An offshoot of American Spiritualism,
Spiritism was codified by French educator Hippolyte Léon
Denizard Rivail, aka Allan
Kardec, and his disciples in the second half of the nineteenth
century. Madero, scion of a wealthy family from Coahuila in northern
Mexico, was a student in France in 1891 when he encountered Kardec's
magazine and books.
According to Spiritism, because we are spirits it follows that
we can communicate with other spirits, embodied or not. Spiritism
is a religion but also the most modern of modern science, Kardec
argued; as a scientist might peer through a microscope to perceive
the detail in a leaf, so a scientist could employ a medium to
learn from the spirit world.
Both in France and on his return to Mexico, Madero met with a
circle of fellow Spiritists to develop his psychic abilities,
in particular, for receiving communications from the dead by
means of automatic writing. In 1907, a militant spirit named
"José" began to advise Madero on writing the
book that would serve as his political platform: La sucessión
presidencial en 1910 (The Presidential Succesion of 1910),
a work well-known to scholars of the 1910 Revolution. Then, so
we learn from Madero's mediumnistic notebook, José informed
Madero that he would write Manual espírita, a work
"which will cause an even greater impression."
By the time I began to leaf through Manual espírita
in Madero's archive nearly a century later, quite the opposite
seemed to have been its destiny.
It turns out that there are, albeit astonishingly few, Mexican
historians who have written in some depth and seriousness about
Madero's Spiritism: Manuel
Guerra de Luna, Enrique Krauze, Alejandro Rosas Robles, and
Tortolero Cervantes. Although, at the time I happened upon
Manual espírita in the archive, it was nigh impossible
to buy a copy, Alejandro Rosas Robles had included it in his
10 volume compilation, Obras completas de Francisco Ignacio
Madero, published in 2000. I should also note the esteemed
Mexican novelist, Ignacio Solares, whose Madero, el otro
delved, and knowingly, into his esoteric philosophies.
All that said, in Mexico, where Madero has the stature of an
Abraham Lincoln, celebrated in every textbook of national history,
and the Revolution he proclaimed in his Plan de San Luis Potosí
commemorated every November 20th, Bhima's Manual espírita
lay murky leagues below the cultural radar, and the nature and
historical and philosophical context of its contents were terra
incognita to most historians of the Mexican Revolution. It had
never been translated.
I was a translatorand one keenly aware of how little Mexican
writing sees publication in English. And I knew enough to know
that, whatever its contents, the fact that Francisco I. Madero
had written this book gave it importance, for it would illuminate
the character and personal and political philosophies of the
leader of the 1910 Revolution. It bears repeating that Madero
took the trouble to write it in the same year he declared and
led that Revolution, and he published it in 1911, the year of
his nation-wide campaign for his election to the presidency of
the Republic. Whatever this book contained, it must have been
exceedingly important to him.
From the first page of my self-appointed task, however, my instinct
was to wince. Nervous laughter, eye-rolling... It was obvious
to me that most educated readers, including most historians of
Mexico, would regard Madero's Spiritist Manual with puckerlips
What had I taken on?
Madero was murdered in the coup d'etat of 1913. As I read deeper
into that terrible episode, I was flummoxed to learn from U.S.
Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson's memoir that, after arresting President
Madero, General Victoriano Huerta sent his first communication
to the U.S. Legation, asking the ambassador, should he lock Madero
in the lunatic asylum?
I soon realized that to merely translate this century-old book
would be a disservice not only to its author, but to myself and
to the readerthe latter, as were those archvillians of
1913, General Huerta and Ambassador Wilson, presumably as unlettered
as I was on the history of metaphysical religion and subjects
as various as the afterlife, angels, astral planes, automatic
writing, bilocation, and the teachings of Lord Krishna in the
Hindu wisdom book, the
What Spiritist Manual needed was a book-length introduction,
a framing context for English language readers who know little
or nothing of Madero, and/or of Mexican history, and, most crucially,
of the metaphysical philosophies Madero had embraced and espoused.
And so, beginning with Kardec, I began a marathon of reading.
There was much to glean from the works of the aforementioned
handful of Mexican historians; also, to my happy surprise, from
recent scholarly works about nineteenth and twentieth century
metaphysical religion, parapsychology, and occult traditions
serious considerations of what many historians still dismiss,
as Dame Frances Yates, leading scholar of the esoteric traditions
of the Renaissance, archly dismissed nineteenth and twentieth
century Rosicrucians as "below the notice of the serious
historian." These works include Catherine Albanese's A
Republic of Mind & Spirit: A Cultural History of American
Metaphysical Religion (Yale University Press); Joscelyn
Godwin's The Theosophical Enlightenment (State University
of New York Press); John Warne Monroe's Laboratories of Faith:
Mesmerism, Spiritism and Occultism in Modern France (Cornell
University Press); Janet Oppenheim's The Other World: Spiritualism
and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 (Cambridge University
Press), and, neither last nor least, Jeffrey J. Kripal's Authors
of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (University
of Chicago Press).
In addition, I combed through Madero's personal library, which
is preserved in the Centro de Estudios de la Historia de México
in Mexico City. As I could now appreciate, Madero had assembled
a large and sophisticated collection of turn-of-the-last century
European and Anglo-American esoterica, including two English
translations and J. Roviralta Borrell's Spanish translation of
the Bhagavad-Gita, the latter heavily annotated in Madero's own
Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and
His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. The odyssey I recount
is not only Madero's, but my own into that vast and vertiginous
view made possible by my having made, and inviting the reader
to make, the Kantian cut although I did not use that term.
I cracked open the door to greater understanding, not by embracing,
nor by rejecting Madero's philosophies and assertions, but by
acceptingsimply accepting that what I understand
to be reality and what it actually is are not necessarily the
same thing because I, like any human being, with wondrous yet
rangebound senses and brain, cannot comprehend the fullness and
every last quarky detail of the cosmos. What we know is a nano-slice,
In other words, we don't have to accept nor reject Madero's ideasyes,
we can keep the lid on our coconuts while seriously considering
a whole lot of super freaky stuff!
Although Madero's Spiritist Manual is radically different
in its content and tone from Strieber's Communion, like
that mystical text, if encountered with historical and philosophical
context and with the power of the "Kantian cut," considering
it "seriously and sympathetically, without adopting any
particular interpretation" can open up vistas. For one thing,
Madero's Spiritist Manual makes Mexico's 1910 Revolution
look glitteringly uncanny, like a prism ferried from the back
of a closet to a window. Or, shall we say, to an open door.
To return to Strieber and Kripal's The Super Natural, writes
Kripal: "History is not what we think it is."
Writes Strieber: "[T]his world is not what it seems, and
we do not know what it is, only that we are in it... I am reporting
perceptions, and what that means."
Was Madero really communicating with spirits of the dead? Well,
that's one hypothesis.
Many people know Strieber as "that guy who wrote about being
abducted by extraterrestrials." In fact, Strieber reports
his perceptions of his experiences, but as to what they actually
are, he says, "I am a wanderer, lost in a forest of hypotheses."
Strieber also echoes Kripal in arguing that, "it is not
necessary to believe in such things as flying saucers, aliens,
ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena in order to study them."
But to study such things without puckerlips, and all brain cells
firing, one must make that Kantian cutand one needs courage
to persist, for that Kantian cut must be made again and again
in the face of our inclination towards easy polarities, to either
believe or, more commonly, reject, bristling with hostility or
As Kripal puts it, one must "learn to live with paradox,
to sit with the question."
But again, this sitting in the gray zone of maybes, this repeated
Kantian cuttingit becomes a kind of mowingtakes nerve,
both intellectual and social. It can prove hellishly uncomfortable.
Elegantly written and engaging as it is, it takes nerve to read
The Super Naturalnot to mention Strieber's Communion.
However, in my experience of reading for my book about Madero's
book, it gets easier. So much ectoplasm, so many floating trumpets,
fairies and tulpas, psychic surgery... ho hum! It seemed I could
tackle anything, whether a purported download from the Akashic
records of Jiddu
Kirshnamurti's incarnations wending back to 22,662 B.C. (C.W.
Leadbeater's Lives of Alcyone, inscribed by its Spanish
translator to Mrs. Madero), Joan of Arc's autobiography (as channelled
by medium Léon Denis, one of Madero's favorite authors)
or, for instance, a modern parapsychologist's story about a sociopathic
psychic named Ted Owens and his hyperdimensional rain-making
confreres "Twitter" and "Tweeter" (Jeffrey
P.K. Man, which I picked up for late 20th century context).
Jeffrey Mishlove's The P.K. Man, I am not sure I could
have appreciated Kripal and Strieber's The Super Natural so
much as I do without having read that first. On its face, like
Strieber's Communion, or Madero's Spiritist Manual,
The P.K. Man would no doubt strike most readers as outrageous,
indigestible bizarrerie. Yet having read The P.K. Man
twice now, I concur with Harvard University Medical School Professor
John W. Mack, who writes in that book's forward, "Mishlove's
powerful true story may greatly help to clear the way for new
creative human visions and achievements."
Mishlove concludes his story of mind over matter: "We must
move toward honest, authentic integration of the depths within
us and the facts before us." He holds the flag high. Yet
Mishlove confesses, it took him more than two decades to summon
the courage to publish The P.K. Man.
I myself procrastinated mightily in translating and writing about
Madero's Spiritist Manual. And I had assumed that I was
at the end of that years'-long road, with my book
and the translation edited, formatted, and an index prepared,
when in an antiquarian bookstore in Mexico City, I chanced upon
ventana al mundo invisible (A Window onto the Invisible
World). Published in 1960, this exceptionally rare book contains
the detailed records of séances performed by ex-President
Plutarco Elías Calles, other prominent Mexicans, and a
medium named Luís Martínez, from 1940 to 1952 for
the Instituto Mexicano de Investigaciones Síquicas (IMIS).
Its dust jacket features a "spirit photograph" of "Master
Amajur," a 10th century astronomer who had much to say and
many a rose petal to materialize in many a dark night's séance.
After dipping into those spooky accounts, I could not sleep,
and my manuscript and galleys, which needed to be modified in
light of that book, sat untouched on a shelf for more than a
The first sentence Kripal writes in his own first chapter of
The Super Natural is, "I am afraid of this book."
When we make the Kantian cut, we can consider stories that might
seem not only ludicrous, but frighteningperchance beyond
frightening. Beyond one's world view by a galaxy.
For instance: As Strieber writes in The Super Natural,
after publishing Communion, he started receiving letters
from readers, "at first by the hundreds, then the thousands,
then a great cataract of letters, easily ten thousand a month,
from all over the world." They too had seen the haunting
face on the cover of Communion. Writes Strieber, "I
was deeply moved, not to say shocked, to see that I had uncovered
a human experience of vast size that was completely hidden."
And for instance: that Kripal himself, while in Calcutta during
the Kali Puja festivities, experienced an explosive out of- and
in-body state that he believes resonanted with some of Strieber'sand
thousands of others who gave similar testimony. And: Kripal finds
striking correspondences between American UFO abduction literature
andwho'dathunk?Indian Tantric traditions.
And, finally, for instance: As his library and voluminous correspondence
attest, Francisco I. Madero did not come up with his ideas by
his lonesome; Spiritist Manual is not evidence of schizophrenia,
but a unique synthesis of what was in his time in the West the
cutting edge of a well-established literature of Spiritist /
Spiritualist, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, and occult philosophies.
But if, as Kripal and Strieber, Mishlove, and Madero all suggest,
we seriously consider these stories of anomalous phenomenacommunication
with disembodied consciousnesses, out-of-body travel, psychokinesis,
telepathy, "the visitors," and so on and so forth,
how do we live our lives with dignity while entertaining the
notion that, say, someone, anyone, might read our thoughts, game
the financial markets, or, say, impel a pilot, of a sudden, to
crash his plane? And how do we avoid sinking into primitive credulities,
viscious paranoias, and, ultimately, barbarities such as the
burning alive of witches?
I think I mentioned, it can get uncomfortable.
Kripal writes, "many of the things that we are constantly
told are impossible are in fact not only possible but also the
whispered secrets of what we are, where we are, and why we are
here." But neither are Kripal and Strieber saying, believe
this or believe that. On the contrary; Kripal says, make that
cut. "Do not believe what you believe."
But whatever you believe, or not, that is a story. And stories
are what make us human. And being human for that matter,
being able to read and write books, and so catch and hurl packages
of thought from across one axis of time and space to multiple
others is both super and natural. As Kripal and Strieber
insist: super natural.