The Survival of the Soul and its Evolution after Death, by Pierre-Émile Cornillier
Pierre-Émile Cornillier’s The Survival of the Soul and its Evolution after Death: Notes of Experiments is a record of 107 séances held between November 1912 and March 1914. Its release was held up by the First World War, an event which made its message even more significant, and it was not published until 1920 as La Survivance de l'âme et son évolution après la mort, comptes rendus d'expériences. An English-language translation appeared the following year, while the French text went through three revised editions, the last appearing in 1927. White Crow Books have republished the translation, with a preface by Michael Tymn (the White Crow edition has notes dated 1921, post-dating the first French edition, but there is no bibliographic information stating to what extent the English translation is based on subsequent editions).
Cornillier was an artist living in Paris, and Reine was an 18-year old model who sat for him, among other clients. One day in 1912 she found a crystal ball lying around in the studio. Intrigued, she tried using it but without effect. Having an interest in psychical research, and out of sympathy for her failure, Cornillier offered to try table tipping with her. One November afternoon, when the light was too poor to paint, she reminded him of his promise and they sat down. After an initial period during which a number of loud cracking sounds were heard but little else, the table began to move and they received a message via taps: ‘Monsieur Cornillier, make Reine sleep’. This Cornillier did, and they commenced an intense collaboration in which Reine acted as conduit to relay detailed information about the ‘au-delà’.
After a few séances in which ‘inferior spirits communicated, in the ninth session a more authoritative control called Vettellini announced himself via automatic writing and was the main contact for the rest of the series, Reine developing a strong bond with him which Cornillier judged charmant. Their normal method of communication was for the entranced Reine to hold a conversation with Vettellini (though putting it that way is not quite accurate, as it was mostly a question of translating ‘vibrations’ from Vettellini into Reine’s vocabulary, with all the possibilities of error the process entailed). Cornillier’s questions were put to the spirit, the answers to which Reine would report back (Vettellini took possession of Reine at the 104th séance because she was exhausted, and spoke directly though her). Upon awakening, Reine claimed to have no knowledge of what had happened during the trance state and was apparently unaware Cornillier had been able to hear her side of the conversation while it was occurring.
During these sessions Vettellini escorted her around the afterlife, enabling Reine to provide insights into the spirit world and how it operates, the rules governing existence on both sides of the veil, and how spiritual progress is to be achieved. Vettellini was asked about future events, but often proved to be vague about outcomes. As well as these conversations there were visits by other deceased individuals, convincing the Cornilliers and other visitors they were witnessing strong evidence of survival; Cornillier goes into considerable detail in ruling out the operation of telepathy as the source of information. While hypnotised, Reine also attempted psychometry and automatic writing, and she would frequently be sent by Cornillier to other terrestrial locations and told to report back what she saw, in which she was generally successful.
The record ceases at the 107th séance, because Reine was exhausted. After a pause the work with her continued into 1915, but this is not described in The Survival of the Soul. Despite the emphasis on her as medium, Reine was not always essential to the communications, as Cornillier was able to use table-tipping when she was absent in order to communicate directly with Vettellini, such as when the Cornilliers were on holiday in Brittany without Reine and had not heard from her; Vettellini was able to report on her state of health.
This is one of those cases which is a puzzle because if a hoax, a lot of effort was put into it with scant prospect of a return. Was Reine fooling her hypnotist in these sessions? The impetus to attempt the experiments certainly came from her. Cornillier says she was not doing it for money and it seems to have had detrimental effects on her health, which was often poor; but in an insecure profession she might be assured that while the séances lasted she could be confident of modelling work. On the other hand, a hoax on Cornillier would have been risky as the realisation he had been made a fool of could have led to repercussions for her career.
Reine is constantly referred to as small and childlike, the impression being conveyed she was naïve and unworldly (on one occasion Cornillier says ‘she is like a child of ten’). But she may have been shrewder than Cornillier thought. He is patronising, considering her slightly simple. While this was presumably intended as a token of authenticity, such a complacent attitude is always a possible sign an individual is being underestimated, and he perhaps makes too much of her innocence and lack of education (she was married so undoubtedly knew something of life). However, if she was using her imagination to create the communications she seems to have had a sophisticated understanding of what would sound plausible to Cornillier, suggesting extensive reading and/or coaching in the subject.
Leaving aside unverifiable descriptions of the afterlife, she was by this account fairly successful in her travelling clairvoyance and in psychometry, which suggests either a conspiracy cooked up between them – but why bother, a book was not guaranteed to be a massive best-seller; massive misreporting of mundane events; or the possession of psychic ability by Reine. As is so often the case the matter is not clear-cut and proof remains frustratingly elusive. Cornillier did not help his case by not including transcripts, though admittedly a full set would have expanded the book to unmanageable proportions. Instead he wrote notes after the event so all we have are his summaries, with no way of knowing if he introduced distortions.
It certainly seems unlikely the séances were a cover for that old pseudo-sceptic catch-all the clandestine affair, as Mme Cornillier was not excluded and was occasionally present, as were other visitors, and it would have been possible to conduct an affair in a lower-profile manner while Reine was posing for Cornillier’s paintings. Cornillier certainly had an understanding wife though, as did Reine with her husband Armand, because most of these sessions were undertaken with just Cornillier and Reine present. However, the very fact Reine was hypnotised, and therefore passive, could raise suspicions, only making life more difficult for would-be lovers. Reine posing as medium would have merely added to the risk.
Michael Tymn notes that Robert Crookall named The Survival of the Soul as his favourite book on the subject. Why this was we are not told, and while it is noteworthy for the sheer volume of material it contains and the amount of labour it represents, the séance accounts are preaching to the choir. Cornillier appreciated that those who were predisposed to scoff would not be converted, and aware that no matter what controls he imposed there would be those who refused to be convinced by the testimony. Consequently he was less concerned with proof of an afterlife than with the processes involved. His book’s weakness as evidence does not diminish its status, due to the sheer volume of detail, as a classic of Spiritualism.