John Chambers’ Conversations With Eternity

This is a text I wrote back in 2004. It was published on a Victor Hugo website no longer active. Rather than letting it go to waste, I’ve decided to post it here. I’ve made some minor corrections. The text is probably too long for a blog post, but if you’re interested in New Age distortion of history, you might like it despite its length.

Conversations With Eternity (CWE) hit the bookstores in late 1998. Subtitled The Forgotten Masterpiece of Victor Hugo, it set out to present the Hugo family’s table-turning seances at Marine-Terrace on the island of Jersey between 1853 and 1855. The writer, John Chambers, is an ardent advocate of the paranormal with numerous articles on this subject on his personal record. To pave the way for Chamber’s work, CWE features an introduction by paranormal heavyweight Martin Ebon, author of books like Whitchcraft Today, They Knew the Unknown and The Devil’s Bride: Exorcism, Past and Present. Ebon has also edited and contributed to books like The Amazing Uri Geller and Demon Children. The publisher of CWE, New Paradigm Books, explains on its web site that Ebon’s introduction sets ”Hugo’s 19-year exile on the Channel islands in the proper historical context”.

Basically, CWE is a commented translation of selected transcripts of messages from the dead and ‘entities’ like Civilization, Inspiration and Poetry, received by the Hugos through rappings of a three-footed pedestal table. Among the dead speaking through the table, you find Aristotle, Byron, Chateaubriand, Dante, Diderot, Galileo, Hannibal, Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc, Marat, Moliére, Moses, Mozart, Napoleon I, Napoleon III (although still alive at the time), Plato, Robespierre, Rousseau, Shakespeare, Socrates, Voltaire and Walter Scott. In all, almost 120 different ghosts or entities visited the Marine-Terrace seances.

I think it’s a good thing to translate any writings of Victor Hugo, provided it is done properly and by someone who knows what he is doing. CWE, however, is not just another translation of a Victor Hugo novel. First of all, it suggests that some of Victor Hugo’s writings were in fact derived from the messages of spirits. Secondly, it is primarily a presentation of an idea using Victor Hugo as an argument. And the idea is, in essence, reincarnation. The whole purpose of CWE is to make the reader adopt this idea, using Victor Hugo – a literary genius – as a reference. Who would doubt the greatest poet of the 19th century?

You might argue that reincarnation is not an idea, but a phenomena. However, a phenomena is an observable occurrence. Hearsay, anecdotes, the amount of people that believes in it or the need for it to give our life more meaning, do not constitute occurrences. We have a group of young people in Sweden that compares pictures of modern pop and rock stars with paintings of classical composers, suggesting that similarity in looks provides evidence of reincarnation. They have confused occurrence with coincidence. They are financed by government grant, i.e. tax payer’s money; the government has confused research with nonsense. Reincarnation is an idea. If someone wants you to believe in it, he must convince you by means that you can handle intellectually; he needs supporting evidence from the natural world that is knowable and perceivable, that you can understand. And for John Chambers, Victor Hugo serves that purpose.

I do not object to the use of Victor Hugo in this way, provided the information — particularly about Hugo — is correct. This is especially important since Chambers target group is not the literature or history scholar, but the Joes and Janes curious about the supernatural. They are presented with facts they are unlikely to check and suggestions they are unlikely to question. So let’s check the facts and question the suggestions.

Introduction by Martin Ebon

Let us start with the introduction by Martin Ebon. It is supposed to provide us with a proper historical context. Ebon starts with an account of Cao Dai, a Vietnamese denomination that holds Victor Hugo as one of its three major saints.  The rest of the introduction is a short bio. I will comment on quotes from it, and the rest of the book.

Victor Hugo was born at Besancon, on February 16, 1802.

No, he was born on February 26 and I would have preferred in Besancon but since I am Swedish I will ignore grammar bloopers.

Son Victor had accompanied his father, briefly, to Italy when he was five years old.

No, he accompanied his mother to visit his father in Italy.

Victor contributed a horror novel, Bug-Jargal

Would anoyone who has actually read Bug-Jargal categorize it as a horror novel?

That, in later years, Victor Hugo achieved a wide popular readership might well be attributed to elements of horror and the macabre in much of his writings. Today’s audiences of the musical based on Les Misrables miss much of the stench, sadism and plain cruelty contained in the original novel.

This is of course pure speculation — it suggests that without elements of horror and the macabre in his writings, Hugo would not have achieved wide popular readership. And to lump Les Misérables — regarded as a landmark in world literature and considered to be part of Hugo’s later, more realistic works — together with earlier novels such as Han of Iceland and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame — that contains those elements — is a manéuvre I find it hard to be indulgent towards. But then again, I have read them all — Ebon obviously has not.

Victor’s mother died in June, 1821. He refused money from his father.

No, he actually asked his father for money.

His new mentor [Neufchateau] later arranged a royal pension for the sixteen-year-old poet.

No, he did not. Hugo was granted the pension when he was 20 due to either the King rewarding him for his courage to host a fugitive or the simple fact that the King liked his odes — or a combination of both. Neufchateau had nothing to do with that or the other government pension he was granted.

the two [Victor and Adéle] were married on October 14, 1822.

No, they were married on October 12.

It [Hernani] centers on the fate of a beautiful young girl, in love with a handsome persecuted hero, who seeks to rebuff the advantages of several repulsive old men — one of whom is a royal personality, a lustful sovereign called, of all things, Charles.

I can understand why Ebon is amused by one of the characters being called Charles — I am more than that, I am astonished! It is the first time I have ever heard about it. Even in the Swedish editions I know of, he is called what Victor Hugo called him: Don Carlos. In all the material, by Hugo or others, that deals with Hernani, he is called Don Carlos. In all operatic adaptations of Verdi’s Ernani, he is called Don Carlos. So from what milk carton did Ebon get this information?

In April, 1831, he published Notre Dame de Paris

Strange, it appeared in the bookshops in March.

On February 2, 1833, Hugo’s latest play, Lucrezia Borgia, was being cast.

The rehearsals must have been extremely quick, the play premiered the same night.

She [Juliette Drouet] quickly became Hugo’s Number One Mistress

She must have, because she was his first mistress.

On December 14, 1851, he escaped to Brussels

No, he boarded the train at Gare du Nord on the night of December 11.

The first, written in one month, was Napoléon-le-Petit, which, published in England under the title Napoleon the Small, became an underground weapon.

It was published under the title Napoleon the Little. Milk cartons again?

The final years of Victor Hugo’s life were overshadowed by the decision of his wife, Adéle, to leave him and move to Brussels, where she died on August 27, 1868.

Adéle left him, but only in the sense that she left Guernsey. Victor joined her in Brussels; it was he who closed her eyes on her deathbed.

Their daughter, Adéle, fell, literally, ‘madly’ in love with a British officer, Albert Pinson, and followed him to Canada. Emotionally disturbed, she hoped that he might marry her. Disappointed, she settled in the Carribean, eventually returning to Paris, where she was permanently hospitalized. Adéle II died in 1878.

No, she followed Pinson to the Carribean too. And if she died in 1878, who were the nurses caring for at the mental hospital until April 21, 1915? In chapter 8, Chambers states that she died in 1915 so has Chambers not read the introduction to his own work — although he mentions twice that we have learned things from the introduction? Or has Ebon not read the work he has been asked to introduce?

Victor Hugo died on May 31, 1885.

No, he died on May 22.

What is apparent in this introduction is that Martin Ebon has little or no substantial knowledge of, or interest in, the life of Victor Hugo at all. Some errors might be excused by the presence of a printer’s gremlin — but not in this quantity. He doesn’t even know when Hugo was born, when he was married or when he died. Those dates and other facts can easily be found in the excellent biographies by Maurois and Robb that are noted in CWE as consulted works, an effort that is minimal. It is alarming that Chambers haven’t paid the introduction any closer attention, yet refers to it as a source of knowledge. If he had, the errors could easily have been avoided. Sloppy, very sloppy.

It is also evident that Ebon has little or no knowledge about the literary works of Victor Hugo. But as it may be argued that we in this matter enter the domain of personal opinion, I can only state mine and that is: Ebon’s notes on Hugo’s novels are, if you have read them, or any of the biographies mentioned above or any literary source of information on French Romanticism, utter nonsense.

Chapter 1
So let us move on to the first chapter of Chamber’s CWE. It deals with the Hugos arriving to Jersey, the introduction of table-turning by Delphine Girardin and the first successfull seances. We’ll start from the top, with the first paragraph:

On Aug. 5, 1853, Victor Hugo arrived on the island of Jersey with his wife, Adéle, his sons and daughter, and his mistress Juliette Drouet disembarking discretely sometime afterward.

No, he did not. He arrived with his son Charles. His wife and daugther arrived two days earlier with Auguste Vacquerie. His son Victor-Francois remained in Paris with his mistress. Now, if facts about Victor Hugo are that hard to learn, or quote, perhaps we should devote some energy to a subject that Chambers ought to have better knowledge of: spiritism. He explains:

In Hydesville, New York, in 1847, three Fox sisters had heard loud raps which they were certain signaled messages from the dead.

No. In 1848, the two Fox sisters Margaret, 8, and Kate, 6, were making loud raps with an apple attached to a piece of string that their mother was certain signaled messages from the dead, which she told her neighbors and the rest is history. A third sister, 23 years older than Margaret and married, joined in later to manage the girls in this prank turned to spiritual cash cow.

In the months and years that followed, they had communed with the spirit world by the means of raps — often, but not always, created by tapping table legs — in front of increasingly large audiences seeking, and sometimes finding, assurances that there was a life beyond this one.

No, as Margaret confessed in a letter published in New York World, October 21, 1888, no communication with any spirits took place during any of the sisters’ seances or shows. In the confession, she also told that when they could no longer get away with doing raps with the apple on a string, they discovered ways to produce raps with their fingers and feet – techniques that Margaret demonstrated publicly in front of 2,000 or more people at the Academy of Music in New York the same night her confession was published. Margaret was unable to speak due to the partly hostile atmosphere in the audience, but, as the New York World reported the day after:

if her tongue had lost its power her preternatural toe joint had not. A plain wooden stool, or table, resting upon four short legs and having the properties of a sounding board was placed in front of her. Removing her shoe, she placed her right foot upon this little table. The entire house became breathlessly still and was rewarded by a number of little short, sharp raps — those mysterious sounds which have for forty years frightened and bewildered hundreds of thousands of people in this country and in Europe.

A committee consisting of three physicians taken from the audience then ascended the stage, and having made an examination of her foot during the process of the rappings, unhesitatingly agreed that the sounds were made by the action of the first joint of her large toe. The demonstration was perfect and complete and only the most hopelessly prejudiced and bigoted fanatics of Spiritualism could withstand the irresistible force of this commonplace explanation and exhibition of how spirit rappings are produced.

Now, these are facts that are easy to find, for anyone. I would imagine that someone not familiar with the historical background of spiritism could get interested in the Fox sisters and decide to learn more. Isn’t it kind of risky to publish an account of the Fox sisters that is false and verifiably so? Or does Chambers presume that no checking will be done — is he used to an audience that don’t check sources?

Chambers suggests that ”Hugo was sternly skeptical”. Hugo’s biographers don’t agree; Maurois notes that he was skeptical at first but predisposed to receive the messages, Robb just that he ”found it hard to be sceptical” after the letters L.E.O.P.O.L.D.I.N.E [Hugo's first daughter that died in a boating accident in 1843] had been received but also that Hugo is ”assumed to have been almost insanely gullible”. That Hugo was sternly skeptical is simply something that Chambers has made up — probably to enhance, to the reader, Hugo’s intellectual resistance and the credibility of the proposed phenomena.

Chapter 2
A chapter about the messages from the entity Shadow of the Sepulcher and Rousseau that contain no verifiable information. The messages deal with the nature of heaven and related subjects.

Chapter 3
In this chapter, the Hugos are visited by Hannibal of Carthage. Chambers gives us a short background and also tells us that some of the conversation that took place isn’t of ”compelling interest to those of us who are not history buffs”. It is of course good of him to spare us the obscure details that would not interest us, by his judgement. But if they confirm the suggestion that Hannibal really spoke through the table, why not include them to further stress the reliability of spirit communication? If the information is verifiable and correct, it would strongly support the notion that we can speak to dead people. But let us turn to the information he thinks is of interest to those of us who are not history buffs:

Hugo asked the general if he recalled the names of the Roman legions he had defeated at Cannes, in France, near the beginning of his campaign. Faith, Vengeance, Native Land: Hannibal tapped out the names in latin.

This is very impressive, provided the information Hannibal gives is correct. It is not. First of all, the Roman practice of giving legions names was not introduced until later. During the Punic wars, Rome didn’t have a standing army but raised one when needed and disbanded it when the task was fulfilled. It is of course possible that the soldiers themselves gave legions names, but why would they? There was no risk of confusing one army with another since there only was one. Besides, Hannibal never defeated anyone at Cannes in France. But he did defeat the Romans at Cannae in southern Italy, a town today known as Canne. Perhaps Chambers confuses the site of this historic battle with that of the film festival.

Though some knowledge of ‘Carthaginian’, or Punic has come down to us, Hugo and the group could hardly have had much knowledge of that language?

No, they couldn’t have — and didn’t. Because it wasn’t Carthaginian, Punic, Phoenician or whatever you choose to call it. The language spoken in Carthage was indeed Phoenician, which was very close to Hebrew. The language Hannibal spoke through the table is called Gibberish, a tongue I suspect Chambers is very familiar with.

Nor did these seance attendees, learned as they were, necessarily know the names of the Roman and Carthaginian legions that fought at Cannes.

No, they didn’t know them, they made them up, and no Roman and Carthaginian legions fought at Cannes. But just for argument, is it likely that Hugo would have known the Roman legion names if they had any? Yes. Anyone who read Robb or Maurois knows that Hugo was almost brought up on Latin by La Riviére — by the age of nine he could recite Horace and translate Tacitus. Horace’s The Odes, book IV, deals with Hannibal but the best record of his war against Rome can be found in Livius’ The History of Rome — 22.1-22.52 deals with the battle of Cannae. Hugo’s father is known to have thrown around quotes by Livius and Tacitus, so it’s not steep to suggest that the son was familiar with Livius too. Chambers himself notes that Hugo had excellent knowledge of Latin. How does he think Hugo attained that knowledge, by reading Shakespeare?

And what about the peculiar fashion (apart from the exotic details) in which Hannibal described Carthage? With its dry and meticulous enumeration of the numbers of towers, temples, elephants, and so forth, and what they were made of, he sounded hardly like a poet, but more like an engineer — or like a general enumerating the types and dispositions of his troops.

This suggests three things; that Chambers is familiar with the style of Hugo’s poetry, that he is familiar with how an engineer would describe a city or how a general would account for his troops. I will quote the paragraph so you can decide for yourself:

It was a giant city. It had 60 leagues of towers and 6,000 temples, 3,000 of which were made of marble, 2,000 of porphyry, 600 of alabaster, 300 of jasper, 50 of stucco, 45 of ivory, four of silver and one of gold. The streets were 300 feet wide, and were paved with marble and covered in silver tile. Along the entire length of the houses, perfumed lamps burned, and white elephants swaying beneath towers brushed against the singers and dancers in the streets. The air was so scented and melodious that flowers and birds never died there. Carthage had 30,000 vessels, 600 fortresses, 100,000 horses, 12,000 elephants, 100,000 talents a year and Hannibal.

To me, this text is trying to put forth the glory and greatness of a city. To me, this is exactly how a poet would put it, or a writer of fairy-tales. It is definitely not how an engineer would put it, or a general for that matter. But I think I know why Chambers wants you to focus on the style of what is said rather than the content. Otherwise you might start to imagine what kind of area it would take to fit in 6,000 temples among streets that are 300 feet wide. And when you have figured that out, you might want to compare it to maps of ancient Carthage. Do you think you could squeeze those temples in?

Chapter 4
A chapter about the messages from the entity Balaam’s Ass, without any verifiable information. The messages deals with the souls of animals and plants and something in the line of cosmic or eternal punishment.

Chapter 5
The next visitor Chambers brings up is the poet André Chénier, who lost his head during the French Revolution. A short bio is followed by Chambers explaining:

Beginning on Dec. 9, 1853, André Chénier not only told the participants at the seance about his afterlife experiences. He also tapped out the remainder of the poem he had been working on just before he was taken out to be guillotined.

We will leave Chénier’s afterlife experiences aside and turn to his last poem. Chambers doesn’t name it so I will do it for him: La Jeune Captive. Chénier handed it to de Coigny on his way to the guillotine. It was complete. Chambers continues:

This posthumous performance of André Chénier has confounded skeptics of the Paranormal. Not only was this poetry, tapped out by the ”spirit” of André Chénier, of the highest literary merit, but it was in exactly the same style as the work of the living Chénier.

I don’t think I qualify as a skeptic of the paranormal, I’m just interested in getting the facts straight. And I have no problem what so ever to sort this one out. In The Taming of Romanticism, Virgil Nemoianu states:

Another example of apparent period alienation is André Chénier: a revolutionary persecuted by the revolution, a classicist loved, published, and read by the romantics (only after 1819). His poems written in the late 1780s and early 1790s seem to fit perfectly with those of Lamartine and his younger brothers.

If you are the least acquainted with French Romanticism, you know that Lamartine made his debut in 1820. In fact, you don’t have to go further than Maurois’ Olympio to find that the posthumous works of Chénier, published by de Latouche, was among the main inspirations in the literary salons of Paris, salons that a young Hugo attended. Chénier was a direct influence when Hugo and his literary friends formed La Muse Francaise. Robb notes that Hugo even revised his criticism of Chénier when he published his old articles in Literature and Philosophy Mingled in 1834. The truth is, Chénier, in his lifetime, was nowhere near the literary celebrity he became in the 1820s and on. Chambers goes on:

These skeptics can hardly argue that this poetry allegedly from the afterworld was the unconscious work of Victor Hugo. Hugo wasn’t even at the seance that night.

Maybe the skeptics can’t, but I can. Or rather, I would say it was the conscious work of Victor Hugo — or Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie, who both were fully capable of faking a Chénier poem in the proper style. Chambers tells us that Hugo was not present that night but he ignores to mention the number of visits by Chénier he himself lists in the front-pages: seven — Robb notes that ”Brilliant poems were assembled by Androcles’ Lion and André Chénier, with some prompting by Hugo.” So Hugo apparently attended most of the seances when Chénier ‘visited’, and his son or Vacquerie were sufficient substitutes in this one case.

Chambers then quotes from Claudius Grillet’s Victor Hugo, Spiritist, describing what took place, this time at Legéeval’s house, not Marine-Terrace. First, Socrates popped by for a couple of minutes. Then, after an abnormally strong shaking, André Chénier introduced himself. He started with completing some of his unfinished poems and then tells the full story of his own execution, which is reproduced until ”his channeled utterances begin to be those which will interest only close students of French literature and history”. Again, we found ourselves being deprived of information that Chambers considers best to spare us.

Chapter 6
An account of the spiritist version of reincarnation, metempsychosis, that visits the Hugos. No verifiable information but some bloopers by Chambers. He tells us that fully three-thirds of the transcripts from the seances have been lost from sight. So I take it the transcripts he has translated are merely the spirits of the original transcripts. He also states that

the skeptics argue that the turning tables borrowed all of their images from him [Hugo], and from his friends; but that is not the direction of the argument of this book

Not only the skeptics — Hugo himself indicated it in a letter to Delphine Girardin quoted by Robb:

A whole quasi-cosmological system, which I have been incubating for the last twenty years and which is already half written down, was confirmed by the table with magnificent developments.

Apparently, that quote, in a biography noted as consulted work, was not in alignment with the direction of the argument in Chambers book. Neither is, as we have seen so far, facts.

Chambers often refers to ”the skeptics” but make no effort to tell us who they are. As far as I can tell, none of them can be found among the ”works consulted”. I guess they are just some kind of intellectual puppets on strings that Chambers can use as he see fits when he wants to ensure the reader that the possible criticism that exists have already been taken into consideration.

Chapter 7
Costume boxes, according to Chambers, are the words, concepts, images and memories in the minds of humans that the ”energies” or ”entities” need to communicate with humans, since they themselves exist outside of conventional space and time and thus are naked from any physical or mental appearance. Chambers tells us that this is a difficult idea but it has been explained by the ”brilliant”, ”urbane”, ”learned” and ”distinguished” Pulitzer Prize winner James Merill, who Chambers also has written about in an article in The Anomalist. Merill credits his literary accomplishments to — an Ouija board. Nothing verifiable is mentioned so I’ll leave Merill, but I will comment on Ouija boards in my conclusion. However, Chambers now sets out to impose a particular state of mind on the exiles of Jersey, and to do that, he notes:

Victor Hugo and his family, and the people who surrounded them on Jersey island, were quite literally prisoners.

No, they were not. Of the family, only Hugo was expelled from France — the others could, and did, travel in and out of France. And Victor Hugo was not confined to the island of Jersey, he could go where ever he wanted, except to France. To say that he and his family were prisoners on Jersey is preposterous. Chambers continues:

As we learned from Martin Ebon’s Introduction, Hugo had been driven from France in 1852, in the aftermath of the coup d’état of Emperor Napoleon III.

No, Chambers has obviously not learned that from the introduction. Ebon didn’t know the correct date, but at least he got the year right; 1851. Chambers did not.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the best minds of the time were awakening to a horrified awareness of the extent to which Western society had been a punishment/prison culture. The greatest men and women of the day were passionately campaigning against capital punishment.

This is an attempt to create a frame of mind of the Hugo family that fits with Chambers’ promotion of a cosmic, eternal punishment theory. Hugo did passionately campaign against capital punishment, but not against punishment or prisons – that’s a horse of a totally different color. Hugo rejected capital punishment from a moral point of view; man has no right to deprive a man of something he cannot give back. He was also an opponent of unjust law and social injustice, but it still doesn’t inflict an awarness of any extent to which Western society had been a punishment/prison culture. But Chambers goes on:

There were few French nationals who did not remember, or had been told by their fathers, of the bloodshed of the French Revolution, in particular the terror of 1793, when hundreds of distinguished citizens were summarily guillotined. Hugo’s own father, Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo (1773-1828), had been, as we learned from the Introduction, a general serving under Napoleon. Every educated Frenchman or woman knew of the tyranny and brutality that the French revolution itself had overthrown. They knew also that, during the Middle Ages, 95 percent of the population of France — and of other European countries as well — were, effectively, prisoners, their lands and every moment of their lives owned by a feudal lord. The political exiles on Jersey island lived and breathed the notion of the universe as a prison.

This is plain nonsense. It is true that the French Revolution was horrible, especially 1793, when tens of thousands of people were executed in Paris alone, but it is preposterous to suggest that it haunted the souls of the seance attendants at Marine-Terrace, or the French people. In fact, large numbers of people celebrated the Revolution. And besides, by 1853, the revolutions of 1830 and especially 1848 overshadowed any memories or remorse over 1789 — do you dwell over World War II?

I don’t really know if Chambers has any sources or if he just makes it up as he goes along. Any basic history book on France will tell you that from the 9th century, only the farmers in northern France were tied to the soil by law. The rest of the country had mostly free farmers, especially in Languedoc, who lived off their own land. Attempts were made in the 14th century to impose serfdom and even slavery, but those attempts were effectively stopped by rebellions. The suggestion that the exiles lived and breathed the notion of the universe as a prison is something Chambers wants us to believe because it fits with his ideas. But he has no facts whatsoever to support it. The rest of chapter seven is, of course, an elaboration of these false presumptions.

Chapter 8
This chapter deals with the visits by the spirits fitting the turning table of a poet.

Shakespeare would quickly become a regular at the table. He would be the only English-language regular!

Yes, but as Robb points out:

Night after night, Shakespeare returned to make minute changes [to a new comedy he dictated], line by line — fortunately all in French because, as Shakespeare now knew, ‘The English language is inferior to French’.

Victor Hugo discovered Shakespeare when he was 23. Charles Nodier introduced the works of the English poet to him on their trip to the coronation of Charles X at Rheims. For Hugo, it was a revelation. His son Victor-Franéois had started translating Shakespeare at the time of the seances and the rest of the Hugo family was far from ignorant of the English writer. And how convenient that he spoke in French!

Chambers then presents a new recruit at the table: Albert Pinson, who was an attentive admirer of Adéle. As for table-turning, he intended to show the others how foolish it was by insisting on speaking in English. The Hugos didn’t object.

The table responded, in Latin: Frater Tuus [Your brother].
You aren’t my brother, said Charles Hugo. Are you Mr. Pinson’s?
Yes, Andre.

This created a sensation. Lieutenant Pinson confessed that he did indeed have a brother. No one around the table had known this. Pinson explained that this brother had disappeared some twelve years before, and that his family had no idea what had become of him. Pinson now proceeded to ask a question in English. The table responded in English. Pinson asked a second question in English. A second reply came in English.

It’s not clear from the records whether the other members of the group had any idea what was being said, or if Pinson reported it to them.

We do know that the English Lieutenant was visibly shaken by what had occurred. He stood up, deeply moved. He told the group that personal, family matters had been involved in the questioning. He asked them that, for this reason, they not put on record anything that had been said.

At first glance, this was certainly a ”skeptic’s” conversion to believing in the spirits. That is, if your knowledge is limited and you want it to stay that way. The fact is that Pinson was something of a con man. As Smith Dow explains in Adéle Hugo — La Misérable:

But there is no record of the mysterious André (or Andrew) Pinson. Later, rumours that Albert Andrew Pinson was not using his real name were rampant; perhaps, worried lest someone in the Hugo family had found out that he was trying to hide his identity, he concocted this tale of a lost brother as a cover story.

In the postscript, Smith Dow concludes:

Checks of several British genealogy and clerical guides did not reveal any references to the Pinsons. The absence suggests that the family was not well-to-do, and leads me to suspect that Pinson was not truthful about his family background.

She also describes the motive of his interest in Adéle and the Hugos:

In thruth, Pinson had not come to Jersey seeking a wife, nor was rest and relaxation his object. His situation might have been delicately described as a sort of temporary fiscal exile. After he had returned to England from Jersey two years earlier, he had encountered only bad luck. His particular weakness was horse racing. He was an avid participant and an equally avid, if less accomplished, bettor. In the summer of 1854, he had been forced to flee his homeland, leaving behind a stack of unpaid gambling debts and an equal number of disgruntled creditors. Meeting the gullible, rich and beautiful Adéle was the answer to his prayers.

Indeed, it seems that Pinson had every reason not to engage in any account of his background at all. His reaction at the table was, in the light of knowledge, that of a man getting a strong feeling that the course of discussion might take an undesirable direction. This would also be a logical explanation for his request to not have any of it on record.

One may also wonder why the spirit used the French ”Andre” instead of the English ”Andrew”. And why was there a need for Pinson to ask that none of it would be put on record? If no one besides Pinson understood what was being said, records would have been impossible to produce anyway!

When reading the conversations with the spirits of Byron and Sir Walter Scott, it is apparent that the extensive comments supplied by the spirits when they spoke in French, turned to ”Yes”, ”No” and single words when the English speaking spirits arrived. The exception is two lines of English verse provided by Sir Walter Scott:

Vex not the bard; his lyre is broken,
His last song sung, his last work spoken

It smells fishy; it sounds rather like a mixture of Shakespeare and Plato. Even so, it would be easy to memorize a two line verse in English for anyone, especially for the seance goers at Marine-Terrace, for whom reciting and improvisation was a sport. I personally don’t speak French, or write French — but I can sing La Marseillaise, and write it too. How cosmic…

It is also worth mentioning that Hugo, although unwilling to speak English, was an excellent linguist and — as anyone who have read The Man Who Laughs and Toilers of the Sea knows — by no means a stranger to the English language.

Chapters 9-21
These chapters contain no verifiable information whatsoever. I guess by now, Chambers thinks he has given the reader enough ”proof” that the spirits are really speaking through the table. Refering the translations of transcripts of messages from The White Lady, Martin Luther, Drama, The Grim Gatekeeper, the Archangel Love, Idea, The Lion of Androcles, the Ocean, Mozart, an alien from Jupiter called Tyatafia, Nicholas Flamel, Death, Galileo, Joshua, Mohammed and Jesus Christ, Chambers elaborates his cosmic model and compares it to others cosmic models. He also refers to the theories of some scientists. But note: he doesn’t point to results of any research, he points to the theories. As I have no interest in discussing, or even reading, suggestions or theories that no one knows anything about — and more important: no one will ever be able to know anything about — I’m leaving these chapters without further comment.

Chapter 22
It’s time for Chambers to wrap it up and he gives the reader two alternatives, as the title of the chapter implies, on how to view Victor Hugo’s channeling experiences. He is decent enough to admit that the messages recieved at Marine-Terrace often were of such lengths that tapping them letter by letter, i.e. 1 tap for A, 2 for B, 26 for Z, would have, according to calculations by French Dr. de Mutigny, would have demanded taps at a speed of 3 taps a second. It would have been impossible for Hugo and his company to keep record of messages delivered at that speed. De Mutigny’s suggestion was that when Hugo sat down after the sessions and wrote the transcripts, he unconsciously added to the messages, by ”automatic writing”. Unwittingly, Hugo perpetrated this fraud because he suffered from a mental disease, fantastical paraphrenia. Chambers objects to de Mutigny’s theory with these arguments:

A general one is that Hugo did not always, or even often, have in his head beforehand what the tables told him. Usually, when he did, he interrupted the spirit and told it so, and this is recorded in the transcripts.

First of all, how does Chambers know what Hugo had in his head beforehand? Is the fact that arguments occurred between Hugo and the alleged spirits, as recorded in the transcripts, evidence of two intellects instead of one? Does he seriously suggest that the greatest novelist of the 19th century, who often excelled in improvisation, had no capacity for writing dialogue? Apparently, he does…

There are a number of occasions where his wife, Adéle, makes this clear. For example, she tells Balaam’s Ass that, while already believing what the spirit has just said about metempsychosis, Victor Hugo had ‘never believed that pebbles, plants and animals had souls.

Who better than Hugo himself can answer this one? Once more, I quote his letter to Delphine de Girardin: ”A whole quasi-cosmological system, which I have been incubating for the last twenty years and which is already half written down, was confirmed by the table with magnificent developments.”

A further objection is that it was not always Hugo who made a ‘good’ copy of the transcripts after the seance. Sometimes that task devolved upon Vacquerie; other times, upon Hugo’s daughter Adéle.

This objection is completely worthless if you don’t compare what transcripts were written by whom. And Chambers — probably for the reader’s ”convenience” — doesn’t present such a comparison. There are apparently lots of messages containing only single words, mostly ”yes” and ”no”. Where those transcripts by Victor Hugo? Then there were extensive elaborations that would have taken days to tap down. Where those transcripts by Adéle? Chambers doesn’t provide us with an answer. And even if there was no such recognizable division, would Vacquerie have been able to write one of those long transcripts? Of course. As Robb notes:

Vacquerie was comparatively restrained in his adulation and never lost sight of his own ego. He was building a career as a disciple of Victor Hugo, just as he might have joined the Army or the civil service.

Regarding the seances, Maurois points out that the uniformity in style was not surprising, because Vacquerie unconsciously imitated Hugo, his master. Regarding Adéle’s capacity — well, she was Hugo’s daughter. But let’s go on with Chambers:

Still another objection is that there is no reason to suppose that the participants waited till the end of every word, or still the end of every sentence, to decide what the spirit was saying and write it down.

This sounds very reasonable at first. But try one of the transcripts. Try as many sentences as you like. There is no way you could work them out by ”assuming” what words are to come. Especially since the content is far from everyday conversation. To guess the second half of words is easier, but did they really engage in such games of vocabulary charades? I think such a method would have been too stressing for both seance attendants and spirits. Chambers continues:

Moreover, it is often the case during seances that, since the words are ‘coming through the head’ of the psychic, that person simply repeats them, thereby rendering the table, or the Ouija board, or whatever, temporarily unnecessary. Anyone who has attended an Ouija board session, in particular, will recognize this as a common practice.

I must admit, I have no experience of Ouija board sessions. But if the substance in the messages received in such sittings are of the same quality we have discovered here, I doubt that it matters what method you use — gibberish can be produced sitting on a sharp stick, having achieved several master degrees, or in your sleep. If what is said is of no importance, who cares what gadget is used? And I have to say that I like Chambers slippery way of saying ”the words are coming ‘through the head’ of the psychic” — I think he is well aware that it is very, very close to saying ”the words are coming from the head of the psychic”. In fact, the only thing separating the two are Chambers illfounded assurance that ghosts really communicate with psychics. Chambers final objection against de Mutigny is the one he regards as strongest:

A final and overwhelming objection is that it is hard to imagine how an author with even a touch of madness could have created so stunning a masterpiece as Les Misérables.

I have to agree on this one (although I can name some authors that actually were insane yet produced masterpieces) but where does that leave me? According to Chambers’ setup, the choices are ”Hugo was insane and produced the channeled messages himself” or ”Hugo was a literary genius so the messages really came from ghosts”. Let me present a third alternative that, as opposed to Chambers layout, is less far-fetched:

When Delphine de Girardin visited in September 1853, she was just a shadow of the woman she once was. She had recently lost a dear old friend and was already marked by the cancer that would end her life two years later. Pale and dressed in dark, she was mentally adjusted for her destiny.

The Hugos had settled in well on Jersey; Hugo had instantly fallen in love with the sea and the surroundings of Jersey — the exile turned out to be a welcome vitamin injection for his creative mind, as opposed to the political turmoil he had faced for years back in Paris. The rest of the family filled their days to the best of their ability, but Jersey was inevitably something that Paris was not: boring. Especially the women of the family missed the social life and the shopping of the capital of Europe.

Delphine was one of Hugo’s oldest friends and he listened politely when she talked about the latest rage: spiritism. He had met some of its prophets back in Paris but disregarded it as an unpleasant spectacle, stealing interest from far more important issues. And now, Delphine was here, promoting the phenomena.

They had tried some sessions on their own but without results. Now, Delphine explained that the spirits would not care for a four-legged table and when Hugo told her there were no other tables in the house, she offered to buy one. She came back with a three-footed pedestal table. Hugo, with a keen interest in decorating, sniffed in silence at the table — with only three feet it was unstable and could easily be tipped by just pressing downwards at the wrong place. But for this purpose, why not? He could give it to Juliette when Delphine had left. She would appreciate it.

Nothing happened during the first sessions. But Delphine explained that the spirits could not be ordered to show up, they would arrive when they chose to. She seemed so sure of herself, so confident — like she really knew what she was doing, like she really wanted it to work. Among the rest of the attendants, expectation grew. The long, focused wait created an atmosphere of tension, like the mug before a thunderstorm. They all felt that something was bound to happen.

Then, suddenly, the taps came. Not distinct, but almost like the spirits were learning how to produce the taps. Auguste and Delphine held the table. Hugo watched — could this be? Auguste looked a bit surprised but Delphine was calm, as if nothing strange had occurred. Auguste then asked if the spirits could tell what word he was thinking about. The table tapped the wrong answer but no one had time to comment upon it because it suddenly appeared to get more determined in it’s movements. This time, Delphine asked: ”Are you still the same spirit who was there?” The table tapped ”No”. Victor now joined in and asked: ”Who are you?” For a moment, Delphine hesitated and glanced at Victor. She had known him for over twenty years. In a way, she loved him. She knew the pain he had suffered when Léopoldine, poor Didine, died in that horrible accident; she knew he would always blame himself for being abroad when it happened. In that moment, as those thoughts went through her mind, she decided to ease his pain, to give him comfort and light up that deep, dark grief of his. It was harmless and would do him so good. And what would it hurt if she helped the spirits a bit, she knew it was real — it had to be!

It was so easy, just pushing a little bit on one side and let go on the other — no one could even see the effort in the arms or the body. Delphine tapped the words ”Dead girl”. She looked at Auguste — had he noticed anything? No, but he was more attentive than during the first taps — she had to be careful. Then she looked at Victor. He was still, very still. In a voice that almost broke from tension, he asked: ”Your name?” After that, no one made a sound. Again, Delphine glanced at Victor. She still had a second to change her mind. But then she saw him raise his hand and move a lock from his forehead. She couldn’t tell if it had really bothered him or if it was a nervous gesture. She decided to move a lock from his heart, to give him the greatest gift a friend could give: hope. Slowly but determined, she tapped the letters ”L.E.O.P.O.L.D.I.N.E”. The effect was immediate; Victor froze and went pale, Adéle started crying and none of the others could remain still.

The sessions were a blessing to everybody. The boredom was defeated. The family and friends gathered for the sittings, talked about them for hours afterwards and then there was the transcripting. The messages were not that clear on everything and not even half the length of the transcripts, but they were correct as far as essence goes. And so what if Victor or whoever added to what had been said — it had to be presented in a readable way, everybody understands that!

And Victor, what a boost for his creativity it was! What a tremendous way to write off all the intellectual dross he had been piling up the last decades. And for the more spiritual messages – was there any better way to argue for the ideas he had had for so long in his head, than present them as decrees from the Gods, from the eternal spirits!? Every message was gazed upon in astonishment – how strange and fantastic this cosmos was! Had he told someone his thoughts directly, every sentence would have been followed by three hours of arguments. The table was great! No matter how strange ideas it tapped out, it was the words of the spirits and thus wonderful.

But then something happened. Auguste finally came to the conclusion that it was all a hoax — the table only told the thoughts of those present, and who could know that better than Auguste? Not that anybody intentionally fooled the others, it was more of a mutual thing, something they all chipped in to, sort of. Madame got tired of the whole thing and Jules went crazy, waving a gun in front of everybody! So ended the Marine-Terrace seances — but what a fun time it was!

There are of course more alternatives, variations of the one suggested here, and different scenarios. If you want practical pointers on how to make taps, raps or knocks and make it look like it came out of nowhere, James Randi has investigated lots of alleged mediums and psychics. His book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions explains the techniques used in this particular type of ”spirit” communication — even with the more difficult four-legged tables!

If you want to know more about how people unconsciously make tables tap, Ouija boards spell or pendulums swing, I suggest you read about the Carpenter-effect. It is a well-known phenomena and there is lots of information about it on the internet. Use any search engine.

Harry Houdini is best known for his brilliant escape artist performances. But he also spent the last 30 years of his life debunking mediums all over the world. If you can find it, his own Houdini – A Magician Among the Spirits is an excellent exposure of late 19th and early 20th century spritism.


I must confess that I was thrilled the first time I read CWE. But at the same time I was puzzled because there were some things stated in the book that I had a hunch was totally wrong. So I began to check the verifiable information provided by John Chambers and discovered that not only does he present incorrect basic facts, such as dates, places, and historic details, he also neglects to present vital information that contradicts his version of the events that took place at Marine-Terrace. In addition, he has invented a state of mind of the Hugos, during their early exile, that simply have no connection with what is known about them during the period. Chambers’ aim is to invoke a view of reincarnation and cosmos on the reader and to support this effort he uses rhetorical dodges with extraordinary coarseness — he is in every aspect an intellectual conjurer.

Translations of Hugo’s work — and the Jersey transcripts are products of Hugo’s mind — should be encouraged, provided they are made by competent people and with respect for the original. Even Chambers’ translations are of interest, but how do we know that they are correct when his comments are plain mumbo-jumbo and he engages in outright distortion of facts?

If you are an admirer of Victor Hugo, save your money for a decent biography instead. If you are an advocate of the paranormal, choose mentors of higher quality than that of John Chambers.

 Peter Illi


Cole, Robert; Historisk guide till Frankrike, Historiska Media, 1998
Houdini, Harry; Houdini – a Magician Among the Spirits, Arno Press, 1972
Maurois, André; Olympio: Victor Hugos liv, Albert Bonniers Férlag, 1956
Nemoianu, Virgil; The Taming of Romanticism, Harvard University Press, 1984
Robb, Graham; Victor Hugo, Picador, 1997
Smith Dow, Leslie; Adéle Hugo – La Misérable, Goose Lane Editions, 1993