Issue 1 Invented Languages Winter 2000/01
Monday, November 2, 1896.—After various characteristic symptoms of the departure for Mars … Hélène went in a deep sleep. … [Léopold] informs us that she is en route towards Mars; that once arrived up there she understands the Martian spoken around her, although she has never learned it; that it is not he, Léopold, who will translate the Martian for us—not because he does not wish to do so, but because he cannot; that this translation is the performance of Esenale, who is actually disincarnate in space, but who has recently lived upon Mars, and also upon the earth, which permits him to act as interpreter.1
This passage is drawn from notes taken by the psychologist Théodore Flournoy during a séance held in his study at 9 rue de Florissant in Geneva and later described in his book From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia. “Hélène” is Hélène Smith, pseudonym for Catherine-Elise Muller, a young medium who, from 1894 to 1901, gave séances for a group that included Flournoy and several other academics interested in spiritual phenomena. “Léopold” is a reincarnation of Joseph Balsamo, physician and lover to Marie Antoinette and Hélène Smith’s primary spirit-guide. “Esenale” is a reincarnation of Alexis Mirbel, deceased son of one of the sitters in Smith’s circle and primary interpreter of the Martian language.
The scene introduced by the passage above is typical of what Flournoy referred to as “the Martian cycle,” those séances in which Smith’s trances took her to the planet Mars. First there was vertigo and affection of the heart, symptoms of the arrival of the trance. Then, following a method worked out over the course of two years of séances, Flournoy touched Smith’s forehead, in order to call forth Léopold, who functioned as a kind of gate-keeper to the worlds of Smith’s trances (what Flournoy called “romans”). At this point, Léopold signaled sternly by Smith’s left hand that the proper time was not yet upon them. Speaking now, he directed the sitters to move Smith from her usual wooden chair to an easy chair across the room.
For half an hour, the sitters waited as Smith’s “calm sleep gave way to agitation … with sighs, rhythmic movements of the head and hands, then grotesque Martian gestures.”2 Smith murmured softly in French to Léopold, describing to him the scene arrayed before her. Then suddenly Léopold gestured with Smith’s arm, indicating to Flournoy that the time had arrived to place his hand once again on Smith’s forehead. This time, Flournoy uttered the name of Esenale, to which Smith responded in a “soft, feeble, somewhat melancholy voice,”
Esenale has gone away … he has left me alone … but he will return, … he will soon return. … He has taken me by the hand and made me enter the house. … I do not know where Esenale is leading me, but he has said to me, “Dode ne haudan te meche metiche Astane ke de me veche.”3
There was a pause in the séance and then new movements signaling Esenale’s return. This time, he went more slowly, translating each word as he proceeded. He said,
dode, this; ne, is; ce, the; haudan, house; te, of the; meche, great; metiche, man; Astane, Astane; ke, whom; de, thou; me, hast; veche, seen.4
With Smith’s left middle finger, Léopold directed Flournoy to remove his hand from Hélène’s forehead. After a period of agitated muscular contractions and several lapses in and out of the trance state, Smith returned to consciousness confused and unaware of the events of the previous scene.
The careful ritual worked out by Flournoy and Léopold, the strange cataleptic behavior of Smith in her trances, and the narrative of Mars and its various characters together frame the most remarkable fact of all, Smith’s ability to speak and to write the Martian language. Of course, not everyone who heard her believed that she was speaking an actual extraterrestrial language, and Flournoy himself was among the skeptics on this point. Nonetheless, the medium seemed sane, well adjusted, and genuine. The transformation of her personality during the séances was astonishing. And her trance tongues, strange as they were, truly did sound like language. It is also the case that Smith was sought out by the psychologists and the linguists and not the reverse. She did not come to Flournoy with a problem to be solved. And, although he disagreed with the medium about the meaning and source of her otherworldly tongues, Flournoy made no concerted attempt to change her mind about what she was experiencing, nor did he prescribe a therapeutic correction. Instead, he sought to understand her trance behaviors in a broader psychological and historical light. As he indicated in the subtitle of his study, Flournoy regarded Smith’s Martian as a kind of “glossolalia.” In this category, he also included her “Hindu,” “Ultra-Martian,” and the other extraterrestrial tongues that she would later speak.
“Glossolalia” (or “speaking in tongues”) is a term used by Paul in First Corinthians to name speech that is spiritually inspired but unrecognizable as human language.5 In Western literature, it has been described countless times and places from Corinth to Loudun to Los Angeles, often during religious revivals.6 The nineteenth century saw its share of these. Among the most spectacular was the sudden explosion of tongues that rocked the city of Topeka, Kansas on 31 December 1899 and that served to inaugurate the modern Pentecostal movement.7 The fin de siècle also saw the first systematic studies of the subject, of which Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars was among the most influential. It was widely discussed in both professional and popular arenas. And it produced such a stir that it was quickly translated into English and Italian. Soon after, Carl Jung wrote to Flournoy for permission to translate the work into German, but was disappointed to learn that a translation had been contracted and was already underway.8
The story of the case is as follows: in 1894, Auguste Lemaître, professor of psychology at the Collège de Genève, introduced Théodore Flournoy, who was professor of psychology at the Université de Genève, to Hélène Smith’s spiritual circle. Smith had been giving séances for about two years, since her first introduction to spiritism and the discovery of her talent for precognition and her remarkable spiritual sensitivity. Over the course of those two years, her main contact was the spirit of Victor Hugo, who often composed verse for the group.9
Shortly before Lemaître and Flournoy joined the circle, Victor Hugo lost his dominance in Smith’s trance communications to a spirit named Léopold, who, over the course of several months, struggled actively with other trance personalities, chasing some away entirely. One September evening in a poor humor, Léopold even went so far as to unilaterally terminate a séance by pulling the chair out from under the seated Mlle. Smith.10 But by the time of Flournoy’s arrival, Léopold had grown comfortable with the group and with his role in it. His relationships with Smith’s other trance contacts mellowed, and he had gradually begun to reveal more about himself. Léopold, it turned out, was another name for Joseph Balsamo, the late Count de Cagliostro. His connection with the medium thus spanned more than one century: he had been her lover in a previous life when she herself had been incarnate as Marie Antoinette.11 In addition to speaking in the voices of the fated queen and her lover, Smith produced letters (via automatic writing) in distinctive handwriting attributed to each of them. Flournoy referred to this group of characters and stories as the “Royal” cycle or “roman.”
Smith soon revealed that hundreds of years prior to her incarnation as Marie Antoinette, she had walked the earth as the Princess Simandini, eleventh wife of Prince Sivrouka Nayaka of India. It was in these sessions that the special character of Smith’s capabilities became clear. While sometimes Léopold was able to describe what Smith was feeling when she was overtaken by the spirit of Simandini, typically, Simandini would announce herself directly, speaking through Smith in a language that Léopold identified as “Ancient Hindu.” While Flournoy considered it improbable that a young woman from the working class neighborhood of Plainpalais might actually be speaking Sanskrit, as he was no Sanskrit scholar himself, he reserved judgement until he could get a more learned opinion on the matter. For this, he called in, among others, Ferdinand de Saussure who was the Oriental language specialist at the Université de Genève at the time. Flournoy referred to this set of stories and personae as the “Hindu” or “Oriental” cycle.
Finally, and most spectacularly, there was the “Martian” cycle in which Smith described the environment and inhabitants of the red planet and communicated on their behalf. In her visions, Mars appeared as a world populated by humanoids of roughly Asian physiognomy, who used various futuristic devices such as self-powered vehicles and aircraft. Other interesting features of Mars included dog-like creatures with heads that looked like cabbages that not only fetched objects for their masters, but also took dictation. The Martian cycle eventually gave way to a related “roman” that occurred in a place called Ultra-Mars, perhaps another part of the planet. Ultra-Martians resembled trolls more than they did human beings. They had a language different from that of the Martians and employed an ideographic rather than a phonetic script.
In late 1899, Flournoy published his study From India to the Planet Mars and managed to alienate Smith entirely. In it, he argued that Smith’s trance personalities and tongues were the product of subconscious fantasies and represented a variety of regressive behaviors. He argued further that, far from indicating their truth, the very complexity and foreignness of the trance narratives demonstrated the medium’s subconscious desire to satisfy the imagination of her auditors.12 From this point on, Smith refused to admit Flournoy to her séances. Nonetheless, throughout the next year, Flournoy received reports of continuing developments in the seance room. In an article he wrote in response to his critics a year after his book was published, he describes the advent of still more extraterrestrial “romans” (Uranian, Lunar and others), each bringing with it a completely new language and system of writing.13
In the years that followed, Smith received a generous sponsorship from an American spiritualist and turned toward a Christian spiritualism with extraterrestrial elements. During this period, her estrangement from Flournoy was intensified by a sometimes public struggle over rights to proceeds from the sale of From India to the Planet Mars, which Smith insisted was as much the result of her work as it was of his. For a time, she considered writing a sequel to Flournoy’s book giving her side of the story. Over the course of the next two decades, Smith gave fewer séances and devoted much of her time to painting. Eventually, this work too attracted significant attention, including that of André Breton and the Surrealists. At her death in 1929, nine years after Flournoy’s own passing, the Geneva Art Museum sponsored a retrospective of her work.14 In some ways, the shift away from a verbal and toward a visual medium itself constituted a new language for Smith and a further repudiation and a distancing from Flournoy. On the other hand, neither move was total. In important ways, by 1901, Catherine-Elise Muller had become Hélène Smith, and while she disagreed with Flournoy’s book, she also recognized its value as a testament to all of her accomplishments. And, although she continued to use the name Muller, to the end of her life she also used the name that Flournoy gave to her.15
The drama of the psychologist and the medium begins with the appearance of Hindu and with Flournoy’s rapture at the beauty of this strange psychological artifact. Hindu was Smith’s first trance tongue. And, as Flournoy recounts, it proved quite difficult to decipher. While one could usually count on Léopold to give a gloss of a Hindu passage, to his frustration, Flournoy discovered that these interpretations were nearly always given in general terms. They were, in Flournoy’s words, “free translations.”16 This is not to suggest that Smith’s Hindu utterances conveyed no meaning, but rather, that they participated in an expression that was not easily confined to statements. The séance was a scene of gesture, physical contact, and play, and very often the sense of a session was most clearly conveyed through these other means, through what Flournoy called the “pantomime.”17
In the medium’s own terms, there was a straightforward reason for this: Léopold could not speak Hindu. And so, when Princess Simandini would speak through Smith, Léopold himself could not understand the words. His interpretations were based on “the innermost feelings of Mlle. Smith” with which he was “perfectly familiar” in moments of shared possession such as those occasioned by Simandini’s arrival.18 Moreover, it was Simandini’s spiritual message and not the language of its transmission that was Léopold’s first concern.
In this respect, Flournoy’s interest diverged sharply from that of the spectral gatekeeper. And his method diverged as well. While Léopold employed an empathetic technique for understanding Simandini, Flournoy engaged the most modern methods of linguistic analysis. And he did so with remarkable persistence. He began by sending transcripts of Smith’s Hindu to a number of eminent specialists in Oriental languages, including Auguste Barth and Charles Michel, in hope of learning more about its nature and its origins. He eventually went so far as to bring Ferdinand de Saussure into the séance room itself in order to observe and to listen first hand.19 There is a dreamlike character to the responses that Flournoy received: academic language peppered with phrases channeled by the psychic; as-if languages described as if they were languages, annotated and etymologized by the august faculty of Europe’s great institutions of learning. What is more, the analyses made by the linguists were themselves strangely ambiguous. On the one hand, they asserted that Smith was not speaking Sanskrit, or any other recognizable language. On the other hand, they argued that whatever Smith was speaking resembled a language to a remarkable extent. They pursued analyses of Smith’s Hindu in almost delirious detail, combing the transcripts for linguistic evidence. Saussure, in particular, argued that the “words” that Smith articulated were constructed “in some inexplicable manner, but not necessarily false.” Indeed, he would even go so far as to say that Smith’s tongue never had an “anti-Sanskrit character.”20 That is to say, while her vocal production turned out not actually to be Sanskrit, whether by accident or by subconscious design, some Sanskrit elements were consistently present. Some of this could be explained by the predominance of certain vowel sounds in Sanskrit and in Hindu which vastly increased the chance of the sounds of Hindu coalescing fortuitously into actual Sanskrit words.
Some other aspects were much more difficult to explain. Strangest was the total absence of the sound “f” in either tongue. This feature of Hindu seemed to argue strongly in favor of a deeper relationship, and it occasioned a number of arguments among the scientists. Perhaps Smith had once read a book containing a transliteration of a Sanskrit passage and this regularity had sunk in. Perhaps there was something about the “f” sound that was antipathetic to the glossolalic process. The linguist Victor Henry offered the following suggestion: “If one general thought completely preoccupies Mlle Smith’s subconscious at the time she is assembling the sounds of Sanskritoid or Martian, it is surely that ‘French’ must be entirely avoided. … Now the word ‘French’ begins with an f, for this reason, f must appear to her as the ‘French’ letter par excellence, and thus she avoids it as much as she can.”21 As the critic Mireille Cifali has pointed out, f was also the first sound of the name “Flournoy.”22
With time, Flournoy’s fascination with the specifically linguistic character of Smith’s Hindu contributed to the development of a new dynamic in the sittings. In his correspondence with Saussure, he dwelled at length on linguistic issues, and the sittings came to reflect his obsession.23 These were, after all, séances and not psychoanalytic treatments. And Flournoy’s approach, in contrast to the method of free association developed during the same period by Breuer and Freud, was to engage the medium on her own ground. Flournoy conversed freely with Smith’s trance personae and frequently pursued avenues of conversation even against the resistance of his immaterial interlocutors. For Flournoy, the key question was how to understand the “languages” of the trance.
But how could Hélène Smith’s somnambulistic vocalizations have been heard as language in the first place? After the initial possibility of true xenoglossia (speaking in unlearned foreign tongues) in the case of Hindu had been dispatched, the concept that Flournoy invoked in order to systematize Smith’s utterances was that of infantile or primitive language, “that general function, common to all human beings, which is at the root of language and manifests itself with more spontaneity and vigor as we mount higher towards the birth of peoples and individuals.”24 To Flournoy, Smith was a poet, “in the original, the most extended, acceptation of the term.” She was a language-maker.25
If this was not entirely clear in the case of Hindu, when it came to Martian, Flournoy argued, this was not in doubt. Martian had all of the characteristics of a language. Moreover, over the course of seven years of seances, it remained strikingly stable and structurally consistent. But while its structural characteristics closely followed those of the French language, its vocabulary proved something of a mystery. On the one hand, as a dictionary of Martian words began to come together, it became clear that Martian had a close correspondence with French. On the other hand, Flournoy found it difficult to find any grounds on which to link its lexicon with that of the speaker’s native tongue. The Martian vocabulary resisted Flournoy’s best attempts at decryption.26 In his reconsideration of the case, Victor Henry claimed to fare better. By admitting the influence of several languages other than French upon the Martian vocabulary, he was able to produce plausible terrestrial etymologies for nearly every Martian word. Flournoy accepted the breakthrough and used Henry’s observations to confirm his own suspicion that the sub-personality responsible for Smith’s trance languages was a regressed version of her own personality around the ages of ten or twelve, a period in which he hypothesized that Smith was exposed to some spoken Hungarian as well as to Latin and Greek.27 Drawing upon Henry’s etymological decryption of Smith’s tongues, Flournoy speculated that the very syllables of Smith’s glossolalic utterances could be assigned dates and provenance.
Flournoy thus sought to map the history of Smith’s trance tongues onto a history of psychic events. At several points, he even attempted directly to use Smith’s autohypnotic states in order to evoke clues as to the occulted origins of the trance narratives, in order, as he put it, “to obtain a confession from Hélène’s subconscious memory, and persuade it to disclose the secret.”28 But at each attempt, he was repulsed by Léopold who refused to relinquish his own position as interpreter. This early conflict between Flournoy and Léopold over the authority to interpret laid the foundation for a dynamic that characterized the séances thenceforth, a dynamic in which the problematic of translation belonged as much within the drama of the séance as without it.
If the task of the translator was fundamental even to Hélène Smith’s early glossolalia, it was to become still more central as the séances proceeded. Along with word-for-word correspondence with French, Martian brought with it Esenale, a character specifically fit for the role of translator of languages. A Swiss reincarnate on Mars, Esenale spoke both Martian and French. Indeed, he was trilingual, since he was also fluent in the Ultra-Martian language. His appearance marked the completion of a shift in the structure of the séances. Not only were his translations linguistic in the mundane sense, at their limit, they were nothing but translation. The ritual by which Ultra-Martian would be interpreted, it turned out, always involved an intermediary translation into Martian, thus converting the role of the latter into that of a linguistic go-between.
In a way, nothing could have suited Flournoy better. After years of work with the medium, the glossolalist’s secret appeared to be coming clear: analyses had been made, correspondences found, and vocabularies translated. And Flournoy was employing these linguistic observations in order to draw up a kind of index to Smith’s psychic history. But in another way, this turn in the seances complicated things. As the seances went on, Smith’s tongues continued to grow in number and in the complexity of their relations to one another. And while Smith continued to occupy the accustomed role of the medium, the role itself began to change: as much as the spirit behind the language, in her trances, Smith was coming to incarnate the spirit of language itself.
Flournoy recognized that what he had called “glossolalia” was perhaps a mixed phenomenon, and that for some reason over time Smith’s vocal performances had come to sound less and less like poetry and more and more like grammar. The cause that he identified was what he called “suggestibilty.” According to Flournoy, the premise of the entire Martian narrative arose from Smith’s subconscious desire to address a fancy that one of the sitters had expressed fleetingly some months before when he had mused aloud about the possibility of life on other planets. Suggestibility also accounted for the appearance of Mme. Mirbel’s son, Alexis, on Mars in the person of Esenale; and it explained the identity of Léopold and Joseph Balsamo, a response to the persistent questions of a sitter interested in the life of Marie Antoinette.29 In this instance, “suggestibility” explained the growing linguistic content of the séances given in the presence of the psychologists and linguists.
But there was more at work here than just suggestion. The séances were scenes of dialogue and reciprocal influence. And, indeed, the larger organization of Smith’s trance narratives foregrounds the interaction of speakers from different worlds and illustrates the many ways in which influence may pass from one sphere to another. Not only was there a permeability among trance narratives, the séances involved complex passages into and out from the world of the trance itself. On the one hand, it was possible for a character from the world of the sitters to enter the trance narrative, as did Alexis Mirbel. On the other hand, it was possible for trance personae to enter the material world, as one of the Arab slaves from the Hindu narrative did when he attached himself to the body of a sitter named Seippel, and as Prince Sivrouka often did when, according to Smith, he incarnated in the body of Flournoy himself. Flournoy writes:
It is difficult to understand why the hypnoid imagination of Mlle. Smith gave itself up to such pranks, and distributed as it did the roles of this comedy. … M. Seippel … has nothing about him of the Arab, and still less of the slave, neither in outward appearance nor in character; and as to myself, let us say here, M.F.—if I may be permitted to substitute harmless initials for the always odious “I”—as for M.F., there is generally to be met with in him, under some diffidence, a certain mildness of manner and disposition which would scarcely seem to predestinate him to the energetic and wild role of a violent, whimsical, capricious, and jealous Oriental despot.30
It is interesting to note that Flournoy’s openness to Smith’s performances ended exactly here. While he normally referred to the séance narratives as “romances,” this turn was strictly low comedy. And, while the trance tongues were serious business, this was merely a “prank.”31 It is doubly interesting to observe the evacuation of the “I” in Flournoy’s own language, a process that resembles the fragmentation of the speaking subject characteristic of the language of possession.32
While Flournoy focused his critical attention on the psychological mechanisms of suggestion, Smith’s performances continually emphasized the possibility of translations between worlds and of passages open in two directions. After all, it was not an accident that, even very early on, the crucial figure in Smith’s “romans” was a translator. Nor was it an accident that as the séances proceeded, the styles and mechanisms of translation present became both more sophisticated and more pivotal in the narrative of the “romans” themselves. Translation in the Hindu mode was not precisely linguistic. Léopold translated on the basis of meaning conveyed by the feelings of Mlle. Smith, which he knew “perfectly well.” That eventually the Martian cycle produced translation of the more usual linguistic sort is testament to Smith’s translation of the interests of Flournoy, Lemaître, Saussure, and the others into the terms of the “roman.”
As it turns out, the “Martian-French dictionary” so coveted by Flournoy was developing in two different registers.33 On the one hand, an actual written dictionary was emerging from the continuing series of seances: eventually there were even sessions devoted almost exclusively to translation. And, over the course of seven years, hundreds of words were catalogued and substantial progress was achieved. On the other hand, a drama of translation was being enacted within the “roman” itself. It was more and more the subject of the trance communications rather than merely their means. “Do not worry,” Esenale reassured Flournoy one difficult day, “soon you will ... possess . . . the signs of our language.”34 The linguists offered Smith a metaphor, language with a determinate, lowercase “l.” In her glossolalia, it came to embody an entire drama of foreignness and understanding.
The story of Hélène Smith is in ways an old one, a romance and a struggle between mysticism and reason with the medium and the professor playing the expected roles: she who speaks and he who writes and interprets. It is a story that has been repeated many times over centuries of confrontation between mystics and their (friendly or unfriendly) interpreters. And, whether in order to vindicate Smith or Flournoy, their relationship has very often been understood in this light. For the historian Michel de Certeau, for example, the story of Smith and Flournoy is that of glossolalia itself in miniature. It is the story of an original misrecognition, of speech taken for language.35 For de Certeau, the very identification of a vocal practice as glossolalia constitutes a powerful step in this direction. Although the term enforces a distinction between tongues and languages, at the same time, it locates the vocal act in relation to a positive field of linguistic understanding. And, in doing so, it calls into play the force of the various social and intellectual institutions (theology, psychology, hermeneutics, etc.) that ground linguistic meaning. According to de Certeau, it calls into play forces that militate against the originary joys of the expressive vocal act.
Certainly, there is something of this dynamic at work in the drama of interpretation that Smith’s tongues inspired. In the case of Hindu, for example, it is clear that while Smith and Léopold concerned themselves principally with the “innermost feelings” that they were charged with expressing, Flournoy and his associates concerned themselves with the means by which these expressions took place. But the questions do not always divide so neatly. And in the case of Hélène Smith’s extraterrestrial languages the distinctions are particularly hard to make, for here it is clear that Smith’s trance personalities assented at least in part to the ideas of the scientists. For Esenale, as much as for Flournoy, the truth of tongues lay in an understanding of the plurality and the specificity of languages. And foreignness itself, even in its greatest generality, owed not to the obscurity of the transcendent but to that of language itself in its density, materiality, and autonomy.36
From this point of view, Smith and her interpreters look less like antagonists than uneasy collaborators. It may be true that in ways Flournoy and company constrained the medium, forcing her into routes that she would not otherwise have taken, and emphasizing the linguistic as opposed to the vocal character of the tongues. At the same time, it is certain that Smith’s own understanding of language influenced and constrained them in turn. Above all, it is clear that the desire that Smith manifested in the later séances was not an unfettered desire to speak but rather a desire to speak languages, and that the transgressiveness of her performances lay not in their trajectory out of language and toward pure vocalization but in their repeated competence at producing convincing simulacra of language outside of the legitimate places where language ought to have been. If, as de Certeau argues, there are joys in the pure vocality of glossolalia, Smith’s speech embodies something different: a joy in translation and in the position of the intermediary, a joy in the foreignness that is language itself.
Daniel Rosenberg is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon. His most recent publications include works on Denis Diderot and the Hoover Dam.
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© 2000 Cabinet Magazine