In the 1890s, a woman in Geneva described her previous incarnations as a Hindu princess, a French queen, and her travels to Mars. Hélène Smith’s story is narrated in From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia, a book published first in French by the Swiss psychologist, Theodore Flournoy (1854-1921) who taught at the University of Geneva.
Translated into English in 1899, by Daniel Vermilye – who was once accused of defrauding banks – Flournoy’s book became widely available to western audiences and received rave reviews. From India to the Planet Mars described the remarkable mediumistic qualities of Catherine-Elise Muller, a young shop girl in Geneva who took on the name of Hélène Smith as a medium.
Flournoy first met Smith in 1893 and became an observer of her journeys into the spirit world for over five years. He did not set out to discredit her but relied on a method of detached observation, recording all data meticulously and non-judgementally, aiming to provide possible rational explanations for all he had witnessed.
Smith’s three distinct spirit stories were narrated in a serial-like form. The story of the princess Simandini began with her committing sati in 1402, following the death of her husband, the prince Sivrouka Nayaka of Chandragiri (or in some versions, Tchandragiri) in “Kanara on India’s west coast”. Simandini, as a later séance episode revealed, had been an Arab maiden who had fallen in love with Sivrouka. Smith cited customs, costumes and even the architecture of the time.
As Simandini, Smith replicated in every sense an “Oriental” princess with “the poses of a priestess”, singing “exotic melodies, played with an imaginary monkey”. She even “stretched on a sofa with the snake like movements of a real princess”. But what appeared extraordinary was the Sanskrit Smith spoke and wrote in – a language she had, as her past showed, little idea of. Her writing also revealed a few Arabic phrases.
Flournoy’s search of Geneva’s libraries turned up a volume on Indian history written in French by an obscure historian called De Marles. The book contained the entire story of Sivourka Nayaka and his ill-fated wife. A later search also revealed a book of elementary Sanskrit grammar in the very room Smith gave her séances in. As Flournoy rationalised, Smith perhaps knew of the story. She had even learnt something of Sanskrit grammar, but all this also appeared to suggest Smith’s amazing powers of memory and imagination.
Smith’s second story had her behaving like an aristocratic lady, speaking French as it was spoken a century before. Flournoy deduced that she was now Marie Antoinette, France’s doomed queen. Her spirit companion – someone who reveals the medium’s story, speaking through her for the audience – was called Leopold Balsamo or Cagliostro, an occultist (much like Rasputin) who had the real Marie Antoinette’s devotion.
Flournoy’s reasoning was that Smith might have read works such as Alexandre Dumas’ Memoirs of a Physician, which detailed experiences that fit Smith’s descriptions of late 18th-century Paris, and that she had possibly woven Dumas’ writings and those from other works into her trances.
But it was the third story that appeared even more extraordinary, as Smith described her journeys to the planet Mars. As written down by Flournoy, Smith – speaking in “Martian” – talked of “brilliant colours”, her “flight into space”, and then seeing a world quite like earth, but peopled with disembodied spirits, many of them long dead. She spoke of “carriages gliding by, with no horses or wheels but emitting sparks”; “of houses with fountains on the roof”; and men and women dressed almost similarly.
Flournoy’s close analysis of Martian revealed it to be a kind of French with only some “letters and words (inter) changed”. Soon, Flournoy, with all his rational explanations, found he was no longer welcome at Smith’s séances. Smith later won the attention of a rich American lady, who offered to be her patron.
Flournoy’s book was praised by specialists and general critics alike. In 1921, writing in The Delineator, a magazine published by the Psychical Society of New York, leading psychologist Charles Richet wrote that Flournoy’s book revealed the brain’s amazing possibilities and the power that forgotten memories could wield. Psychologists since then have studied Smith’s case and offered their own conclusions.
The popularity over decades of From India to the Planet Mars was also revelatory of the trajectory that psychology and psychotherapy took over the early 20th century. In part, this was because a later protégé of Flournoy’s, Carl Gustav Jung, extolled the former’s methods of detailed, detached and objective evaluation and his characterisation of people’s inner lives and consciousness, which would influence Jung’s own work on the collective unconscious.
In an essay called The New Revelation, written in 1918, Arthur Conan Doyle – author of the popular Sherlock Holmes novels – described a phenomenon called automatic writing. Conan Doyle described a writer’s spontaneity and unhindered creativity as a process either guided by the writer’s own subconscious or by spirits from the external world. Yet he, like many others fascinated by the occult and the esoteric, could reach no definite conclusion.
Automatic writing was a well-observed practice of mediums – people who were, as it was believed, in contact with the dead and the spirits from another world. Mediums, their specially-arranged sittings or séances and their methods drew the attention of the Society for Psychical Research, established in 1882 in London.
Psychologists and other behavioural scientists – a relatively young science then – travelled the world studying mediums and their methods, trying to find a rational explanation for several occult practices.
In the early 1890s, the psychologist Richard Hodgson travelled to India to study Hélène Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical movement – an obscure mix of eastern religion, occultism and spirit-belief. In the 1880s, Blavatsky had been a sensation in New York with her stories, which were later proved largely untrue, of worldwide travels and encounters with Tibetan mystics.
British authorities in India always remained suspicious of Blavatsky and the Theosophical movement, especially the ways in which the latter attempted to reach out to other homegrown reform movements in India, groups that shared similar atavistic beliefs about a glorious Hindu past.
In the late 19th century and some years after, the practice of automatic writing had many adherents – among spiritists (as believers in otherworldly and ethereal phenomena were called) and rationalists alike. There were many who vouchsafed for automatic writing as well such as, for instance, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. The Indian poet and nationalist, Aurobindo Ghose, and his associate, Mirra Alfassa (who was called the Mother), wrote under its influence. And the paintings of Lady Jane Shelley, the daughter-in-law of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, emerged out of an automatic spirit-guided process.
For its part, the influential and important book From India to the Planet Mars has seen several reprints. In 1994, the historian Sonu Shamdasani edited and wrote an introduction to a new edition of From India to the Planet Mars, which contained several aspects missing in Daniel Vermilye’s 1899 translation.
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