Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Atlantic University
Fantomes et Sciences d’Observation [Phantoms and Sciences of Observation], by Camille Flammarion. Agnieres, France: JMG Editions, 2005.
French Astronomer Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) made many contributions to the study of psychic phenomena (http://www.pflyceum.org/197.html). These include his reports of seances with Eusapia Palladino, described among other places in his book, Les Forces Naturelles Inconnues (1907). Flammarion also discussed and collected a variety of visual, auditory and physical phenomena coinciding with closeness to death, or with the actual death of a distant person, as seen in his book L’Inconnu et les Problemes Psychiques (1900), and in his three-volume work, La Mort et son Mystere (1920-1922). Furthermore, he analyzed cases of hauntings and, to a lesser extent, poltergeists in his book, Les Maisons Hantees (1923). At the end of this book Flammarion mentioned that his next work was going to be an examination of phantoms in terms of observational science. However, the book had not been published by the time of his death in 1925.
This book, Fantomes et Sciences d’Observation, has been rescued from archival oblivion by Patrick Fuentes, who with Philippe de la Cotardiere co-authored a biography of Flammarion published in 1994. The first seven chapters were in proof form with corrections by Flammarion. The next two were in manuscript form and well organized, but the rest had to be put together by Fuentes. For this reason, as Fuentes writes in the Preface, Chapters 8-10 and the Conclusion are different from the rest of the book.
Flammarion stated in the preface of Fantomes et Sciences d’Observation that phantoms were not part of the scientific canon. “They are generally despised as illusions without a reality, as the products of the imagination” (p. 15; this and other translations are mine). He believed that apparitions and other phenomena could be studied through observation because the “positive method” could be used to obtain truth. Unfortunately, Flammarion wrote, most people refuse to address the evidence for psychic phenomena. This was the case for scientists, who were said to be “indifferent to the study of telepathic transmissions, of apparitions, of innumerable manifestations of the unknown” (p. 18). The purpose of the present book, Flammarion wrote, was to show that phantoms–which he considered to be more than illusion–deserved serious study.
In the first chapter Flammarion discussed some cases of apparitions that he believed were unexplained by conventional principles. The apparitions in question were considered to be “phenomena of a psychic, spiritual order, and not material physical phenomena” (p. 74). The fact that psychic phenomena were not affected by distance, as “material transmissions” were, suggested to Flammarion that the principle behind them “differed in essence from those that are known to us in the physical world” (p. 74).
Chapters 2 and 3 were devoted to different types of apparitions of the living. Some examples were wilfully produced apparitions, and apparitions in which the appearer was conscious of being out of the body. There were also discussions of ‘bilocation’ cases from the literature about saints. Such classic examples from the SPR literature as the Verity and the Wilmot cases were among those cited in these chapters.
Flammarion presented in other chapters a variety of cases of apparitions. These included apparitions related to premonitions of death (Chapter 4), apparitions seen around the moment of death (Chapters 5-7), and apparitions seen after death (Chapters 8-9). Chapters 10 and 11 were devoted to doubtful phantoms, and to apparitions recorded throughout history.
The conclusion begins with the statement: “Phantoms exist. What do they prove? They prove the existence of an unknown world.” (p.425). Furthermore, Flammarion stated: “We have learned, through positive observations, that the soul exists independently of the body and that it survives it” (p. 426). Other issues such as the destiny of the soul and the span of its existence after bodily death were mentioned as subjects to be addressed in the future.
Flammarion believed that human beings had faculties to obtain knowledge that belonged to the spirit. At death, such faculties manifested though mental transmissions and physical phenomena. He also admitted that deceased spirits could cause phenomena, but that, notwithstanding all the cases he presented, these manifestations were rare occurrences. Some phenomena, such as sounds and physical disturbances of little apparent intelligence, suggested to him the existence of “fragments of souls” (p. 428). Flammarion further stated:
“1. There are definite observations of phantoms. Their habitual negation is a mistake.
2. Some (the great majority) are subjective. . . . Some are illusory hallucinations; others are objective, separate from those that see them. . . .
3. Knowledge of the facts leads us to admit their existence, but in the current state of science, they are impossible to explain.” [p. 431]
Like previous works by Flammarion, this one is characterized by an enthusiastic writing style attempting to show the reality of psychic phenomena and the absurdity of those who have rejected all testimony for their existence beyond conventional explanations. He clearly believed in the value of the accumulation of observations, and praised those past researchers in the history of science who provided the necessary database for the work of later individuals. In Flammarion’s view, “one day a Kepler of psychism will discover the laws of the system of the invisible world and will make use of the elements provided by previous works” (p. 435). In addition, and typical of previous works, such as his L’Inconnu et les Problemes Psychiques, Flammarion used physical analogies and examples from astronomy and other areas to make his points.
While I welcome the publication of the book for its historical interest, and applaud Fuentes’ effort in bringing it to print, Fantomes et Sciences d’Observation offers little that is novel. Many of the cases cited came from published sources, and the ideas presented in the book are to a great extent a repetition of ideas that Flammarion presented in previous works.
I believe that Flammarion could have made better use of previous studies on the subject. For example, much could have been said of the theoretical differences between Gurney and Myers, and of Gurney’s detailed study of the features of telepathic hallucinations, all of which appears in Gurney, Myers and Podmore’s Phantasms of the Living (1886). Similarly, there was much material of interest about telepathy from the deceased and “psychometric” explanations of apparitions in Ernesto Bozzano’s Dei Fenomeni d’Infestazione (1919) that would have been relevant to the issues discussed by Flammarion. However, we must keep in mind that this work was not seen to final publication by its author and it is possible that if he had lived to finish the work he would have discussed this material.
In the meantime, Fantomes et Sciences d’Observation stands both as a reminder of, and as a testament to the efforts of, a creative and productive man, who pursued the study of the unknown from his youth, both in astronomy and in psychical research.
Alvarado, C.S. (2007). Classic works: I. Camille Flammarion’s The Unknown (1900). Parapsychology Foundation Lyceum, http://www.pflyceum.org/197.html
Flammarion, C. (1900). L’inconnu et les problemes psychiques. Paris: Ernest Flammarion. (English translation: L’Inconnu: The Unknown. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900).
Flammarion, C. (1907). Les forces naturelles inconnues. Paris: Ernest Flammarion. (English translation: Mysterious psychic forces. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1907)
Flammarion, C. (1920-1922). La mort et son mystere. (3 vols.) Paris: Ernest Flammarion. (English translation: Death and its mystery. [3 vols.] New York: Century, 1921-1923).
Flammarion, C. (1923). Les maisons hantees. Paris: Ernest Flammarion. [English translation: Haunted houses. New York: D. Appleton, 1924).
Fuentes, P. (2002). Camille Flammarion et les forces naturelles inconnues. In B. Bensaude-Vincent & C. Blondel (Eds.), Des savants face a l’occulte 1870-1940 (pp. 105-123). Paris: La Decouverte.
La Cotardiere, P. de, & Fuentes, P. (1994). Camille Flammarion. Paris: Flammarion.
These comments first appeared as a book review in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. They are reprinted with permission from the journal’s editor.
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