Brazilian spiritism (Kardecism), a product of nineteenth-century France identified variously as a science, a philosophy, and a religion, has been popular for 150 years, but until now has received little scholarly attention. Students of popular culture may have found it too intellectualized and academic, while those interested in “high” culture have spurned it for its belief in spirit communication and reincarnation. Now, however, in a thoughtful, provocative, and well-written study, anthropologist David Hess has accomplished for spiritism something of what Robert Darnton did for Mesmerism: he has taken it seriously as an intellectual system and as an entrée into contemporary Brazilian culture. The book focuses on spiritist discourse in the writings and public speeches of the movement’s college-educated professional elite. Influenced by the reflexive, dialogic approach in anthropology, Hess situates these discourses within a larger universe of discourse, the “ideological arena” of modern Brazil (p. 6). He explores the ways spiritist thought is shaped by and responds to the discourses of other participants in the arena—the Catholic-church, Afro-Brazilian religions, orthodox doctors and scientists, social scientists, and members of international parapsychological and spiritualist communities.
The main body of the book consists of “dialogues” on such topics as insanity, parapsychology, and psychic surgery, in which spiritists’ positions are juxtaposed and contrasted with those of their opponents and contextualized in larger debates. In one such dialogue, concerning the causes and treatment for poltergeists, spiritists dispute with two divergent Catholic ideologues (a Franciscan who favors diabolical causation and recommends exorcism and a Jesuit who defends individual energy discharge and favors psychotherapy), a medical doctor drawn to Zen Buddhism, and various international parapsychological figures. Hess argues that these ubiquitous dialogues among the orthodox and heterodox are distinctive to Brazilian culture. The book moves between late nineteenth-century and contemporary texts, includes an enlightening historical chapter that situates Allan Kardec’s founding texts on spiritism in the rationalist and romantic milieu of nineteenth-century France, and, in a brief appendix, outlines a comparative history of spiritism in Brazil and Puerto Rico.
Those interested in how discourse articulates the consciousness and experience of particular social sectors and is grounded in processes of political and economic change may be frustrated by Hess’ disinterest in exploring links between the texts and a particular middle class, elite, or bourgeois ideology (p. 35). Instead, he prefers to characterize these spiritist discourses as cultural mediators, be they between elite and popular ideologies, orthodox Christianity and popular religious belief, orthodox medicine and popular healing, or science and religion. Exactly what and whom these mediating forces represent therefore is not clear. Many of the (mediating) spiritist intellectuals are also (elite) orthodox physicians, psychiatrists, and “hard” scientists. Also, the fascinating details that emerge about the Catholic church’s discourse with spiritists yield few clues as to why the church has chosen to engage in these “paranormal” debates, or how the debates relate to its other social and political agendas. The book nevertheless stands as an original and stimulating study, highly recommended for students of Brazilian culture and the history of ideas. It succeeds in presenting the production of spiritist ideas as complex, negotiated processes within a local discourse that simultaneously was shaped by an international market of ideas.