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Observations placeholder

Auguste Vacquerie - Pieces of history – Victor Hugo and the Talking tables



Type of Spiritual Experience


As quoted in Spiritism (Western Fakirism) Study Historical, Critical and Experimental - Dr. Paul Gibier [1887]

A description of the experience

Editor of the Rappel[1], editor-in-chief, Mr. Auguste Vacquerie, - Miettes de l'histoire (Pieces of history)

He is recounting a visit that Mrs de Girardin paid to Victor Hugo in his house of exile in Jersey, where Mr Vacquerie was also present.

"Was it her impending death[2], he said, that had turned her towards alien life? She was very concerned about the talking tables, her first word was whether I believed in them. She believed firmly in them, and spent her evenings evoking the dead.

Her concern was mirrored, without her knowledge, even in her work; the topic of Joy is frightening, isn't it a dead man who returns? She absolutely wanted us to share her belief, and the very day she arrived, it was difficult to make her wait until the end of dinner; she got up as soon as dessert was served and led one of the guests into the parlour where they tormented a table, which remained silent.

She blamed it on the table, whose square shape upset the fluid. The next day, she went to a children's toy store to buy herself a small one-foot round table with three prongs, which she put on the big one and which did not come any more to life than the big one.

She was not discouraged and said that the spirits were not horses of carriage patiently waiting for the citizen, but free and willing beings who came only at their moment of need. The next day, same experience and same silence. She persisted, the table was stubborn.

She had such a passion for propaganda that one day, while dining with Jersey people, she had them question a pedestal table, which proved her intelligence by not answering Jersey people. These repeated failures did not shake her; she remained calm, confident, smiling, indulgent to incredulity; the day before her departure, she asked us to grant her, for her farewell, one last attempt.

I hadn't witnessed previous attempts; I didn't believe in the phenomenon and I didn't want to believe it. I am not one of those who make a bad face at new things, but this one took her time badly and diverted Paris from thoughts that I found at least more urgent. I had therefore protested by my abstention. This time, I was unable to refuse to come to the last test, but I went there with the firm resolution to believe only what would be sufficiently proven.

Mrs. de Girardin and one of the attendants, the one who wished, put their hands on a small table. For a quarter of an hour, nothing, but we had promised to be patient; five minutes later we heard a slight cracking of the wood it could be the effect of an involuntary pressure of tired hands; but soon this cracking repeated itself and then a febrile agitation.

Suddenly one of the table legs rose up, Mrs. de Girardin said: - Is there anyone out there? If there is anyone there and they want to talk to us, let them hit us.

The table leg fell back with a sudden noise. - There is someone there! Madame de Girardin exclaimed; ask your questions.

We asked questions, and the table answered.

The answer was brief, one or two words at most, hesitant, indecisive, sometimes unintelligible. Were we the ones who didn't understand it?

The way in which the answers were translated was open to error; here is how it was done: a letter of the alphabet was called, a, b, c, etc., at each kick of the table; when the table stopped, the last letter of the alphabet was marked. But often the table did not stop clearly on a letter, we were mistaken, we noted the previous or the next one; the inexperience without mixing, and Mme de Girardin intervening as little as possible so that the result was less suspicious, everything was confusing.

In Paris, Mrs de Girardin used, she had told us, a safer and more expedient procedure; she had a table made on purpose with a dial alphabet and a pointer that indicated the letter itself. Despite the imperfection of the means, the table, despite its turbid answers, produced some that struck me.

I had only been a witness; it was my turn to be an actor; I was so unconvinced that I treated the miracle as a learned donkey who was made to guess "the wisest girl in society"; I said to the table: "Guess what word I mean."

To monitor the answer more closely, I sat at the table myself with Mrs. de Girardin. The table says one word; it was mine.

My toughness was not reduced.

I tell myself that by chance the word could have been whispered to Mrs de Girardin, and Mrs de Girardin to the table; it happened to me, at the opera ball, to tell a domino woman that I knew her and, as she asked me her baptismal name, to tell a name that had been found true; without even mentioning chance, I had very well at the passing letters of the word, having, despite myself, in the eyes or fingers a trembling sound that had exposed them.

I started the test again; but, to be sure that I would not reveal the passage of the letters, neither by mechanical pressure nor by an involuntary look, I left the table and asked it, not the word I thought, but its translation. The table said: "You mean suffering". I was thinking love.

I was not yet convinced. Assuming that we helped the table, the suffering is so much the bottom of everything, that the translation could apply to any word I thought it would be. Suffering would have meant greatness, motherhood, poetry, patriotism, etc., as well as love. I could therefore still be fooled, on the only condition that Madame de Girardin, so serious, so generous, so friendly, dying, would have crossed the sea to mystify the scoundrels.

Many impossibilities were believable before that one, but I was determined to doubt until the injury. Others questioned the table and made it guess their thoughts or incidents known only to them; suddenly, it seemed to get impatient with these childish questions; it refused to answer and yet it continued to get agitated as if it had something to say. Its movement became abrupt and voluntary like an order: -

Is it always the same spirit that is there? asked Madame de Girardin. The table struck two shots, which in the agreed language meant no. - Who are you? The table answered the name of a dead woman, who was living in all those who were there.

Here, mistrust gave up; no one would have had the heart or the nerve to make a trestle of this tomb in front of us. A mystification was already very difficult to admit, but an infamy! The suspicion would have despised itself. The brother asked the sister who was coming out of death to comfort the exile; the mother was crying, an inexpressible emotion embraced all the breasts; I clearly felt the presence of the one that had been ripped off by the harsh gust of wind.

Where was she? Did she still love us? Was she happy? She answered all the questions or replied that she was forbidden to answer. The night was passing and we remained there, the soul nailed to the invisible apparition. Finally, she said to us: Goodbye, and the table did not move.

As the day was dawning, I went up to my room, and before I went to bed, I wrote down what had just happened, as if these things could be forgotten!

The next day, Madame de Girardin no longer had to ask me, it was me who led her to the table. The night was still spent there. Mrs. de Girardin left during the day, I accompanied her to the ship and, when the mooring ropes were let go, she shouted at me: "Goodbye!" I didn't see her again. But I would like to see her again.

She returned to France to spend the rest of her life on earth. In recent years, her living room had been very different from what it had been. Her real friends were gone. Some were outside France, like Victor Hugo; others further away, like Balzac; others further away, still, like Lamartine. She still had all the dukes and ambassadors she wanted, but the February revolution had not given her full faith in the importance of titles and functions, and the princes did not console her with writers.

She was better able to replace the absent by remaining alone, with one or two friends and her table. The dead came to her memory; she had evenings that were well worth her best of the past and where the geniuses were replaced by the spirits. Her guests from now on were Sedaine, Mme de Sévigné, Sapho, Molière, Shakespeare. She died among them. She left without resistance and without sadness; this life of death had taken away all her worries. It is touching that, to soften this noble woman's rough passage, these great dead came to take her away!

Mrs. de Girardin's departure does not slow down my drive to the tables. I rushed madly into this great curiosity of half-opened death.

I no longer waited for the evening; at noon, I started, and I only finished in the morning; at most I stopped for dinner.

Personally, I had no action on the table, and I wasn't touching it, but I was questioning it.

The mode of communication was always the same and I had gotten used to it. Mrs. de Girardin sent me two tables from Paris: a small one, one foot of which was a pencil that had to write and draw; it was tried once or twice, drew poorly and wrote badly; the other was larger; it was an alphabet dial table, with a needle marking the letters; it was also rejected after an unsuccessful attempt, and I definitely stuck to the primitive process, which, simplified by habit and some agreed abbreviations, soon had all the desired speed.

I was talking to the table fluently; the sound of the sea mixed with these dialogues, the mystery of which increased with winter, night, storm and isolation. It was no longer words that the table answered, but sentences and pages. It was, most often, serious and masterful, but at times spiritual and even comical. It had tantrums; I was insulted more than once for speaking to it irreverently, and I must admit that I wasn't very quiet until I got my forgiveness. It had requirements; it chose its interlocutor, it wanted to be questioned in verse, and it was obeyed, and then it answered itself in verse. All these conversations have been collected, no longer at the end of the session, but on the spot and under the dictation of the table; they will be published one day and will be a compelling problem for all the intellects who are eager for new truths.

If someone asked me for my solution, I would hesitate.

I would not have hesitated in Jersey, I would have affirmed the presence of the spirits. It is not the view of Paris that holds me back; I know all the respect we owe to the opinion of the current Paris, of that Paris so sensible, so practical and so positive that only believes in the jersey of the dancers and the book of stockbrokers. But its shrugging its shoulders wouldn't make me lower my voice. I am even happy to have to tell it that, as for the existence of what are called spirits, I have no doubt about it; I have never had this fatuity of a race that decrees that the ladder of beings stops at the level of the human being; I am convinced that we have at least as many steps both on the forehead and under the feet and I believe as firmly in spirits as I believe in unpleasant things.

Their existence accepted, their intervention is only a detail; why could they not communicate with man by any means, and why should this means not be a table?

Immaterial beings cannot move matter; but who tells you that they are immaterial beings?

They can have a body too, more subtle than ours and elusive to our eyes, as light is to our touch. It is likely that between the human state and the immaterial state, if there are any, there are transitions. The dead succeeds the living as human succeeds animals. The animal is a man with less soul, the man is an animal in balance, the dead man is a man with less matter, but he has some matter left.

I therefore have no reasoned objection against the reality of the table phenomenon. But nine years have passed since then. After a few months, I interrupted my daily conversation because of a friend whose ill-founded reason could not withstand these breaths of the unknown.

Since then, I have not reread these notebooks in which these words that have moved me so deeply have been written. I am no longer in Jersey, on this rock lost in the waves, where, as an expatriate, torn from the ground, out of existence, dead living myself, the lives of the dead did not astonish me to meet. And certainty is so unnatural to man that he even doubts the things he has seen with his eyes and touched with his hands.

I have always found Saint Thomas to be very trustful."

[1] Auguste Vacquerie. - The Pieces of History. Paris, 1863.
[2] Mrs. de Girardin knew she was very sick.

The source of the experience

Hugo, Victor

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps