Imaging Inscape: The Human Soul (1913)

In The Human Soul: Its Movements, Its Lights, and the Iconography of the Fluidic Invisible, originally published in French in 1896, Dr. Hippolyte Baraduc (1850–1909) postulates the existence of “the fluidic invisible” — a “vital cosmic force”, which he calls Odic liquid, that extends across the universe and “saturates the organism of living beings and constitutes our fluidic body”. Instead of all things being composed of one elementary substance, as in philosophical accounts of the monad, in this cosmic vision, we all live in a sea that we cannot see, which Baraduc names Somod.

And yet, he argues, it is possible to image the fluidic invisible with instruments more precise than the human eye — capturing the radiation of thoughts, feelings, and other emissions of soulscape. As Anthony Enns discusses in an essay on visualizing thoughts, Baraduc experimented with magnetometers and electrographs before deciding that photography was the best technology for “recording invisible forces emanating from the nervous system”. Unlike most photographers, the paranormal researcher did not always use a lens, preferring, instead, to have his subjects directly transmit their soul’s vibrations onto a chemical plate, which was sometimes placed against a person’s forehead to reduce latency. So as to distinguish this technology from photography, which uses solar light, Baraduc called his process iconography:

In iconography, the plate receives, very slowly, no longer by the solar ray, but by an electro-vital current (wind, breeze) or simply by a direct emission, no longer, the exterior light of the object, but what is called its internal light, its intimate soul, which it records.

To harness this aqueous force requires replacing “the exterior luminous ray of the here-below” with “the electric breeze, projecting the emanated vibration of our soul”. Only then will the fluidic invisible allow itself to be magnetised — “one must, in a word, know how to induct the psycho-odo-fluidic current”.

And indeed, Baraduc knew how to induct something: interspersed in the original French text of 1896, and collected at the end of the English translation above, we find reproductions of these iconographic plates. Something strange happens as Baraduc’s book progresses (as if all this was not yet strange enough). The prose he uses to describe his iconographs glows with an energy stylistically akin to the very vitality that he claimed to capture: “Red obscurity. State of soul magnetising; desire-demand, prayer to the psychic universal spirit of the world. The prayer has elliptically inflected a very beautiful net of fine psychic lamellas; subtle cosmic pneuma, universal web of light, of remarkable purity.”

Unfortunately — and rather beautifully — Baraduc’s printed plates are less remarkably pure, but almost remarkable for their impurity. The lead image shows an underexposed figure surrounded by a web-like aura, which has sprouted something resembling a wing. It is captioned: “the Od attracted by the state of soul of a child lamenting over a recently killed pheasant”. Other plates look like shimmering refractions of light on mica or quartz, which are explained as the Od “individualising itself to repair the deficient sensitive soul” and “Life-animules”. In one image, Baraduc used a Nadar photograph, which he subsequently overlaid with “psychicon” — Baraduc’s thoughts made visible. Some plates evoke a night sky, showered with comets (“Large sized pearls of voluntary psychob”) and another contains a handprint in the negative, with caterpillar-like bristles frizzing outward from all fingers (what he elsewhere calls “soul germ”). For the scholar Jed Rasula, Baraduc’s occultism was merely an intensification of that encrypted presence of other life that we feel when viewing any media form. “Every transaction with a text, a musical score, a painting, or a sculpture, is a personal seance.” Baraduc was attempting to perform this “seance” in real time, accessing those aspects of other people — their internal spiritual lives — that we can only normally experience through translation.

If, in his attempt to access the “inner” world, Baraduc sounds rather “out there”, you would not be the first to try and discredit his claims. As Peter Geimer chronicles, the polymath Adrien Guébhard led a “ten-year crusade against Baraduc’s ‘false flames’”. Yet Baraduc was a respected physician, working on the edges of nineteenth-century medical and psychological research. Georges Didi-Huberman recounts, in Invention of Hysteria, that, despite his “delirium”, Baraduc “was, nonetheless, a very serious ‘specialist’”, researching in league with Jean-Martin Charcot and other neurologists associated with the Salpêtrière hospital and its violent legacy. No matter how disproven, Baraduc’s work, writes Didi-Huberman, “was far from marginal to the knowledge or practice of photography, or to the neuropathology of the time. Scientific teratology is effective in science’s own domain.”

While The Human Soul begins in the register of a scientist researching fringe and esoteric phenomena, it ends as a religious treatise. Nested in double negatives, we find a material vision of the Godhead. “Atheists, blasphemers, sceptics, madmen, believers and saints, we are not able not to be God, who only is.” Immersed in a fluidic invisible, of which we are both the container and contained, we float in the amniotic liquid of divinity.

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