restricted access Epilogue: The Emergence of a New Heterodoxy
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Epilogue: The Emergence of a New Heterodoxy 251 At three o’clock on a Sunday in mid-December 1919, a spirit society called L’Œuvre 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 , E. F. Bolopion. After introductory prayers, some mediumistic healing , a brief “meditation to the Virgin” with piano accompaniment, and a “historical discourse on the birth and life of Jesus,” the spirit contacts began. This society’s mediums did not perform automatic writing; instead , they conveyed messages from the beyond “by incarnation,” acting and speaking for the spirits. Saint Paul appeared first, followed by a repentant sinner. The audience celebrated his profession of faith by singing a hymn of praise. Then a “Soldier Spirit” appeared, writhing in pain. A German had ripped open his stomach with a bayonet, and he “still suffered horribly.” The members of the society rushed to his aid, informing him that he had died, and “healing him spiritually” by working to detach his soul from the terrible residue of physical pain. Soon, the members saw their efforts rewarded : The soldier leapt up and embraced his saviors, jubilantly shouting “Vive la France!” Once his initial joy had calmed, he explained the predicament from which the society’s attentions had delivered him. Death in the trenches was often sudden, and seemed to come from nowhere. As a result, he said, many dead soldiers “still remained attached to their physical Bodies ” and thus continued to feel their wounds. In his own case, his mother had made matters worse by abandoning prayer: The horrors of the war had left her convinced that God did not exist. Before leaving the group, the Laboratories of Faith 252 young man urged the audience to heed his experience as a lesson. Dead soldiers would continue to suffer until they had received enough prayers to make them aware of the true nature of their situation. Mothers, then, had a duty not to renounce their faith when confronted with the brutal absurdity of the war. Maternal tenderness would be the saving grace of every soldier killed in battle.1 This story, told in the handwritten, mimeographed pages of a small, erratically appearing journal called Le Bon berger, provides a powerful glimpse of the changes the First World War wrought in French Spiritism. New horrors demanded the creation of more intensely emotional forms of consolation. Spiritist practice overwhelmingly followed the example set by exponents of the “moral” approach in the 1890s, growing more emotional and varied: In society meetings, trance-speech became the standard means by which spirits communicated, and groups like Bolopion’s used it as the basis for novel ritual forms, joining elements of a religious service with those of a theatrical production. 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, 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. In 1918, for instance, Cécile Monnier began to receive automatic writings from the spirit of her son Pierre, a soldier killed in the Argonne in 1915. Monnier insisted that her dialogues with the beyond were spontaneous products of divine grace and involved “nothing resembling Spiritism.” She had been raised a strict Calvinist but had difficulty accepting the austere conceptions of salvation and the afterlife with which she had grown up. For her, the continuing contact with Pierre proved the reality of a more liberal Christian God. Unfazed by Monnier’s rejection of Spiritist ritual and the idea of reincarnation , Pierre-Gaëtan Leymarie’s son Paul published a small compilation of her communications in 1920, with considerable success.2 In part, this uncoupling of Spiritist practice from Spiritist doctrine stemmed from an absence of leadership. No new philosophers or charismatic advocates emerged to replace Léon Denis and Gabriel Delanne, who despite advancing age and failing health remained central figures in the movement well into the 1920s. Denis, blind and frail, presided over the 1 The account of this meeting and all quotations come from Le Bon berger 1, no. 1 (December , 1919): 3–5. 2 Quoted in Cécile Monnier, Lettres de Pierre, intro. by Jean Prieur (Paris...


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