2 December 2010


M. Brady Brower. Unruly Spirits: The Science of Psychic Phenomena in Modern France. University of Illinois Press, 2010.

The word 'modern' in the subtitle is perhaps a little confusing, for this book gives an account of the development of psychology and psychical research in France from c.1848 to c.1930. In it, Brower shows that psychical research did not develop as an isolated anomaly, but as an integral part of the general development of a secular science of psychology.
In its early days 'psychical research', though not yet formulated as such, was interested in phenomena such as table-turning and hypnotism, and twin notions of new forms of mechanical activity and concepts of the human personality. It was also one of the tolerated activities in the repressive first decade of Louis Napoleon's Second Empire.
Brower argues that a more scientific approach developed in the early years of the Third Republic, and argues about psychic phenomena became entwined in general debates in the nascent field of psychology between those who looked towards a wholly neurological approach and those who looked towards a more idealistic and introspectionist account.

In bodies such as the General Psychological Institute, 'scientific' psychologists and a lay membership coexisted in an uneasy relationship. The leading figure was Pierre Janet, whose career in psychology had been launched by a study in telepathic induction of hypnosis, but who by the turn of the century was clearly drifting into more academically respectable areas, which was to lead him into the founding of an academic, invitation only, peer-reviewed inner circle, The wider group moved into directions of social psychology, and the uses of psychological insights for the control of the masses by an administrative elite.

Psychical research received a boost with the forming of a psychical research study group within the Society, to which a number of prominent people became involved. Much of their activities were centred around the controversial physical medium Eusapia Palladino. Many will be surprised to learn that among those who were involved in this study were Pierre and Marie Curie (who were never able to resolve whether Palladino's performances were genuine or not). It is difficult to imagine today's leading physicists grubbing round in a darkened room with an erotically-charged middle aged peasant woman who was alleged to produce marvels, but as Brower points out this was a time of the discovery of all sorts of mysterious rays such as X-rays, radioactivity, radio waves etc., and who knew what was just round the corner.

Brower argues that this period marked an abandonment of interests in the human personality and its unconsciousness fringes, in place of a study of forces and energies, the prerogative of the physicist rather than the psychologist.

When the human sciences reclaimed French psychical research it was by the physiologist Charles Richet and his promotion of ectoplasm, much associated with the notorious Marthe Beraud alias Eva Carriere. Her story is clearly one of the strangest going, and seems to exist in an atmosphere of cloying, possibly quasi-incestuous sexuality, and it is not hard to entertain the suspicion that Marthe/Eva was the sort of pretty young girl who found it easy to twist pompous and rather silly old men around her little finger.

Brower takes the story through the First World War, to the founding of the International Metaphysics Institute, and the more complete merging of spiritism and quasi-scientific psychical research in the grief-sodden aftermath of that war.

Brower argues that the popularity of this psychical research led to its influencing the ideas of Freudian psychology as they entered France, including influences on the surrealist André Breton.

For the English reader there is much of interest here, in the similarities and contrasts between English and French psychical research, and it is interesting to note that while much of French psychical research was more self consciously 'scientific' than that of the SPR, it ended up endorsing even stranger phenomena. It is perhaps ironic that an enterprise that started out, as Brower shows, as an attempt to preserve an idealistic or spiritualist view of the transcendence and unity of the human mind, ended up with the gross materiality of ectoplasm emerging from bodily orifices! -- Peter Rogerson.

No comments: