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Investigating the Supernatural: from Spirtism and Occultism to Psychical Research and Metapsychics in France 1853-1931

Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

Susan 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.

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