Caught in the Middle: Renaissance Man Charles Richet
Posted on 23 December 2019, 9:37
There were three schools of thought relative to mediumship and other psychic phenomena during the early years of psychical research. The predominant school, that of scientific fundamentalism, held that it was all fraudulent – just so much trickery or tomfoolery. Most belonging to this school did little or no research, choosing to form their opinions on the non-scientific nature of the various phenomena and the belief that it represented a return to the pre-Darwinian religious humbug.
A second school, one including many esteemed scientists and scholars who thoroughly studied the phenomena, held that genuine phenomena existed and that it strongly suggested a world of spirits and the survival of consciousness at death. This school recognized that there were many charlatans and even some genuine mediums who didn’t want to disappoint observers and occasionally cheated, consciously or unconsciously, when their powers failed them. Many in this school had hundreds of observations on which to base their conclusions.
The third school agreed with the second school as to the reality of psychic phenomena but did not see it as suggesting spirits or survival. Rather, they opined that it was all a product of the mind not yet understood by science. One of the leaders of this school was Dr. Charles Richet, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Medicine. A Frenchman, Richet (below) was a physician, physiologist, chemist, bacteriologist, pathologist, psychologist, inventor, philosopher, explorer, aviator, poet, novelist, playwright, editor, author, and psychical researcher. After practicing medicine for about 10 years, he served as professor of physiology at the medical school of the University of Paris for 38 years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on anaphylaxis, the sensitivity of the body to alien protein substance. He also contributed much to research on the nervous system, anesthesia, serum therapy, and neuro-muscular stimuli. He served as editor of the Revue Scientifique for 24 years and contributed to many other scientific publications. He was referred to by writers of his time as an ideal European, a visionary, and a Renaissance man.
Richet’s interest in psychical research began around 1872 when, as a medical student, he observed phenomena later classified as extra-sensory perception (ESP). His real research in the field seems to have begun in 1892 when he observed the mediumship of Eusapia Palladino, an illiterate Italian woman. He would go on to study a number of other famous mediums, including Marthe Béraud of France, Leonora Piper of the United States, and Franek Kluski and Stefan Ossowiecki, both of Poland.
Many of Richet’s studies were under strictly controlled conditions, including the medium being strip-searched in a laboratory and behind locked doors, there being no possibility of confederates or hidden material smuggled into the room. “When I think of the precautions that we have taken, twenty times, a hundred times, a thousand times, it is unacceptable that we were all twenty times, a hundred times, a thousand times, misled,” Richet wrote of his research in psychical matters, further stating that all possible psychological explanations had to be exhausted before considering the idea of discarnate, or spirit, activity.
An excellent introduction to Richet’s research and views was just recently released by White Crow Books. Titled Charles Richet: A Nobel Prize Winning Scientist’s Exploration of Psychic Phenomena, the book is authored by Dr. Carlos S. Alvarado, probably the most knowledgeable person in the world in the fields of psychical research and parapsychology. In this 218-page book, Alvarado focuses on Richet’s psychical research and his views, describing his book as “a reference work presenting many summaries of studies, bibliographical sources, and evidential claims about psychic phenomena for the pre-1922 period.” (Further discussion here is not necessarily from Alvarado’s book, as I draw from my own study of Richet.)
Metapsychics, as Richet referred to the study of psychical matters, was something to be approached in a purely scientific manner. “We must remain on the earth, take all theory soberly, and only consider humbly whether the phenomenon studied is true, without seeking to deduce the mysteries of past or future existences,” Richet wrote in his 1923 book, Thirty Years of Psychical Research. At the same time, Richet admitted that the “discarnate agency” explanation – one holding that there are intelligent beings intervening in our lives while exercising some action over matter – was the simplest explanation for some cases.
Many researchers of the day were convinced that Palladino was a charlatan, at best a mixed medium, sometimes producing genuine phenomena and other times cheating. However, Richet, who had more than 200 sittings with her, defended her. “Even if there were no other medium than Eusapia in the world, her manifestations would suffice to establish scientifically the reality of telekinesis and ectoplasmic forms,” he wrote, going on to explain that in her trance condition “the ectoplasmic arms and hands that emerge from the body of Eusapia do only what they wish, and though Eusapia knows what they do, they are not directed by Eusapia’s will; or rather there is for the moment no Eusapia.”
One of most interesting and intriguing stories about Palladino, involving Richet, was reported by Dr. Cesare Lombroso, a renowned Italian neuropathologist. As set forth in his 1909 book, After Death-What? Lombroso wrote: “On the evening of the 28th of September (1892), while her hands were being held by MM. Richet and Lombroso (referring to himself), she complained of hands which were grasping her under the arms; then, while in trance, with the changed voice characteristic of this state, she said, ‘Now I lift my medium up on the table.’ After two or three seconds the chair with Eusapia in it was not violently dashed, but lifted without hitting anything, on to the top of the table, and M. Richet and I are sure that we did not even assist the levitation by our own force. After some talk in the trance state the medium announced her descent, and (M. Finzi having been substituted for me) was deposited on the floor with the same security and precision, while MM. Richet and Finzi followed the movements of her hands and body without at all assisting them. … Moreover, during the descent both gentlemen repeatedly felt a hand touch them on the head.”
The voice and invisible hands referenced by Lombroso were supposedly those of John King, Palladino’s spirit control. However, since recognizing the presence of spirits was not “scientific,” John King was to them only some kind of secondary personality emerging from Palladino’s subconscious. Moreover, while those accepting the spirit hypothesis saw much of the so-called cheating as movements by John King controlling Palladino’s body, those not accepting the reality of spirits could only conclude that Palladino was pulling off some sleight-of-hand, whether called conscious or unconscious fraud.
Marthe Béraud (given the pseudonym “Eva C”) also impressed Richet. With her, Richet witnessed many strange materializations, some of them appearing like cardboard cutouts. While many laughed at the photos of these materializations, wondering how any scientist could take them seriously, Richet responded: “The fact of the appearance of flat images rather than of forms in relief is no evidence of trickery. It is imagined, quite mistakenly, that a materialization must be analogous to a human body and must be three dimensional. This is not so. There is nothing to prove that the process of materialization is other than a development of a completed form after a first stage of coarse and rudimentary lineaments formed from the cloudy substance.” This cloudy substance was otherwise referred to as ectoplasm by Richet.
Richet pointed out that there are stages in the materialization process: “[First,] a whitish steam, perhaps luminous, taking the shape of gauze or muslin, in which there develops a hand or an arm that gradually gains consistency. This ectoplasm makes personal movements. It creeps, rises from the ground, and puts forth tentacles like an amoeba. It is not always connected with the body of the medium but usually emanates from her, and is connected with her.” The flat materializations, he explained, came in the rudimentary phase, a sort of rough draft in the phase of building up. Often the materializations stalled in the rudimentary stage, apparently due to lack of power by the medium or by the spirits (assuming spirits), thereby resulting in bizarre manifestations that only invited more scoffs from the fundamentalists of science.
That ectoplasm is a scientific fact, Richet had no doubt, though he called it “absurd.” “Spiritualists have blamed me for using this word ‘absurd’ and have not been able to understand that to admit the reality of these phenomena was to me an actual pain,” he explained his position. “But to ask a physiologist, a physicist, or a chemist to admit that a form that has a circulation of blood, warmth, and muscles, that exhales carbonic acid, has weight, speaks, and thinks, can issue from a human body is to ask of him an intellectual effort that is really painful. Yes, it is absurd, but no matter – it is true.”
While clearly accepting the reality of mediumship and other psychic phenomena, Richet remained skeptical as to whether the evidence suggested spirits and survival. He said he would not allow himself to be blinded by rationalism and that he opposed the spiritist hypothesis only “half-heartedly” because he was unable to bring forward any wholly satisfactory counter-theory. “In very many cases the spiritist hypothesis is obviously absurd – absurd because it is superfluous – and again absurd because it assumes that human beings of very moderate intelligence survive the destruction of the brain,” he stated his position. “All the same, in certain cases – rare indeed, but whose significance I do not disguise – there are, apparently at least, intelligent and reasoned intentions, forces, and wills in the phenomena produced; and the power has all the character of extraneous energy.”
Is mortality vs. immortality really a superfluous matter? One can only wonder how such a brilliant man could have come to such a conclusion. Certainly, there is a paradox involved there. Also, Richet’s comment about humans of a very modest intelligence surviving death suggests that he was influenced by the religious belief that all spirits are omniscient or at least of a very high order, giving no heed to revelation of the time indicating that we transition with the same consciousness we had in the material life.
Sadly, the same “intellectual” mindset continues today. It is the “scientific” approach.
Then again, if, as Victor Hugo was supposedly told by a spirit, “doubt is the instrument which forges the human spirit” (see blog of 11-11-19), we should be thankful for Richet’s wisdom. Truth is so abstract, so paradoxical.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
Next blog post: January 7
Please Rick, use something else as your source of information. Wikipedia has an agenda to promote. One resource is never enough to get comprehensive information about anything. Take a look at 4, 5 or more sources of information. The problem with researching someone like Margaret Sanger is that most likely ALL of the information is biased in one direction or another. One has to acknowledge that probably what one reads on the internet might be accurate but then again maybe not!
Being poor and uneducated is not a reason to deny procreation. People who are poor and uneducated are not “severely mentally defective” or “severely compromised” as I said in my comment which obviously was not meant to include the poor. Where you have gone with my comment is exactly why application of true eugenics will not work with humans.
Amos Oliver Doyle, Fri 3 Jan, 14:52
I usually don’t mean to be critical Rick but your third comment is extremely disturbing to me.
With all due respect, your friend, Amos Oliver Doyle.
AOD, thanks for clarifying. We can agree on most of what you said.
I would take exception to this, however: “Often these severely compromised people self-select or are not chosen by anyone as a mate and do not produce progeny.”
Visit the inner city or inner suburbs of practically any American metropolis. You will observe (if you allow yourself to) a huge dysfunctional population. How can you claim they self-select out of the gene pool and “do not produce progeny”? They reproduce like fruit flies. It is bad for them, bad for society—the age-old problem that the rich get richer, the poor get children. The fallout is worse than ever today, when government forces taxpayers to subsidize feckless breeding.
You are subject to scrutiny when you want to obtain a dog license or adopt a kitten from the shelter. No scrutiny at all for giving birth to a child you are expected to support for 20 years.
I read the Wikipedia article on Margaret Sanger—not that Wikipedia is trustworthy, but one has to start somewhere. I discerned no “horrors” she was responsible for. Anti-abortion fanatics and anti-white Commies like Angela Davis hate her. So?
Perhaps you will tell me what horrors you spot in her life.
Rick Darby, Thu 2 Jan, 23:26
When discussing eugenics today I think there may be a tendency to equate eugenics with birth control, specifically a “woman’s right to choose”, racism and genocide. I think it is an error to lump all of those topics together as eugenics. I don’t think there is a way to have a rational discussion about eugenics today because too many people jump to a discussion about birth control, abortion and a woman’s right to choose as well as racism. People take sides and won’t look at issues related to eugenics unemotionally.
At my age and being a man, birth control has little interest for me but as a biologist, selective breeding of plants and animals—-and yes, including humans—- does interest me. I have seen selective breeding result in superior plants and animals and I believe that a project of selective breeding of humans could result in superior humans and an advancement in the evolution of the physical form inhabited by the human spirit. To question what I said as a bad thing if done for physical health is presenting a false argument and exactly the opposite of my intent. Of course, the main intent of improving the physical form is primarily for physical health and survival of the body occupied by a spirit.
Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 1 Jan, 23:52
Now, how that would be done, I don’t know. Perhaps sperm banks and/or in vitro fertilization using genetically superior eggs and sperm and implantation might advance evolution of the human species. Maybe there would be designated “breeders” who would supply embryos for everyone. But, people would have to agree to all of this and not see it as a way to eliminate any given race or people. Actually each race could have its own program of eugenics to improve their forms. The problem is that it would be difficult to establish a standard of just what is the direction to go with improving the human form. Not only would each race have its own ideas but within a given race every individual probably would have their own ideas about what would make a superior specimen. The solution perhaps is that maybe God as the first eugenicist has already decided and provided a guided continuing evolution of humans that Darwin and Wallace just called natural selection and survival of the fittest.
In my view the efforts to diversify cultures thereby facilitating interbreeding of human varieties is a great loss of variety and will eventually be a disaster for the human race as the environment of the earth changes over time. Any genetically homogeneous species, which is what would occur as humans share their genes, is eventually doomed to extinction as all genetic variation is eventually eliminated and the ability to adapt to a changing environment cannot occur.
I think that most people who understand genetics and inheritance would agree that it is not a good idea to reproduce severely mentally defective people or people who have serious inheritable diseases or other conditions for several reasons. Often these severely compromised people self-select or are not chosen by anyone as a mate and do not produce progeny. That is the natural way of things according to natural selection and survival of the fittest. That is how humans got to the place in evolutionary development they are today. (I don’t necessarily agree with this last statement since I believe in intelligent design but that is a topic for another discussion. ) - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 1 Jan, 21:57
Do a web search of Margaret Sanger first: then maybe we can have a discussion about her. - AOD
AOD, I do not understand your having-it-both-ways view of eugenics.
On one side, you argue correctly that the principle of eugenics is behind not only selective breeding of plants and animals, but is practiced unofficially by traditional societies and even by many people in the modern world. You seem to accept that “selective breeding in humans i.e. eugenics may not be such a bad thing to do if done with spiritual intent.” But it’s bad if done for physical health?
Then you associate eugenics with the “horrors” of Hitler and Margaret Sanger (?). Let’s leave Hitler in his well-deserved darkness, but what “horrors” did Sanger perpetrate by devoting her life to enabling women to have access to birth control? Associating her with Hitler is a cheap shot.
Brett Butler, please explain to me how Richet was “world class racist” and what your definition of racist is. I don’t want to write you off as a cultural Marxist ideologue, but just flinging curse words like “racist” is not a contribution to thoughtful discourse.
Rick Darby, Wed 1 Jan, 18:24
My comment about eugenics was to support Michael’s comment—-with which I agree—-that, “I do my best not to apply today’s standards of morality to people of past generations.”
Charles Richet was from another generation far removed from the horrors of Adolph Hitler and Margaret Sanger and any “staunch beliefs” Richet may have had about eugenics probably was in keeping with burgeoning academic thoughts at the time related to Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s ideas about natural selection and survival of the fittest. - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Thu 26 Dec, 15:17
I have never heard of Armagasillia. However, being exposed by Houdini means nothing. Houdini apparently exposed a lot of people based on ways their “tricks” might have been done or could have been done. He claimed that Mina Crandon, aka Margery, was a fraud after apparently planting a fold-up ruler in the box he built to restrain her. He was going to claim that she used the ruler to reach out to objects in the room that were beyond her normal reach. As I recall, Mina’s husband, a Harvard medical professor, discovered the ruler in the box before the seance started.
As for the claim that Richet was not experienced in magic, that seems to be a pretty standard cop-out for the debunkers. When they can’t find anything else to debunk a respected scientist who carried out hundreds of experiments with mediums, they argue that the scientist was not experienced in magic. If the person was experienced in magic, as a few researchers were, they just weren’t experienced enough. Magicians apparently come in as many degrees of ability as mediums, so the debunker can always argue that his magic wasn’t as good as the medium’s magic, even when the medium never gave any indication of being a magician before or after. Please see my next blog post.
Thanks for the comment.
Michael Tymn, Thu 26 Dec, 11:05
Thanks for sharing that interesting perspective on eugenics. As with just about everything else, there is something of a paradoxical take on it.
Michael Tymn, Thu 26 Dec, 08:40
I recently had some email exchange with Joe Nickell. He writes for the Skeptical Inquirer. He told me Charles Richet was not experienced in magic trickery and he was easily duped in the dark seance room.
Nickell told me that Richet embarrassed himself by claiming Joaquín Argamasilla a well known Spanish psychic was genuine but Argamasilla was exposed as a fraud by Harry Houdini.
Do you know anything about Argamasilla? He claimed x-ray vision but his feats seemed to be nothing more than parlor tricks. Why did Richet endorse Argamasilla?
Joe, Thu 26 Dec, 05:51
I wonder if most people today think of eugenics as mass genocide or the extinction of a race of people or otherwise mentally or physically ‘defective’ people. Actually in past centuries, eugenics had a much broader definition focusing on selective breeding of both plants and animals (which is routinely done today but call it ‘genetics’) and perhaps humans. Royalty did it and when you really think about it, many people today consider eugenics if only subconsciously when selecting a mate. Most people want a relationship with a healthy and superior specimen. This is the biologically ingrained way of the wild. Some parents arrange marriage with an acceptable mate for their child. That’s a form of eugenics today. Arranged marriages are very common in some cultures and countries today. I think the negative connotation about eugenics is when it is something that government (or parents) force people to do.
Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 24 Dec, 22:44
Women who use sperm banks and selectively choose the father of their child provide examples of blatant eugenics in action in modern society; it is not a crapshoot when a sperm donor is selected from a book of profiles.
In another paradigm, in another universe, the betterment of the physical form for the spirit might be a desirable pursuit and encouraged. Selective breeding in humans i.e. eugenics may not be such a bad thing to do if done with spiritual intent. - AOD
As Frank said, doubts about the reality of life after death are irrelevant to those of us who have had personal experience of the “dead.”
Elene, Tue 24 Dec, 05:21
Many thanks for your comment. Dr. Alvarado mentions Richet’s interest in eugenics in his book. I had not known that before his book. However, the post was not intended to glorify Richet, only to historically observe his place in psychical research.
I do my best not to apply today’s standards of morality to people of past generations. Before mass communication, they were pretty much limited to believing what they had been exposed to at home or in their communities. It is difficult to blame them for their misguided ideas when they had so little to learn from when compared with what we have today. Of course, it might be argued that Richet, being such a worldly man, should have been more open in his thinking. Perhaps eugenics was an interest from his early years that he overcame in his later years. I don’t know.
Michael Tymn, Tue 24 Dec, 02:58
For those wanting to know more about Frank Juszczyk and his experiences, including his book, check out my blog of March 12, 2018 in the archives.
Michael Tymn, Tue 24 Dec, 02:34
These doubtful speculations about the existence of the Afterlife no longer trouble me. My late wife has demonstrated repeatedly that she is very much “alive” in the sense of retaining her identity and consciousness. Further, she produces physical effects in our “reality” in communicating with me. Her very first contact involved her sending me a voicemail and a text message on my cell phone, which was turned off at the time. She also sent a medium to meet with me even though the medium and I had no knowledge of each other’s existence prior to our meeting. She has had contact with others who knew her in life, and they have confirmed my own experiences. To doubt the existence of an Afterlife is to doubt one’s own existence in this one. Neither exists without the other.
Frank Juszczyk, Mon 23 Dec, 20:11
Of course all modern references - including the certifiably prejudiced Wikipedia - to Dr. Richet and other indisputably brilliant people will disparage their belief in/experiences with things supernatural. Plus, any whiff or whisper of fraud throws the baby out with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. More’s the pity, given that the golden age of mediumship occurred a century ago in Europe and America. (The sadhus of India and Asia were undoubtedly accomplishing perhaps even more extraordinary feats then, and now, for all we know.)
For contemporary reference, I like to compare William F. Buckley, the great American 20th century conservative intellectual whose Roman Catholic faith was so fervent that he literally grieved when high mass ceased being in Latin. When he died, reverence for his great mind was obvious from all quarters. However, I believe that if he dallied even a bit with belief in the afterlife, his obituaries would have been very different. With no disrespect intended towards Mr. Buckley’s faith, I find it a few steps past ironic that his faith is seen as an adorable offset of his quirky persona, while regard for metaphysics is viewed as little more than an unfortunate lapse in judgement that can color a person’s entire academic career and accomplishments.
This can also be said for great thinkers and inventors of the past like Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir Conan Doyle et al.
What does disturb me about the mention of Richet is that he was a world class racist whose texts have floated back up like so much awful wreckage from humanity’s most misguided moments. His staunch belief in eugenics is a stain on his otherwise enormously valuable contributions to society and science. America is experiencing a dreadful resurgence of such texts - tragically cited as proof given the CV of the authors.
One shudders to think what we’d find digging through other great people’s deepest thoughts then - and now - but, in Richet’s case, perhaps a mention of his less advanced theories might have been called for.
Your blog and White Crow books mean so much to this armchair metaphysical fan. Indeed, I probably send the bulk of my “proof” from your work and the great documentaries of Keith Parsons.
Subjective or not, the theory that the veil becomes thinner each time truth is imparted from the higher realms is a great comfort to this reader - and writer. Maybe my chagrin is best left to karma - that Richet’s corrections happened in the light realms far above my early complaints. I’ll hope so.
Thank you for allowing me these thoughts here.
Pax et lux,
Brett Butler, Mon 23 Dec, 16:02
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