Automatic Writing in France 1857-1930


A review of Scripting the Mind: Automatic Writing in France, 1857-1930, by Alexandra Katerina Bacopoulos-Viau.

This excellent dissertation by Alexandra Bacopoulos-Viau explores automatic writing in the French scientific, cultural and social context between 1857 and 1930. Bacopoulos-Viau argues that this technique played a significant role in producing knowledge about the mind during the period preceding and concurrent with the Freudian revolution. Moreover, she points out that automatic-writing scripters “challenged the ideal of scientific objectivity which emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century” (p. 2). According to her, this challenge was resolved with the “metaphorical transformation” of these scripters — mediums, experimental subjects and surrealist poets — into “technological tools:”  “writing machines” (p. 2). However: “Whereas the medium and the psychological subject had been metaphorically turned into machines by others, Surrealists willfully metamorphosed themselves into recording instruments” (p. 8, italics in the original).

Automatic writing is a topic that had not been studied in depth until now, especially from the perspective of history of science. Consequently, Bacopoulos-Viau argues that “the originality of this dissertation […] resides as much in its subject matter (automatic writing) as in its investigative approach (the history of science)” (p. 18). Another original element of her work stems from her analysis of the scripters’ role, as both scientific subjects and objects, from a gender perspective.

Rather than focusing on other forms of “automatic” manifestations, Bacopoulos-Viau preferred to focus exclusively on writing. In contrast to, for example, “automatic drawing,” automatic texts were quickly considered scientific proofs due to their linguistic nature, which favored its analysis and interpretation. Therefore, “automatic texts became vehicles through which a new form of knowledge about an unknown Other (whether external or internal) was scientifically legitimized and validated” (p. 2).

The dissertation is structured in five chapters that follow a chronological narrative. In general terms, Bacopoulos-Viau starts describing mediumnistic writing within Allan Kardec’s (1804-1869) Spiritist project in the 1860s (Chapter 1). She continues showing the appropriation of this kind of writing by scientists (especially psychologists), the emergence of “new scripters” and the experimental subjects, and the role of psychical research in the understanding of the mind (Chapters 2 and 3). Finally, she ends by narrating the artistic rediscovery of automatic writing by Surrealists poets, and examines the use of this technique in 1920s Paris literary circles (Chapters 4 and 5).

A crucial point in her dissertation is the distinction that she makes between “subconscious” and “unconscious.” In her thesis, Bacopoulos-Viau uses the expression “the discovery of the subconscious” (p. 22) to describe a new way of conceptualizing the mind that appeared in France prior and concurrent with the Freudian revolution. As she points out, in using this expression she is referring to Henri Ellenberger’s classic The Discovery of the Unconscious (New York: Basic Books, 1970). As she argues, “the discovery of the subconscious” had its origins in an original approach to psychopathology brought forth by French physicians and psychologists, especially Pierre Janet (1859-1947). With his notion of the subconscious, Janet interpreted automatic texts as scientific evidences of psychopathology. As Bacopoulos-Viau shows, this interpretation did not suit the aspirations of Surrealists poets such as André Breton (1896-1966). Finally, Surrealists associated automatism with creativity, which provoked a “shift from a (psychopathological) ‘subconscious’ at the fin de siècle to a (potentially creative) ‘unconscious’ in the early twentieth century” (p. 14, italics in the original). With this argument in mind, the dissertation’s chapters are summarized below.

The first chapter (“Enter the mediums,” pp. 25-49) deals with the arrival of mediumnistic writing and the foundation of Allan Kardec’s Spiritism in France. Bacopoulos-Viau analyses this issue focusing on Kardec’s early works and the Revue spirite (journal of the Société Parisienne des Etudes Spirites) from 1858 until Kardec’s death in 1869. She describes Kardec’s attempt to present the spiritist movement as “scientific.” Séances were understood as “experimental Spiritism” and the spiritist doctrine was said to be rooted in Comtean Positivism.

Kardec defended that “mediumistic texts could be used to legitimize and validate knowledge about the Other World” (p. 37). These texts matched perfectly his positivistic endeavors, and so, they quickly took on the status of scientific evidence in spiritist circles. Accordingly, Kardec endowed mediumistic writing “with a special epistemological status by making it a privileged means of accessing the otherworldly message” (p. 49). In that way, writing mediums took on a prominent role.

As Bacopoulos-Viau shows, Kardec saw mediums as “instruments” to access the Other World. This issue is analyzed from a gender perspective: “My argument is that male mediums were better suited to Kardec’s positivistic endeavor. Indeed, one can imagine that men’s association with rationality bolstered their status as scientific instruments and, as such, that Kardec would have seen this as a way to increase the legitimacy of this nascent movement” (p. 48).

The second chapter (“Subconscious scripts,” pp. 50-70) investigates the passage of mediumnistic writing to automatic writing. Bacopoulos-Viau describes this process as: “the appropriation of mediumnistic writing by scientists for the creation of a new autonomous discipline of psychology at the opening of the Third Republic” (p. 23). New scripters (the hypnotized subjects or somnambulists) and sites (the clinic and the laboratory) come into scene. The chapter examines the use of automatic writing in the works of experimental psychologists such as Frederic W. H. Myers (1843-1901), Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), Alfred Binet (1857-1911), and especially Pierre Janet.

As Bacopoulos-Viau argues, Janet had a prominent role in the making of a specifically French way of conceptualizing the mind (“the discovery of the subconscious”). To distance himself from Spiritism and mediumistic writing, Janet pathologized automatism. In contrast with writing mediums, experimental subjects began to be considered as the authors of the automatic texts. But, as Bacopoulos-Viau points out: “In becoming authors, automatic writing subjects in fin-de-siècle experimental psychology thus also became sick, abnormal, and pathologized” (p. 70).

The third chapter (“Subliminal fictions,” pp. 71-97) deals with the alliances between scientists and séances at the turn of the twentieth century, especially focusing on the case study of the medium Hélène Smith (1861-1929) and the Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920). Bacopoulos-Viau starts narrating the institutionalization of psychical research in France, which began with the establishment of Charles Richet and Xavier Dariex’s Annales des Sciences Psychiques in 1891.

In her analysis of the aforementioned case study, Bacopoulos-Viau shows the confrontation of two broad models of the mind at the turn of the twentieth century. In general terms, the first one “saw in the most elementary forms of human consciousness a reservoir of potential capacities, possibly even supernormal” (p. 94). As she points out, this view was characterized by Myers’ “subliminal self,” which was appropriated by Flournoy in his works on Hélène Smith. The second conception “dealt with ‘psychological automatism’ and disintegration; it dealt with the enfeebled mind and psychological weakness” (p. 94). That was Janet’s concept of the subconscious, which became paradigmatic in the French medico-psychological discourse until the First World War. Bacopoulos-Viau associates the first model with psychical research. In her words, “psychical research enabled the transition from ‘subconscious scripts’ to a ‘poetics of the unconscious’” (p. 24), a subject that she also investigates in the following chapters.

The fourth chapter (“Surrealist transcriptions,” pp. 98-124) deals with the “literary (re)discovery” (p. 98) of automatic writing by a group of poets that would be finally linked to Surrealism. The chapter is especially centered on André Breton. Bacopoulos-Viau correctly challenges two streams of scholarship regarding Breton: the first is represented by Anna Balakian, who has highlighted the supposedly decisive influence that Janet had on the poet; the second is represented by Marguerite Bonnet, who denied the influence of psychical research in Breton’s thought.

By examining his professional encounter with “madness” in the psychiatric field, Bacopoulos-Viau shows Breton’s artistic discovery of automatic writing. Also, by analyzing his intellectual influences, she shows that the poet finally rejected Janet’s model of “psychological automatism.” This rejection was completed by Breton’s support to psychical research and métapsychique. As Bacopoulos-Viau points out, in the 1924 Manifesto, Surrealism was defined as “pure psychical automatism” (p. 117, italics in the original).

The fifth and last chapter (“Poetics of the unconscious,” pp. 125-137) investigates automatic writing within literary circles in 1920s Paris, and shows how these Surrealists poets challenged some concepts like authorship. From a gender perspective, Bacopoulos-Viau analyzes “the transformation of the (generally female) medium/hysteric into the (exclusively male) scripter of the unconscious” (p. 125). According to her, in appropriating automatic writing from the clinical laboratory, Surrealist poets became at once “the domineering physician and the submissive hysteric” (p. 135). Thus, “automatic writing can therefore be interpreted as a quest for one’s feminine Other — as illustrated in the Surrealist fascination for the Platonic ideal of the Androgyne” (p. 136). As she points out, to represent automatic writing Surrealists chose a picture of a nameless female scripter, whom Breton and Eluard called “the muse of automatic writing” (p. 139).

The dissertation ends in 1930. On the one hand, Surrealists became more involved in pictorial art. On the other hand, the interest in hypnotism, hysteria and automatism decreased in the medico-psychological field.

In sum, this dissertation is an excellent contribution to the history of automatic writing from a history of science perspective, and it is highly recommended to different types of scholars, but especially to historians of the human sciences. No doubt, publications based on this dissertation would make a crucial contribution to our understanding of automatic writing and its role in the making of the modern self.

Andrea Graus
Centre for the History of Science (CEHIC)
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Primary Sources

Fonds André Breton, Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet, Paris.
Catalogue Fonds Théodore Flournoy, Bibliothèque Publique de Genève.
William James Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2013. 159 pp. Primary Advisor: John Forrester.

Image: “The Muse of Automatic Writing,” 1924 edition of La Révolution surréaliste.

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