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Laboratories of Faith

Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism in Modern France

John Warne Monroe

Publication Year: 2007

At a fascinating moment in French intellectual history, an interest in matters occult was not equivalent to a rejection of scientific thought; participants in séances and magic rituals were seekers after experimental data as well as spiritual truth. A young astronomy student wrote of his quest: "I am not in the presence or under the influence of any evil spirit: I study Spiritism as I study mathematics." He did not see himself as an ecstatic visionary but rather as a sober observer. For him, the darkened room of occult practice was as much laboratory as church.

In an evocative history of alternative religious practices in France in the second half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, John Warne Monroe tells the interconnected stories of three movements-Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism. Adherents of these groups, Monroe reveals, attempted to "modernize" faith by providing empirical support for metaphysical concepts. Instead of trusting theological speculation about the nature of the soul, these believers attempted to gather tangible evidence through Mesmeric experiments, séances, and ceremonial magic. While few French people were active Mesmerists, Spiritists, or Occultists, large segments of the educated general public were familiar with these movements and often regarded them as fascinating expressions of the "modern condition," a notable contrast to the Catholicism and secular materialism that prevailed in their culture.

Featuring eerie spirit photographs, amusing Daumier lithographs, and a posthumous autograph from Voltaire, as well as extensive documentary evidence, Laboratories of Faith gives readers a sense of what being in a séance or a secret-society ritual might actually have felt like and why these feelings attracted participants. While they never achieved the transformation of human consciousness for which they strove, these thinkers and believers nevertheless pioneered a way of "being religious" that has become an enduring part of the Western cultural vocabulary.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 3-8


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pp. vii-10

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pp. ix-xi

The idea for this book came to me in early June 1996. After a year of graduate school, I had managed to find a summer job in Paris as a translator of instruction manuals for medical equipment. On one of my first weekends in the city, prowling the Latin Quarter for jazz records,...

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pp. 1-14

In the summer of 1859, the pharmacist and retired army officer P. F. Mathieu submitted a long paper to the Académie des sciences. In it, he presented the results of a series of experiments he had undertaken with the help of a medium named Honorine Huet. One of...

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1. eInterpreting the Tables Tournantes, 1853–1856

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pp. 15-63

Early in 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox, two young sisters in rural New York State, began to receive mysterious communications from the beyond. These took the form of “spirit raps,” sharp sounds that emanated from walls, furniture, or any other hard surface. Shortly after the raps first occurred...

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2. Mesmerism and the Challenge of Spiritualism, 1853–1859

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pp. 64-94

At a séance held in the summer of 1859, a distinguished committee of French Mesmerists attempted to reach a definitive conclusion about the reality of spirit phenomena. These eight doctors, journalists, and idealistic bourgeois considered themselves uniquely qualified to answer...

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3. The Invention and Development of Spiritism,1857–1869

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pp. 95-149

Contacting a spirit in France in 1867 was a markedly different experience from what it had been in 1859. Where séances had once taken place in darkness, they were now often held in lighted rooms. Physical contact between the séance participants was no longer considered an...

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4. Spiritism on Trial, 1870–1880

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pp. 150-198

On the first anniversary of Allan Kardec’s death—March 31, 1870—a small group of Spiritists gathered at a construction site in the Père Lachaise cemetery. The monument they had come to inaugurate was a dolmen made of rough-hewn granite slabs, sheltering a bronze portrait...

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5. Confronting the Multivalent Self, 1880–1914

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pp. 199-250

Among readers of guidebooks, the Universal Exposition of 1900 is usually remembered for giving Paris the Pont Alexandre III and the Grand Palais. It is less well-known for having inspired a flurry of international conventions. The Fourth International Congress of Psychology was...

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Epilogue: The Emergence of a New Heterodoxy

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pp. 251-264

At three o’clock on a Sunday in mid-December 1919, a spirit society called L’OEuvre de la rénovation sociale met in the seventeenth arrondissement to commemorate the birth of Christ. The festivities began with a speech “on the Spiritist doctrine,” delivered by the society president...


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pp. 265-280


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pp. 281-293

E-ISBN-13: 9780801461712
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801445620

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: 1