P.1: The Making of Spiritism

TV celebrities like James Van Praag and John Edward with Crossing Over, Spiritism (talking to alleged spirits of the dead) has been in the news again as per April 2003.

In The book of the Spririts 1857 (Le Livre des Esprits), Allan Kardec who changed on advice from a medium his name from Hippolyte Rivall, elaborated a metaphysical system based on communications with the beyond.

Born to a Lyon family October 3, 1804, his father a magistrate, Hippolyte was baptized and raised as a Catholic. After his first years of primary education in Lyon, his parents sent him to Switzerland where he enrolled in the Pestalozzi innovative school, which drew a great deal from the  writings of Rousseau.

Later Rivall co-founded a Pestalozzi-inspired technical school in Paris with the backing of an uncle trained as an educator. (Henri Sausse, Biographie d'Allan Kardec.  1927, 18-20)

Rivall had been a casual student of Mesmerism since the 1820s. Late in 1853, a Mesmerist friend, M. Fortier, told him about uncanny events that had occurred in his experimental seances. M. Fortier came to Rivall with startling news: his seance table had begun communicating clear messages by means of mysterious tapping noises. Attending Fortier 's seances introduced Rivall to a small but  active group of Parisians engaged with these phenomena.

A. passages quoted here from a memoir Kardec wrote in the late 1860s, dated December 1855, sheds some light on this more personal aspect of his interest in the beyond:

Q. Does my mother's spirit come to visit me sometimes?

A. Yes, and she protects -you as much as it is possible for her to do. Q. 1 often see her in my  dreams; is this a memory and a figment of MY imagination?

A. No; it is In fact her spirit appearing to you; you must be able to tell by the emotion you feel.

The Baudin circle responded enthusiastically when Rivall informed them of his intention to produce a book of spirit teachings. Other men who frequented the Baudin séances. The playwright Victorien Sardou and his father, the writer Rend Taillandier, and the publisher Didier, provided Rivall with notebooks of spirit communications they had collected from different mediums, in hopes that the additional data would help him in his project. Mrs. Baudin suggested a pseudonym for Rivall to use:

You will take the name Allan Kardec, which we give to you. In 1856, to accelerate the process of' information gathering, Kardec began to frequent the somnambulist  Wina Japlict and her magnetiseur, M. Roustan. Who devoted considerably more time to answering Kardec's questions.

Despite this competition, Kardec's book enjoyed a remarkable success, which was only to grow as the decade continued. The first edition of Le Livre des Esprits sold out quickly. In 1858, Kardec followed it with a revised and augmented edition. Though superficially similar to other texts on spirit phenomena, Kardec's book in fact constituted a dramatic innovation in its genre. Instead of  in a florid oracular style, the voices  in Kardec's book expressed themselves quite differently and spoke about clearly defined subjects in simple language. And where texts like Auguez's and Caudemberg's were dense and repetitive, Kardec's in short segments was  set off with clearly marked headings, each addressing a specific cosmological or moral question, from "The Origin and Nature of Spirits" to "Self-knowledge."

Also new things require new words, Kardec proclaimed. (Quoted in La Revue Spirite. vol.4,1861: 104) Spiritualism, he wrote, was simply "the opposite of materialism," and hence applied to any person is to believe he has something in himself other than matter. "Spiritism," on the other hand, explicitly designated a "doctrine" based on "relations between the material world and Spirits, or beings from the invisible world." By inventing a specific name to describe both his doctrine and the practices that went along with it, anyone who held seances was a Spiritist  - and all Spiritists accepted the metaphysical system Kardec outlined in his writings. Coining the word Spiritisine, therefore, allowed Kardec to emphasize the distinctiveness and simultaneously creating the impression that everyone who contacted spirits shared them.

The voices who expressed themselves so succinctly in Kardec's books, owed pronounced debts to the visionary tradition of French Utopian Socialism.

At the same time, however, Kardec eliminated the revolutionary aspect this visionary current had acquired during the 1840s. He accomplished this change of direction quite shrewdly, by using one of the key elements of Charles Fourlier's cosmology - the idea of reincarnation - and bolstering it with an epistemology drawn from Corntean Positivism.

Kardec and the spirits he quoted used the Golden Rule as the basis for a fundamentally social conception of morality. Both good and evil, they argued, expressed themselves primarily through an individual's relations with others. Charity and selfishness, therefore, became the two poles of the Spiritist moral compass.

In a Spiritist world, he argued, the rich would feel an obligation to be charitable, while the poor, strengthened by the expectation of a better life to come, would accept gifts with a resigned gratitude.

A similar blend of egalitarianism and acceptance of inequality characterized the Spiritist view, of gender. While Kardec: maintained that the soul had no sex, he nevertheless believed that male and female bodies were suited for different social roles. For Kardec, the roles men and women played in society were a biological inevitability - a man's "physical organization" rendered him incapable of dispensing the kind of love a mother could, just as a woman's rendered her incapable of inhabiting the public worlds of science or politics.

Spirit phenomena provided the underpinnings of this eschatological, moral and social vision. Between incarnations, every soul existed for a period of time as a disembodied "wandering spirit." These spirits filled the universe: though humans ordinarily could not perceive them, they formed an omnipresent throng surrounding the living. When people contacted the beyond in seances, these "wandering spirits" were the beings that appeared. All such spirits had distinct personalities, Kardec maintained. They differed from one another as dramatically as a randomly assorted crowd of human beings. Some had advanced rapidly, through the spirit hierarchy, and showed a saintly concern for human welfare; others had only progressed slowly, and exhibited a mischievous caginess to lead people astray.

While Kardec's presentation of his ideas was innovative, the ideas themselves where not. Indeed, the doctrine of Spiritism was for the most part a selective compendium of ideas from mid-nineteenth century French Utopian Socialist thinkers.

Kardec's spirits appeared to have borrowed their notion of reincarnation and their critique of eternal damnation from the works of Utopian Socialists like Fourier and Jean Reynaud. Their moral vision, with its emphasis on charity, owed a great deal to the thought of  Pierre Leroux and Saint-Simon one of the teachers of Eliphas Levi. (See Georgcs Brunet, Le Mysticisme social de Saint-Simon, Paris: 1922, and  Robert B. Carlisle, The Proffered Crown Saint-Simonianism and flee Doctrine of Hope, 1987)

The Spiritist conception of a universe driven to constant improvement by a law of progresion too reflected the optimism of thinkers like Eugene Pelletan. Even Kardec's notion of the spiritists which might strike the modem reader as peculiar, had its antecedents in Fourier's notion of the "aromal body" and in the theories of the Mesmerists.

Despite of its remarkable popularity, Kardec's work has received little scholarly attention, and the following report of the "Spiritists on Trial" is the first to be written in English.

See also:

Crossing Over P.2: Christian Spiritist Conversion

Crossing Over P.3: Taming the Wild Spirits

Crossing Over P.4: Revelation of the Revelation

Crossing Over P.5: Phenomena on Trial

Crossing Over P.6: Theosophists a Galore

Crossing Over P.7: The Esoteric

Crossing Over P.8: The Never Ending Story?

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