P.5: Taming the Wild Spirits

Even in the regulated atmosphere Spirit Societies sought to create, mediums as intermediaries, exerted a unique and multifaceted form of power.

In his 1861 Livre des Mediums, Kardec presented a detailed collection of instructions, for the conduct of seances, the behavior of mediums, and the evaluation of spirit communications. This work proved quite influential, establishing the dominant paradigm for French seance practice in the 1860s.

Regarding converts that were eager to synthesize mediumism and fortune telling, Kardec described them as a "new breed  apostles" that distributed -books of magic and sorcery, and often attempted to act on these strange predilections by forming societies of their own." (La Revue Spirite, Vol.6 1863: 77)

Kardec wrote: The most revered names are associated with the most ridiculous practices of  black magic, including cabalistic signs and words, talismans, sibylline three-legged tables and other accessories; some add cartomancy, palmistry, divination, paid somnambulism (mediumship), etc. -using them either as a supplement, or as lucrative products. This sort of association with the classes dangereuses, Kardec believed, did little to advance the cause of Spiritist respectability.

The Spiritist seance as Kardec envisioned it, then, had none of the carnivalesque flash, Kardec decried in fortune tellers, paid working-class somnambulists, or performers like the Davenports from the USA, who had recently performed Paris.

To ensure the "silence and reverence" that elevated spirits required, Kardec forbade all members to speak during seances, unless he granted them permission to do so. Every communication submitted to the society. had to receive the president's approval before being read to the group. Most importantly, Kardec chose which spirits would be invoked at each meeting, and what questions they would be asked. The act of invocation in fact was very crucial to Kardec's effort to make Spiritist practice "serious."

Also the procedure of using an authoritative, non-entranced questioner to guide the medium - probably patterned after the older relationship of somnambulist and magnitiseur - became quite common in Second Empire Spirit Societies, particularly those in which the primary mediums were women. The Spirit Society presidents Henri Dozon, Alexandre Delanne, L.T. Houat, Jobard, and  Pierre Patet, for example, all served as posers of questions, but not as mediums themselves.

Spiritism, Kardec believed, could only triumph if it emerged as a uniform, rational doctrine espoused everywhere in the same way; in his eyes, any deviation between spirits dramatically undercut the legitimacy of the movement's project.

By positing the existence of this category of spirit, Kardec created an elegant way of discounting communications that met his linguistic criteria, but contradicted the established precepts of Spiritist doctrine. The spirits' truth, Kardec insisted, was uniform and entirely consistent. Therefore, if a communication did not mesh logically with others already accepted as true, it could not be valid, no matter how stirring its rhetoric or how clear its diction. The notion of the Esprits savant (wild spirits), therefore, provided Kardec with a crucial safety valve -a way to de-legitimize the compelling but awkwardly heterodox communications some mediums produced.

In the published minutes of the Socite Parisienne, Kardec provided several examples of the method he used to expose Esprits savants. In October of 1860, for instance, he devoted a general meeting of the Society to the discussion of communications produced by a spirit channeled by a young medium who claimed to be Saul, King of the Jews. The system the Saul voice elaborated differed markedly from the one outlined in Kardec's work:

In this young lady's circle, the spirit that communicates using the name of Saul has propounded an idiosyncratic system that : 1. The earlier a spirit's first terrestrial existence, the more enlightened it is; from which it follows that Saint Louis, for example, is less advanced than Saul, because he has not been dead for as long a time. 2. That Spirits are only incarnated on Earth, and that these incarnations number only three - never more, never less - which is enough to advance them from the lowest degree to the highest. (Rivail, Livre des Esprits, p. 48-49.)

Kardec announced that he found this theory. to be "Irrational and disproved by the facts. To prove his point, he requested that "Saul, King of the Jews" be evoked. The spirit appeared, writing through an unidentified medium, and strongly argued for the reality of his heterodox theory. Eventually, though, the self-proclaimed Saul retreated from Kardec's barrage of probing questions: "once summoned, [the spirit] failed to defend his system, but refused to admit defeat, and requested to be heard in a private seance with his usual medium. Eventually, the spirit was entirely undone bv a series of questions. The spirit maintained that Earth was the only "solid globe," and that all other planets where merely. "fluidic globes." A notion this absurd, Kardec maintained, irrefutably demonstrated that Saul was an Esprit faux (very) savant. (La Revue Spirite, Vol.3, 1860: 33)

These ignorant spirits posed the greatest danger, Kardec maintained, when they felt confident that their listeners would uncritically accept the strange and irrational ideas they espoused. The only way to ensure that good spirits frequented a circle, he wrote, was to subject every communication to the strict methods of "control."

The Problem of Dissent

Despite these warnings, however, all too many mediums, when presenting their communications to Kardec for evaluation, appear to have done so already convinced they had received transcendent wisdom from superior beings. From the medium's perspective, after all, a spirit communication was the physical trace of a powerful, deeply personal experience of inspiration and transcendence. By giving a communication his authoritative stamp of approval, Kardec proved the authenticity of that moment of inspiration; if Kardec refused the communication, on the other hand, it meant the medium had mistaken an inferior spirit's fantasies for enlightenment. Kardec's further implication that such inferior communications were consequences of the medium's own "weakness and credulity" would have made his refusal double painful.

For the most part, these recalcitrant mediums only exist in the historical record as depersonalized targets of Kardec's admonitions. The case of the Bordeaux lawyer Jean Baptiste Roustaing and his medium, Mme. Emille Collignon, however, is a well documented exception to this rule. Roustaing's story provides a revealing illustration of the way authority functioned in French Spiritism. It also sheds light on some of the tensions and ruptures that the Spiritist attempt to create a universal doctrine on the basis of continuing, direct revelation inevitably engendered. Despite Kardec's efforts at codification, the spirits could still speak with a disconcerting variety of voices.

Born into a lower middle-class family, Roustaing studied law in his spare time while earning a living. In 1826, he moved to Paris, where he did his legal apprenticeship. After finishing his training in 1829, he returned to his native city of Bordeaux and began to work as a lawyer. He built a successful career as an avocat. In 1858, Roustaing contracted a serious illness, which obliged him to stopwork, even after his recovery in 1861, he did not have the strength to resume his profession.

Fortunately, just as Roustaing recovered, he found a new vocation: the study of Spinitism. He First heard about the new doctrine from a local doctor and from a fellow lawyer named Andre Pezzani. Initially, Roustaing was skeptical, but after reading the Livre des Esprits, his opinion changed, for much the same reasons as the young Flammarion's had (see part 2).

This new doctrine seemed to offer Roustaing a solution to  the metaphysical doubts that had plagued him during his illness. Before encountering Kardec's work, Roustaing could not bring himself  to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Gospels seemed "obscure and incomprehensible,” and the interpretations the Church offered were too patently irrational to satisfy the requirements of his well-honed mind.  At the same time, however, the Bordeaux lawyer felt a desire to believe. He admired Christian morality, even as he refused to accept  the “spectacular transgression of natural laws" that appeared to occur so frequently, in the Gospels.

Spiritism, with its emphasis on fact, and its claim to provide an explanation for miracles consonant with the demands of modem science, finally allowed Roustaing to exchange his doubt for a definitive certainty. His enthusiasm for the new, doctrine inspired him to send a declaration of faith to Kardec, which was published in the Revue Spirite in 186l. In his response to the letter, Kardec declared that Roustaing's endorsement signaled the beginning of a new phase in Spiritisrn's development. In the doctrine's early days, believers had been scorned and ignored. Now, Kardec wrote, as more respectable men and women came forward to declare their allegiance, Spiritism would become impossible to ridicule or dismiss.

The teachings of the spirits could hardly be absurd or dangerous if they had succeeded in winning the adherence of a sober, dignified Bordeaux lawyer.

After his conversion, Roustaing approached his study of the new doctrine with a steadily escalating intensity. He began by attending a variety of Spiritist meetings, not as a medium himself, but instead observing and posing questions to the spirits that appeared. At the same time, he studied Mesmerism.

The evening of June 23, 1861, before going to bed, Roustaing addressed a fervent prayer" to Saint John, asking him to appear in a mediumistic consultation scheduled for the next day. The Bordeaux lawyer also requested that his father appear. In the June 24 consultation, to Roustaing's awe struck surprise, both - even though he had told no one of his prayers the

previous night, John the Baptist issued a long, prophetic communication in which he declared that “the time has come," and proclaimed the eminent dawning of an earthly paradise made possible by the triumph of Spiritism. Roustaing's father expressing pride in his son's new-found religious vocation.

Roustaing, armed with this powerful reassurance and "deeply moved," continued his studies with a growing sense of mission.

In December of 1861, he met a new medium, Mme. Emille Collignon. Unlike her predecessors, Collignon appears to have had not only the will, but also the ability and patience to produce voluminous automatic writings ambitious enough to satisfy the exigent former lawyer. At the end of her second meeting with Roustaing, Collignon received a long, spontaneous communication collaboratively by the spirits of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, assisted by the apostles.

In this missive, the spirits announced their intention to use Collignon as the vehicle for a dramatic series of new communications:

To this end, dear friends, we will undertake to explain the gospels in spirit and truth, and thus set the stage for the unity of beliefs among men; you may call this "the revelation of the revelation."

See also:

Crossing Over P.1: The Making of Spiritism

Crossing Over P.2: Christian Spiritist Conversion

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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