The Damned: the strange death of James Webb

The Damned: the strange death of James Webb

By email from MBFM
The Damned: the strange death of James Webb

On the afternoon of 8 May 1980, after two years of a deep, paralysing depression and at least one psychotic episode, a brilliant young Scots historian of ‘the occult’ put the barrel of his shotgun to his head and blew his brains out. He was 34. Gary Lachman investigates the strange death of James Webb.
By Gary Lachman

September 2001

In the 1970s, James Webb made a name for himself with his fascinating, if sceptical, histories of occultism, The Occult Underground (1974, first published in Britain as The Flight from Reason, 1971) and The Occult Establishment (1976). His most recent book, The Harmonious Circle (1980), a critical study of the enigmatic Russian ‘teacher’ Georges Gurdjieff, his disciple PD Ouspensky and their followers, had just been published and Webb’s career was looking good. He was a regular contributor to Encounter as well as to the encyclopædia Man, Myth and Magic, and his performance at Trinity College, Cambridge, was so stellar that a biennial James Webb Memorial Prize is awarded there in his honour.

Webb’s books combine a painstaking research into ‘the occult’ and an ironic dismissal of it, the kind of ‘know-it-all’ rationalism we’d associate with a Cambridge graduate. But at the time of his suicide, Webb had changed his mind about the kinds of experiences he had chalked up to delusion, fantasy and a post-Enlightenment craving for ‘the irrational’. In his last days, Webb was convinced that the nervous breakdown that cast him into suicidal madness had also revealed dimensions of reality that could only be called ‘supernatural’. He found himself “catapulted into a larger universe” filled with altered states of consciousness and profound visions of “cyclical time.”

But the experience was not all ‘revelation’. Webb also showed the classic signs of paranoid schizophrenia. His publisher, he claimed, was “persecuting” him. Worse still, he was convinced that a certain group of French Freemasons “had it in for him.” Such remarks suggest Webb’s change of heart about the ‘supernatural’ was nothing more than the pathetic result of his tragic breakdown. Yet the circumstances surrounding his death were unusual and raise the suspicion that the dividing line between madness and ‘occult revelation’ may not be as clear-cut as we suppose.

How and when Webb’s madness began are unclear; even as a schoolboy at Harrow he was considered brilliant but perhaps a little unstable. After his death, his widow – even more sceptical of the supernatural than he – refused to discuss the matter, preferring, perhaps understandably, to forget the tragic business. By all accounts, Mary Webb was a ‘no-nonsense’, practical woman who loved her husband but had little insight into his brilliance, and even less into his obsessions. It’s a fair guess she felt his interest in the occult was responsible for his death. That Webb married a woman with little of his intellectual spirit and whose insensitivity to his experiences may have contributed to his final breakdown is one of the curiously strange things about the affair. It does account, however, for his relationship with another woman, Joyce Collin-Smith. Many an unsympathetic wife has driven her husband into other arms but, in Webb’s case, the attraction of the other woman wasn’t sexual, but psychic.

Webb first encountered Joyce Collin-Smith in 1972. At the National Liberal Club in London, she gave a lecture to the Astrological Association on the life and work of her brother-in-law, Rodney Collin. Webb was interested in Rodney Collin because, as one of the main followers of PD Ouspensky, Collin would feature prominently in Webb’s book on Gurdjieff. Webb had come to the lecture, intending to ask Joyce for an interview about her brother-in-law.

By the time she met Webb, Joyce Collin-Smith (below) had run the gamut of spiritual teachings. In the 1950s she practiced the Gurdjieff ‘work’ with Rodney Collin at his commune in the suburbs of Mexico City. Before this she had been involved with Dr Frank Buchman, founder of Moral Rearmament. She was also a follower of Pak Subuh, the Indonesian mystic and founder of the Subud movement which included JG Bennett among fellow ‘work’ members. And, in the early days of the 1960s, she had been chauffeur and Girl Friday to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, before the Beatles discovered meditation and made the giggling guru a spiritual superstar. A former Fleet Street journalist, novelist and ex-WAAF officer, Joyce was old enough to be Webb’s mother; at the very least, an unusual candidate for spiritual adviser to a brainy 26-year-old who found most of her pursuits pure hogwash.

And yet, at that very first meeting, Joyce knew Webb would play a large role in her life. She also knew he was fated for some strange destiny. As she recalls in her autobiography, Call No Man Master (1988), the minute she saw the tall, red-haired young man enter the auditorium, her “heart leapt.” It was not love at first sight; on the contrary, in Webb Joyce recognised a sinister, terrifying figure from a repeated nightmare of her childhood. In her dream, a tall, red-haired young schoolmaster asked Joyce to fetch something from a forbidding tower. Frightened of entering the tower alone, she nevertheless obeyed. Halfway up, in a desolate, empty room, the schoolmaster, raving mad, charged in and threw himself at Joyce. She woke each night, sweating and terrified. Now more than 40 years later, the ‘mad schoolmaster’ had come to her lecture.

Joyce watched as he took a seat in the last row. She then gave her lecture, speaking, she recalls, almost solely to him. At the end of her talk, as she spoke with some of the audience, Joyce half expected the ‘schoolmaster’ to erupt into maniacal laughter. But when the shy, diffident young man approached and explained that he was writing a book on Gurdjieff and wanted to speak with her about her brother-in-law, Joyce was surprised at his gentle, almost apologetic manner. They developed an immediate rapport. In Joyce’s house, in Sussex, they talked for hours about philosophy, religion, history and about Joyce’s experiences with ‘the occult’. Precognitive dreams, visions, strange states of consciousness while practising ‘transcendental meditation’ and ‘self-remembering’… even communication with the dead. Webb was impressed. A brilliant scholar, his encounters with ‘the occult’ had been strictly ‘arm-chair’; but it’s clear from Joyce’s account that he was also attracted to something else.

Webb’s family was well off. Had he lived, Webb would have inherited a large estate at Blair Drummond, in Perthshire. But relations with his parents soured because of Mary. Class may have had something to do with it, but Webb’s mother and step-father were certain she wasn’t right for him; when the couple did marry, it was against their wishes. Estranged from his parents, finding little in common with Mary, Webb took refuge in his studies. His brilliance threw him far ahead of his contemporaries. Few could keep up with his discoveries; fewer still talk intelligently about them. And now he had met someone who seemed to know all about ‘the occult’ from the inside, someone who also took an immediate liking to him and gave him approval and encouragement. Joyce quickly became a kind of surrogate mother for Webb. He welcomed the ease and naturalness in her household, so different from the tension around his ‘real’ parents. Later Joyce would claim that they had known each other in previous incarnations; this time they had met as a sort of mother and son.

Inevitably, Joyce compared their astrological charts; both were Capricorns with Leo Rising. The points of contact among their stars suggested to Joyce that James could indeed have been her son – had she had one – and the association with the ‘mad schoolmaster’ faded from her consciousness. Their rapport deepened; her affection for the young scholar grew. More and more, Joyce was reminded of her relationship with Rodney Collin – who, as we shall see, also died in mysterious circumstances. As their philosophical conversations continued they began to experience a kind of telepathy; each knew the gist of the other’s thought before a word was spoken. Their rapid exchange developed into a kind of verbal shorthand. Repeatedly, Joyce felt a curious sensation of déjà vu. At one point, during tea on a summer afternoon, Webb asked Joyce for “another piece of cherry cake.” Immediately Joyce was reminded of another childhood dream, this one involving a Tibetan backdrop, a fantasised ‘brother’ and cherries. Increasingly she felt that they were indeed “two beings who had incarnated within reach of each other many times in different roles.”

Several months later her husband’s ill health forced Joyce to sell their Sussex house and they moved to a cottage in the New Forest. Money was scarce; Joyce had to take what work she could find, mostly lecturing and doing horoscopes. Not long after, she got a call from ‘Jamie’; he wanted to double check some material for the Gurdjieff book. He and Mary had married recently and had just returned from a honeymoon in the Orient. Joyce was glad to hear from him, but thought he sounded ‘strange’, “rather low and glum,” unlike his usual cheerful self. Webb wanted to visit, but Joyce put him off – her husband’s health would make things difficult. But she promised to ring him soon about lunching with him in London.

Something in Webb’s call made Joyce check his chart again. She saw the familiar qualities, “fiery, vigorous and tenacious,” so much like her own. But there was something else; Webb’s stars indicated a depressive tendency, an inclination to withdraw deeper into himself as he grew older. She didn’t know it at the time, but Webb had done just that. He had amassed an incredible library and spent more and more time alone, immersed in his research. Friends and literary acquaintances saw less and less of him. His marriage, too, seemed shaky. Webb worked well into the night, often falling asleep at his desk amidst volumes of Jacob Boehme, Raymund Lully and other occult writers. What had been an admirable dedication to work now seemed a full-fledged obsession. Joyce warned Jamie of the dangers but, like any good Faust, he ignored them.

The next time they spoke, Joyce felt certain something had happened. It was then that Webb told her of being ‘persecuted’ by his publishers and raved about the French Freemasons. Ill with flu, Joyce urged him to relax. But Webb’s mental deterioration had begun. He didn’t ring again and, to her later regret, Joyce’s own affairs prevented her from telephoning him. The next time she heard from him, Webb had already plunged into madness. “My life has just emerged from a nightmare,” Webb wrote some time later. “I had a full-scale nervous breakdown, with hallucinations, visions and a fine repertoire of subjectively supernatural experiences. Hoist with my own petard, some would say.” The cool rationalism that called occultism a “flight from reason” seemed helpless before the kinds of experiences he had gone through. “Despite the undoubtedly hallucinatory nature of many of my experiences,” he wrote, “a residue remains which I simply have to take seriously.” He tried to fit what was happening to him into some system, calling on Gnostic notions of ‘æons’ and Hindu accounts of ‘kalpas’. But the visions were too vivid and extraordinary to be neatly filed into some metaphysic. The gist of them had to do with time; the world had become a kind of Heraclitean flux. He had “seen molecules.”

Webb’s letter was postmarked Durisdeer in Dumfrieshire. He and Mary had left London and had moved into an old, renovated kirk. Joyce wrote back immediately. Webb replied at great length; he thought she had rebuffed him in his hour of need. His account of his breakdown was harrowing; he had been in and out of various hospitals, had been in the hands of several psychiatrists, was doped on Largactil and had only just escaped electro-shock therapy. He had given up writing and was just barely keeping his sanity. Joyce berated herself for not responding sooner. She soon made up for this. During the next five months she and Webb exchanged a lengthy and extraordinary correspondence. Two or three times a week several pages of Webb’s increasingly wild account reached her door.

He wrote of “a shattering vision of the wheel of life.” He saw his previous incarnations. He became convinced that there is a “principle of consciousness which is not merely the result of a congerie of experience” – what Ouspensky had called the Linga Sharira, the ‘long body’ that extends through countless lives. But the worst was that there seemed to be no stability. Things would not ‘stand still’. No sooner did he look at something than he saw its entire history, its present, past and future. An oak was an acorn, then a rotting mass of mulch. Although he believed there was a “way out”, Webb shrank from the knowledge that we are all “imprisoned in the coils of cyclical time.”

Finally, Joyce could offer something more than sympathy. She was familiar with these visions. During her time with the Maharishi, she had experienced the same phenomena, the result of too much ‘transcendental meditation’. It had brought her to the brink of suicide. She suggested exercises to keep his mind focused in time. These helped for a while but, increasingly, Webb’s thoughts turned to death. He wrote to Joyce that “Rodney Collin was quite right about the importance of dying properly.” He also said he had “revised my opinion about the manner of Ouspensky’s death.” Strange deaths were indeed quite common among professors of Gurdjieff’s ‘work’. When Gurdjieff died in 1949, the doctor performing the autopsy declared his internal organs were in such bad condition that he should have been dead years ago; Gurdjieff had apparently ‘willed’ himself to stay alive. Ouspensky’s death was even stranger. He was obsessed with time; his particular fascination was ‘eternal recurrence’ the notion that, with slight variations, our lives repeat, over and over. The only possibility of ‘escape’ is in becoming more conscious. In his last days, a sick and dying Ouspensky visited various favourite sites, fixing them in his mind, in order to ‘remember’ them in his next recurrence. Weird psychic phenomena occurred; in his efforts to “die consciously,” witnesses report that Ouspensky had become telepathic.

And when, on 2 October 1947, Ouspensky passed away, Rodney Collin, his closest disciple, locked himself in the room next to his master’s and did not emerge until a week later. He told his wife – and Joyce – that he had been in ‘communication’ with Ouspensky the entire time. Nearly 10 years later, on 3 May 1956, Collin himself would die after falling from a tower in Cusco, Peru. He was found in a position curiously resembling the crucified Christ; earlier he had prayed that a crippled peasant boy be cured and told his wife that he had offered God his own body in exchange. There is some suspicion that he too had attempted to ‘die consciously’. Webb had written sceptically about the events around Ouspensky’s and Collin’s deaths. Now he had reason to change his mind.

Joyce considered the possibility that Jamie was going through some kind of self-inflicted initiatory process. She knew their conversations had opened him to the ‘reality’ of ‘the occult’. His armour of sceptical rationality had cracked; in his letters he spoke of curious precognitive dreams and of a kind of ‘gnostic’ personal myth. He had long fantasised that he was a member of a crew whose space ship had crashed on an alien planet. Enslaved by the natives, they soon forget their past. But occasionally a dim memory stirs, the crew members recognise each other, and they recall their mission. “The tragedy,” he told Joyce, “is infinitely far distant, the adventure infinitely long. And we are ageless, ageless.

Had Webb been allowed to explore these intuitions, it’s possible he may have survived. But after several months of having him around the house, Mary forced him to take a job. They didn’t need the money; understandably, Mary felt some kind of work might give Webb some ballast. But she really had no insight into his plight and little patience for his talk about his ‘soul’, later telling Joyce she considered all that sort of thing “rubbish.” A copywriting job for an Edinburgh advertising agency was not quite what Webb needed. The uncongenial atmosphere had the opposite effect, throwing him deeper into alienation. His letters to Joyce became wilder. He was researching a book about esoteric movements in Scotland, but couldn’t “get the pattern of it anymore.” More and more, he believed, someone was after him because he knew too much.

Finally, Joyce decided she had to see him. By this time their telepathic link had increased. She had visions of him at his desk in the kirk and could feel a pain in the back of his neck, a vulnerable spot he shared both with herself and Rodney Collin. She could hear him crying at night, and in her mind reached out to comfort him. Although she had never been there, she had images of the grounds around the house; later, after Webb’s death, she saw these had been accurate. In a few weeks, she and her husband would go to Scotland for their holiday. She decided, then, to see Jamie (left).

It was too late. On the afternoon before their trip, Joyce heard Webb’s voice calling her name. “I’m coming,” she replied mentally. Then something like an enormous explosion went off in her head. At once she told her husband: “Something is wrong with Jamie.” He said it was her imagination. Incredibly, Joyce didn’t telephone. When they arrived at their holiday cottage there was a message to ring Mary. At three o’clock the previous day, Webb had shot himself. Joyce later discovered the immediate cause was a domestic quarrel. Visiting Webb’s parents, Joyce discovered the full extent of his madness. One night, he crouched before the fire at their estate, repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over, and muttering repeatedly “What is it all about?” On another occasion, he ran out into the winter night in a state of hysteria. He waded waist-deep across a river to reach Dunblane Cathedral 12 miles away, where he banged furiously on the door. Oblivious to those around him, for a few weeks the ‘mad schoolmaster’ was certifiably insane.

Inevitably, Joyce blamed herself for not seeing him sooner. Jamie had plunged into a dark night of the soul and she wasn’t there for him. Her sense of guilt then may account for what followed. She began to feel Webb’s presence. First he asked her to visit his mother. Then he wanted her to carry on his work. Two visits to a medium convinced her that some part of Jamie had survived. Material emerged unknown to her that later proved unsettlingly accurate. The voice told her that he “would come to her,” asking that she get his books from Mary, who “doesn’t understand them.” “Make a replica of me,” it said. At first Joyce was thankful for these messages. But then she felt there was something “not right” about them. This was not the ‘whole’ Jamie, merely bits and pieces of him. As in the film The Sixth Sense, Jamie, or some part of him, didn’t know he was dead and wouldn’t ‘move on’. Joyce began to feel she was being “taken over.” Eventually, a clergyman friend of spiritualist persuasion offered to say a requiem to help Webb relinquish his attachment to the world. Satisfied that the rite would not interfere with them ‘finding’ each other in the next incarnation, Joyce agreed. As they read the prayers in the candle-lit chapel, she felt something lift up from her consciousness and take flight. Jamie had ‘moved on’.

There was one other curious phenomenon. During her first wave of grief, Joyce found herself crying aloud: “Why didn’t you help him?”. In the depths of her anguish she heard a voice that said “I did.” At the same time she saw a face, dark-haired, dark-eyed, with a deep, penetrating gaze. She thought it might have been the esoteric teacher Rudolf Steiner. At the time of his suicide, Webb had been commissioned to write a book about Steiner – a task which later went to Colin Wilson. Wilson remarked that if Webb’s earlier books were anything to go by, his book on Steiner would surely have been sceptical. Considering Webb’s strange and tragic death, had he survived, I wonder if Wilson would have been right.

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