P.14: The Never Ending Mystery?


As for Spiritism, Gabriel Delanne and Leon Dents became key figures, and the tensions between them would play a crucial role in shaping Spiritism's development after the First World War.

Delanne first stated his case against Papus and his circle in a series of polemical articles published in 1890 and 1891. Occultism (today called the Esoteric), he asserted, was based on a fundamental misreading of the predicament in which humanity found itself at the end of the nineteenth century. The Occultists were correct when they identified the increasingly large chasm between science and religion as the fundamental problem of the age, Delanne argued, but their efforts to bridge this gap were entirely misguided. Most importantly, in his view, the Occultists erred by idealizing the past.

Spiritism, then, because it was an entirely novel doctrine, based on modem principles of scientific inquiry, had a considerably greater claim to truth than Occultism did. Indeed, Delanne argued, Occultism (the Esoteric) was in fact nothing but a form of glorified superstition. Its fundamental "hypotheses," he wrote, relied "exclusively on metaphysical data that might have been tenable in the Middle Ages or in antiquity, but that evaporates in the sunlight of contemporary science. (Le Spiritisme, vol.8 ,1890: 163)

Delanne bolstered his case with literature from the field of psychical research. In the intervening years, however, this field had expanded markedly. The Society for Psychical Research had been founded in London in 1882, and Crookes now worked in the company of writers like F.W.H Myers and Cesare Lombroso. The writings of these scientists, coupled with reports of spectacular phenomena produced by mediums like Eusapia Palladino, Delanne believed, provided Spiritists with a new arsenal of "crude, palpable phenomena that render all negation impossible.

But Spiritism would only triumph as the universal religion of mankind, he maintained, if its adherents presented it with uncompromising objectivity. It was better, therefore, to bruise the feelings of some mediums by questioning the value of their communications than to be tactful and compromise the movement as a whole in the eyes of skeptical outsiders. By the late 1890s, this stance had led Delanne to break dramatically with Spiritist precedent - in his journal, he ceased publishing spirit communications entirely. While Denis shared Delanne's sense of Spiritism as an empirical project, he did not encourage his readers to indulge in the same degree of critical self-scrutiny. Instead, for Denis, the chief benefits of Spiritisrn were its popular appeal and its capacity to console. Spirit communications, therefore, remained central to the enterprise.

Though Delanne and Denis viewed themselves as Figures en Croyance engaged in an identical struggle, the visions of Spiritisin they elaborated in their works proved very difficult to reconcile. Delanne's effort to impart new rigor to Kardec's doctrine entailed a rejection of spirit communications - the very phenomena that made the movement attractive and consoling for most believers. Denis' moral rhetoric, in turn, glossed over the logical inconsistencies that prevented many skeptics from taking the movement seriously.

After 1896, these two currents of Spiritism crew increasingly distinct. Delanne established a new journal, the Revite Scientifique et Morale du Spiritisme, which was primarily devoted to theoretical articles on psychic phenomena and translations of texts by psychical researchers, and began participating in the burgeoning community of French psychical researchers.

The majority of Spiritists did not follow Delanne in this project, turning instead an array of other journals, the most important of which was the Progres Spirite, also founded in 1896. These new publications continued to employ the classic formula Kardec had established so many years before, printing accounts of society meetings, essays on moral topics, and - most importantly - a steady stream of spirit communications.

However during the decade after the First World War, Spiritism enjoyed a period of remarkable expansion - and most of its new adherents, perhaps unsurprisingly, were more interested in contacting deceased sons and husbands than they were in engaging in scientific studies of the beyond.

During the First World War new horrors demanded the creation of new, more intense forms of consolation. Spiritist practice became more flexible and varied: trance-speech, for example, became an increasingly acceptable part of a medium's repertoire, and groups developed novel ritual forms, joining elements of a religious service with those of a theatrical production.

The automatic writings of Cecile Monnier provide an example of this trend away from Kardec. In August, 1918, Monnier began to receive spirit communications from her son Pierre, a recently killed army. officer. Monnier presented herself as a pious Catholic. The communications she received, as she later wrote to a priest, were pure products of Divine grace that involved "rien qui ressemble au spiritisme.- Monier’ s spiritual directors. in particular a priest named Pierre Sanson, supported her in these endeavors. These religious affinities. however. did not prevent her from publishing Pierre's letters with Paul Leymarie, the Spiritist son of Pierre Gattan (see Cecile Monnier, Lertres de Pierre. vol. 1, Paris:  1980.)

At the same time, the process of decentralization that had begun in the 1880s continued. Small societies proliferated, and the larger ones exerted less authority. As this organizational change occurred, Spiritism became an increasingly domestic, private endeavor. By the end of the decade, in fact, Spiritism as an organized, clearly-defined movement was largely a thing of the past. The act of engaging in dialogue with the beyond lost its close association with Kardec's ideas and norms, and became a technique of consolation that individuals employed in a growing number of highly personal ways.'

Despite their advancing age and failing health, Gabriel Delanne and Leon Denis remained central figures in the movement throughout the early 1920s. Denis, blind and frail, even presided over the last great Spiritist Congres, held in 1925. Delanne died in 1926, and Dents in 1927; the two men left no new generation of charismatic figures to succeed them.

The deaths of Delanne and Dents also marked a sea-change in French psychical research, which pushed Spiritism further in the direction of decentralization and a focus on private experience. In 1919, the physiologist Charles Richet.

The interest in exploring innovative - or at least long-neglected - ways of experiencing the sacred persisted, as did the dream of a grand synthesis of faith and reason made possible by phenomena that seemed to render the metaphysical concrete. The old promise of an organized fraterniti  that Spiritualist Mesmerists, Spiritists and Occultists offered, which was based on collective adherence to a particular set of philosophical principles, seems to have lost some of its allure. Instead, spiritual seekers grew more independent, preferring to avoid exclusive philosophies and the organizational commitments they entailed in favor of a less dogmatic individualism.

This development, in turn, helped set the stage for the emergence of what is  called New Age religion.

Technological development, industrialization, the growing importance of secular education, and urbanization all worked to create the material background of political and intellectual developments between the reactionary Catholic right, with its pessimistic conception of human nature and insistence on hierarchy, and the republican left, with its optimistic vision of progress driven by a free, dutiful and rationalistic citizenry.

Philip Nord has made this point very convincingly by arguing for the persistence of a visionary current albeit one stripped of the overt theism that had characterized midcentury Utopian (See Philip Nord, The Republican Momentnt, 1995, especially 15-30. and  David B. Wilson On the Importance of Eliminating Science and Religion from the History of Science and Religion: 1996, 27-48)

Many of the leading protagonists of the occult revival of the fin-de-siecle died relatively young, and within a few years of one another-Guaita in 1898, Saint-Yves d'Alveydre in 1907, Papus in 1916-depriving the movement of experienced leadership. Their surviving disciples were scattered by the war, and many of them perished in its trenches. The occult journals of the fin-de-siecle all ceased publication after July 1914, and when one of the most prominent, La Voile d'Isis, returned in January 1920, its tone was almost apologetic, as the ethereal, metaphysical speculation it offered seemed to clash so dramatically with the brutal realities of modern warfare. The January 1920 issue opens with an extensive in memoriam section, which demonstrates the devastating impact of the war on the prewar occult subculture, as indeed on French society as a whole." Occultism did in fact survive in twentieth century France, but in a significantly transfigured form, and has been largely eclipsed in contemporary France by a new interest in Eastern religions, African spirit mediums, and a more international and diffuse, and less theoretically unified, New Age movement.

The passage of the editorship of La Voile d'Isis from Papus before the war to Rene Guenon, who rejected much of nineteenth-century French occultism in favor of a return to ancient, traditions, in the interwar period is symptomatic of this shift in French occult interests.

In light of the close connections also between the French occult tradition and French political developments (needing a series of articles all by its own), the changing role of occultism following the fin-de-siecle should not be surprising.

Until the consolidation of the Third Republic under the opportunist Republicans in the late 1870s, and arguably until the triumph of the Dreyfusards at the end of the century, the rejection of republicanism and modernity in favor of an idealized, organic monarchical society remained plausible to many Frenchmen, however remote that possibility may seem today, and however unworkable its proposed solutions to France's problems now appear. The virtual disappearance of the Legitimist movement in twentieth century France eliminated the need for supernatural sanction of the return of a Great Monarch, and none of the regimes or political factions of the period showed much interest in political prophecy. Interestingly enough, the figure of Joan of Arc has enjoyed something of a vogue among the contemporary French integralist Right, first under the Vichy regime, and more recently in the iconography of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National. (For the use of Joan of Arc by Vichy and by the Front National, see Herman Lebovics, True France: The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945 , 1992), and Monica Charlot, ‘Emergence du Front National, Revue Francaise de Science Politique 36, 1986, 30-45.)

To our (staff of EASN) knowledge, however, the enthusiasm for Joan of Arc as symbol of an eternal, Catholic, peasant France has not inspired renewed interest in political prophecy as a means of doctrinal inspiration.` Occultism has thus largely retreated from the political arena, and now focuses less on societal transformation than on the fulfillment of individual spiritual quests. A century after the occult revival of the fin-de-siecle, however, French interest in the supernatural, though largely depoliticized, does not show any signs of waning, to judge by the prevalence of both European and African fortune-tellers, healers, and spirit mediums in major metropolitan centers.

A question remains to be see, if and how much the effect of the Iraq war and dying Americans will be on a TV shows like Crossing Over.



See also:

Crossing Over P.1: The Making of Spiritism

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
 

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