For two years during the early part of his long exile from France, Victor Hugo engaged in regular séances using a planchette – a forerunner of the Ouija board, which worked by tapping out words one letter at a time. Two small tables were employed, a three-legged table perched atop a four-legged one. The tilting of the tables produced the taps. Hugo and his family and friends, exiled to the Isle of Jersey (and later the Isle of Guernsey) would gather in the evenings and coax messages from the Beyond. Hundreds of messages were received, and the material appears to have had a profound effect on Hugo's thinking and on the writing of Les Miserables, in which he was presently engaged.
This intriguing corner of the great novelist's life is exceptionally well documented in Victor Hugo's Conversations with the Spirit World, by John Chambers. Chambers, the first person to translate the séance transcripts into English (in an earlier edition of this book), does a fine job of evoking the atmosphere of the exiles' home away from home, their bitter homesickness and burgeoning fascination with the occult. His book is unusually well written for a study of this kind, laced with keen character sketches and absorbing sidelights on William Blake, James Merrill, and Kabbalah. He presents the facts without undue speculation and lets his readers draw their own conclusions.
The first question to ask is, naturally: Were these phenomena really paranormal? Nearly always, Victor's elder son Charles – who seemed to have the most natural mediumistic ability – would be one of the two persons operating the planchette. Charles' constant participation has led some critics to suggest that he unconsciously fabricated the messages to please his domineering father. But some of the messages were tapped out in languages of which Charles was ignorant – Hungarian and English, for instance. And in some cases (e.g. the January 22, 1854 séance, described on p. 113 of Chambers' book), Charles did not operate the planchette.
Other apparently paranormal events that took place in conjunction with the séances cast additional doubt on the skeptical view. When dogs throughout the area began barking in the night, the planchette told them sternly to shut their mouths – and they did. Strange singing was heard in different parts of the house when Hugo's son was ill. A communicator calling itself the Lady in White arranged for a rendezvous at three AM; no one was bold enough to keep the date, but at three AM the Hugos' doorbell inexplicably rang.
Some of the spirits' statements are intriguing and possibly prescient. Distance, we are told, is illusory, and the entire universe can be found in – and reconstructed from – its smallest part. These ideas remind John Chambers of Michael Talbot's book The Holographic Universe, which explores the cosmology of David Bohm.
But for the most part, the communications are rather banal. Nothing of evidential value was produced, and the sitters don’t appear to have pressed the spirits for proof of identity. When the spirits did make factual claims about their earthly lives, these claims were often wrong. The great Carthaginian general Hannibal, purportedly speaking through the planchette, described the city of Carthage as a vast expanse of six thousand temples on streets three hundred feet wide. This grandiose portrayal does not tally with any historical or archaeological findings. (On the other hand, when "Shakespeare" insisted that he had not died on April 23, 1616, we might wonder if it was the shade of Edward De Vere that the sitters were hearing from ... But the channeled Shakespearean drama produced by the sitters, though highly interesting and creative, does not bear any resemblance to the earthly Bard's work.)
Then there is the case of the Lion of Androcles. At times the sitters heard from the spirit of this beast, famous in folklore for having spared Androcles in the arena. It is, of course, quite unlikely that this folktale was based on fact, and even more unlikely that the noted lion was communicating with the Jersey exiles from beyond the grave. But what makes the Lion especially relevant is an incident that occurred on April 25, 1854. The Lion-persona, tapping out a lengthy poem, suddenly stopped after writing the lines
They raise against the saints their sacrilegious paw
And bury their blood-stained claws in the liv–.
A pause followed after which the Lion rewrote the last two lines, which apparently dissatisfied him. But in the interim, Victor Hugo wrote his own ending to the stanza, and showed his work only to one person (who, like Hugo, was not operating the planchette). Hugo's lines read:
They ripped open the saints dying in the mire
And their hideous claws enlarged the wound
In the side of Jesus Christ.
We are told that "almost immediately" after Hugo had written these words, the tapping recommenced, and the planchette spelled out
Their paws ripped open the martyrs here and there in the mire
And Jesus Christ slipped their claws into his wounds,
For a gift of nails to the gibbet.
The close similarity of the two verses suggests that the planchette operators – or the planchette itself – picked up the imagery from Hugo's own mind. But since the planchette operators had not seen Hugo's lines, the message must have been communicated via telepathy or via some even more mysteriously influence.
In the final analysis, if we view the sessions as spirit communications, they are unconvincing and unsatisfying. But if we view them as Consciousness interacting with itself – Consciousness creating a kind of feedback loop between the sitters on the one hand and the planchette on the other – then things get more interesting. To read excerpts from the transcripts is like reading an inner dialogue carried out at the unconscious level between Hugo and himself (with occasional contributions from other members of the party). The sessions perhaps can be best understood as the externalization of the unconscious, a breakdown of the seemingly solid barrier between objective and subjective experience. The stream of consciousness running through the deeper channels of Hugo's mind seems to have been objectified, brought out into the open. In a deep sense, Hugo was talking to himself.
No wonder, then, that the tables mostly told him what he wanted to hear. The tables reported that Hugo's archenemy Napoleon III would die in two years – when actually the dictator lived another two decades. The discarnate Shakespeare opined that French was superior to English. Other spirits verified Hugo's theory of a cycle of reincarnation that proceeds through the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms, and his idea of the universe as a vast darkness, with only the shining stars retaining God's pure light.
The strengths and weaknesses of the communicators matched Hugo's own talents. The spirits were good at improvising poetry and long, eloquent monologues; so was Hugo. The spirits were useless at composing music, even when Mozart himself ostensibly spoke through the planchette. Hugo had no musical training.
The appearance of so many famous names among the spirits – Aeschylus, Plato, Galileo, Shakespeare, even Jesus – also makes sense in terms of Hugo's psychology. No one ever accused Victor Hugo of being humble. His self-regard bordered on megalomania. Who would seek him out, if not the spirits of world-historical heroes like himself? Nothing less would do.
And what of the more abstract or surreal entities, such as Civilization, Death, and Idea, or Balaam's Ass and the Lion of Androcles? In the highly intellectual atmosphere of Hugo's salon, large abstract concepts and mythological or folkloric imagery must have been part of everyday conversation. It was how these people talked, part of their mental furniture. And Hugo had a particular fascination – part sentimental, part mystical – with the idea that animals are ensouled, and was especially fond of the Lion of Androcles tale.
How about the most consistent, overarching motif to appear in the communications – that the earth is a prison, a penal colony for wayward souls? It matches up quite closely with the gloomy outlook of the dispirited, homesick exiles, persecuted by a dictator, stranded among fellow outcasts on a tiny outcrop of rock. All the more reason to believe that the tilting tables were reflecting the sitters' own ideas and feelings back at them. Perhaps the isolation of their exile, and the intense emotions it stirred up, actually made it easier for the sitters to access the unconscious mind, or universal consciousness itself.
Whatever the explanation, Victor Hugo's Conversations with the Spirit World is a superb contribution to literary history and to the study of the paranormal. I recommend it highly.