Laboratories of Faith

John Warne Monroe. Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism and Occultism in Modern France. Princeton University Press, 2008.

The study of rise of spiritualism and psychical research in the United States and Britain has been well served over the years, and in this book Monroe brings a like scholarly attention to the developments in French mesmerism and spiritism from roughly 1848 to 1914, with an concluding chapter on later developments.

French spiritualism and mesmerism is here shown first as a radical republican and oppositional force, which gradually began to work out accommodations with the reactionary regime of Louis Napoleon. It was in this period that the schoolteacher H. D Rivail, who wrote under the pseudonym Allen Kardec, constructed the ideology of Spiritism, the main themes of which were an attempt at as much of a reconciliation with Catholicism as possible, and the promulgation of a belief in reincarnation. The latter seems to have been adopted to allow for the argument that the poor and downtrodden were that way because they were working out their karma of past sins, and therefore it would be wrong to improve their lot through socialism, a comforting thought for the increasingly prosperous bourgeoisie. The Spiritists had a good political nose and when the Empire was overthrown they turned their allegiance to the new Republic instead. Alas none of these manoeuvres earned much credit with either side in France’s long culture wars, the Catholics continuing to denounce them as demon worshipping heretics, and the rationalists as superstitious fools.

In imitation of the Catholic church, Rivail/Kardec created a centralised authoritarian movement which tested the spirits with stringent ideological tests, worthy of any Trotskyite sect. Messages which came from spirits who agreed with Kardec were genuine, those which disagreed at best came from the sort of spirits which were in must urgent need of a reincarnation into a life of poverty and drudgery to work off their karma.

After Kardec’s death spiritism moved more into the sort of exiting realms which featured in Angle Saxon countries, like fake spirit photographs which resembled folk images of ghosts.

Perhaps because it falls outside the main period covered by this book there is no equivalent discussion of the rise of ectoplasm and the bizarre experiments with it by Charles Richet and Gustave Geley. The final chapter however does note the significance of Pauwels and Bergier's Morning of the Magicians (Dawn of Magic), which originated many of the beliefs of the modern cultic milieu. | PR |

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