- The Way We Believe Now: Modernity and the Occult
At a séance held in Geneva on February 2, 1896, the medium Hélène Smith, sitting at a table in darkness, entered a trance and saw a mysterious floating carriage appear, trailing sparks. A woman stepped out of the conveyance and began speaking. At first, Smith responded to her invisible interlocutor with consternation, unable to understand anything she said. Then, suddenly, the medium’s demeanor changed, and she began to speak rapidly “in an unintelligible tongue, like Chinese.” Auguste Lemaître, one of the small group in attendance, quickly took up paper and pencil, transcribing the words as accurately as he could: “Michma michtmon mimini thouainenm mimatchineg masichinof mézavi patelki abrésinad navette naven navette mitchichénid naken chinoutoufiche.” Soon, however, the words came even faster, and Lemaître was reduced to scribbling whatever isolated fragments he could catch: “téké . . . katéchivist . . . meguetch.” This language, Smith later told her audience, was Martian, and the mysterious floating car had come to take her to the Red Planet.1
When cultural historians recount the early history of modernism, particularly to general readers, they tend to focus on a few revealing events that have come to acquire an almost mythic significance. Though scholars have as yet [End Page 68] given it little notice, this séance—the inauguration of what the psychologist Theodore Flournoy would later call Smith’s “Martian Cycle”—could fit quite comfortably in the anecdotal canon. Much as the tumult that welcomed the Sacre du printemps in 1913 symbolized the beginning of a new kind of music, so the debut of the Martian language revealed the possibilities of a new kind of subjectivity. Smith’s inexhaustible imagination, which invented characters, civilizations, grammars, and alphabets, was not the heroic product of a single, unified personality; it was a prodigious manifestation of nonconscious forces working their way through the cracks in her quotidian self.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, phenomena like Smith’s attracted considerable attention in a wide variety of different arenas, ranging from petit bourgeois spirit circles to university laboratories. For observers sympathetic to the avant-garde, these strange manifestations pointed to a new realm of human experience: nineteenth-century positivists had accepted the stultifying fiction of a unitary, reasoning subject; figures like Smith seemed to reveal the existence of a much freer, less stable reality. As Helen Sword has observed, the condition of mediumism had an “ontological shiftiness” that appealed strongly to the modernist sensibility.2 In séances, mediums regularly blurred lines between high culture and low, intention and nonintention, individualism and self-abnegation, male and female. Certainly, André Breton, founder of surrealism, viewed Smith’s achievements in these terms. He pronounced her mediumship “by far the richest” yet encountered, and published samples of her automatic drawings and Martian script in his literary magazine Le Minotaure.3 For Breton, Smith was a pioneer, an explorer of consciousness who provided a template for an entirely new understanding of art and its relation to life.
Even as Breton praised the nature of Smith’s creative process, however, he remained ambivalent about the content of her visions. She was a pious woman, and in the decades before her death in 1929, adopted a highly personal Christian mysticism that was entirely at odds with surrealism’s exuberant antireligiosity. The paintings she made during those years, “automatic” though they may have been, depicted Christian subjects in decidedly conventional ways. Breton readily acknowledged this difficulty. In their creative [End Page 69] trances, he wrote, mediums had discovered a path beyond the fusty bourgeois self, but in order for the true creative potential of this discovery to be realized, it had to be “freed . . . from the insane metaphysical implications it otherwise entailed.”4 The avant-garde artist civilized...