’ personalities that makes them creative versus dysfunctional — or, rather, may make their followers dysfunctional as well.
The gurus all grew up solitary, if not actually under difficult circumstances. They learned early to rely on their own imagination and vision of life, seldom fitting their family, peer, or societal expectations of worldly success. They learned to communicate their vision of life, to refine, share, and persuade others of its validity, regardless of content, because they had an undaunted confidence that their unique vision was an answer, a holistic solution, a subjective but valid and exciting if mysterious view of the universe.
Thus Gurdjieff, Rajneesh, Steiner, and Brunton developed systems of cosmogony unique to themselves. Why did people believe them, follow them, cling to them? Perhaps these gurus fulfilled in their own selves what others wanted fulfilled in themselves as well. And the gurus projected this resolution of their life problems with great success — given the disciples they attracted, which would comprise a whole separate treatment, though Storr cites many testimonies.
Gurdjieff, and the less persuasive Brunton, never revealed details of their alleged travels and “meetings with remarkable men.” Rajneesh developed his own Eastern-styled philosophy but quickly fell into hopeless corruption. Steiner, despite the eccentric details of his elaborate Anthroposophy, lived a morally impeccable life, that of a “saint” in Storr’s estimation. And though not intentional gurus, Freud and Jung attracted strong-minded disciples who often exceeded the enthusiasm of their presumed gurus. Loyola inverted his amoral hidalgo life into an austere discipline that at first was suspect by the Inquisition.
One characteristic of each guru was a major illness or medical incident in childhood or youth. Not only did incapacity alienate them from their peers but it also gave them a perspective on what matters. The incidents compelled them to create a system viable to themselves first and foremost. Often the ramifications of this incident were postponed to midlife (thirty to forty years of age), when they developed symptoms of mental illness, usually approximating schizophrenia. This diagnosis (Storr is excellent at sorting out the symptoms and relating them to behaviors) fits the now standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders perfectly, while the author points out how the gurus remained (except, of course, Jones and Koresh) quite socially functional.
The ideas of the gurus can be discussed independently, so that the guru characteristics of these figures do not impinge on the validity or utility of the ideas. Eccentric or different ideas cannot be dismissed based on the personalities presenting them. On the contrary, the fascinating interplay of personality, behaviors, and ideas makes for a truly functional person, independent of the average, the mundane, the thoughtless.
Creativity is a kind of madness, as the cliche goes, and one expects a quirkiness from those who argue a new vision of reality. What we need to remember, as Storr reminds us, is that those who espouse ideas — any ideas — have feet of clay, just as much as the rest of us. What we can imitate from those who seem unique in history is the creative process that heals our lives, not the sin and madness of gurus — or their disciples.