ARTICLES

Sonu Shamdasani

Has written "Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), "Cult Fictions: C.G. Jung and the Founding of Analytical Psychology" (London: Routledge, 1998), (ed.) "The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga" (London: Routledge, 1996), (ed. with Michael Munchow) "Speculations After Freud. Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and Culture" (London: Routledge, 1994).

Encountering Hélène: Théodore Flournoy and the Genesis of Subliminal Psychology

- Sonu Shamdasani -

Enter the Mediums

          IN THE séances at the fin de siècle, women became men and men became women. There was no limit to who one could be or to how many. Terrestrials and extraterrestrials swapped places and exchanged notes on their habitations. Plato and Socrates returned to offer courses in postmortem dialectics. The departed returned to repledge their loves and continue their intrigues. Evidently the spirits had a rather theatrical way about them and a taste for the decidedly camp, not to mention for black comedy. Linguistic and aesthetic forms were broken, which paved the way for the artistic convulsions that were to come. Religious dogmas came crashing down as new creeds were announced. Before telecommunications, the mediums were telepathic transatlantic operators, connecting party lines between the living and the dead. Even then, the switchboards were jammed. Time and space coupled in new, unforeseen combinations. Philosophers wondered about the effects of these rappings on the creaking structures of philosophy. The effects were felt as far away as therapeutic consulting rooms; yet here, if a subject spoke, wrote, or acted, it sought no therapy. There was no desire to end the trance, and for a while psychology itself was entranced.

Psychology at the Séance

At end of the nineteenth century, many of the leading psychologists - Freud, Jung, Ferenezi, Bleuler, James, Myers, Janet, Bergson, Stanley Hall, Schrenck-Notzing, Moll, Dessoir, Richet, and Flournoy - frequented mediums. It is hard today to imagine that some of the most crucial questions of the "new" psychology were played out in the séance, nor how such men could have been so fascinated by the spirits. What took place in the séances enthralled the leading minds of the time, and had a crucial bearing on many of the most significant aspects of twentieth-century psychology, linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, literature, and painting, not to mention psychical research. For a while crucial issues in these disciplines found themselves played out in the transports of the mediumistic trance. A form of transvaluation took place.

In psychology's encounter with the séance, there is one remarkable text that stands out among them all. At the close of 1899 a book appeared bearing the improbable title From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia. It staged the improbable encounter between two protagonists and the "subliminal romances" that enveloped them. She was Élise Müller, shop girl, Marie Antoinette, the princess Simandini, and a regular visitor to Mars: under his gaze, she became Hélène Smith, immortalized as a psychological case history of multiple personality. He was Théodore Flournoy, psychologist, professor, and scientist: under her gaze he became her former love, the prince Sivrouka.

There is today no school of Flournoyian psychology, no training institutes that bear his name. Furthermore, he is usually absent from histories of psychology in the English-speaking world, and the term "subliminal psychology" does not even feature in dictionaries. It is startling to realize that a great deal of what was supposedly discovered by Freud and Jung was already present in the work of Flournoy, which, moreover, is extremely pertinent to some of the most vexing issues in psychology today.

Becoming Sivrouka[1]

[1] For the best work to date on Flournoy, see Mireille Cifali, "Théodore Flournoy, la découverte de l'inconscient," Le Bloc-Notes de la psychanalyse 3 (1983): pp. 111-31, which together with the reissue of the original edition of Flournoy's Des Indes à la Planète Mars (Paris: Seuil, 1983), can be said to mark the advent of the new Flournoy scholarship.

Flournoy was born on August 13, 1854, two years before Freud. Like Janet, he had the benefit of both a medical and a philosophical formation[2]. In 1878 he received his M. D. from the University of Strasbourg. He then went to Leipzig where he studied experimental psychology with Wilhelm Wundt for two years. Fortuitously, this coincided with Wundt's founding of the psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig. On Flournoy's return, as Henri Ellenberger puts it, he "introduced psychological science into Switzerland."[3]

[2] The best study of Flournoy's early formation is R. Goldsmith, "The Life and Work of Théodore Flournoy," Ph.D. thesis, Michigan State University, 1979. This study is the most comprehensive work on Flournoy in English to date, and deserves to be better known.

[3] Ellenberger, "The Scope of Swiss Psychiatry'' (1957), in Beyond the Unconscious: Essays of Henri F. Ellenberger in the History of Psychiatry, ed. Mark S. Micale (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 181.


In 1891 he was appointed professor of psychophysiology at the University of Geneva. At his insistence he was placed in the Faculty of Sciences, rather than the Faculty of Philosophy. The following year he founded a psychological laboratory at the University of Geneva. However, it was not as an experimental psychologist that Flournoy was to make his mark. In an almost identical manner as his lifelong friend William James, Flournoy quickly became disaffected by the limitations of laboratory psychology and yearned for a psychology that would embrace the whole personality, including its transcendent dimensions. The issue for Flournoy was how to get there. In 1896, in an article on the psychological laboratory, Flournoy noted:

an hour passed in the nursery or at a so-called spiritist séance poses many more psychological problems, and more vital ones, which one wouldn't resolve in several years consecrated to specifically laboratory work[4].

[4] Flournoy, Notice sur le laboratoire de psychologie de l'université de Genève (Geneva: Eggiman, 1896), p. 24, cited in Cifali, "Théodore Flournoy, la découverte de l'inconscient," 115, trans. mine. In this article, Cifali traces the mode in which Flournoy moved from introspective, experimental psychology to a dynamic psychology of the subliminal.

Psychology in Need of a Subject

For psychology to establish itself, it required subjects. Applicants for the role of principal subject were duly forthcoming, including the hysteric, the criminal, the genius, the mentally defective, the child, and the medium, not to mention the frog.

It is hard to imagine that the medium played a similar role to that played in psychology today by the child. This was principally due to William James, Frederic Myers, and Théodore Flournoy. How did this take place? What was it about mediums that qualified them to serve as the subject for psychology?

The latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of modern spiritualism. Through spiritualism, the cultivation of trances - with the attendant phenomena of trance speech, glossolalia, automatic writing, and crystal vision - became widespread. While for spiritualists interest in the phenomena lay solely in the messages conveyed, rather than in the mode of their conveyance, it was the latter that was to provide Psychologists with their subject matter.

Prominent psychiatrists and psychologists condemned the spread of spiritualism as a psychic epidemic, and the spiritualists locked horns with the medical and psychiatric communities. In 1885 Eduard von Hartmann wrote: "Spiritism is at present threatening to become a public calamity, to which every government has to direct its attention"[5]. Wilhelm Wundt proclaimed: "No man of science, truly independent and without parti pris, could be interested in occult phenomena."[6]

[5] Eduard von Hartmann, "Spiritism," Light, August 22, 1885, p. 409, (trans. C. C. Massey). On the conflict between the medical and spiritualistic communities, see J. P. Williams, "Psychical Research and Psychiatry in Late Victorian Britain: Trance as Ecstasy or Trance as Insanity," in The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry, ed. W. Bynum, R. Porter, and M. Shephard, vol. 1 (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1985); E. Brown, "Neurology and Spiritualism in the 1870's," Bulletin for the History of Medicine 57 (1983): pp. 563-77; and S. Shortt, “Physicians and Psychics: The Anglo-American Medical Response to Spiritualism, 1870-1890," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 39 (1984): pp. 339-55. The debates in the Anglo-American context were broadly similar to the debates in Europe.

[6] Cited by Flournoy, Spiritism and Psychology, trans. H. Carrington (New York: Harper Bros., 1911), p. 21.


In 1900, Flournoy stated that it was precisely due to the enormous place of spiritualist, mediumistic, and occult phenomena in the preoccupations of the public at large that psychology should concern itself with such phenomena and subject them to rigorous experimental study[7].

[7] Flournoy, "Observations psychologiques sur le spiritisme," IV Congrès International de Psychologie, ed. P. Janet (Paris: Alcan, 1901), pp. 103-4.

Through spiritualism a new social role, and indeed a profession, came into being: that of the medium. In the 1850s a book appeared entitled The Mediums' Book by Allen Kardec, which had, and indeed continues to have, a tremendous influence. It was a "how to do W' guide to becoming a medium, containing everything from practical suggestions to an all-encompassing worldview of reincarnation. Kardec claimed that "everyone possesses the germ of the qualities necessary for becoming a medium."[8] He defines a medium in the following way: "Every one who is in any degree influenced by spirits is, by that very fact, a medium"[9]. The omnipresence of spirit influence leads Kardec to claim that "there are few persons in whom some rudiments of medianimity are not found. We may therefore assume that everyone is a medium."[10] Hence the observation of mediums held center stage, through those who wished to materialize spiritualist hypotheses.

[8] A. Kardec, The Medium's Book, trans. Anna Blackwell (São Paulo: Lake, 1975), p. xv.
[9] Ibid., p. 172.
[10] Ibid.


Kardec's theory of mediumship facilitated its subsequent psychological interpretation. For Kardec, mediumship was an exemplary way of understanding the human condition; hence the study of a fully developed medium would provide the best insight into it. He claimed that the phenomena of mediumship were due to the intervention of spirits. Thus, his taxonomy of the forms and grades of mediumship resulted in a pneumatology. In the psychological study of mediums the exemplary status accorded to them was retained, though now their phenomena were no longer primarily disclosive of the actions of the spirits, but of the "subconscious" or "subliminal" imagination. By attempting to find an intrapsychic source for mediumistic communications, these investigators decisively contributed to the discovery of the unconscious.

Gothic Psychology

The pioneer of the psychological study of mediumship was Frederic Myers. Andre Breton wrote:

In spite of the regrettable fact that so many are unacquainted with the work of F.W.H. Myers, which anteceded that of Freud, I think we owe more than is generally conceded to what William James called the gothic psychology of F.W.H. Myers which, in an entirely new and still more exciting world, led us to the admirable explorations of Théodore Flournoy.[11]

[11] Breton, "The Automatic Message," in What Is Surrealism? Selected Writings (London: Pluto, 1989), p. 100. For a reappraisal of Myers, see my -Automatic Writing and the Discovery of the Unconscious," Spring 54 (1993): pp. 100-131.

For Myers, whom Flournoy called the founder of subliminal psychology, psychology itself was merely a vehicle to approach what he claimed was the only question worth asking: namely, does love survive the grave? William James claimed that Myers's work would be the most important psychology in the twentieth century. In a series of brilliant articles in the 1880s, Myers charted out the whole domain of abnormal and supranormal psychology. For Myers, in contradistinction to his contemporaries such as Freud and Janet, the unconscious, or as he termed it, the subliminal - the secondary personalities revealed in trance states, dreaming, crystal gazing, and automatic writing - potentially possessed a higher intelligence than one's waking or supraliminal personality and often served to convey messages of guidance.

A critical shift took place through the work of Myers, James and Flournoy. They argued that the crucial issue was no longer the simple question of whether the alleged spiritualist experiences were valid or not. Either way, they claimed, such experiences seemed to promise greater insight into the composition of the subliminal, and hence into human psychology as a whole.

The investigations of Myers paved the way for Flournoy and provided him with an initial orientation. Myers ended up embracing the spiritist hypothesis and attempted to unite science and religion in an overarching synthesis in his posthumous volume Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Flournoy, by contrast, attempted to maintain a purely Psychological viewpoint and stressed that one needed to distinguish between subliminal psychology and Myers's philosophico-religious system. Flournoy saw himself as continuing the former.

Who were the mediums? Flournoy provides a description of the "Current or average type of ordinary medium":

A person, ordinarily of the feminine sex, who has never experienced psychic phenomena (except, perhaps a little somnambulism or day-dreams and some presentiments) experiences a great sorrow, such as the death of a dear one, and soon after attends a séance for the first time. She tries the table or automatic writing. Rapidly she becomes a typtological medium, or automatic writer, and obtains communications which do not surpass, in any way, her own capabilities, but which strike her and enchant her in the beginning by reason of their so-called emanation from the dead. Little by little, however, the monotony of the messages, their intrinsic mediocrity, the rarity or even absence of all proof convincingly supernatural, sometimes the obsessional or lying character of the pretended revelations, deprive her of her first enthusiasm, and at the end of several months, or even years, the medium ceases to practice. Nothing is usually left to her either of good or evil as the result of this "phase" of mediumship except a certain latent predisposition which renders her capable of practicing mediumship with more or less case whenever she tries; and at the basis of her nature a real inclination for spiritist doctrines, with the desire to see them one day scientifically demonstrated.[12]

[12] Flournoy, Spiritism and Psychology, p. 46.

For the spiritualists the capacity to receive messages from spirits was the defining characteristic of mediums. While Flournoy rejected this claim, he nevertheless argued that mediums formed a specific psychological type. Flournoy described their distinguishing trait in the following manner:

All the difference between mediums and ordinary people, is that with the latter there is practically a very marked trench between dream and waking... With the mediums on the contrary ... there is not a stable barrier between sleep and waking.[13]

[13] Flournoy, "Nouvelles Observations sur un cas de sonmambulisme avec glossolalia," Archives de Psychologie 1 (1902): p. 127, trans. mine.

Flournoy described Myers' notion of the subliminal as follows:

Between our ordinary consciousness [the supraliminal] and our latent consciousness [the subliminal] there are perpetual changes and fluctuations along their border; the level of separation is not constant; the partition is not impervious; the threshold is not fixed between these parts of our being; there occur phenomena of osmosis from one to the other, or mingling, as between liquids or varying density, when the bottle is shaken... constantly, also, messages are sent from our subliminal regions to our personal consciousness, carrying with them, in the most diverse forms (as sensory automatisms) contents of the most varied value - visual hallucinations, auditory hallucinations, submerged ideas, emotions, irrational impulses, etc.[14]

[14] Flournoy, Spiritism and Psychology, pp. 57-58.

Hence for Myers and Flournoy, the medium represented someone in whom the threshold between the supraliminal and the subliminal was particularly permeable, and it was for this reason that mediums became the pre-eminent subjects of subliminal psychology. They enabled the study of the subconscious imagination with much greater ease than other subjects.

Medium or Hysteric?

In The Principles of Psychology William James wrote: "Mediumistic possession in all its grades seems to form a perfectly natural special type of alternate personality."[15] Mediumship was viewed as a special subset of multiple personality. The significant difference was that in cases of mediumship the state of "possession" usually took place only within the séance and seemed compatible with psychological "health." The question of the interpretation of mediumship was a contested and divisive issue. The similarity with cases of hysteria and multiple personality led prominent psychologists such as Charcot, Binet, and Janet to assimilate it under those headings. In Alterations of the Personality, while discussing experiments on hysterical subjects, Binet wrote: "There is no essential difference between the experiments which I have now described and the more spontaneous experiments that the spiritists practice upon themselves."[16]

[15] James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Holt, 1890/London: Macmillan, 1918), p. 393.
[16] Binet, Alterations of the Personality, trans. H. G. Baldwin (London: Chapman Hall, 896), p. 325.


For proponents of the new French psychopathology, the assimilation of the mediumistic trance to the trances observed in hysterics rendered superfluous the specific interpretive paradigms that Myers and Flournoy erected around it. In 1895, Janet argued that the medium was a pathological type and that the phenomena exhibited: "have laws and are explained in the same manner by a serious trouble in the mental operation of perception, which we have described under the name of psychological disaggregation."[17]

[17] Janet, "Le Spiritisme Conteinporain," Revue Philosophique 33(1892): p. 419, trans. mine.

The question that remained for Janet was whether or not the medium was always a hysteric. He suggests not. He cites a case he observed while in Charcot's service, with somnambulism and automatic writing, which was clearly not a hysteric. Concerning mediumship, the following questions remained for Janet "What are these forms? What is their relation with hysteria? How does automatic writing modify itself in these cases? These are the problems that one could resolve by the observation of numerous mediums."[18]

[18] Janet, ibid., p, 424, trans. mine.

Hence for the psychopathologists the cultivation of dissociation that spiritualism propagated was deplorable, leading them to regard it as a psychic epidemic. In 1899 Flournoy addressed this issue. He stated that it was insufficient to simply refer to the phenomena of hypnotism, hysteria, and dissociation to explain mediumship-though on the surface, such an assimilation was easy to make. Flournoy argues that mediumship could be accompanied by the best of health. Hence the public at large was quite right to resist viewing the phenomena of mediumship as the result of hysteria or autohypnotization. In addition, he notes that there were Anglo-Saxon scientists who, on the contrary, saw hysteria as a pathological degeneration of mediumistic genius. Hence Flournoy argues that mediumship and its distinct manifestations and particular conditions of appearance should be studied in their specificity, without simply being classified in pre-existing psychopathological categories.[19]

[19] Flournoy, "Genèse de quelques prètendus messages spirites," Revue Philosophique 47 (1899): p. 145.

In Search of a Medium

I found much that was moving, when I had climbed to the top storey of some house in Soho or Holloway, and, having paid my shilling, awaited, among servant girls, the wisdom of some fat old medium. That is an absorbing drama, though if my readers begin to seek it they will spoil it, for its gravity and simplicity depend on all, or all but all, believing that their dead are near.[20] - William Butler Yeats

[20] William Butler Yeats, "Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places" (1914) in Explorations (London: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 30-31.

The seeress is now more common in the land... Modern seeresses are of two classes: the Bond street class, who divine for the fair sex; and the class who are studied by eminent psychologists, like Professor James, Professor Richet and Professor Flournoy.[21] - Andrew Lang

[21] Andrew Lang, "Three Seeresses," Anglo-Saxon Review, Sept. 1900, p. 63.

From the outset, the task for Flournoy was how to find a medium. Once he had found her, she would so mark his life, that he would have great difficulty forgetting her.

In 1892 Flournoy wrote: "We only wait the appearance in our country of a Eusapia [Palladino] or of a willing Mrs. Piper whom we would welcome with open arms."[22] Flournoy's casting call for such a figure is well documented in his letters to William James. On December 18, 1893, Flournoy wrote to James:

[22] Flournoy, Notice sur le laboratoire, p. 17, trans. Goldsmith in "The Life and Work of Théodore Flournoy," p. 148.

I try to penetrate into the spiritualistic world of our city, but it is rather difficult. At present they do not have very outstanding mediums; I should be very content, indeed, if I were only able to observe closely those who experience the phenomena about which I hear, but they surround themselves with solitude and darkness.[23]

[23] The Letters of William James and Théodore Flournoy, ed. R. Le Clair (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), p. 29.

After several months without a sign, Flournoy wrote to James on March 18, 1894: "The few mediums and subjects of telepathic hallucinations etc. whom I have been able to reach in the last three months in Geneva have not furnished me with decisive phenomena. "[24]

[24] Ibid., p. 33.

Eighteen months later he had finally found her. On the September 4, 1895, he wrote to James:

I was forgetting to tell you what has interested me most during the last six months: it is a certain medium (non-professional, unpaid) of a spiritualist group, into which they have agreed to accept me in spite of my neutral position, I have attended about twenty of the séances... psychologically, it is very interesting, because this woman is a veritable museum of all possible phenomena and has a repertoire of illimitable variety: she makes the table talk, - she hears voices, - she has visions, hallucinations, tactile and olfactory, - automatic writing - sometimes complete somnambulism, catalepsy, trances, etc. All the automatism, sensory and motor, of Myers, - all the classical hysterial phenomena - present themselves in turn, in any order and in the most unexpected fashion, Varying from one time to another. The contents of these phenomena are always of former events, going back a few or many years, being perfectly correct, generally having to do with the ancestors of the persons present. The good faith of the medium is indisputable, and the strangeness of her revelations are calculated to convince the spiritualists of this group. However, in the 5 or 6 cases which concerned deceased members of my family, I finally had proof that these persons all had, some fifty years ago, personal contact with the parents of the medium; and the most natural supposition is that these revelations, invariably exact and dealing with odd facts, are reminiscences of accounts which the medium had heard from the mouth of her parents in childhood... The great majority of the phenomena were evidently the automatic reproduction of forgotten memories - or memories registered unconsciously. There is actually in the nature of this medium a second personality who perceives and recalls instants which escape ordinary awareness... I have the definite impression that the extraordinary revelations obtained in the séances, for the most part ... are phenomena of "Cryptomnesia." - What is irritating in this kind of observation is the difficulty of making it precise, the medium and the members of the group having a holy terror of everything which resembles an "experiment."[25]

[25] Ibid., pp. 47-48, In a landmark article, "Psychiatry and Its Unknown History," in Beyond the Unconscious, Ellenberger depicted a recurrent pattern in which a psychologist encounters a patient, usually female, and develops a long, complex, and ambiguous relation, which forms the basis of his theories, and discusses Flournoy and Hélène Smith as a case in point.

Who did Flournoy encounter? Was it really Élise Müller, a Genevan shop assistant? Or was she someone who at that moment was still malleable, capable of becoming someone, of taking on any role - including that of a subject for a yet to be founded psychological science - of becoming a veritable museum of all possible phenomena," which had already been taxonomied, classified dissociated" through the analytic lenses of the
new psychology - for whom his text would be her spectacular genesis?

Becoming Hélène

Who was she - who became Hélène Smith? She was born Élise-Catherine Müller on December 9, 1861, in Martigny, Switzerland. At the time that Flournoy encountered her, she worked as a salesperson in a silk shop. He was introduced to her séances by August Lemaitre. At that time, there were two main types of mediums: professional mediums, who charged a fee, and amateur mediums, who performed for free. She was of the latter variety, which was to have a marked effect on what ensued. Lemaitre was the first to write about her. In 1897 he published an article entitled "Contribution A I'etude des phenomenes psychiques,"[26] in which Élise Müller appeared; intriguingly, Lemaitre gave her sex as male. She had not yet become "Hélène Smith." Lemaitre stressed the quality of her character: "Our medium is a medium of good faith, a medium who says the truth and in whom I have full confidence."[27] Lemaitre seemed to support the spiritist interpretation of her material. His article was critically responded to by M. Lefebure, who deplored the lack of material that Lemaitre published:

[26] Lemaitre, Annales des Sciences Psychiques 7 (1897): pp. 65-68.
[27] Ibid., p. 69, trans. mine.

If, in effect, M. L ... has kept several phrases or speeches of the mediums, if he will publish them, and if the Indianists would show there, supported by proofs, a real dialect and an appropriate sense, spiritism would certainly have made a great step.[28]

[28] Lefébure, "Remarques sur les experiences de M. Lemaitre," Annales des Sciences Psychiques 7 (1897): p. 180, trans. mine.

Thus the stage was already set. In a subsequent issue Flournoy wrote to the editor to explicitly distance himself from the viewpoint of Lemaitre, who had cited him by name. In doing so, he announced his project by writing that he planned to give a purely psychological interpretation "of the so curious" phenomena of the medium "without recourse to spirits, notions of incarnations, anteriorities, etc. "[29] Thus Flournoy's reading was already from the outset a revisionist reading.

[29] Flournoy, Annales des Sciences Psychiques 7 (1897): p. 256, trans. mine.

The question remains as to how she acquired her pseudonym. Olivier Flournoy, Flournoy's grandson, notes that according to the opinion of Denise Werner, Flournoy's granddaughter, Élise Müller probably chose it herself. He notes, significantly enough, that Hélène was the name of one of Flournoy's own daughters, born in 1891, whom Élise would have met.[30]

[30] O. Flournoy, Théodore et Léopold: De Théodore Flournoy à la Psychanalyse. Correspondance et documents de Hélène Smith - Ferdinand de Saussure - August Barth - Charles Michel (Neuchatal: A La Bacconiere, 1986), p. 35.

Entrancing Psychology

The question of trance states has been taken up in many discourses, in the course of which countless definitions have been proposed and properties adduced. In The Principles of Psychology William James wrote:

The three states of Charcot, the strange reflexes of Heidenhain, and all the other bodily phenomena which have been called direct consequences of the trance-state itself, are not such. They are products of suggestion, the trance-state having no particular outward symptoms of its own; but without the trance-state there, those particular suggestions could never have been successfully made.[31]

[31] James, Principles of Psychology, p. 601. On James's dynamic psychology of the subliminal, see Eugene Taylor, William James on Exceptional Mental States: The 1896 Lowell Lectures (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984).

James trenchantly points out the pitfalls that this held for the development of psychology:

Any sort of personal peculiarity, any trick accidentally fallen into in the first instance by some one subject, may, by attracting attention, become stereotyped, serve as a pattern for imitation, and figure as the type of a school. The first subject trains the operator trains the succeeding subjects, all of them in perfect good faith conspiring together to evolve a perfectly arbitrary result. With the extraordinary perspicacity and subtlety of perception which subjects often display for all that concerns the operator with whom they are en rapport, it is hard to keep them ignorant of anything he expects. Thus it happens that one easily verifies on new subjects what one has already seen on old ones, or any desired symptom of which one may have heard or read.[32]

[32] James, Principles of Psychology, p. 601.

Thus for James it was psychology itself that was in a state of "heightened suggestibility," or highly prone to "autosuggestion." James was here backing up Josef Delboeuf's views. In 1886, Delboeuf wrote:

Without any doubt there is an undeniable influence of the hypnotizer on the hypnotized-like master, like disciple. But the subjects themselves, principally the very first one, train the experimenter who directs them, and, without being aware of it, determine his method and his maneuvers. In a way then, turning the proverb around, one could say: like disciple, like master. This action of first disciple on the master is then reported to other disciples who report his procedures, and thus are created the schools that have the monopoly of special phenomena.[33]

[33] J. Delboeuf, "De l'influence de l'education et de I'imitation dans le sonmambulisme provoqué," Revue Philosophique 22 (1886), quoted in Theta Wolf, Alfred Binet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 149. For recent elucidations of the significance of Delbouef, see Jacqueline Carroy, Hypnose, suggestion et psychologie: L'invention de sujets (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1991); and François Duyckaerts, Joseph Delboeuf: Philosophe et hypnotiseur (Paris: Les Empecheurs de penser en rond, 1992).

For James and Flournoy, the investigation of trance states was a central question if a psychology worthy of the name was to develop.[34] Within this enterprise, the investigations of mediums held pride of place. For Flournoy the crucial issue was the differential interpretation of trance states. Was there a specificity to the mediumistic trance, in revealing capacities that outstripped waking consciousness? The possibility of subliminal psychology rested upon an affirmative answer to this question.

[34] On the issue of trance states, see especially Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, "Mimetic Efficacity," in The Emotional Tie: Psychoanalysis, Mimesis, Affect (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).

From the time of the Marquis de Puységur, the trance state had been attributed remarkable properties, such as clairvoyance, telepathy, hypermnesia and lucidity. These attributes were further explored in the remarkable case of Justinus Kerner, the "seeress of Prevost," which in many ways forms the main precursor to Flournoy's study. From Puységur through Kerner came the notion of the trance as possessing properties that outstripped one's waking self This tradition differed markedly from the view of the trance held by Charcot, for whom the capacity to be hypnotized was a symptom of hysteria, which crucially shaped the views of Freud.

The mediumistic trance is an instance of the cultivation of trance states, which have been cross-culturally known. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen differentiates two main approaches to the therapeutics of the trance, one represented by psychoanalysis, the other by "traditional" therapies. In his reading, the telos of psychoanalysis resides in attempting to put an end to the trance (the dissolution of transference, etc.). Such an approach may be termed "allopathic." In contrast to this lies the "homeopathic" approach of "traditional" therapies, whose strategies do not take the form of a war against the trance, but attempt to achieve an altered relation to it. Borch-Jacobsen writes:

It is not a question, in the "traditional" therapies on which hypnosis models itself, of suppressing the evil of which the patient suffers (his absence of identity, his mimetic madness), but of attesting to the limit of its spectacular, ritual aggravation. A few examples, forcibly simplified. The Thonga "mad of the gods," once having exorcised the evil spirit that possessed them, became the "mad" of a beneficent spirit.[35] Sister Jeanne of the Angels, at first possessed by the "demon" Unbain Grandier, became a sort of professional mystic.[36] Gilberte Rochette, ex-"neurotic," became the great priestess of the magnetic lodge of Lyon.[37] Bertha von Pappenheim, ex-"case" of double personality, became the pythoness of Breuer. (Must one add: the analysands, at the end of the transferential "pass," become analysts?) Consequently, little matter whether the socalled "symptom" disappeared or not. Above all it is important that it was taken in charge, raised up, “cultivated" by the so-called "therapy."[38]

[35] L. de Heutsch, "La folie des dieux," in Pourquoi l'epouser? (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).
[36] M. de Certeau, La Possession de Loudun (Paris: Juillard, 1970).
[37] F. Rausky, Mesmer on la revolution therapeutique (Paris: Payot, 1977).
[38] Borch-Jacobsen, "Dispute," in Hypnose et Psychanalyse: Reponses a Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, ed. Leon Chertok (Paris: Dunod, 1987), p. 211, trans. mine.


The latter history of Hélène Smith may be adumbrated to the list above in her 'second' life, as a religious painter, Hélène Smith finally found her metier. Within subliminal psychology there was a valorization of the trance - if the mediums were not seen as the portal to the beyond, at the very least they were attributed capabilities and powers far exceeding that accorded to "normal" psychology.

Flournoy's study was by no means the first lengthy and detailed study of a medium. The study of Mrs. Piper is usually seen as inaugurating the careful investigation of the mediumistic trance. These previous studies, such as Hodgson's of Mrs. Piper, had been primarily motivated by the wish to find and authenticate genuine proof of the existence of the beyond, and to obtain veridical communications from the dead. The main alternative paradigms had been fraud or telepathy, neither of which play a prominent role in Flournoy's text. The innovation of From India to the Planet Mars was that it was the first major study of what Myers called pseudo-possession, whose main goal was to disprove the supernatural origin of the phenomena and to give an account of their psychogenesis. In such a manner it established a devastating skeptical paradigm in psychical research.

Discovering the Unconscious

Ellenberger notes that by 1900 four different aspects of the unconscious had been demonstrated: its conservative function, the capacity of storing a number of memories and perceptions; its dissolutive function, the tendency for dissociation and automatic actions; its creative function, and its mythopoetic function, the capacity to fabricate mythopoetic subliminal romances.[39] It is significant that Flournoy was a major pioneer in the exploration of all of these aspects.

[39] Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (New York: Basic Books, 1970), pp. 315-18.

In From India to the Planet Mars Flournoy often refers almost interchangeably to the subliminal and the subconscious. While in the case of the former term his usage denotes a direct continuity with its use by Myers, who coined it, he vastly expands the meaning of the latter term over its use by its coiner, Janet. Claparede gives the following account of the advance of Flournoy's conception over Janet's:

The discovery and psychological and biological interpretation of this creative activity of the subconscious is that which here seems to me to mark the great progress of the theory of Flournoy over that of Janet. For the French savant ... it is above all the normal activity of the spirit which is creative. The other activity, that of the second self, is only conservatory... To this totally passive character of the subconscious [Janet's]... Flournoy substitutes a veritable and original creative activity, often much more powerful than that of consciousness.[40]

[40] Claparede, "Théodore Flournoy: Sa vie et son oeuvre," Archives de Psychologie 17 (1923): p. 58, trans. mine.

In 1900 Flournoy noted that while there was much work on the role of unconscious perception and latent memories, the subliminal imagination had not been studied with the care it merited. For Flournoy the subliminal imagination was the source of the conscious imagination, rather than the other way around. He notes:

This imaginative process of foreign personification has already unfurled itself in the dream, in hypnotism, and in many pathological obsessions, etc.; but it acquires a wholly particular practical importance in the phenomena called mediumistic.[41]

[41] Flournoy, "Observations psychologiques stir le spiritisme," p. 107, trans. mine.

Because mediumship presented in an exemplary way the workings of the subliminal imagination, Flournoy held that its study of mediumship could in turn illuminate the psychology of dreams, hypnosis, and obsessions.

Flournoy emphasized four main functions of the unconscious: its creative activity, its protective function, its compensatory function, and its play tendency. These four feature prominently in Flournoy's interpretation of Hélène's trances: Léopold, her spirit guide, is seen to represent the protective function or teleological automatism, that intervenes and assists Hélène when she is in difficulty; her anterior and extraterrestrial existences are seen as providing a compensation for the vicissitudes of her circumstances; her creations of the Martian and "Hindu" languages are seen as remarkable acts of creativity. For Flournoy her trances represent a reversion to an earlier developmental stage of childhood that, he argues, following the work of Karl Groos, is characterized by play. As play has a preparatory function, this reversion is compensatory, and enables access to a level of creativity that has been lost. One could say that Hélène's trances were Flournoy's unconscious, which he would never again find so fully revealed.

The material for this subliminal activity was provided by the phenomenon of cryptomnesia.

Cryptomnesia

Since the time of the magnetists, attention has been paid to the hypermnesic properties of the trance. These capacities seem to suggest that there was a great deal of information that, although once perceived, now lay outside of the reach of conscious attention. The unconscious was designated as the location of these hidden memories. It was principally Flournoy who attempted to map the extent of this phenomena and trace the transformations that such memories were subject to while in a latent state.

Cryptomnesia plays a crucial role in Flournoy's analysis as the main alternative paradigm to the spiritualistic hypothesis. The significance of the phenomenon had been noted by Janet, who refers to a piece in the Revue Spirite by M. Goupil on automatic writing that presents an example of cryptomnesia. Janet notes that he has seen and described similar facts and can supply an explanation:

When a certain sensation finds itself bound to subconscious acts, there is, at that moment, a particular and corresponding anesthesia for the ordinary personality. When automatic writing manifests a certain memory with persistence, there is a corresponding amnesia for the normal consciousness.[42]

[42] Janet, "Le Spiritisme Contemporain," p. 428, trans. mine.

Janet finds such descriptions valuable and regrets that there are not more like it. It was precisely this lacuna that was filled preeminently by From India to the Planet Mars.

Flournoy's account of cryptomnesia presented a model of memory that attempted to account for the interrelation of memory and fantasy. For Flournoy what was presented as a memory - in the case of Hélène, of an anterior existence - in actuality represented a hidden and forgotten memory that had been through a process of subconscious elaboration.[43] Significantly enough, this was presented in the interregnum between Freud's confessional retraction of his seduction theory in private to Fliess and his public retraction several years later.

[43] For a review of the literature on cryptomnesia, see Ian Stevenson, "Crytomnesia and Parapsychology," Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 52 (1983): pp. 1-30; for recent experimental work on cryptomnesia, see Alan Brown and Dana Murray, "Cryptomnesia: Delineating Inadvertent Plagiarism," Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory and Cognition 15 (1989): pp. 432-42. Flournoy's work on cryptomnesia is also shadowed in the current preoccupation with "False Memory Syndrome."

Flournoy's Reception

On the first of January, 1900, James wrote to Flournoy:

Upon my word, dear Flournoy, you have done a bigger thing here than you know; and I think that your volume has probably made the decisive step in converting psychical research into a respectable science. The tone and temper are so admirable, the style so rich and human, the intellectual equipment so complete, that it is a performance which must strike every reader, whatever his antecedent presuppositions may have been, as of first-rate quality... The great thing about your writing is your charming style. You and Delboeuf are the only worthy successors to Voltaire. Your book has only one defect and that is that you don't dedicate it to me... As I am passing off the scene ... it would have been pleasant to have my name preserved for ever in the early pages of your immortal work.[44]

[44] The Letters of William James and Théodore Flournoy, pp. 90-91.

Subsequently, in response to Flournoy's follow up study, "Nouvelles Observations," on June 13, 1902, James wrote to Flournoy:

It completes an invaluable monograph which puts into our possession for all time a term of compassion, which all future discussers of "psychic" individuals will have to take into account of in their conclusions. I need hardly repeat that your conclusions seem to me to be the only legitimate ones to draw. But what a wonderful extension the case gives to our notion of subconscious activities and to cryptomnesic activities... I do wish that someone could continue work with Miss Smith. Some of her phenomena have grazed so closely upon the supernormal that one would like to see whether she ever does pass the barrier, as I believe it can be passed... All that you say about method, etc. is simply splendid, classic, masterly.[45]

[45] The Letters of William James and Théodore Flournoy, pp. 127-28.

Flournoy's book received a glowing notice in the Bibliothéque Universelle: "There has been a long time since a new work has produced in our French Switzerland as great a sensation as the book recently published by Théodore Flournoy."[46] Claparede notes that due to its success, Flournoy acquired a vast popularity. After only three months the book went into its third edition. The Figaro noted: "The world of psychologists has been overturned by the appearance of a book by M. Théodore Flournoy. It is the history of a case probably unique in science."[47] Flournoy's successful combination of a literary and "scientific" style led to extremely laudatory reviews in both the popular press and in psychological journals. It was read both as a treatise in psychology and as a novel.

[46] April, 1900, p. 197, trans. mine.
[47] March 7, 1900. Cited by Claparède, "Théodore Flournoy," p. 47, trans. mine.


The following notices give further indication of its reception. The Dial stated: "To all who can take a serious interest in its subject matter Professor Flournoy's book will doubtless appear as important as interesting."[48] The Popular Science Monthly observed:

[48] September 16, 1900, p. 180.

M. Flournoy has been unusually successful in revealing the starting points of the several automatisms and of connecting them with intelligible developments of the medium's mental life... This case has many analogies with other cases that have been recorded, but goes beyond most of them in the complexity and bizarre character of the unconscious elaborations and feats of memory and creative imagination which it entails... The special value of this account thus lies in the accuracy of the description and the success with which the account has been made thoroughly intelligible and significant.[49]

[49] October, 1900, pp. 662-63.

The Nation noted:

A very few years ago the production of this remarkable book would have been impossible. Its heroine ... would have excited only scientific aversion or contempt; and, the superstitious interpretation of the curious phenomena she exhibits being left unopposed, her case would have served only to confirm the religious dogmas of spiritualism, or would perhaps have started a new sect whose faith would have baffled any attempt to ascertain the actual facts. As it is, the case has had the good fortune to fall into the hands of a singularly competent, unprejudiced, and tactful investigator in M. Flournoy.[50]

[50] June 14, 1900, p. 462.

The book was favorably reviewed in the American Journal of Psychology by G. W Patrick, who noted:

As an example of method this book is to be highly commended, and method is what is needed now in the study of automatism. Any one who should complain that the case of Mlle. Smith is not sufficiently "remarkable" to merit 420 pages of minute description fails to understand the importance of the study of secondary personality. The author's intimations of the infantile and reversionary character of the secondary personality are of interest in the light of recent theories.[51]

[51] April 1900, p. 430.

Several months later a second review of the book appeared in the American Journal of Psychology, this time by E. B. Titchener. He commented that as the book was attracting so much attention on the part of psychologists as well as the general public, he would take the opportunity of the publication of the English translation to discuss it further. Titchener wrote that Flournoy:

had done his work with extreme acumen. Indeed, when one remembers the almost infinite possibilities of suggestion to which "Mdlle. Smith" has been exposed in the confines of her trances [a point sufficiently stressed by the author], one marvels at the high measure of success in explanation that M. Flournoy has attained. Few psychologists will dispute his conclusion that the "secondary personalities" "do not have their existence outside of Mdlle. Smith," but have their genesis within her mental life. And even those who, like the present writer, have no great affection for the "subliminal self" ... even they will readily admit that M. Flournoy's methodical study proves the high value of subconscious imagination as a working hypothesis. [52]

[52] January 1901, p. 267.

In the Psychological Review, Joseph Jastrow praised the book, writing:

We have a truly classical instance of the psychological comprehensiveness of the automatic self in exceptional cases. M. Flournoy has thus accomplished a valuable task and has presented his material with unusual skill.[53]

[53] 1900, p. 491.

Jastrow welcomed the skepticism of the book and looked forward to the day when the phenomena of mediumship would be completely explained through psychological means alone. He was critical of Flournoy's acceptance of the reality of telepathy and telekinesis, which he felt was out of harmony with the rest of Flournoy's skeptical analysis.

Extraterrestrial voyages were all the rage. In the Revue Philosophique, Albert de Rochas noted:

Today, with the great interest that there has been among the spiritists for the writings of Flammarion on the planet Mars and the revelations of the theosophists on the Hindu Masters, it's Mars and the Orient which are fashionable. For two years I too have studied a distinguished lady who likewise makes her way in an etheric body on the planet Mars. She moreover describes it totally differently than Mlle. Smith... This lady had also been an Arab princess of great beauty, engaged to a sheik, of whom I was then the brother. One sees that apart from the language, we find here the same psychological details as in the case of Mlle. Smith.[54]

[54] 49 (1900), pt. 1, p. 652, trans. mine.

Spiritualists were up in arms about the book, for understandable reasons. They published a whole brochure against Flournoy: Autour "Des Indes a la Planete Mars."[55] In "Nouvelles Observations," Flournoy trenchantly replied at length to their critiques. Yet not all spiritualists criticized the book. It received a lengthy positive review in Light. The reviewer welcomed it as a "mostvaluable contribution," noting:

[55] Société d'Etudes Psychiques de Genève (Geneva: Georg & Cie, 1901).

It is worthy of consideration by the Spiritualists of England and America, especially with regard to the fact that it shows how large a part of the phenomena usually attributed to "control" may be referred to involuntary emergings from the sub-conscious of the medium. Supposing even that some readers may differ from the author's conclusions in this respect, yet this book unquestioningly demonstrates to what a large extent the telepathic transmission is conditioned and controlled by the medium's subconsciousness.[56]

[56] June 2, 1900, p. 255.

Flournoy's study was used to illuminate similar cases in history. Andrew Lang, in "Three Seeresses" boldly undertook a comparative historical study of Joan of Are, Mrs. Piper, and Hélène Smith. He argued that the psychological study of these later cases enables us to understand their illustrious predecessor, and to see her apparitions - analogous to Hélène's Léopold, or Mrs. Piper's Phiniut, as her dream-selves.

In Mind, F. C. S. Schiller hailed the book as a classic. He wrote: "Prof. Flournoy's medium well deserved the study he has bestowed upon her ... her case has greatly extended our knowledge of the nature and capacities of the subliminal consciousness."[57]

[57] 1900, p. 549.

However, Schiller found Flournoy's explanations unsatisfactory. He wrote:

They neither account for the persistence with which such cases assume a spiritistic form, nor do they supply a principle to account for the selection of recondite and pseudo-evidential memories in lieu of those which ordinary paths of association would normally reproduce.[58]

[58] Ibid.

Reviewers highlighted the discrepancy between Flournoy's interpretation of Hélène's material and her value system. In his review of "Nouvelles Observations," Schiller noted:

To reduce the ex-Ranee Simandini of Chandraghiri, the ex-Queen of France, the protégée of discarnate Cagliostro, the recipient of telepathic communication from trusty correspondents throughout the solar system, to a mere dreamer of dreams constructed by an ill-regulated sub-consciousness must be painful to the least sensitive vanity.[59]

[59] Schiller, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (1903), p. 246.

For some commentators, the powers that Flournoy was claiming for the subliminal creative imagination seemed to require no less of a leap of faith than the spiritualist hypothesis. Schiller takes issue with Flournoy's recourse to the subliminal consciousness to explain her material, and writes: "I cannot feel there is so much to choose between it and Spiritism."[60]

[60] Ibid., p. 248.

Myers's response took the form of a characteristically nuanced article entitled "Pseudo-Possession." Describing Flournoy's book as brilliant, he writes: "Few writers on matter of difficult controversy have ever produced so delightful an impression of absolute, instinctive candour as Professor Flournoy."[61] Myers opens his discussion by noting:

[61] Myers, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (1901), p. 385.

Professor Flournoy's book indicates in a remarkable way how things have moved in the psychology of the last twenty years. The book, - a model of fairness throughout, - is indeed, for the most part, critically destructive in its treatment of the quasi-supernormal phenomena with which it deals. But what a mass of conceptions a competent psychologist now takes for granted in this realm, which the official science of twenty years ago would scarcely stomach hinting at![62]

[62] Ibid, p. 396.

The spectrum of laudatory response is impressive. Historians have been much taken with the contemporary response (or lack of response) to Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Initially at least, it was quite eclipsed by Flournoy's exploration of Hélène's subliminal dreams.

Multiple Personality - Part I

At the end of the nineteenth century, there was an epidemic of multiple personality. In a pivotal study, lan Hacking studied the history of Multiple Personality Disorder, focusing on the various hosts that facilitated it.[63] Hacking argues that at the end of the nineteenth century spiritualism was one of the main hosts for multiple personality, due to the possibility that one of the secondary personalities was in actuality a discarnate entity, or, in other terms, the dead. This transition from spiritualism to multiple personality is very clearly depicted in From India to the Planet Mars. While Flournoy rejects the extrapsychic existence of the figures in Hélène's trances, and regards them as intrapsychic, he still regards them as personalities. In this way, the psychologization of mediumship leads to a multiple personality model.[64]

[63] Hacking, "Multiple Personality Disorder and its Many Hosts," History of the Human Sciences 5 (1992): pp. 3-31.

[64] The transition from spiritualism to multiple personality in the American context is well depicted by Michael Kenny in The Passion of Ansel Bourne: Multiple Personality in American Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), which, however, omits to take account of the significance of From India to the Planet Mars, which provides the crucial link between the spiritualistically inspired investigations of Mrs. Piper and Morton Prince's Purely psychological study of Miss Beauchamp.


From India to the Planet Mars was the first psychological study of multiple personality that became a best-seller, which played a key role in its dissemination. Further, its dramatic novelistic style presented the prototype for Morton Prince's classic study of multiple personality, The Dissociation of a Personality.[65] In this regard, Flournoy's book was stylistically innovative, as it established the genre of the novelistic book-length treat merit of multiple personality, which has continued to play a crucial role in its cultural dissemination to this day.

[65] See especially Ruth Leys, "The Real Miss Beauchamp: Gender and the Subject of Imitation" in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. J. Butler and J. Scott (New York, Routledge, 1992). Leys's analysis of interplay between Prince and Miss Beauchamp, particularly the manner in which she depicts Prince's relegation and objectification of mimesis, in modeling the psychological subject, is very pertinent in relation to the interplay between Flournoy and Hélène Smith.

The Bride Stripped Bare, by her Bachelors Even

In "Nouvelles Observations," Flournoy gave a lengthy supplementary account of the subsequent development of her mediumship. He wrote: It seemed to me certain on the whole that the close reading of From India by Hélène influenced the subsequent development of her mediumship."[66] Her Martian and ultra-Martian cycles were followed by Uranian and Lunar cycles, that broadly speaking, had the same structure.

[66] Flournoy, "Nouvelles Observations," p. 105, trans. mine.

The clamorous reception of the book was not without effects on its heroine. She felt betrayed by Flournoy and particularly incensed at the mockery that she was subject to in some of the press notices.[67] She barred Flournoy from attending her séances. The aftermath of the book led to a bitter and prolonged dispute between Flournoy and Hélène, which ended in a complete rupture. The overriding reason for this was Flournoy's completely counter-posed interpretation of her mediumship. In their correspondence, Flournoy addressed his letters to Élise Müller. She usually replied as Hélène Smith. She demanded the royalties for the book. Flournoy eventually gave her half the royalties and donated the other half to the Archives de Psychologie, which he founded. Flournoy protested that she was having all the benefits of being both a fee-paying and a non-fee-paying medium.[68]

[67] See Hélène Smith's letter in the Gazette de Lausanne, January 8, 1902, in reply to a review, in 0. Flournoy, Théodore et Léopold, pp. 134-35.
[68] Flournoy to Charles Pospech, March 29, 1902, in O. Flournoy, Théodore et Léopold, p. 152.


Her instant celebrity, however, was not without its benefits. Hélène Smith attracted the attention of a wealthy American benefactress whose patronage enabled her to leave her job and devote herself to her calling. For a while she continued to give séances, but she eventually ceased to do them altogether, and increasingly she developed a new orientation and devoted herself to religious paintings. In 1907, Lemaitre wrote a study of this new turn, in which he claimed:

In its essential lines, the current artistic phase of Hélène remains sufficiently comprehensible to our eyes and does not differ appreciably from her other somnambulic productions... This automatic activity is set up by the same process.[69]

[69] Lemaitre, "Un Nouvelle Cycle Somnambulique de Mlle Smith: Ses peintures religieuses," Archives de Psychologie 7 (1907): pp. 66-67, trans. mine.

After her death on June 29, 1929 in Geneva, her paintings were exhibited in Geneva and Paris, and were the subject of a lengthy volume by Walter Deonna, De la Planete Mars en Terre Sainte: Art et Subconscient. Un medium peintre: Hélène Smith, which also chronicles the subsequent events in her life. Deonna notes that she dreamed of writing a second volume of From India to the Planet Mars, which she would publish herself, written in a wholly other spirit. He claims that the rupture with Flournoy was one of the causes of her new mystical orientation, as she sought to add another coloration to her fantasies to evade his critique. Hélène herself wrote in 1912:

This man constantly tormented and agitated me. He brought troubling waves in my life... The work of the tableaux would never have been executed if I had remained in Flournoy's entourage, I am persuaded of it. God delivered, precipitating events, opening a new way for me.[70]

[70] De la Planète Mars en Terre Sainte: Art et subconscient. Un médium peintre: Hélène Smith (Paris: De Boccard, 1932), p. 54, trans. mine.

Claparède contested Deonna's view of her new turn, stating on the contrary that she always had a penchant for painting, which she was able to pursue due to her newfound financial freedom.[71]

[71] Claparede, review of De la Planete Mars en Terre sainte, Archives de Psychologie 23 (1932): p. 376.

In the aftermath of their involvement, she felt persecuted by Flournoy. After being observed by him for years, she felt that he was spying on her. In 1909, she wrote: "M. F... continues to send me spies. To what end, I don't know. Perhaps he wants to make an article concerning me."[72] Her experiences with Flournoy clearly left a mark. She refused to exhibit, sell, or even let her paintings be photographed, though she did eventually donate them to a museum in Geneva. Her work continued to attract the interest of psychologists and the popular press. In 1927 she wrote:

[72] De la Planète Mars en Terre Sainte, p. 52, trans. mine.

I am not someone who loves to exhibit herself. I do not wish at any price to be a subject. I have ... suffered too much, been too maltreated because of this gift of mediumship, which I did not seek out.[73]

[73] Ibid., p. 56, trans. mine.

Hélène claimed that she had no need of the control of men, which would be like a profanation, and that in her religious mission she felt only the need of the control of God.

Deonna notes that while she renounced her belief in the reality of her Hindu and Martian existences, she remained convinced that she had been Marie Antoinette, and she remained an adept of spiritualism. She remained unmarried, never meeting the "dreamed of being, the fiancé of the soul," whom she awaited. Deonna noted that friends and visitors saw her as a "priestess of the beyond", and that entering her apartment on the rue Liotard felt like entering a chapel. In 1927, to the great loss of posterity, she declined the invitation of Charles Richet to write her memoirs.[74]

[74] Cited in ibid., p. 4.

Dreaming of Hélène

After the publication of From India to the Planet Mars, Hélène claimed that she was the cause of Flournoy's notoriety[75] and the "modest instrument" of his glory.[76] If Flournoy had "made" Hélène Smith, she, nevertheless, would claim that she had made him. Flournoy, no less than Hélène, was irrevocably marked by their encounter. For Hélène this took the form of a turning away from anything that resembled her time in "Flournoy's entourage." On his part, Flournoy never ceased to search, unsuccessfully, for another Hélène, This very search seemed to suggest that he was attempting to decipher something about their encounter that he had missed at the time. He ended "Nouvelles Observations" on a less than sanguine note. His reflections highlight a phenomena for which Martin Orne would later coin the term "demand characteristics":

[75] Hélène Smith, letter to the editor, Gazette de Lausanne, January 7, 1902, in 0. Flournoy, Théodore et Léopold, p. 135.
[76] Hélène Smith to Flournoy, March 4, 1901, ibid., p. 121.

It is not good that a medium be studied for too long by the same investigator, because the latter, despite his precautions, inevitably ends by shaping the so suggestible subconscious of his subject... In other terms, a sort of ossification menaces the medium who knows - or believes - herself to be an object of continual surveillance from near and far, puts her little by little in a quasi-impossibility to furnish other categories of phenomena than that which she sub-consciously imagines to be waited for by him.[77]

[77] Flournoy, "Nouvelles Observations," p. 116, trans. mine.

From India to the Planet Mars was Flournoy's masterpiece. Never again would he find such a subject, though he went to great lengths attempting to do just that.

In 1911, not long after he had finally come to a settlement with Hélène, Flournoy published his last major work on mediums, which can in part be read as his response to their embroilment, and as an auto-critique.

In March 1898 Flournoy had sent out a questionnaire on mediumship to the members of the Société d'Etudes Psychiques de Genève, and received seventy-two replies. Ten years later he did a follow-up study. Flournoy's survey was one of the most detailed qualitative surveys that had been conducted up till then in psychology. However, he did not get the results he hoped for:

This was hardly the mine of exceptional cases and marvellous phenomena which I had dreamed of... nothing for example that approaches the beautiful subliminal imagination, creator of languages and myths, which at the same time I saw unfold in the somnambulisms of Mlle Smith.[78]

[78] Flournoy, Espirits et Médiums: Mélanges de Métapsychique et de psychologie (Geneva: Kundig, 1911), p. 2, trans. mine.

Flournoy found the replies "perfectly indigestible." However, he found himself morally obliged to his respondents to publish the material. He was faced with the ethical dilemma of how to maintain his critical freedom and respect the rights of the respondents, who were deprived of replying in the volume. As a solution he published the book in two parts: the first containing the verbatim replies, and the second his general reflections. While Flournoy had obtained the permission from each individual to publish their replies, he notes that the practical impossibility of maintaining the anonymity of subjects will continue to be the great obstacle to publications of mediumistic phenomena. These questions still vex psychologists and clinicians today. Flournoy's discussion and attempt to resolve them remains one of the most sophisticated.

Flournoy's survey shows his sensitivity to the problem of using a single case as a paradigm, in marked contrast to Freud and Jung. His scrupulous documenting of a failed experiment that undercuts his thesis shows his integrity. The survey suggested that Hélène Smith was an atypical case and it questioned the theories he had developed from her case. Flournoy had hoped that his study of the development of her mediumship would in turn shed light on psychological development in general: such was the dream of subliminal psychology.

The singularity of the encounter was missed by Flournoy, yet it continued to haunt him. The threat was posed - could his psychology itself be a subconscious subliminal romance, one which equally had to dissimulate its origins? Was his "science" the mirror image of her subliminal romances?

The Unconscious: Structured like Martian?

A dramatic moment ensued, when, faced with the "Hindu" language of Hélène, Flournoy called upon the services of his friend the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The linguist Roman Jakobsen was later to describe their collaboration as:

a beautiful example of collaboration between psychologists and linguists that should be imitated and inspire new researches in the topic of the structural analysis of the delirious, individual manifestations of glossolalia.[79]

[79] Cited by Jean-Jacques Courtine, 'Tour Introduire aux glossolalies: Un hommage àMichel de Certeau," Langages 91 (1988): p. 5, trans. mine. This special issue shows the paradigmatic role that is still played by Hélène Smith in the study of glossolalia.

Her Martian language attracted the attention of another linguist, Victor Henry, who devoted a whole book to it.[80] In his review of Henry's book, Flournoy noted: It is very poignant to see a professional linguist consecrate a volume to the analysis of an idiom that does not exist, or at least only exists in the subconscious imagination of a somnambulist."[81]

[80] Henry, Le Langage Martien (Paris: J. Maisonneuve, 1901). For a commentary oil Henry's text, see Marina Yaguello, Lunatic Lovers of Language: Imaginary Languages and Their Inventors, trans. C. Slater (London: Athlone, 1991).
[81] Flournoy, Archives de Psychologie 1 (1901): p. 99, trails. mine.


In his book, Henry argued that the processes that underlay the creation of Martian were the same processes that underlay natural languages. Hence the study of Martian provided the unique opportunity for catching a glimpse into the genesis of languages.

Hélène's linguistic practices continue to attract the attention of linguists today and feature at the forefront of debate in part, but not only on account of the role of Saussure. Marina Yaguello notes that at the turn of the century there was massive outbreak of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia. This has a contemporary parallel in the emergence of the Pentecostalist church, with currently around eight million members, mostly in the United States, which serves as the contemporary host for glossolalia and xenoglossia (speaking in unknown languages). Yaguello notes the significance of Hélène Smith for linguistics as follows:

Her case is exemplary for two reasons. In the first place, there is the quality of the phenomenon observed. The languages devised by the medium, especially Martian, reach a level of sophistication, consistency and permanence which gives them, in spite of their infantile character, a sufficiently convincing pseudo-linguistic character to have caught the attention of linguists as distinguished as Saussure and V. Henry. This formal perfection is rarely attained by other subjects recorded in history. The second reason has to do with the observer and the quality of his observations. If cases of pathological glossolalia have benefited from the attention of psychiatrists, those involving mediums or members of religions sects have for the most part only been described by believers. It is only recently that scholars with a neutral stance towards the phenomena have begun to study it using the methods of experimental psychology... Flournoy's study, in spite or rather because of the ambiguity of the author's relationship to the medium, remains a model of its kind.[82]

[82] Yaguello, Lunatic Lovers of Language, p. 88. Yaguello presents a detailed discussion of' Hélène's Martian, locating it ill the context of the invention of imaginary languages. See also her appendix "Psychanalyse et linguiste: première rencontre" in the 1983 edition of Des Indes à la planète Mars.

Yaguello notes that crucial linguistic questions arise from Hélène's languages: first, are they, properly speaking, languages, and if so, do they point to a universal linguistic competence, such as Noam Chomsky might claim? She answers the first question, like Flournoy and Henry before her, in the affirmative:

However poor it is both in structure and vocabulary, Martian does seem to fulfil the double function of language postulated by Benveniste: 1) semiotic: it is a system with identifiable signs; 2) semantic: these signs can be combined in utterances in such a way to produce meanings.[83]

[83] Yaguello, Lunatic Lovers of Language, p. 95.

The significance of Saussure's reading of Hélène's "Hindu" is taken up by Tzetan Todorov. He seizes upon Saussure's comments on the genesis of her languages, seeing them as a window onto the genesis of Saussure's own linguistics. Saussure is struck by the remarkable fact that one feature of her "Hindu" language, its absence of the letter "f," exactly duplicates the structure of Sanskrit. Todorov focuses on this episode of the missing f. He writes that Saussure (who for Hélène was the reincarnation of the Hindu "Miousa") is more prepared "to acknowledge the supernatural (transmigration of Mlle. Smith's soul) than to modify his method of investigation - which here touches upon the principle of symbolic functioning."[84]

[84] Todorov, "Saussure's Semiotics," in Theories of the Symbol (London: Blackwell, 1982), p. 259.

Todorov claims that Saussure fails to admit the existence of a "logic of symbolism other than that of language." Todorov argues that it is here that Henry's interpretation of the missing "f," surpasses Saussure's. For Henry, her Martian and Sanskritoid productions are subconsciously governed by an injunction to entirely avoid French. Hence as the word "French" begins with the letter "f," she avoids this as much as possible. For Todorov, the significance of this episode lies in the fact that:

it prefigures in a remarkable way Saussure's relations with symbolic phenomena to the very end of his career ... his impasses have exemplary value: they anticipate those of a large sector of modern linguistics.[85]

[85] Ibid., p. 265.

One reviewer of Henry's book put forward a more prosaic alternative interpretation for the missing "f": "I should rather ascribe it to a peculiar paralysis of certain muscles of the lips which may beset her in her abnormal states of consciousness.[86]

[86] Fred Corybeare, review of Le Langage Martien, Hibbert Journal, July 1903, p. 54.

Hélène's languages feature prominently in Michel de Certeaus's work on glossolalia, for whom she again takes on the role of a paradigm case. For de Certeau, "What utopia is to social space, glossolalia is to oral cornmunication."[87] He notes:

[87] Michel de Certeau, "Utopies Vocales: Glossolalies," Traverses 20 (1980): p. 28, trans. mine.

This fiction of language never ceases to be taken for a language and treated as such. It never ceases to be compelled to mean something. It excites an impulse to decrypt and decipher which never wearies and which always supposes the organization of meaning lurking behind the series of sounds.[88]

[88] De Certeau, "Utopies Vocales," p. 30, trans. Dan Rosenberg, in "Linguistic Utopias: Michel de Certeau, Glossolalia and the Martian Language," paper presented to the Theory, Culture and Society Tenth Anniversary Meeting, August 18, 1992.

De Certeau argues that glossolalia has continually been interpreted "as if one must write in the place where it speaks."[89] For de Certeau, such interpretations are marked by a "hermeneutic morality," in which the privileged terms of sense, reality, and work replace those of masks, fiction, play, atopia. He notes however, that there exists a troubling equivocation between glossolalia and its interpretation:

[89] De Certeau, "Utopies Vocales," p. 30, trans. mine.

But the explication, a stranger to the glossolalic saying, is at the same time necessary: a stranger, because in absenting itself of all effective language, this saying abandons to the commentary all the burden of meaning... It implicates already the exteriority of a commentary, strangeness necessary to its proper autonomization.[90]

[90] Ibid., p. 32, trans. mine. For a study of Hélène Smith's glossolalia in the context of its scene of enunciation, see Mireille Cifali, "Une glossolale et ses savants: Élise Müller alias Hélène Smith," in La Linguistique Fantastique, ed. J. Clims (Paris: De Noel, 1985).

De Certeau's analysis has been taken up and critically extended recently by Dan Rosenberg, who challenges de Certeau's reading, arguing:

It is outstandingly clear that the desire operative here was not de Certeau's unfettered desire to speak but rather a desire to (linguistic) structure... The transgressiveness of Smith's séances lay not, as de Certeau contends, in their trajectory out of language and toward pure vocalization but in their repeated competence at producing convincing simulacra of language outside of the legitimating places where language ought to have been.[91]

[91] Rosenberg, "Linguistic Utopias," p. 6.

The issues raised in these linguistic discussions by implication concern not only the interpretation of Hélène's linguistic productions, but also of all her material. As such they pose questions concerning the status of psychology itself and the equivocal interrelation between Hélène's material and Flournoy's psychology - the one designated as fantastic, the other sanctioned as "science." The subsequent dispute between Flournoy and Hélène over copyright, authorship, and property, staged this issue in a spectacular fashion.

In his reading of Hélène's languages, Courtine writes:

To the simple interrogation: "who speaks and to whom?", the glossolalist replies, "It is an Other than me who speaks; and this other is again she/he to whom my speak addresses itself, since it is his/hers."[92]

[92] J-J. Courtine, "Les Silences de la Voix," Langages 91 (1988): p. 9, trans. mine.

The mode in which this question of "who speaks" is played out in glossolalia is taken up by Marina Yaguello. She writes:

What distinguishes the glossolalist from someone speaking an ordinary language is that he or she isn't the person speaking. The relationship of person is missing, there is no I standing at the source of the utterance at the centre of the discourse, no I taking responsibility for the act of utterance and involved by virtue of this in a spatio-temporal continuity. Hélène Smith speaks at the dictation of spirits and extra-terrestrial beings... And yet in glossolalia there certainly is an ego at the centre, but it is a non-linguistic ego, which unlike the I of a language system, the I acting as a "shifter" pronoun in speech, cannot pass from one individual to another. It is outside the social system, and belongs to the speaker, who takes possession of language by this means.[93]

[93] Yaguello, Lunatic Lovers of Language, p. 96.

The temptation would clearly be felt to assign another subject to the site of enunciation, to put an end to this troubling equivocation-hence the nomination of multiple personality - which is Flournoy's move. This other speech becomes a site around which another scene becomes nominated, organized and cartographized - the unconscious. However, this annexation restores this speech to the type of intelligibility that it would exceed. Here, the possibility of a psychology that exceeded classical introspective psychology, with its self-transparent locutor at the center, was glimpsed, only for it to be subsumed by the interpretive strategies that would install another subject as the source of this other speech.

In respect to this endless game of commentary on Hélène Smith, Rosenberg aptly comments:

The example of Hélène Smith indicates that the compulsion to mean, to signify, does not only elide the desire to speak, to vocalize, to articulate. It also elides the desire to language, desire to structure, to invention ... we thus need to examine our own tendency to put back up the boundaries that Hélène Smith did us the service of breaking down.[94]

[94] Rosenberg, "Linguistic Utopias," p. 7.

Life After Mars: Flournoy's Decline

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, psychological interest in mediums waned dramatically. While the public interest in mediums was safeguarded by the perennial nature of the question of life after death, the interest of psychologists was not.

The mode in which the psychological study of mediums contributed to its own decline is apparent in Stanley Hall's 1918 article, "A Medium in the Bud."[95] Hall narrates how he was consulted by a young woman of twenty, in an Incipient stage" of mediumship, which included an account of life on Mars. Following Flournoy, he saw her fantasies as an outcome of adolescent developmental processes, a compensation for what was lacking in her environment. In addition, Hall puts forward the following motive for the cultivation of such states. Hall highlights the:

[95] Hall, American Journal of Psychology 29 (1918): pp. 144-58.

love of the utter abandon involved in this state. Inhibitions are thrown to the wind. While the normal ego is controlled, the control can let itself go and express the very deepest and most secret things in the soul, often with a frankness that ordinary social conventions would make impossible. Thus there is a sudden freedom from responsibility and sensitive, shrinking, repressed natures, who would above all things dread to shock or violate convention in phrase or manner, are freed from the necessity of even being agreeable or primly proper, which must often become irksome, hedged about as they are by so many senseless taboos. In the trancoidal state these are all removed, for the nonce, from one level of her soul, and she can blurt out things which ordinarily maidenly modesty would never permit her to say or hear. Such tender and delicate girls often feel themselves possessed by some rugged, potent and uncouth male spirit, and delight to swagger in diction and manner, to be blunt, slangy, to uncork and vent elements of conduct for which nothing in normal experience gives such opportunity or such incentive. The girl is thus using new powers and some sense may be the better for it.[96]

[96] ibid., p. 154.

Hall's interpretation significantly valorizes the freedom from social constraints and taboos occasioned by the trance, in offering young women opportunity to circumvent traditional gender stereotypes. Hall's essay provided one of the swan songs of the psychological study of mediums. For once the productions of the mediumistic trance are seen as simply the manifest level of latent, repressed sexuality, the specific interest occasioned by them is lost. The study of mediums would then have little specific to recommend it, nor would it shed light in turn on the general patterns of development, as Flournoy dreamed. In 1909, in his "The Confidences of a 'Psychical Researcher'," while expounding the unexplained residuum of metaphysics, James concludes:

Vast, indeed, and difficult is the inquirer's prospect here, and the most significant data for his purpose will probably be just these dingy little mediumistic facts which the Huxleyan minds of our time find so unworthy of their attention.[97]

[97] James, "The Confidences of a 'Psychical Researcher,'" in William James on Psychical Research, ed. Gardner Murphy and Robert Ballou (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961), p. 325.

However, James's prospectus was not to be, and it was his rival Stanley Hall who provided what could be taken as the epitaph for this epoch in psychology:

The next generation will be hardly able to believe that prominent men in this way wasted their energies in chasing such a will-of-the-wisp as the veracity of messages or the reality of a post-mortem existence, which they no more prove than dreams of levitation prove that man can hover in the air at will.[98]

[98] Hall, "A Medium in the Bud," p. 154.

The 1909 Congress of Experimental Psychology in Geneva, over which Flournoy presided, was the last at which mediumship featured on the agenda. A whole section was devoted to mediumistic phenomena. Flournoy opened the section by defending its inclusion, which some suspected was a dangerous intrusion of occultism and spiritualism into the discussion. Flournoy claimed that it was no longer possible for scientific psychology to be disinterested in the material phenomena of mediums, such as Eusapia Palladino. Five persons were invited. but only one accepted.[99] From 1900 to 1909, the tide had clearly turned. The mediums were the exemplar of subliminal psychology. With the decline of psychological interest in mediums, subliminal psychology found itself without a subject. Within psychical research, the paradigm shifted away from the detailed investigation of mediums, with their lack of replicability, to the controlled experimental studies in telepathy under laboratory conditions, predominantly associated with J. B. Rhine.[100]

[99] Compte-Rendu du Sixème Congrès internationale de psychologie, ed. Edouard Claparede (Geneva: Kundig, 1909), p. 827.

[100] The shift in psychical research from the in-depth study of mediums to the laboratory-controlled experiments with card-guessing games, which dominated modern parapsychology, and which ironically reversed Flournoy's intellectual trajectory, is well depicted in S, Mauskopf and M. McVaugh, The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychical Research (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

Geographically speaking, Vienna and Zurich prevailed over Geneva as the leading capitals for the exploration of the unconscious. The ascendance of psychoanalysis has in several respects been seen as responsible for Flournoy's decline. Initially, the paradigm of the hysteric and more critically its particular interpretative school - psychoanalysis - took over. it was claimed that Flournoy failed to comprehend the role of the transference and sexuality, nowhere more so than in his analysis of Hélène Smith. Olivier Flournoy suggests that compared to psychoanalysis, Flournoy's weakness was a reticence toward sexuality.[101] In sum, the psychoanalytic critique was that From India to the Planet Mars was not Freud's "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria." Claparede countered this charge by claiming that Flournoy, in seeing Léopold as a "hypnoid formation of essentially psycho-sexual origin" grasped the role of sexuality in hysterical accidents, but dealt with the issue discretely out of a sense of delicacy for Hélène.[102]

[101] 0. Flournoy, Théodore et Léopold, p. 18.
[102] Claparede ,"Théodore Flournoy. Sa vie et son oeuvre," p. 63.


At a professional level, Flournoy worked within pre-existing institutional structures. His institutional achievements, such as the Archives de Psychologie and the psychological laboratory at the University of Geneva, were marked by the open and pluralistic way in which they encompassed and encouraged psychological research, rather than forming his own tightly perimetered school of psychology, in sharp contrast to Freud and Jung.[103] Flournoy's work was marked by an excessive modesty; rather than introduce new and distinctive terminology, Flournoy preferred to use existing terms and simply add a new inflection.

[103] On the Freud-Flournoy relation, see Mireille Cifali, "Les chiffres de l'imtime," in the 1983 edition of Des Indes à la planète Mars; on Flournoy's pivotal role in the Freud-Jung break, see Mireille Cifali, "Le fameux couteau de Lichtenberg," Le Bloc-Notes de la psychanalyse 4 (1984): pp. 171-88. Flournoy's influence on Jung was greater and more lasting than Freud's. On their relation, see James Witzing, "Théodore Flournoy: A Friend Indeed," Journal of Analytical Psychology 27 (1982): pp. 131-48; and my "A Woman Called Frank," Spring 50 (1990): pp. 26-56, which reconstructs the biography of Frank Miller, Flournoy's student who became Jung's key paradigm case.

Mireille Cifali states that Freud triumphed over Flournoy because he offered a therapeutic practice.[104] Clearly, not the least of the attractions of psychoanalysis was its provision of a new professional identity and means of acquiring an income. Flournoy, together with Myers and James, felt that a purely clinical approach was an inadequate basis from which to develop a psychology of the personality. Flournoy attempted to establish a comparative psychology based on the in-depth study of lives, rather than a psychotherapy. This agenda was eclipsed in psychology until it was revived by Gordon Allport and, in particular, by Henry Murray, who can be seen as implicitly arguing for a return to Flournoy's agenda.[105]

[104] Cifali, "Théodore Flournoy, la decouverte de l'inconscient," p. 127.
[105] Gordon Allport, The Use of Personal Documents in Psychological Science (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1942); Henry Murray et al., Explorations in Personality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938).


In the Archives de Psychologie, one can graphically see another reason for Flournoy's decline, as the figure of the medium becomes increasingly replaced by that of the child, notably through the early publications of ,Jean Piaget.[106]

[106] On Flournoy's influence on Piaget through his psychology of religion, see Fernando Vidal, "Jean Piaget and the Liberal Protestant Tradition," in Psychology in Twentieth-Century Thought and Society, ed. M. Ash and W Woodward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

For Flournoy the pre-eminent tool for psychological exploration was hypnosis, and in From India to the Planet Mars he presented one of the most detailed investigations into trance states. After the turn of the century, interest in hypnosis greatly declined. While hypnosis was rehabilitated through the behaviorist methodology of Clark Hull, it was not until the work of Charles Tart and others on "altered states of consciousness,"[107] that the creative potentiality of trance states that so interested Flournoy returned to the psychological agenda, though without reference to his work. Likewise while Flournoy's "play theory" of mediumship antedates the now-fashionable interpretations of hypnotic phenomena in terms of role playing, with Flournoy this led to a dynamic psychology of the subliminal, rather than to a sociobehavioral perspective.

[107] See Charles Tart, ed., Altered States of Consciousness, rev. ed. (New York: Harper-Collins 1990).

From India to the Planet Mars was one of the classic paradigm cases of multiple personality. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the reported incidence of multiple personality, together with the interest in dissociative phenomena in general, dramatically declined. The recent revival of Multiple Personality Disorder looks to Janet, rather than Flournoy, as its patron, in line with its psychopathological cast.

Hélène Smith: The Patron Saint of Surrealism

While Flournoy and Hélène were largely forgotten by psychology, they were regarded as patrons by surrealism. Breton notes, commenting on the heroine of his novel Nadja:

The magic Nadja surrounded herself with was the mind's compensation for the heart's defeat. We see something similar in the case of the celebrated medium Hélène Smith, whose marvellous peregrinations from planet to planet ... seemed to be aimed mainly at capturing the attentions of Théodore Flournoy, who was caring for her, and whose love she had not managed to win.[108]

[108] Breton, Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism, trans. M. Polizzotti (New York: Paragon House, 1993), p. 108.

Throughout From India to the Planet Mars, Flournoy never ceases to marvel at the artistic and dramatic powers of Hélène's subconscious creative imagination. On one reading what is left of her romances when shorn of their spiritualistic garb is precisely art. Flournoy was indeed extremely interested in the artistic capabilities that could be released through trance states and he pursued these questions in his report on Magdeleine G., and her somnambulist choreographies.[109] While hypnotized, the untrained Magdeleine performed exquisite dance settings to musical accompaniments, such as by Chopin. The interest that Magdeleine held for Flournoy resided in the fact that the artistic potentiality revealed seemed to transcend her normal capabilities. His descriptions suggest that he was enchanted by her choreographies. Flournoy was interested in the question of whether this hidden creative self might exist in everyone. He argues that hypnosis removed the conscious inhibitions, which enabled the latent creative capacity to emerge. In "The Automatic Message," Breton explicitly acknowledges the debt of surrealism to the explorations of Myers and Flournoy, and credits subliminal psychology as providing one of the conditions of possibility of surrealism. Breton states that Surrealism highlighted "what remained of mediumistic communication once we had freed it from the insane metaphysical implications it otherwise entailed."[110] It was clearly Flournoy who paved the way for this liberation. In "The Automatic Message," Breton clearly states the indebtedness of modern art to mediumship, asking, for instance, 'What is Art Nouveau if not an attempt to generalize and adapt mediumistic drawing, painting and sculpture to the art of furniture and decoration?"[111] At a stylistic level, mediums could flagrantly transgress artistic and linguistic conventions, since their productions usually were not presented as artworks. More significant was the utilization of automatic writing and drawing as a means of production.[112] From this perspective, Breton described "the prodigious" Hélène Smith quite simply as "the richest case of all.[113]

[109] Flournoy, "Chorégraphie somnambulique; le cas de Magdeleine G.," Archives de Psychologie 3 (1904): pp. 357-74.
[110] Breton, Conversations, p. 64.
[111] Breton, "The Automatic Message," p. 104.
[112] On this issue, see my "Automatic Writing and the Discovery of the Unconscious.
[113] Breton, "The Automatic Message," p. 102.

Feminists Reclaim the Mediums

Recent feminist historiography has done a great service in opening up a reappraisal of the social and psychological construction of mediumship. Their work has done a great deal in recovering from oblivion many lost heroines. They have depicted the service rendered to the struggle for women's rights by the spiritualist movement. Alex Owen argues that "Victorian spiritualism was another of the hidden or forgotten factors in women's long struggle for increased effectiveness, status and autonomy."[114] Through these readings a new consensual view of the role of mediumship has recently developed. Arm Braude argues that "Spiritualism's greatest contribution to the crusade for women's rights probably lay in the new role of spirit medium.[115] The accessibility of this new role lay in the congruence between Victorian ideals of "true womanhood" and the qualities required for mediumship. Vieda Skultans claims that:

[114] Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (London: Virago, 1989), introduction.
[115] Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 82.

Victorian stereotypes of femininity bear a remarkable resemblance to the ideal medium. The following adjectives can equally well describe the ideal woman as the ideal medium: unsophisticated, innocent, passive, young, tender, feeling, intuitive and so on.[116]

[116] Vieda Skultans, "Mediums, Controls and Eminent Men" in Women's Religious Experience, ed. Pat Holden (London: Croom Helm, 1983), p. 23.

Arm Braude argues:

The very qualities that rendered women incompetent when judged against norms for masculine behaviour rendered them capable of mediumship. Mediumship allowed women to discard limitations on women's roles without questioning accepted ideas about women's nature.[117]

[117] Braude, Radical Spirits, p. 83.

Similarly, Judith Walkowitz suggests that the value of the séance was that it allowed women "to engage in a subtle subversion - but not repudiation - of the 'separate sphere' construction of true womanhood."[118] The value of mediumship is seen here in its provision of a specific social setting, the séance, that permitted transgressive behaviors. Alex Owen claims that:

[118] Judith Walkowitz, "Science and Séance: Transgressions of Gender and Genre in Late Victorian London," Representations 22 (1988): p. 9.

within the séance, and in the name of spirit possession, women openly and flagrantly transgressed gender norms. Female mediums, with the approval of those present, often assumed a male persona which was at total odds with the Victorian Idea of respectable womanhood. Whilst male mediums were also known to assume a female spirit voice or personality, their séances did not involve the dramatic and theatrical representations for which the women became famous.[119]

[119] Owen, The Darkened Room, p. 11.

This emphasis on the transgression of gender roles leads to a highlighting of the role of sexuality in the séances. Janet Oppenheim writes:

There may also have been a potent element of sensual enjoyment, possibly subconscious, that enhances the séances. Without exaggerating the extent of sexual repression in Victorian society, one can surmise that the holding of hands and the caressing of spirit forms might have been stimulating not only to the sitters, but also to the young women whose emerging sexuality was denied natural means of expression.[120]

[120] Janet Oppenheim, The Other World. Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 21.

An implicit Freudian teleology organizes such readings: beneath the manifest level of a concern with the other world lies the latent level of repressed sexuality, which psychoanalysis would eventually unmask. This narrative provides an account for the demise of mediumship: clearly, when sexuality comes out of the darkened room the subterfuge of invoking departed spirits in order to hold hands is no longer required. However, there is a problem in this approach: at times it fails to adequately take into account the specificity of the practices involved, in particular the phenomena of trance states. Significantly, the feminists have concentrated upon the role of mediums in the spiritualist movement, and so far not dealt at length with such cases as that of Hélène Smith, where the study of mediumship itself gave rise to a psychology. For something different begins to emerge when the mediums are turned to not only to mediate the dead, but to mediate a new psychology. The trance takes on another form. Janet perceptively notes that the psychological study of mediums itself had a profound effect on the spiritualists. He notes: "Despite their affected indifference, the spiritists have submitted to the influence of the psychological researches and have been profoundly changed."[121] More critically, such "historical" readings, which present a silent recapitulation of Stanley Hall's reading of the social significance of mediumship, fail to see that they themselves arose at a particular historical juncture, at the close of psychology's fascination with the mediums.

[121] Janet, "Le Spiritisme Contemporain," p. 427, trans. mine.

Multiple Personality, Channeling and Past Lives: Three Cases of Deja-vu

While Flournoy's work became completely forgotten after his death, psychology today ironically finds itself grappling with many of the issues that were Flournoy's prime concerns. This is nowhere more apparent than in three contemporary movements: multiple personality disorder, channeling and past-life regression therapy. Significantly, we find Hélène Smith's cycles forming the ghostly template of these movements.

Multiple Personality II

Recent years have seen the rise of a massive epidemic of Multiple Personality Disorder, largely in North America. This has taken place on a far larger scale than its nineteenth-century predecessor, with advocates claiming that up to one in ten of the population is in fact a "multiple." This clinician-launched epidemic provides a capital lesson in how not to read history, as syndromes are selectively revived and the same errors amnesiacally repeated, but this time on a far larger scale. As lan Hacking puts it, in the late twentieth century child abuse came to play the role of the host for multiple personality, and it was this that led to its current epidemic explosion.[122] As two recent advocates of MPD, as it is called, put it:

[122] Hacking, "Multiple Personality Disorder and Its Many Hosts." On the current multiple personality epidemic, see especially Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, "Pour introduire la personnalite multiple," in Importance de l'hypnose, ed. Isabelle Stengers (Paris: Les Empecheurs de penser en rond, 1993).

The new paradigm of MPD states that it is a complex, chronic form of developmental posttraumatic dissociative disorder, primarily related to severe, repetitive childhood abuse or trauma, usually beginning before the age of five. In MPD, it is thought that dissociative defenses are used to protect the child from the full psychological impact of severe trauma, usually extreme repetitive child abuse. Under the pressure of developmental factors, secondary structuring and personification by the child of the traumatically induced dissociated states of consciousness leads to development of multiple "personalities."[123]

[123] R. Loewenstein and D. Ross, "Multiple Personality and Psychoanalysis: An Introduction," Psychoanalytic Inquiry 12 (1992): p. 7.

Aspects of Flournoy's work have been (cryptomnesically?) rediscovered -such as the "protector personalities" and the "inner self helpers" which mirror Flournoy's descriptions of teleological automatisms.[124]

[124] See Frank Putnam, Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder (New York: Guildford Press, 1989), pp. 109-10.

A critical new development took place when MPD began increasingly to be seen as resulting from Satanic Ritual Abuse. The "memories" recovered, usually under hypnosis, of Satanic Ritual Abuse led therapists to believe in the veracity of the accounts and to argue that such cults truly exist.[125] At the same time, one finds a rash of accounts of UFO abductions, again usually solicited under hypnosis. For Flournoy no doubt the Satanic rumor and its extraterrestrial counterpart would be seem akin to Hélène's romances - the subliminal elaboration of cryptomnesias.

[125] See especially Sherrill Mulhern, "Satanism and Psychotherapy: A Rumour in Search of an Inquisition," in Richardson, Best, and Bromley ed., The Satanism Scare (New York: Social Institutions and Social Change Series, 1991).

Channeling: Léopold's Revenge?

In the twentieth century, psychology and the mediums largely went their separate ways. The spiritualist churches continued to be the host for traditional mediumship, and those that sought to contact the dead. However, recent times have seen a remarkable return of mediums, now rebaptized as "channelers." The host responsible for this has been the New Age movement. The mode in which the messages are conveyed remains remarkably the same as in nineteenth-century mediumship - automatic writing, trance speech, inner dictation, etc. A critical shift in emphasis has taken place, however, concerning the nature of the disembodied entities. Now the entities that communicate are usually taken as spiritual beings, as opposed to the deceased. A fair sprinkling of extraterrestrials completes the population clamoring to get their messages across. Thus, while in the context of nineteenth-century mediumship Hélène Smith was somewhat atypical - as Flournoy found out through his survey - her case takes on a surprising exemplarity when set against the exploits of contemporary channelers.

Now, as then, trance states played a crucial role. Jane Roberts, the channeler for the bestselling Seth books, describes "becoming Seth" in a manner that evokes Hélène "becoming Léopold":

Each time Seth spoke, I was in trance, and it was Seth who smiled out at students through my opened eyes... I "turned into Seth" time and time again, taking off my mental clothes and exchanging them for psychological Olympian garb; Olympian only in that Seth displays a superabundance of energy, compassion, wisdom, and exuberance.[126]

[126] Jane Roberts, Conversations with Seth, vol. 1, ed. Susan Watkins (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 1

In the channelled literature, the entities are invariably wise figures who have come to aid struggling humans. The descriptions of the channeled entities bear a close resemblance to Flournoy's description of the teleological automatism: the helpful, protective, and guiding figure who is the personification of wisdom and knowledge. From Flournoy's perspective, one could typify channeling as the cultivation of teleological automatisms. Flournoy's text still forms the most devastating skeptical psychological paradigm against the insistence of the channelers that their messages stem from outside their psyches. After Hélène, Flournoy was disappointed not to find similar phenomena evinced by other mediums. Perhaps late twentieth-century California would have been a better stomping ground for him.

How does one account for the different profiles of late nineteenth-century mediumship and late twentieth-century channeling? Nineteenth-century spiritualism arose out of the erosion of Christianity through the rise of secularization and the concomitant concern for personal immortality and the post-mortem survival of the soul.[127] In the current new age, by contrast, personal survival is less of an issue; it has been replaced by the quest for the transcendence of Western culture, and the search for spiritual guidance through alternate philosophies and cultures.[128] The different nature of these respective hosts in part elucidates the different configurations of the trance.

[127] See especially J. P. Williams, "The Making of Victorian Psychical Research: An Intellectual Elite's Approach to the Spiritual World," Ph. D thesis, Cambridge University, 1984. See also John Cerullo, The Secularization of the Soul: Psychical Research in Modern Britain (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982); and Oppenheim, The Other World.
[128] For a characterization of the current new age that establishes its linkage with the new age at the end of the nineteenth century, see Martin Green, Prophets of a New Age: The Politics of Hope in 1800, 1900 and 2000 (New York: Scribner, 1992).


The concurrent re-emergence of multiple personality and mediumship under the guise of channeling presents us with a recapitulation of precisely the issue of the differential interpretation of trance states that preoccupied Flournoy. The differential traits of channeling and MPD broadly replicate those of their nineteenth-century precursors.[129]

[129] See Dureen Hughes, "Differences between Trance Channeling and Multiple Personality Disorder," Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 24 (1992): pp. 181-92.

In channeling, the trance states are deliberately cultivated. Hence while MPD has been an epidemic launched by clinicians, channeling has been launched by the channelers themselves. Channelers tend to access their "sources" in prescribed sessions, without the fugue states and amnesias that are taken to characterize MPD. Channelers insist on what Breton termed the "exogeneity of the dictating principle." Most critically, while MPD is regarded as a pathology, channeling, in its circles, is a socially sanctioned activity that is taken as promoting spiritual well-being. Dureen Hughes notes that: "Trance-channeling is best described as a personal-growth or developmental activity," which she argues can be seen as representing the quest for a personalized, revealed religion.[130]

[130] Hughes, "Blending with an Other: An Analysis of Trance-Channeling in the United States," Ethos 19 (1991): pp. 161-84. See also Jon Klimo, Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1987).

Marie Antionettes, or Past-Life Regression Therapy

Recent years have also seen an astonishing rise in past-life regression therapy, which in most instances resembles a curious grafting of the notion of metempsychosis onto an early Breuer-Freud model of trauma and catharsis. The personalities that emerge, often under the influence of hypnosis, are claimed to stem from previous incarnations of the subject. Roger Woolger, a contemporary champion of past-life regression therapy, notes that Flournoy:

established a skeptical paradigm, namely cryptoamnesia [sic], which remains to this day one of the positivist's most devastating weapons in dismissing the claim that past life memories are in fact derived from historical events unknown to the subject.[131]

[131] Woolger, Other Lives, other Selves: A Jungian Psychotherapist Discovers Past Lives (New York: Doubleday/Wellingborough, U.K.: Crucible, 1987), p. 64.

It is strange to hear Flournoy described as a positivist! Woolger notes that he "naturally" entertains the notion of cryptomnesia on those "rare" occasions when someone presents a past life as a well-known historical personage. Even in these cases, Woolger notes that he makes no attempt to discount it via research, as the therapeutic value of such "reminiscences" are what is claimed to be important. Clearly, Flournoy's attempt to provide a dynamic explanation of such fantasies - in terms of their compensatory value, etc. - is not taken into account.

Rediscovering the Unconscious

The subliminal psychology that Flournoy established fell into oblivion in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the subjects that he had fought so hard to place on the mainstream psychological agenda returned to the fringe. Is it going too far to say, that with the rise of these epidemic movements, we see some of the unfortunate consequences of this?

If this is indeed the case, then the study of the history of psychologythe questioning of the standards of legitimation by which particular psychologies became regnant, rescripting history in the process, while others are relegated to psychology's "unconscious" - the depiction of how psychology constructs its fabulous genesis, its subliminal romances-is of critical importance to today's psychological agenda.

It was Ellenberger who initially rescued Flournoy from oblivion in The Discovery of the Unconscious. It is appropriate to leave the final words to him:

Flournoy was a great explorer of the mythopoetic unconscious, particularly in his book From India to the Planet Mars... Today, we seldom hear of the mythopoetic unconscious. What psychoanalysts call fantasies represent a minute part of mythopoetic manifestations. We have lost sight of the importance of this terrible power - a power that fathered epidemics of demonism, collective psychoses among witches, revelations of spiritualists, the so-called reincarnations of mediums, automatic writing, the mirages that lured generations of hypnotists, and the profuse literature of the subliminal imagination... unfortunately neither Freud nor Jung became aware of the role of the mythopoetic unconscious.[132]

[132] "Freud in Perspective: A Conversation with Henri F. Ellenberger," Psychology Today, March 1973, P. 56. For an account of Ellenberger's work and the current historical research in this vein, see Mark Micale, "Henri F. Ellenberger and the Origins of European Psychiatric Historiography," and his bibliographic essay in Beyond the Unconscious.

Note: 

The above article was taken from Théodore Flournoy's "From India to the Planet Mars" (reprint: Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.).

Related articles

The Making of Martian: The Creation of an Imaginary Language by Mireille Cifali
A Martian Revelation - Story of Mlle. Helene Smith by Nandor Fodor
Subconscious Action and Secondary Personality by James Hyslop
Dissociation by W. H. Salter
Trance Personalities by William McDougall
The Psychology of Mediumship by Donald West
Biography of Hélène Smith
Biography of Th
éodore Flournoy

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