White Crow Books recently released a new edition of a 1921 study of mediumship called The Survival of the Soul and Its Evolution after Death, by French artist Pierre Emile Cornillier, focusing on his seances with a young model named Reine. After Cornillier mentioned his interest in table-tipping experiments, Reine wanted to try it for herself. On their first attempt the table spelled out a message advising Cornillier to hypnotize Reine. This unexpected order was obeyed, and Reine began channeling purported spirits. Eventually a high-level spirit named Vettellini took primary control, directing Reine's development as a medium and answering many questions posed by Cornillier.
The book, which runs more than 400 pages, is a record of 107 such seances. All the sittings were witnessed by Cornillier's wife (perhaps in part to rule out the salacious rumors that dogged other psychic investigators, like William Crookes), and some were witnessed by other persons, as well.
An introduction by Michael Tymn points out that respected paranormal writer Robert Crookall named this book as his personal favorite among paranormal titles. Even so, The Survival of the Soul has been largely forgotten until now.
I found the book consistently interesting, though not without flaws. On the plus side , there seems to be no doubt that Reine did manifest clairvoyant abilities. Assuming that Cornillier has reported the seances honestly — and I have no reason to think otherwise — Reine quickly developed the ability to observe distant locations and report on them with accuracy. So many specific examples are supplied that no other explanation presents itself except outright fraud on Cornillier's part. (Deception on the part of Reine would not explain her ability to describe people and events unknown to her, or to correctly divine the contents of sealed boxes.)
As a record of psi abilities manifested under hypnosis, Survival is a valuable text. It makes me wish that more such work was being done today. Putting mediums under hypnosis could be a way of reviving the nearly lost art of full-trance mediumship without the lengthy training period normally required for the development of this skill.
When we come to the communications from the spirits themselves, things get more complicated and more ambiguous. Many of these communications have a ring of truth, and yet there are errors and confusions that make it hard to know what’s really going on.
Reine tells us that the spirits she sees are differentiated by color. The lower spirits are reddish, the higher ones bluish , and the highest of all (at least of those known) are white. Interestingly, this color scheme corresponds to the ancient system of chakras, which associates the red end of the spectrum with the lower part of the body and the blue end with the higher faculties, while, in some variants, pure white represents a still higher level of development. Neither Cornillier nor Reine gives any indication of prior knowledge of chakras.
Asked if there are signs that reveal the evolutionary level of an incarnated spirit, Vettellini replies that there are one or two. "First, bonté [kindness, benevolence]. But bonté that understands: that is to say, an indulgence for others proceeding from a deep knowledge of the human soul. This bonté is intelligent and recognizes the necessity of sanction and severity. Bonté severite [benevolence and strictness] is, then, one sign to remember. Second: interest in the humble, the unimportant, the weak – an interest which is necessarily accompanied by indifference to social success, honors and position. And, finally, all inclination for philosophical speculations, all preoccupation in the mystery of the Au-Delà [the Beyond], and all effort to penetrate that mystery, – this is evolution itself!"
Naturally it would be nice to believe this last point, since it means that readers of this blog are already spiritually advanced.
Certain statements attributed to Vettellini seem consistent with the results of more recent parapsychology research. For instance, Vettellini informs Cornillier that in some table-tipping exercises, no spirit is present , and the illusion of spirit contact is produced by the combined subconscious energies of the sitters. This is reminiscent of the famous Philip experiments, in which a wholly fictional spirit was made to engage in conversations (via raps) with the sitters.
Vettellini tells us that more highly developed spirits can choose to forego another incarnation and continue their evolution on the astral plane, though this is "more difficult" even than "the slow ordeal of incarnation." He explains the divergent messages from the spirit world on reincarnation and other topics by saying that spirits at different levels of development have different levels of knowledge. His vision of the spirit world seems more consistent with the between-lives regression studies of Michael Newton (also involving hypnosis) than with the channeled texts of Anthony Borgia or the direct-voice mediumship of Leslie Flint. There is no mention of gardens and cottages, of small homely details and ordinary life. Instead Vettellini's "Au-Delà" is an ethereal realm of shapeless spirits who can recall all their incarnations and in some cases assist in planning their next sojourn in the physical world.
The most complete explanation of the discrepancy between Vettellini's messages and those conveyed elsewhere is offered late in the book: "By their fixed and persistent ideas Spirits, unconsciously, produce images around them – illusions of which they themselves are the first dupes and which also mislead the disincarnated souls in their environment. … And this is a … source of errors in communications that are quite sincere but which, as information, are no more dependable than is any other hallucination. ... In astral life Spirits of slight evolution seem as a rule to perceive only these image illusions."
This explanation is consistent with thoughts posted on this blog, and with channeled statements attributed to F.W.H. Myers in Geraldine Cummins' book The Road to Immortality, statements that characterize the so-called Summerland as a "plane of illusion." (It is also broadly consistent with the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which warns against being taken in by exteriorized thought-forms.)
Throughout Cornillier's book there is much talk of fluids and vibrations, which seems to suggest that reality consists ultimately of waves in a conducting medium. This may simply reflect standard spiritualist language or the physics of the day, which understood subatomic particles to be waves in "the ether." Even so, it's interesting to note that the idea of reality as essentially wave patterns is not inconsistent with the more modern "holographic universe-information matrix" idea. If each person consists of a point of consciousness bound to a nexus of information, and if this information affects the informational patterns around it in a manner reminiscent of the interaction of waves, then some sense can perhaps be made of Reine s search for a given person 's unique "fluid" (informational pattern) and of the idea that some "fluid" remains in items that a person has handled or created. There may also be some deeper meaning in the image, conveyed by Reine, of the high-level spirits making strange wavelike motions in an attempt to reconfigure the patterns of future history — as if seeking (in modern terms) to modify informational currents that exist only as probability distributions until they are actualized.
A tad biting, perhaps, but this viewpoint jibes with speculations on this blog about the symbiotic relationship between soul and body. It is not so much that the brain is a receiver of consciousness; it’s that the brain, like the Mars Rover, receives instructions from afar but also enjoys a degree of autonomy, and, in sending back data to Mission Control, can directly influence the next set of instructions it receives. (This analogy is taken from The Biology of Belief, by Bruce Lipton, as I recall.)
The value of all these esoteric claims has to be judged by the accuracy and plausibility of other statements made by Vettellini that are susceptible of verification or falsification. Unfortunately, his track record in this respect is far from perfect.
For one thing, he insists that cremation ordinarily cuts all ties between the spirit and the earth, making it impossible for the discarnate spirit to communicate, because the astral (or "fluidic") body has lost its anchor to the physical world. Of course, in the 21st century cremation is quite common, and it does not seem to have impeded after-death communications, so this claim seems doubtful at best.
Another more-than-questionable claim involves the birth of twins. Vettellini says that "two or more Spirits cannot be captured (incarnated) at the same moment. One single coition can give birth to only one child. This is absolute. It is only by repetition — the period of receptivity may extend over several days — that a second Spirit may be captured by a new penetration of a spermatozoon into the ovule." This strong claim directly contradicts what is known about sexual reproduction today. Yes, fraternal twins are the result of two separate sperm cells penetrating two ova (though this usually happens in a single coition), but identical twins are the result of one sperm cell penetrating one ovum, which later splits in two.
Vettellini's record as a prognosticator is not much better. He is able to predict small details with accuracy, such as the timing of an unplanned trip. But when it comes to the big picture, there are problems. His most earthshaking prediction concerns a world war that is soon to erupt — but this is not either of the world wars we are know. This one will involve a general uprising in the European colonies, which will destabilize the world and precipitate Europe's invasion by China and Japan. In the ensuing chaos, European civilization will be utterly destroyed. We are told that high-level spirits are attempting to derail this catastrophic chain of events by altering the future so that the war, though disastrous, will not mean the end of civilization.
Late in the book, Cornillier calls out Vettellini on this missed prediction, but Vettellini sticks to his guns, insisting that the war between Europe and Asia is inevitable and has only been temporarily postponed. "It was true at the time, and it is still true now. ... WHAT REINE SAW, WILL BE. Let these visions stand as they were written in your notes, FOR THEY WILL BE REALISED — though at what moment I cannot say." (The capitalization is in the original.) Still later, Vettellini changes his tune, saying the catastrophe has been averted: "Reine made no mistake. It was to be. But we have driven it back."
How about the other spirits that speak through Reine? One identifies himself as a composer who went by the name of Nicolo, and who gives his dates of birth and death as 1775 and 1808. He says that he moved to Paris in his 20s and enjoyed great success there, before dying at age 43. “All was exact — facts and dates,“ Cornillier tells us after checking the historical record. Not quite. First, there must have been a mistake somewhere, since someone with those dates of birth and death would have been 33, not 43, when he died. In any event, modern sources say Nicolo was born in 1773 and died in 1818.
On another occasion Vettellini refers to Nicolo as "Isouard," confusing both the medium and the author until Vettellini explains that Isouard was Nicolo's real name (true) and that he disliked using it (a detail Cornillier says he was able to verify).
A second composer who comes through is Méhul. In this case, dates and other information are correct. Cornillier made an effort to confirm some of Méhul's more obscure claims and found evidence supporting some of them.
Another spirit, personally unknown to anyone at the séance, gives many details about herself, including the great secret of her life: that she took a priest as a lover. Remarkably enough, Cornillier was able to confirm all of these details, including "the existence of a priest in the intimate life of this woman." This point was verified by somebody who knew her well and confided in the author's wife.
For me, the book conveys a slightly gloomy impression. We are told repeatedly that suffering and struggle are part of our evolution, and that we must suffer through many earthly incarnations and many astral planes, apparently with no relief in sight, no matter how high we rise. (Oddly, although this theme is repeated throughout the communiques, it never occurs to Cornillier to ask just why suffering is necessary in order to make progress.) We are also told that much of life is determined by an impersonal Fate, over which we have no control, while other aspects can be adjusted and modified by our own will or by the desperate improvisations of high-level spirits, as in the case of the impending war. The implication is of a rather chaotic universe, whose events are partly preordained and partly ad hoc, and of a reality that remains largely mysterious, with even the highest (known) spirits ignorant of their ultimate purpose.
The depressing nature of some of the communications is reinforced by the sad travails of little Reine, who, besides being desperately poor and wholly uneducated, is chronically ill with fever, bronchitis, rheumatism, neuralgia, etc. In probably the majority of sittings she is suffering from some malady.
The mood brightens in later chapters, with Vettellini stating, "Amongst the average Spirits many are happy. In death, as in life, there are the anxious, and the happy-go-lucky. To sum it up: when lucidity is once recovered [after the usual period of disorientation following death], the soul capable of spiritual interests and joys is happy; the soul whose happiness depends upon material pleasures, regrets [leaving] the earth. It is logical."
Overall, Cornillier's book is something of a mixed bag. I don’t doubt the author's sincerity, and I do think that genuine paranormal phenomena were taking place, as evidenced by Reine's verified descriptions of distant places and her correct predictions of upcoming events in her (or Cornillier's) life. Moreover, many of the spirit communications ring true and cast new light on much-debated questions. Offsetting these positives are the incorrect predictions and inaccurate scientific pronouncements. Of course these inaccuracies could be attributed to garbled communications, the interference of low-level spirits, and so forth, but such explanations are not terribly persuasive. Cornillier himself was clearly troubled by some of these issues, even complaining to Vettellini that a prediction that's subject to change is no prediction at all!
Whatever its faults, The Survival of the Soul is an engrossing record of an unusual experiment in mental mediumship, and White Crow Books and Michael Tymn both deserve credit for bringing it to the attention of a new audience. I recommend it as an important historical record in the serious study of the Au-Delà.