by Tom Ruffles
[ bookreviews ]
2010 is the centenary of the birth of Brazilian Spiritist medium Francisco Cāndido Xavier, better known simply as Chico Xavier. He is being celebrated as a national hero, with documentaries, exhibitions, a stamp issued on his 100th birthday in April, a commemorative medal, a hugely popular biopic (Chico Xavier) and a screen adaptation of his best-known novel Nosso Lar (Our Home - The Astral City in English). He was not well known outside Brazil until recently, but that is changing as more of his books are translated from Portuguese, and this short study by Guy Lyon Playfair, who briefly met him, will help to promote his name further.
Chico (to adopt Playfair's familiar usage) came from a very poor background, dropped out of school at 13 and claimed to have had no further formal education. It is said he first showed psychic abilities at the age of four, and he became a medium at 17. He had a spirit guide called Emmanuel who had been a Roman senator and a Roman priest in previous incarnations. Chico came to public attention in 1932 when he produced a large book entitled Parnassus from Beyond the Tomb with 259 poems, ostensibly signed by a total of 56 dead poets and written in their style, which he said had been dictated to him. Published by the Brazilian Spiritist Federation, this sold well in Brazil.
Most of his working life was spent as an office worker for the Ministry of Agriculture. However, he retired at the young age of 51, allowing him to devote his time to producing books, which he did in industrial quantities. He wrote a range of these, which Playfair divides into four broad and often overlapping categories: literature, history, science and Spiritist doctrine. These can be sub-divided, so that literature (by far the biggest in terms of sales) covers essays, fiction, stories for children and of course poetry; history covers that of Brazil and the world more generally; science is the smallest, with only two works; and finally Spiritist doctrine explicitly deals with theological issues, which also permeate the other categories.
The works, we are told, display an erudition (to demonstrate which Playfair describes the extremely complicated plot of Chico's final novel) remarkable for someone with such a modest formal education. In all, he produced over 450 books at high speed (curiously the flap states 412, but numbers are a bit vague) - 50 million copies of them and rising. This is a significant achievement by any standard, except that Chico claimed that authorship did not rest with him but with discarnate entities. He did not write 'his' books as much as take dictation. He said that if he claimed authorship it would be a fraud for which he would have to answer in the afterlife. The words "dictated by the spirit of" were always included on the title page.
His novels allowed Chico to discuss spiritual issues in a popular form. For example, Nosso Lar was dictated by a deceased doctor called André Luiz, who finds himself in the spirit world. This is Chico's biggest seller, over two million copies by 2010, and has been translated into several languages. It describes André's post-mortem existence in a waystation while waiting to find out whether he will move on to a higher plane of existence, or be reincarnated in order to develop and overcome past mistakes (which sounds somewhat like Judgment City in the 1991Albert Brooks comedy Defending Your Life, but without the comedic elements).
Chico did not consider this to be 'escrita automàtica' (automatic writing) but 'psicographia' (psychography). Spiritists distinguish between the former, which they consider to emanate from the writer's own subconscious, and the latter, which has its source in a separate consciousness (ie is true spirit communication). Chico said that he felt that he could see, hear and feel the discarnate spirit who was dictating to him; it affected his frontal lobe and influenced his right arm but left the rest of his brain and body free. In this dual consciousness he would follow what he was writing as if it were being done by someone else. Playfair emphasises that had Chico kept the spirit involvement to himself, taken the credit and retained the income derived from his books, he would have been very wealthy. He would also have gained a measure of recognition from those in the Brazilian literary establishment, Playfair feels, whereas his achievements have been ignored by them.
In addition to the books, Chico also received thousands of messages from the deceased for their loved ones on earth that were considered to be of great evidential value. A study by a group of Spiritists in São Paulo in the early 1990s examined a number and found that every statement in them was correct. Remarkably, Chico's messages have been entered into evidence in several court cases. In one, in which a youth shot a friend and was charged with his murder, the dead boy communicated through Chico to say that it was an accident, testimony that was accepted by the judge who dismissed the case.
The figure for Chico's sales is unclear because as soon as he finished a book he assigned the copyright to charitable causes and took no further interest in it. As the books were hugely popular in Brazil this meant that they generated a significant income which was used for good works around the country. Meanwhile Chico lived modestly on his salary and then pension. Royalties have paid for some two thousand centres of varying sizes around Brazil which cater to the poor and needy, helping several million people according to Playfair. As he says, Chico ran a "one-man welfare service".
As a consequence he was much loved in his own lifetime. There was an enormous though unsuccessful campaign in 1981 lobbying for him to be awarded the Nobel peace prize, but he was voted "person of the century" in 2000 in his home state of Minas Gerais, beating even Pele. He died on 30 June 2002. One hundred and twenty thousand people viewed his coffin and 30,000 followed the hearse. He continues to be revered, which seems to have made his mediumship largely critic-proof.
While Playfair advances cogent reasons why Chico's claims should be believed, his brief overview of Chico's life does raise a few questions. For example, the poems in the first volume, Parnassus, were admired for being so close to the styles of their putative authors. But if you were a dead poet would you want to continue precisely the same style you used when alive (so close that you could be identified by it?), or would you develop as a result of your life-changing experience and move away from the poems you produced while in the body?
It is important to distinguish between the possibility of survival and the Spiritist interpretation of it. Nosso Lar (and presumably its numerous sequels), for example, may be an accurate depiction of what awaits us, but it sounds just like a wish-fulfilment fantasy appealing to those who live in impoverished circumstances, which may account for its popularity. Put another way, if the likelihood of Chico's spirit guides actually existing depends on the afterlife he describes, does the sheer implausibility of the latter damage the credibility of the former? Do Spiritists place undue emphasis on reincarnation?
You get the sense reading about him that Chico was a one-man band. But despite working phenomenally hard, with just four hours' sleep a night, he surely had some form of assistance, however informal, to deal with practicalities such as arranging his appearances, liaising with publishers and with recipients of the royalties (there must have been some kind of quality control to make sure the money went to bona fide charities) etc. If he had such helpers could they have also fed him information? Playfair notes occasions when Chico knew the names of visitors even though he had never met them, but was it possible that someone associated with him had told him? Playfair says that people would queue for hours, and it would be easy for someone to get chatting, 'just to pass the time', and find out a surprising amount of information (the sort of thing which has been known to happen with certain platform mediums). If the visitor did not realise that the casual conversation had been passed on, then they might believe that Chico had obtained information paranormally, perhaps not even remember that they had volunteered those particular details to someone else in the first place.
Playfair states that Chico frequently claimed that he did not understand what he was writing, the implication being that as the products were beyond the level of his educational attainment, it was evidence they were emanating from independent intelligences rather than his own subconscious. Making pastiche even less likely, Playfair recounts a journalist who spent time with him after the publication of Parnassus noting that all he had in his house were some almanacs, a few books on Spiritism which had been given to him, and some old magazines; definitely no poetry (Chico said he never read it), and no access to the range of knowledge that he would need to be able to write books of such complexity, plus he had very poor eyesight that would have militated against intense study.
We only have Chico's word for what his early life was like and he may have added to his library after 1935, when the journalist visited. In any case, judging by the prose samples Playfair includes from Chico's books, they do not read like the products of someone with a high degree of education, Chico's or anyone else's, but rather of an autodidact with a lively mind who has picked up a range of knowledge and has put it together in a manner that seems superficially profound but is in fact jumbled, with obscure words and opacity masquerading as profundity. Even so, the ability to write with both hands simultaneously is certainly impressive, though not evidence of survival. Perhaps these criticisms are unfair, and further translations will allow a wider, and impartial, audience to assess the claim that he is a channel for a multiplicity of discarnate intelligences.
In the meantime one can dispute the claim that this is a case of psicographia rather than escrita automàtica. Playfair makes the point that Chico's experience of the world was limited, but when he says that "the chaste and celibate Chico" could hardly have been expected to think up the lurid sex scenes which feature in his depiction of ancient Rome, an alternative explanation is that Chico is working out his own fantasies. To assume that such works are the products of discarnate entities is to make assumptions about the extent of human creativity and Chico's imagination, unwarranted by the evidence thus far. Chico was clearly intelligent and charismatic, the sort of person who left his mark on those who met him, and there were a lot of those in his long life. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, his body of work, while enormously impressive in scope and sheer quantity, is less compelling as evidence of post-mortem survival to those who were not fortunate enough to have that personal contact.
About two-thirds of the present book comprise the chapters devoted to Chico in Playfair's The Unknown Power (aka The Flying Cow) from 1975, and The Indefinite Boundary from the following year. These were both published while Chico was alive, so the major alteration, apart from some minor editorial tidying, has been the change of tense from present to past. Reprinting the two chapters like this has resulted in some repetition, though the one taken from The Infinite Boundary is more philosophical in tone.
In his conclusions, Playfair acknowledges that much needs to be done to analyse Chico's literary output and philosophy. In the meantime this is a useful introduction for English speakers, but its limited space and reliance on a narrow range of sources does not allow a rounded assessment of Chico's undoubted achievements. The speculations raised above may be allayed by further translations and exegesis, but the claim that Chico is the 'Medium of the Century' remains to be proved.