Laboratories of Faith

Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism in Modern France

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 312
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    Laboratories of Faith
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6171-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In the summer of 1859, the pharmacist and retired army officer P. F. Mathieu submitted a long paper to the Académie des sciences. In it, he presented the results of a series of experiments he had undertaken with the help of a medium named Honorine Huet. One of these, which occurred in a chapel off the nave of the Parisian basilica of Notre Dame des Victoires, involved a sheet of ordinary office paper Mathieu had removed from his desk the day before. After verifying that the sheet was unmarked, he folded it into quarters and placed it on a step...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Interpreting the Tables Tournantes, 1853–1856
    (pp. 15-63)

    Early in 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox, two young sisters in rural New York State, began to receive mysterious communications from the beyond. These took the form of “spirit raps,” sharp sounds that emanated from walls, furniture, or any other hard surface. Shortly after the raps first occurred, members of the Fox family started to ask questions of the unseen force that produced the noises. Initially, the answers were simple: a single tap for “yes,” silence for “no.” Using this unwieldy method, the Foxes and their growing circle of intrigued guests determined that the soul of a murdered peddler produced...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Mesmerism and the Challenge of Spiritualism, 1853–1859
    (pp. 64-94)

    At a séance held in the summer of 1859, a distinguished committee of French Mesmerists attempted to reach a definitive conclusion about the reality of spirit phenomena. These eight doctors, journalists, and idealistic bourgeois considered themselves uniquely qualified to answer the vexed metaphysical and psychological questions such manifestations continued to pose. The committee members, chosen months before at a special meeting of the Société philanthropico-magnétique de Paris, had devoted their lives—or at least a substantial portion of their spare time—to the field of magnétisme animal. All considered themselves experts in the experimental study of the human mind, the...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Invention and Development of Spiritism, 1857–1869
    (pp. 95-149)

    Contacting a spirit in France in 1867 was a markedly different experience from what it had been in 1859. Where séances had once taken place in darkness, they were now often held in lighted rooms. Physical contact between the séance participants was no longer considered an essential part of the ritual, and in its absence, the atmosphere of playful flirtatiousness that had once characterized so many experiments with tables tournantes disappeared. When communicating for the spirits, mediums no longer relied on moving tables, mysterious raps, or a cumbersome planchette; instead, they sat quietly, holding pencils in the conventional manner, writing...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Spiritism on Trial, 1870–1880
    (pp. 150-198)

    On the first anniversary of Allan Kardec’s death—March 31, 1870—a small group of Spiritists gathered at a construction site in the Père Lachaise cemetery. The monument they had come to inaugurate was a dolmen made of rough-hewn granite slabs, sheltering a bronze portrait bust of the deceased chef du spiritisme and paying tribute to his past life as a Druidic sage (fig. 9). Kardec’s widow, Amélie, and Pierre-Gaëtan Leymarie, the new editor of the Revue spirite, had conceived this project in ambitious terms. The total weight of the slabs exceeded 30,000 kilograms (33 tons), which meant that the...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Confronting the Multivalent Self, 1880–1914
    (pp. 199-250)

    Among readers of guidebooks, the Universal Exposition of 1900 is usually remembered for giving Paris the Pont Alexandre III and the Grand Palais. It is less well-known for having inspired a flurry of international conventions. The Fourth International Congress of Psychology was among the most important of these gatherings, both for its size and for its position in the larger history of the field. Psychology had only recently emerged as an autonomous scientific discipline—its first international convention had been held in Paris in 1889, a scant eleven years before. The 1900 Congress, a return to Paris after meetings in...

  10. Epilogue: The Emergence of a New Heterodoxy
    (pp. 251-264)

    At three o’clock on a Sunday in mid-December 1919, a spirit society called L’Œuvre de la rénovation sociale met in the seventeenth arrondissement to commemorate the birth of Christ. The festivities began with a speech “on the Spiritist doctrine,” delivered by the society president, E. F. Bolopion. After introductory prayers, some mediumistic healing, a brief “meditation to the Virgin” with piano accompaniment, and a “historical discourse on the birth and life of Jesus,” the spirit contacts began. This society’s mediums did not perform automatic writing; instead, they conveyed messages from the beyond “by incarnation,” acting and speaking for the spirits....

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 265-280)
  12. Index
    (pp. 281-294)