Flournoy’s Complaint

Terry Castle

  • From India to the Planet Mars: A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages by Théodore Flournoy, edited by Sonu Shamdasani
    Princeton, 335 pp, £33.50, February 1996, ISBN 0 691 03407 9

The dilemma: it is 1892, you are a 30-year-old female shop assistant in a small silk manufacturing concern in Geneva, the city of your birth. You live with your parents in a modest but pleasant suburban house; you travel to work on the streetcar. You have no suitors, but don’t really mind: you have a spiritual protector named ‘Léopold’, a reincarnation of the 18th-century magician Cagliostro, who appears to you in visions in the long brown robe of a monk, offering advice and emotional solace. Your main hobbies are embroidery – of mystic shapes and patterns bearing no resemblance to anything in the visible world – and the obsessive cultivation of states of ‘obnubilation’, during which ‘strange multicoloured landscapes, stone lions with mutilated heads, and fanciful objects on pedestals’ float before your eyes.

Yet life is tedious beyond words. Your parents’ provincial ways annoy you (you’re not convinced they really are your parents); the grey Genevan skies oppress. You hate being a ‘little daughter of Lake Léman’; you feel yourself born for a higher sphere. Above all, you have an overweening desire to enthral: to exhibit ‘the magnificent flowering of that subliminal vegetation’ – your inner life – before a throng of enraptured admirers. But how to get the attention you deserve?

If you are ‘Hélène Smith’ – the shop-girl in question and subject of the Swiss psychiatrist Théodore Flournoy’s sensational 1899 case-history From India to the Planet Mars – you solve the problem in classic 19th-century female-monomaniac fashion: by becoming a spirit medium. Initiated into table-rapping in the winter of 1891-2, Smith – whose real name was Elise Müller – progressed quickly from bouts of automatic writing and glossolalia to extended trance-states in which she revealed that she had lived a number of glamorous past lives: as ‘Simandini’, a beautiful Hindu princess forced to commit suttee in the early 15th century; as Marie Antoinette, doomed Queen of France; and perhaps most intriguingly, as a visitor to Mars, whose inhabitants, language and customs she was able to describe in phantasmagoric detail. At weekly séances over the next few years Smith produced an array of ‘proofs’ of these past existences and simultaneously enlisted a doting crowd of followers convinced of her psychic powers.

It was Smith’s triumph – and her subsequent misfortune – to attract the attention of Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920), professor of psycho-physiology at the University of Geneva, friend of William James (and later Carl Jung) and enthusiastic debunker of putatively occult phenomena. Since the late 1880s Flournoy, whose deceptively chivalrous, self-effacing manner concealed a penetrating forensic intelligence, had eagerly sought a medium on whom to test his evolving theories about the relationship between trance phenomena and the psychopathology of the unconscious. Introduced to Smith in 1895, he at once struck up a friendship with her and asked if he could study her in action. Exalted by his interest and avid to convert him to the ‘beautiful doctrine of spiritism’, Smith not only welcomed him at sittings for the next four years, but permitted him to subject her to various uncomfortable physical experiments, including pressing on her eyeballs and sticking her with pins during trance-states to test for localised anaesthesia and absent or impaired reflexes.

Flournoy’s professional curiosity at once inspired the excitable seeress to new mystic heights. Smith was what Flournoy would dub in From India to the Planet Mars a ‘polymorphous, or multiform, medium’ – that is, a medium subject to a diverse, highly theatrical range of automatisms while in the trance-state. Not only was she able to receive messages ‘through the table’ from beings such as her spirit guide Léopold, who frequently manifested himself during sittings as a kind of disembodied play-by-play commentator on what was going on: she could gabble in mysterious tongues, write and draw in hands other than her own, and drastically alter her voice and physiognomy as she gave herself up to various spirit ‘controls’. By far the most impressive demonstrations of her mediumship, however, were what Flournoy called her ‘somnambulistic romances’ – the grandiose, quasi-mythopoetic fantasies of having lived at other times, in other worlds.

It is hard to say which of her ‘romances’ was most bizarre: each was a marvel of intricate, exfoliating absurdity. A set of ‘Martian’ visions witnessed by Flournoy in 1896, for example, began with the entranced medium speaking to ‘an imaginary woman who wished her to enter a curious little car without wheels or horses’. After pantomiming the act of climbing into a car Smith performed a series of contortionist gestures indicative of extraterrestrial travel:

Hélène ... mimics the voyage to Mars in three phases, the meaning of which is indicated by Léopold: a regular rocking motion of the upper part of the body (passing through the terrestrial atmosphere), absolute immobility and rigidity (interplanetary space), again oscillations of the shoulders and bust (atmosphere of Mars). Arrived upon Mars, she descends from the car, and performs a complicated pantomime expressing the manners of Martian politeness: uncouth gestures with the hands and fingers, slapping of the hands, taps of the fingers upon the nose, the lips, the chin etc, twisted courtesies, glidings and rotation on the floor etc. It seems that is the way people approach and salute each other up there.

Such rituals completed, Smith would then exclaim over the odd sights before her – Martian men and women in ‘hats like plates’, peach-coloured earth, trees that widened as they ascended, pink and blue canals filled with ‘horrid aquatic beasts like big snails’ and so on – and hobnob with various Martian personages. Chief among these was a wizard-like being named Astané who was inevitably accompanied by a creature with the head of a cabbage, a big green eye in the middle and ‘five or six pairs of paws, or ears all about’. Sometimes Astané took hold of Smith’s index finger and made her write Martian words, such as dodé né ci haudan té mes métiche Astané ké dé mé véche, later translated through the table as: ‘This is the house of the great man Astané, whom thou hast seen.’ On awakening, Smith – who claimed not to remember what she said or did while entranced – would examine with amazement the errant bits of ‘Martian’ thus produced.

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