At a fascinating moment in French intellectual history, an
interest in matters occult was not equivalent to a rejection of
scientific thought; participants in séances and magic rituals were
seekers after experimental data as well as spiritual truth. A young
astronomy student wrote of his quest: "I am not in the presence or
under the influence of any evil spirit: I study Spiritism as I
study mathematics." He did not see himself as an ecstatic visionary
but rather as a sober observer. For him, the darkened room of
occult practice was as much laboratory as church.
In an evocative history of alternative religious practices in
France in the second half of the nineteenth and beginning of the
twentieth centuries, John Warne Monroe tells the interconnected
stories of three movements-Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism.
Adherents of these groups, Monroe reveals, attempted to "modernize"
faith by providing empirical support for metaphysical concepts.
Instead of trusting theological speculation about the nature of the
soul, these believers attempted to gather tangible evidence through
Mesmeric experiments, séances, and ceremonial magic. While few
French people were active Mesmerists, Spiritists, or Occultists,
large segments of the educated general public were familiar with
these movements and often regarded them as fascinating expressions
of the "modern condition," a notable contrast to the Catholicism
and secular materialism that prevailed in their culture.
Featuring eerie spirit photographs, amusing Daumier lithographs,
and a posthumous autograph from Voltaire, as well as extensive
documentary evidence, Laboratories of Faith gives readers
a sense of what being in a séance or a secret-society ritual might
actually have felt like and why these feelings attracted
participants. While they never achieved the transformation of human
consciousness for which they strove, these thinkers and believers
nevertheless pioneered a way of "being religious" that has become
an enduring part of the Western cultural vocabulary.
Table of Contents
You are viewing the table of contents
You do not have access to this
on JSTOR. Try logging in through your institution for access.