Issue 30 The Underground Summer 2008

Through God's Left Eye

Paul La Farge

At the entry of the Cao Dai Holy See, a painting depicting three of the religion’s saints: Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen, French author Victor Hugo, and Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem. Photo Robert D. Fiala.

Caodaism was always the favourite chapter of my briefing to visitors. Caodaism, the invention of a Cochin civil servant, was a synthesis of the three religions. The Holy See was at Tanyin. A Pope and female cardinals. Prophecy by planchette. Saint Victor Hugo. Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour. How could one explain the dreariness of the whole business: the private army of twenty-five thousand men, armed with mortars made out of the exhaust pipes of old cars, allies of the French who turned neutral at the moment of danger? 

If you know anything at all about Cao Dai, chances are that this is what you know: a few sentences from the middle of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American (1955). The narrator, an English journalist named Fowler, has seized the opportunity to get out of Saigon for a day, and drives to a religious festival in the countryside. The visit serves as an interlude to the novel’s romantic and political intrigues, and also as an opportunity for Greene to brief the reader on a colorful aspect of Vietnamese culture: a new religion, which purported to unite all faiths in the service of universal peace, but which, at the same time, possessed its own army, and turned its province, which Greene calls Tanyin (its actual name is Tay Ninh) into a Caodaist state within a state. 

As Fowler listens to this strange Pope’s deputy pontificate, he reflects, “I was certain he knew that all of us were there to laugh at his movement; our air of respect was as corrupt as his phoney hierarchy, but we were less cunning. Our hypocrisy gained us nothing—not even a reliable ally, while theirs had procured arms, supplies, even cash down.” Let us assume for a moment that Fowler’s assessment of Caodaism is correct, and that the religion is a bit of play-acting for the benefit of the peasants and the foreigners, while the real military business takes place elsewhere. I would still want to know one thing, at least one thing: why Victor Hugo?1

* * *

To answer that question, it might be helpful to take a brief detour through the history of typtography, or communication by means of rapping sounds. This is a story that begins in 1848, when two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, ages ten and eight, heard a strange noise in their house in Hydesville, New York. The reason we remember the Fox sisters, of all the girls who ever heard something in the attic go thump, is that they devised a language for the ghost (what else could it be?) to answer their questions. One knock for yes, two for no. One for A, two for B, three for C. Two years later, the Fox sisters were a sensation; people came from New York City to hear ghosts rap with them. Soon there was a craze for making things knock—tables, mostly. It was easy to do: you set your hands on a three-legged table and allowed it to tip one way or another, so that its feet tapped out answers to your questions. The practice was called “turning tables,” although the tables did not, for the most part, actually turn.

This ghostly tapping crossed the ocean along the route that telegraph cables would later follow: it reached Ireland and Scotland first, then England, then the continent. By 1853, there was a craze for turning tables in Paris. And in the fall of that year, Delphine de Girardin, a Parisian novelist, brought news of typtography to Victor Hugo, who was in exile on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. Hugo and his family conducted scores of séances between 1853 and 1855; they spoke with the spirits of Jesus, Dante, Shakespeare, Moses, Molière, Racine, and many other illustrious dead persons, as well as the “living phantasm” of the Emperor Napoleon III, who came to apologize for scuttling France’s Second Republic. Hugo recorded the séances in four red notebooks, three of which were subsequently lost.2 A few years later, the real Napoleon III, uncontrite, apparently, about his imperial designs, sent an invasion force to Vietnam. They captured the fortifications at Da Nang and Gia Dinh (later called Saigon, and later still, Ho Chi Minh City). By 1867, the French had more or less routed the Vietnamese, and they began their uneasy rule of l’Indochine française. Telegraph cables followed the course of empire; in 1871, the China Submarine Telegraph Company landed its Singapore-Hong Kong cable near Saigon; and in 1883, the same company laid a cable from Saigon to the new French colony of Tonkin, in the north of Vietnam.3

Typtography came to Vietnam along those same lines: via the British network to India (where Madame Helena Blavatsky had established a chapter of the Theosophical Society), and then by branch lines to Saigon. When, in 1923, the last of Victor Hugo’s red séance notebooks came to light, the news appeared almost instantly in the Saigon newspaper L’Écho Annamite, where it inspired a group of educated Vietnamese civil servants to conduct their own table-turning experiments. The members of the Pho loan group,4 as they were later called, seem to have been looking for poetic inspiration, but what they found was something quite different: “One of the communicating spirits became particularly noticeable by his high level of moral and philosophical teachings. This spirit, who signed himself “AA˘Â,” did not wish to reveal himself in spite of the entreaties of his hearers.”5 Finally, on Christmas Eve 1925, AA˘Â announced its true identity: it was Ngoc-Hoàng Thuong-De viet Cao-Dai giao-dao Nam-Phuong, “Jade Emperor, Supreme Deity, alias Cao-Dai, religious teacher of the Southern Quarter.” It had come to “teach the truth to the people of Annam.”6

This was not Cao Dai’s first appearance. The name, which has been translated variously as “high tower,” “roofless tower,” or “high palace,” is used in Chinese as a term of respect; in Chinese translations of Protestant scripture, it was used to designate God. More to the point, a spirit called Cao Dai had appeared to Ngo Minh Chieu, who was then the governor of an island in the Gulf of Siam, in 1920, five years before the Pho loan group began their experiments. It directed Chieu to become a vegetarian, and revealed its sign to him: an eye, surrounded by rays. (The sign, which is still in use, looks like the Freemasons’ empyramided eye—but where the Masons are overseen by God’s right eye, Cao Dai, half a world away, looks out through the left.7) Chieu returned to Saigon in 1924, and shared his revelations with the Pho loan group. They conducted séances together, but gave up table-turning in favor of an instrument called the corbeille à bec, a basket attached to a stick which holds a pen. In this way they received messages from many spirits, not all of them Eastern; among their interlocutors were Lao-Tzu, the Chinese poet Li Po, the female Bodhisattva Quan Am, but also Joan of Arc, Pasteur, Descartes, Lenin, and Victor Hugo.

This is the world as seen through God’s left eye: a group of Vietnamese officials receiving messages in labored alexandrines from Victor Hugo, who, in the afterlife, knows all about chemistry:

Oui, c’est cette sorte de gaz qu’on appelle hydrogène,

Plus ou moins dense qui fait la partie la plus saine,

Dire que l’Esprit de Dieu nage au-dessus des eaux,

C’est à ce sens qu’il faut comprendre le mot.8

The message is so odd and hard to understand that if Fowler, the hard-boiled journalist, had intercepted it, he would likely have taken it for code: a Caodaist cipher behind which some violent activity lurked. The mortar shells will arrive at midnight, by boat. But the message means nothing, except that Victor Hugo’s ghost was talking about chemistry, in language that echoes another spiritist work, Occult Chemistry: Investigations by Clairvoyant Magnification into the Structure of the Atoms of the Periodic Table and Some Compounds (1908), by the Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater.9 There is nothing beyond the Beyond but more Beyond.

God’s left eye, as depicted at the Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh, Vietnam. Photo Le Thanh Dong.

The Caodaists’ invocation of Victor Hugo was very likely a political act. Of all the dead French writers who could have appeared to them, Hugo was the most vehemently opposed to Napoleon III’s empire, which had by now grown to encompass Vietnam. Like the Caodaists, Hugo had suffered because of that empire, but unlike them, he was famous in France. He was a bridge between worlds: not only the Here and the Hereafter, but metropolitan France and its overseas colony as well. Nor did the spirit of Joan of Arc appear by accident: she was France’s best-loved resistance fighter. And yet there is no reason to believe that the Caodaists’ séances were a sham. If anything, the opposite seems more likely: by practicing spiritism in the Western style sincerely, the Caodaists had found a way to ally themselves with a hidden Western tradition of anticolonialism.10

As it happened, the Caodaists’ séances served a couple of worldly purposes. First, they served as a point of contact between the Caodaists and the Western world. Caodaism was officially founded in 1926; as its leaders began to seek support in France, they found other spiritists who were sympathetic to their cause.11 The first non-Vietnamese Caodaist was a Frenchman named Gabriel Gobron, who became interested in the religion in 1930. He never went to Vietnam, but received Caodaist publications by mail, and assembled them into the first serious history of Caodaism in a European language. He lobbied tirelessly for the religion at the various International Conferences of Spiritists and World Congresses of Faiths which seemed to be taking great strides towards universal brotherhood in the years leading up to World War II. 

Second, the séances gave the founders of Caodaism a chance to articulate the laws of their religion rapidly. Although nominally composed by spirits, the Caodaist statutes read as if they were the work of a group of civil servants who combined a Confucian love of authority with a French relish for bureaucratic complication. The religion’s hierarchy is divided into three branches: the Bat Quai Dai or Eight Trigram Palace of presiding spirits, headed by Li Po, the Spiritual Pope (Victor Hugo works in this department, as the head of Caodaism’s Overseas Mission); the Cuu Trung Dai, or administrative body, which includes the Pope, six Cardinals (who may, as Greene observed, be women), thirty-six archbishops, seventy-two bishops, three thousand priests, and an unspecified number of student priests and other minor officials; and the Hiep Thien Dai, a group of mediums who are responsible for discerning Caodaism’s laws. For all its complexity, this system served a vital purpose: it gave Caodaism a formal existence independent of the Indochinese government.12

Caodaism grew rapidly. In 1928, even a conservative estimate put the size of the religion at around two hundred thousand; by the early 1930s, there were between five hundred thousand and one million Caodaists—as much as a fourth of the population of South Vietnam. (There are several convincing explanations of this rapid growth: many of the Caodaist dignitaries were landholders, and had little trouble persuading their peasants to join; Caodaism promised a return to the Confucian laws which had been abrogated by the French; and finally, Caodaism had a millenarian element insofar as it heralded the beginning of a Third Age of salvation, an appealing prospect if you happened to be impoverished and living under foreign rule.) But the spirits were unable to deliver on their promises of universal brotherhood. The ready availability of supernatural guidance made it too easy to write your own laws; ten years after its founding, there were ten sects of Caodaism, each with a charismatic leader who claimed that the spirits had put him in charge of the religion. To make matters worse, the Caodaists were unlucky in their alliances: during World War II, they were pro-Japanese; after the war, they inclined towards the French and then the South Vietnamese government.13 When Saigon fell, in 1975, many Caodaists joined the first wave of refugees to leave the country.

* * *

The Caodaists are still waiting for the Third Age of Salvation, but it seems unlikely to arrive soon. There are about two million Caodaists in Vietnam, and perhaps twenty thousand in the United States, most of them in California. They remain divided: many follow the Tay Ninh branch of Caodaism, which has for a long time had a moratorium on séances, but some are using the bec à corbeille to divine new laws which will allow them to live in the New World, in the New Age. The spirits they speak with are mostly Vietnamese, but one medium in San José has apparently received messages from Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Meanwhile, the Tay Ninh Caodaists have built a temple in Garden Grove, in Orange County, in the hope that their increasingly Americanized children will not abandon their parents’ religion. 

A handful of non-Vietnamese Americans have joined Caodaism, too. One of them is Steven Stratford, who happens to be a veteran of the Vietnam War. He spent two years identifying targets to be bombed in Laos, and returned to America with a bad conscience and a heroin addiction. Prison followed, then school, then a stint as the director of the Vietnam Veterans’ Restoration Project, which sends veterans back to Vietnam, to take part in construction and public health projects. Stratford’s organization was asked to rehabilitate a Caodaist orphanage in Vietnam. The project turned out to be politically unfeasible, but in 1993 it brought Stratford to the Holy See at Tay Ninh, where the Caodaists were expecting him: it turned out that the spirits had foretold his, Steven Stratford’s, coming, all the way back in 1927. The spirits also foretold that Stratford would become the first Caucasian Caodaist.14 Stratford didn’t know what to do with that information, if it was information, so he did nothing. Four years later, he received a direct spirit communication, which told him to become a Caodaist, so, finally, he did. He spent a year living with Dr. Hum Hong Bui, one of the advocates of Caodaism in the United States. He learned a little Vietnamese, which is helpful, because almost none of the Caodaist liturgy has been translated into English (even though many of the prayers were composed by Victor Hugo, some years after his death). The Caodaists gave him a Vietnamese name, Thanh Huong, and they seem generally delighted to have him around, although not many of them speak English, either. Stratford, too, seems happy with how things have turned out. He had himself excommunicated from the Mormon church long ago, but he says of the Caodaists: “I feel like I have a home with them, so to speak, like I’ve got roots with them now. It’s the only organized religion that I’ve ever been a part of that I felt good about.” He talks about retiring to Vietnam, to live in Tay Ninh, the Holy See. It’s a small step towards universal brotherhood, a small shift in the human map, but small shifts are perhaps all the spirits are, in the end, capable of, given that they have to cross such enormous distances in order to reach us at all.

  1. This was in fact my first question about Caodaism, when I heard about it from my eleventh-grade French teacher, a kindly man named Michel Berta, who wore sleeve garters and later moved to Alaska. “There is a 
religion in Vietnam,” he said, “which worships Victor Hugo!” I don’t remember how this came up, but the fact stayed with me, a little indigestible piece of strangeness. Why Victor Hugo?
  2. For more information on Hugo’s séances, see his Les Fantômes de Jersey, ed. Francis Lacassin (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1991).
  3. Daniel R. Headrick, The Tentacles 
of Progress: Technology Transfer in 
the Age of Imperialism, 1850–1940 (Oxford and New York: Oxford 
University Press, 1988), pp. 111–112.
  4. Pho loan means literally, “one who receives the Emperor.” The second generation of Caodaists used this term to designate mediums who received divine law from the spirits.
  5. Gabriel Gobron, History and Philosophy of Caodaism (Saigon: Tu-hài, 1950), p. 19. The spirit in fact signed 
off as “AA˘Â,” the first three letters of the quoc ngu or Romanized Vietnamese alphabet. This name makes sense in light of the typtographic alphabet; it could be spelled out in five taps, as opposed to the eighty-seven required for “VXY,” the last three letters of the quoc ngu.
  6. R. B. Smith, “An Introduction to Caodaism: II. Beliefs and Organization,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 33, no. 3 (1970), p. 579.
  7. The resemblance was not a coincidence: French-educated Vietnamese officials like Ngo Minh Chieu knew a great deal about Freemasonry, which was widespread in Indochina. The Masons were attractive to the Caodaists for two reasons: they could influence the French government, and they were historically opposed to the Catholic Church, which meant that they were, at least theoretically, in favor of religious freedom.
  8. A rough translation would read: 
Yes, it’s this kind of gas, which they call hydrogen. More or less dense, which makes the healthiest part, When they say that the Spirit of God swam above the waters, It’s in that sense that the word must be understood… Cited in Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent (London: Jonathan Cape, 1951), p. 45.
  9. Christopher Hartney makes this connection in “Of Séance and Surrealism, Poetry and Crisis,” in Colette Rayment and Mark Byrne, eds., Conference Proceedings2001 (Sydney: Society for the Study of Religion Literature and the Arts, 2002).
  10. For more on the Caodaists’ 
anticolonialism, see Janet Hoskins’s essay, “Caodai Exile and Redemption,” in Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, ed., 
Religion and Social Justice for 
Immigrants (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007).
  11. By the time Caodaism was officially established in 1926, Ngo Minh Chieu, who had little interest in organized religion, had been ousted by Le Van Trung, a former government official who had gone into business, lost most of his money, and become addicted to opium before Cao Dai showed him the error of his ways. Trung was the Caodaists’ first Pope; he died just before Pham Cong Tac, a member of the Pho loan group, could oust him for misusing church funds. After Trung’s death, the Papacy seems to have been left vacant; Tac took charge of Caodaism as the Ho-Phap, or head of the college of mediums.
  12. Indeed, as Gauri Viswanathan remarks in her article “The Ordinary Business of Occultism” Critical Inquiry, vol. 27, no. 1 (Autumn 2000), “the bureaucratization of occultism is never far from its simultaneous deployment as an anticolonial pose.” By firmly establishing their own laws, occult institutions lessen the risk of outside interference.
  13. The Caodaists were at the height of their temporal power when Greene wrote The Quiet American, and it is entirely possible that his assessment of the religion is an accurate reflection of its priorities circa 1953–1954, when spirit communication was far less important than their negotiations with the French and the Viet Minh.
  14. Not counting, presumably, Gabriel Gobron.

Paul La Farge is the author of two novels, The Artist of the Missing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) and Haussman, or the Distinction (Picador, 2002). His third book, The Facts of Winter, was published by McSweeney’s Books in 2005. He is currently working on a project about flight in America.

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