Space Travel of the Mind

The Case of Camile Flammarion—Ahead of His Time, and Then Some

Most astronomers of the modern era observe the heavens scrupulously and meticulously calculate its measurements; they believe only in what they can see, even if that vision is an expanded one and extended across both the visible and invisible electromagnetic spectrum.

Such was the case with the distinguished French astronomer Camille Flammarion, who lived from 1842 to 1925, and whose many notable achievements include the detection, in 1903, of a rapidly expanding ring of luminous gases surrounding the star Nova Persei, which discovery led to the recognition that novas are exploding stars.

Yet Flammarion also sought to tune in psychically to the vibrations of the stars and planets. Almost unique among astronomers of the time, he held the twin beliefs that the spirit world existed and that matter and spirit were aspects of a single reality. Flammarion took advantage of the tremendous interest in Spiritism and channeling in the France of his time, one held even more fervently by the upper classes and the intelligentsia than by the man in his street to attend numerous séances at which he either channeled, or took down from other channels, spirit messages ostensibly from the unseen reaches of the spirit universe.

Flammarion didn’t do this uncritically; he was, in fact, every bit as thoughtful and searching an observer of the séance as was Harry Houdini in our time. But he also had a Madame Blavatsky side; and, along with publishing several popularizations of cosmology which made him the French Carl Sagan of his day, he wrote a number of visionary/early science-fiction works in which lie embedded, usually in disguised form, the knowledge which the visionary/astronomer brought back with him from his probing rounds of the séances.

Beginning with the recent reissue by the University of Nebraska Press of the 1894 first English translation of Flammarion’s once hugely popular novel, Omega: The Last Days of the World, interest has once again focused on the protean achievement of this many-sided genius. But the academic world may soon find itself in possession of far more than it bargained for. The symbology of Flammarion’s novels goes much deeper than just our physical universe and seems to contain intimations of the unseen spiritual contours of the cosmos through which we move.

In the little town of Juvissy-sur-Orge, just a few miles south of Orly Airport near Paris, lies the now-deserted but once proud and productive Camille Flammarion Observatory. The astronomer built the observatory in 1882–1883 on the land and in the chateau with which a patron and admirer, one C. Meret, had presented to him. Today, the splendid 42-centimeter refracting telescope lies covered up. The 12,000-book library and its archives are under lock and key. The observatory grounds serve as the final resting place for Camille and his wife, Gabrielle.

In its heyday, the observatory was not only the site of solid and determined observations, such as those of Nova Persei in 1903, but also of many an audacious experiment. Shortly after its construction, Flammarion added a meteorological and climatological station. Over a period of three decades, the astronomer took 1,500 exposures of cloud and halo phenomena. He used balloons to carry out observations, winning considerable notoriety by making a series of personal ascents over Paris to carry out high-altitude meteorological observations. In 1897, he was the first person to use motion-picture photography for astronomical purposes.

The astronomer who would probe both seen and unseen worlds got off to a fast start. Nicolas Camille Flammarion was born on February 25th, 1842, at Montigny-le-Roi, in the region of Haute-Marne. He was a hugely precocious child, beginning not only to read at four but also to put together the collection of books which would end up as the 12,000 volumes housed in the Camille Flammarion Observatory at the time of its owner’s death on June 4th, 1925; the reason Flammarion gave his friends for his book-collecting mania was that he needed to remain completely free of public libraries.

The chronology isn’t clear, but Flammarion seems to have undertaken theological studies in the nearby town of Langres when he was only eight or nine. Then he went to Paris, completing training as an engraver by the age of twelve; a skilled lithographer, he would illustrate a number of his books. At the age of sixteen, he began an apprenticeship in astronomy at the Paris Observatory, in the same year writing a 500-page book, Universal Cosmology, which would later serve as the basis for his, The World Before the Creation of Man. This was still not enough for Flammarion’s blossoming, protean energies—in the same period, he wrote a fantastical novel called Ecstatic Voyage to the Regions of the Moon. Four years later, at the age of 20, the astronomer/author published the enormously popular, The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds (1862), which was scientific in tone. In the same period, he brought out his The Inhabitants of the Other World, a second flight of fancy along the lines of Ecstatic Voyage to the Regions of the Moon.

Science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg remarks, in his introduction to the University of Nebraska Press edition of Omega: The Last Days of the World, that Flammarion intimated that much of his The Inhabitants of the Other World had been communicated through the medium Mademoiselle Huet. In fact, even as the astronomer-to-be was continuing to perform mathematical calculations as an apprentice at the Paris Observatory, he had already embarked upon not only a double life as a popularizer of cosmology but also an extraordinary triple life.

Flammarion seems to have been fired in 1862 from his post at the Paris Conservatory by his boss, Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier, the man who in 1846 had predicted the location of the planet Neptune, paving the way for its discovery by the English astronomer John Couch Adams. But Flammarion was certainly not fired for incompetence, and he immediately found similar work at the Paris Bureau des Longitudes. Rather, Leverrier may have been irritated by the time and energy the young astronomer was already putting into the third great passion of his life. Flammarion had begun to frequent the séances that the French Spiritism Movement, launched in the mid-1850s, had made so popular; he was already seeking to communicate, through mediums, tapping tables, and Ouija boards with the inhabitants of those planets whose movements he had meticulously plotted at the Paris Observatory and would, in later years, plot in his own observatory.

The séances of the day were attended by the high and the mighty among the intelligentsia. To get the full flavor of them, we have to imagine Carl Sagan, Tom Stoppard, Prince Charles and Yale English professor Harold Bloom attending a seance at Jane Roberts’ house at which all four of them manage to channel the likes of Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Andrew Wyett, and one or two Arcturians. Jules Bois, the French journalist/séance enthusiast who later wrote a notable article on Victor Hugo’s channeling experiences, has typically written of the well-known experimenters in the occult [who] met together in the Rue des Martyrs, namely, Tiedmen Marth’se, the ruler of Java and a German cousin of the Queen of Holland; St-Ren Taillandier, professor at the Paris Faculty of Letters; Victorien Sardou [the dramatist who created French bourgeois vaudeville] and his son; and Camille Flammarion. A simple table became the common meeting ground of talented humans both dead and alive. Galileo rubbed elbows with Saint Paul; Voltaire and Joan of Arc were reconciled.

Many years later, in his The Unknown and Psychic Problems (1901), Flammarion would provide us with his own description of the séance goings-on of the time: “my illustrious friend Victorien Sardou wrote bizarre pages about the inhabitants of the planet Jupiter and produced picturesque and compelling drawings that depicted things and creatures in that gigantic world. One of those drawings showed us Mozart’s house, composed entirely of musical notes, and others, the mansions of Zoroaster and Bernard Palissy [the famed sixteenth century, lead-glazed earthenware potter], who are, it appears, neighbors on that planet. For my part, I channeled some pages touching upon astronomy, which I signed with the name, Galileo.” Flammarion did not only confine his accounts to channeling; he wrote, for example, that, at a not-typical séance in 1868, as the result of essential help by a medium whose role was too complex to be able to describe precisely, articles that nobody touched moved, pencils spontaneously levitated and were made to write, and handwriting appeared on slates locked in sealed boxes.

We shouldn’t think that Flammarion approached these séances in an uncritical manner. On the one hand, he plunged right in and channeled with the best of them, recording what all the spirits said, and, later, both consciously and unconsciously inserting the material in his visionary/science-fiction books. On the other hand, he carried on scientifically rigorous investigations of these and other types of paranormal phenomena, seeking to understand their origins and parameters. Over the course of his lifetime, he would draw up reports on 6,000 different cases of psychic manifestation.

Flammarion did not believe he and his fellow channelers were necessarily talking to Mozart, Galileo, and company; but he suspected that he and his colleagues might be tuning in to discarnate intelligent energies from the reaches of our outer solar system and beyond. The astronomer/psychic sleuth was one of the first investigators to conclude that, while channeled phenomena might well have its origins in the spirit world, still, in passing through the human mind, it necessarily became very garbled. “The medium’s mind and the minds of the experimenters certainly play a role in it,” he was to write in his The Unknown and Psychic Problems. “The answers obtained usually correspond with their intellectual capabilities, as if their powers had been exteriorized and had an influence over the table, though such persons may not be conscious that this is happening.”

At the same time as he was plunged in the enjoyment and the study of these séances, Flammarion was carrying on observations in astronomy, writing extremely successful popularizations of science, and producing highly visionary fantasies. His Popular Astronomy, published in 1879 and soon to be a worldwide bestseller, won the Paris Academy’s Prix Montyon for that year. Flammarion’s other works of popular science would come to include: The Planet Mars and the Conditions of Its Habitability, Astronomy for Amateurs, and Dreams of an Astronomer, the latter book having been the preferred light reading of more than a few astronomers. And he would continue to publish the results of his investigations of psychic phenomena, including his final book, The Unknown Forces of Nature, appearing in 1907.

For the student of modern-day, New Age literature, Flammarion’s other works of visionary, speculative fiction with their hints of deeper levels of channeled, occult meaning are of the greatest interest. Lumen was the next to appear, in French in 1872, and in English in 1892. It’s the story, in a series of dialogues, of a being who has undergone a number of incarnations on other worlds, including planets round Capella, Gamma Virgo, Sirius, and in the constellation Orion, and of the knowledge he has derived from these incarnations. It is also, writes one commentator (Locke, in A Spectrum of Fantasy), the first work to offer any real idea of the scale of the universe; the first to investigate the implications of the finite speed of light (and thus to toy with the notion of the relativity of space and time); and the first to examine the implications of evolutionary theory in the modeling of alien life-systems. In all these endeavors, it was ahead of its time. Flammarion’s later Urania: A Romance, was published in French in 1889, and in English in 1891; Locke describes it as “A mixture of mysticism and science fiction which sold well in its day” and which featured “spirit travels through space and time and a visit to an advanced Mars.”

The author/astronomer/psychic investigator’s best-known futuristic novel, though, is Omega: The Last Days of the World, first published in French in 1893 and very shortly thereafter translated into 11 languages. This book predates, and no doubt greatly influenced, a number of later apocalyptic novels, such as H.G. Wells The Time Machine and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men.

The first part of Omega: The Last Days of the World takes place in the twenty-fifth century, and is a rather dry and academic discussion of the chances that a comet, seemingly on a collision course with the Earth, will destroy our planet. But the comet barely brushes the Earth; once this happens, Flammarion’s Omega proceeds by millennial leaps and bounds up through the entire history of our planet till its apparent death millions of years in the future (actually, the Earth will blossom again, since Flammarion is a believer not in the Western notion of the end of history and the Apocalypse but in the Eastern notion of the eternal return).

What evidence is there to suggest that occult, “channeled” lore lies embedded in Omega? Here is one example, of several: Flammarion’s description of a highly-evolved humanity in the one hundredth century of the Christian era “with a sixth sense consisting of an exquisite refinement of our first five senses, and new seventh and eighth senses,” sounds very much like analogous descriptions of the evolved senses of humankind which have been channeled, “allegedly from ETs,” in our own time. Flammarion writes in Omega: “Through the study of the electrical properties of living organisms, a seventh sense, the electric sense, was created outright, so to speak; and everyone possessed the power of attracting and repelling both living and inert matter, to a degree depending upon the temperament of the individual. But by far the most important of all the senses [was] the eighth, the psychic sense, by which communication at a distance became possible. The development of two other senses had been arrested from the outset: that of the ability to see ultraviolet light; and an innate sense of orientation using terrestrial magnetism.”

Throughout all of his writing, both speculative and scientific, Flammarion did not cease to make astronomy observations. At his private Camille Flammarion Observatory in Juvissy-sur-Orge, once the 42-cm refractor became operable, he began making numerous observations of Mars, even mapping the planet. He made a number of lunar observations, along with observing double stars and computing their orbits. It was Flammarion who suggested the name Triton for one of the moons of Neptune. Eventually, the French government made him Commander of the Legion of Honor because of his contributions to astronomy. If Flammarion’s private observatory lies fallow today, his speculative novels may yet make a comeback, which even he with his vaulting imagination, could never have imagined.

By John Chambers