Holy Madness: The Shock Tactics and Radical Teachings of Crazy-Wise Adepts, Holy Fools, and Rascal Gurus
By Georg Feuerstein. 
Paragon House: New York, 1991.
259 pp. $24.95 (hardcover).

Everyone is entitled to receive at least two pearls of wisdom in exchange for the four years of often misdirected efforts known as “college.” For me they came in two successive sentences of Professor Irving Halperin’s lecture on twentieth-century literature: “A paragraph should always be slightly longer than it is wide…And never read anything but great books—and truly awful books.”

Of course the vast majority of books falls in between these two extremes, and that includes Georg Feuerstein’s Holy Madness. The text is intended to be a study of holy madness: an important phenomenon in religious traditions that has “so far not been recognized as a universal category of religious life.” What Feuerstein means by “holy madness” (or “crazy wisdom,” as he more frequently refers to the phenomenon) is a “radical” style of religious teaching which is designed to shock the conventional mind and at the same time to communicate an “alternative vision to that which governs ordinary life.” According to Feuerstein, the tactics of “crazy wisdom” include the use of alcohol, drugs, and sex: “[The] adepts of holy madness do not mind either filth or excessive luxury. Their generally outrageous behavior does not at all conform to our cherished ideas of religiosity, morality, and sanctity.”

Feuerstein first defines the phenomena of holy madness by way of example, attempting to sketch the cross-cultural and historical dimensions (referring to tricksters, clowns, “Fools for Christ’s Sake,” Sufis, Bauls in India, Tantric adepts of Tibet, and Zen masters). This general discussion is fleshed out, so to speak, by brief accounts of contemporary “crazy-wisdom adepts:” Gurdjieff, Aleister Crowley, Rajneesh, Chogyam Trungpa, Lee Lozowick, and and Da Love-Ananda (a.k.a. Da Free John). Although these accounts are touted as “detailed profiles” on the book’s dust jacket, the portraits are disappointingly superficial, sensationalist, and journalistic without being investigative. With the exception of Da Love-Ananda (avowed avatar and Feuerstein’s own crazy wisdom teacher), each of the subjects is covered in no more than six pages.

If we take Feuerstein’s reflections on Gurdjieff as an example of the book’s accuracy, objectivity, and depth of research, then serious doubts arise. The first two pages on Gurdjieff are meant, one supposes, to be a simple retelling of events that place him in a historical context. One would expect this part of the study to provide little difficulty, particularly with regard to the accuracy of dates. If we forgive the author’s inaccurate date of birth for Gurdjieff (“perhaps in 1877”) as the repetition of a problem familiar to other writers on Gurdjieff, it is not so easy to overlook his more blatant errors of fact. For example, Gurdjieff did not return to Russia in 1914, as suggested by Mr. Feuerstein, but in 1912; the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield died of pulmonary tuberculosis on January 12, 1923, not 1924; Gurdjieff’s famous motor accident was not in 1934, but in 1924.

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