Laboratories of faith
by Tom Ruffles
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There is a growing number of high-calibre studies of the history of spiritualism and occultism in England and the United States, but the distinctive situation in 19th century France has received relatively little attention in English-language literature. John Warne Monroe has made an excellent attempt at covering what is clearly a huge subject, and his book will be an essential foundation for further studies.
Rather than simply recounting the fortunes of particular types of fringe religions in this period, he sets his narrative within a wider framework of the political, social and intellectual trends straddling the various Republics and Empires from the 1840s onwards. Conversely, he shows how vital it is for historians of mainstream political and social movements to engage with what they might consider the marginal ideas of those figures who wanted to find a third way between secularist Republicanism and Catholic dogma, and who eventually fell foul of both.
It was a difficult time in France. The 1848 revolution caused the collapse of the July Monarchy. The Second Republic and Second Empire followed in quick succession, then the Third Republic in 1870. Against this turbulent background, Monroe draws an absorbing portrait of France's vibrant paranormal scene, interweaving the complex threads of secularism and Catholicism with these heterodox currents in a readable and engaging way. He sifts through the available evidence to try to understand the individuals involved.
He finds in Mesmerism the roots of the explosion in unorthodox religious belief that blossomed in France during the second half of the 19th century, though its history in France before the 1850s is skimmed over. The book opens with a discussion of the craze for table turning that arrived in 1853. Surprisingly, and a situation unlike that in other countries in which spiritualism flourished, séances answered disappointed Republicans' need for consolation in trying circumstances, and linked with the spiritualist - as opposed to the therapeutic - strand of Mesmerism.
At the heart of the book is the figure of Allan Kardec, who took this mix in a peculiarly Gallic direction as Spiritism, a blend of spiritualism, positivism and reincarnation, while seeking to demonstrate its compatibility with Catholicism. He showed a genius for organisation, systematising theory and practice and imposing orthodoxy on spirit communication every bit as firmly as more established doctrines, "subduing the unruly medium", in Monroe's memorable phrase. He and his legacy take up the greater part of the study, tracking "Kardec's success in what remains a difficult vocation - that of professional heterodox spiritual leader", a field in which he achieved enormous success.
Early table-turning was largely-ignored by officialdom as a private parlour game, Church censure notwithstanding. In a changed political climate Spiritism, despite Kardec's efforts at rapprochement with Church and political establishment, became contentious after his death in 1869 to a far greater extent than in England, where vocal opposition tended to come from the scientific community, rather than politicians or the Church of England. A section on spirit photography describing the activities of Edouard Buguet and his trial, along with Kardec's successor, Pierre-Gaëtan Leymarie and an American medium, Alfred Firman, in 1875, presents an interesting case study showing how far Spiritism, in a climate of social uncertainty and increasing Catholic self-confidence, was now considered potentially subversive, and how far its defenders were seen as fools or fanatics.
Monroe has immersed himself in the ferment of ideas going on in this period and analyses what they meant to people at that time, however na´ve they might seem to us now. He stresses just how widely read the publications of some of the figures that he discusses were, making them a crucial factor in any balanced assessment of French intellectual life. Despite the subtitle's reference to modern France, however, the emphasis is firmly on the latter half of the 19th century, and the picture becomes sketchier as he traces the routes of heterodoxy into the 20th century. The discussion of organised occultism and Theosophy occupies about 16 pages, and those wanting information on the current state of French interest in things paranormal will need to look elsewhere, with only a brief epilogue covering the post-First World War situation.
The story of these doxies is one of growing diversity and self-reliance, with a decreasing reliance on formal, centralised organisational structures as the imposition of hegemonic control lost out to a more individualistic emphasis on personal self-determination and fulfilment. The contemporary scene in France appears to be generally similar to that in other Western countries and betrays the reach of globalisation and mass communication. Yet although the movements Monroe describes may largely have had their day, their influences still linger; Kardec's doctrine, in particular, has found fertile soil in South America.
One species of intellectual endeavour that is missing from the title but covered is psychical research, which became increasingly important in France in the later part of the 19th century and, as was the case with spiritualists in England, was viewed ambivalently by Spiritists. The dedication of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in Britain was significant in developing new techniques and standards in investigation, and Monroe rightly notes the input psychical researchers generally had into the advance of mainstream psychology, their opinions receiving serious consideration as psychologists formulated their discipline.
In France this focus on evidence by psychical researchers coincided with a decreasing emphasis on it by Spiritists. They, as disappointed as their spiritualist counterparts in England with the psychical researchers' determination to examine alternative hypotheses to the spirit one, became increasingly embroiled in heated discussions among themselves on doctrine and metaphysics. In terms of laboratories of faith, canons of evidence were less important to them than during Kardec's time.
This is a useful job of synthesis, taking a huge number of sources and extracting the principal themes. The bibliography is an excellent jumping-off point for further exploration (and surely making monoglot bibliophiles wish they had paid more attention in their French lessons). For those who cannot read French, and do not have access to the large quantity of primary material that Monroe cites, his scholarly survey is of inestimable value. I hope it will get the circulation it deserves.