7 September 2011


Sofie Lachapelle. Investigating the Supernatural: from Spirtism and Occultism to Psychical Research and Metapsychics in France 1853-1931. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Sofie Lachapelle here reviews the successive waves of interest in matters psychical in France, from what were essentially religious outlooks to the at least quasi-scientific. Unlike the rather free and easy development of spiritualism on Britain, French spiritism was organised on highly authoritarian lines by its founder, a maths teacher Denizard H. L. Revail, who adopted the name Allan Kardec because it sounded Celtic.
Revail/Kardec had total control of the movement, vetting every lecture and every article in its journal to make sure it followed the party line. Much of spiritism in Kardec's time was concerned with the philosophy dictated by the spirits rather than scientific investigation of phenomena. Another group which showed an interest in paranormal phenomena were occultists, such as the followers of Alphonse Louis Constant who took the name Eliphas Levi, thinking it a Hebrew version of his given names.

Lachapelle shows how whereas Spiritists saw these phenomena as due to the actions of discarnate spirits, occultists saw them more as evidence of preternatural human powers which had been known to the ancients. Among those who had been members of the Spiritist movement was the astronomer and science populariser Camille Flammarion who was to move away from Spiritism towards what in Britain was called psychical research. To the modern eye he was perhaps more of a folklorist collecting anecdotes, which when supplied by the right sort of 'honourable' people (something Lachapelle sees as connected to 19th French notions of honour) he believed implicitly.

It was Flammarion who introduce the notorious Eusapia Palladino to France. The author shows that towards the end of the 19th century there was a growing interest in paranormal experiences among those who would be seen as the pioneers of psychology. Here she devotes particular attention to Theodore Flournoy and his work with the medium 'Helene Smith' as well as researches into somnambulism and other "pathologies of the supernatural". She then tracks the development of more 'scientific' psychical research, in particular the role of the physician Charles Richet. Richet also worked with Palladino as well as other mediums.

One of these whose influence was to span the journey from pre-Great War psychical research to the even more quasi-scientific 'metapsychics' of the interwar period was Marthe Beraud alias Eva Carriere who became well known for the production of ectoplasm. Though there are some illustrations in this book there are none of Marthe/Eva's materialisations, perhaps because the laughter that would be induced by their ludicrously fraudulent nature would be inappropriate for an academic work.

The portrait that she paints of French 'metapsychics' and the grandly titled Insitute Metapsychics International is sadly familiar. It was racked by poisonous ideological and personality disputes, allegations and counter allegations, not helped by the fact the finance came from a convinced Spiritist. The IMI was conceived as a sort of European Union of psychical research, and fell into the sort of disputes that seem to plague the latter body, not least the suspicion that the aim was to create a French dominated superstate of psychical research. Plans to set up a permanent conference centre in Geneva proved fruitless, and the internationalist vision of the IMI was to swallowed up by the rising nationalisms of the decade.

Meanwhile in the science stakes the IMI and its obsession with mediums and ectoplasm was outflanked by the new model scientific parapsychology of J. B. Rhine in the United States, part of the general drift of the leading edge of scientific research in general from Europe to the USA.

Lachapelle has done well in producing a detailed and sympathetic history, avoiding the rather hagiographic character of some histories of British psychical research on the one hand and the sneering disdain of a Ruth Brandon on the other. -- Peter Rogerson.

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