The remarkable Paul Sédir
It is time we took a look at the young man with the long (and at the time very fashionable) clay pipe who opened the door to François Jollivet Castelot at his initiation into the Martinist Order, who will take on an increasingly important role in our story. He was a young Breton by the name of Yvon LeLoup, although he wrote and became more widely known under the name of Paul Sédir – the surname being an anagram of ‘désir’ (desire) taken from the writings of the founder of the Martinist Order, Louis Claude de St. Martin.
I have translated Sédir’s remarkable work, Initiations, into English for Skylight Press and it remains one of my favourite reads that I go back to again and again, as well as having been one of the most rewarding literary jobs I have taken on. A book of power as well as information on many levels.
Until his arrival one evening at the famous occult bookshop the ‘Librairie du Merveilleux’ at 29, rue de Trévise Yvon LeLoup had had a hard and not very promising life. But many things of lasting quality have their beginnings in Brittany, and in one of the poorest dwellings in the ancient walled town of Dinan, with its network of medieval streets and acrid smells of the fish market, the future Paul Sédir was born at three o’clock in the afternoon on 2nd January 1871.
His father, Hippolyte, a soldier in the French army, was away fighting in the Franco-Prussian war, and his mother Seraphine, a native of Hesse, one of the German states being fought over, could hardly have been in a less enviable position – impecunious and alone, evacuated to an alien town in the far west.
It was a punishing situation that, along with the privations of war, affected the health of the child, developing a latent tuberculosis of the leg, not helped by imperfect treatment; and for some time even his sight was at risk, leading to more problems; for reading the eye-test chart in an optician’s shop, unused to standing upright, he fell awkwardly and broke his leg, and not for the last time either; which was the reason for his lifelong limp, noted by François Jollivet Castelot.
His father, discharged from the army on a meagre military pension, found work as a domestic servant in the well-heeled Monceau Park district of Paris, putting up his family in various poor lodgings in the bustling Batignolles area nearby. Here Yvon spent much of his time confined to a little iron bed, filling a notebook with imaginative stories or exercises in calligraphy.
His mother taught him German, so by the age of 15 he was able to read the memoirs of Goethe and the adventures of Wilhelm Meister, with its hints of mysterious research and curious meetings, which probably led him on to the challenging metaphysical writings of the 16th century Protestant mystic Jacob Boehme. Between times he limped through the city streets and dreamed of becoming a shepherd, there still being fields close to the city walls. Later he wondered if it had anything to do with a destiny of one day becoming a ‘shepherd of men’ as his choice of the name Paul might suggest.
After a few years his father found rather more lucrative employment nearer the centre of town and Yvon was able to take violin lessons and develop a talent for drawing. So to the old dream of becoming a shepherd was added the hope of taking up painting, literature or music when he grew up. The new location was near the newly built church of Saint-Augustin, most impressive with its shining gold leaf and recently applied frescos, where he went to learn his catechism. His health improved and he was able to attend a nearby school of the Francs-Bourgeois, reputed to be one of the best in Paris, that even included literature in its curriculum. But despite any aspirations for higher education circumstances ruled that he find some form of paid employment.
A friend of the family put in a word for him at the Bank of France, where he was taken on as an ‘auxiliary agent’ at 5 francs a day, with the possibility of occasional overtime for an extra franc. And so he quietly accepted the life of a bank clerk where he remained for 20 years without seeking any professional advancement. His interests lay elsewhere. He worked from nine in the morning until six o’clock in the evening, with an hour and a quarter for lunch, which he would spend down by the riverside quais in search of bargains from the stalls of the second hand booksellers (or ‘bouquinists’ ) who still ply their trade there to this day. And so for two years he provided himself with a self education and a small library in the realm of mystical and occult symbolism.
Like the considerably more wealthy Stanislas de Guaita he was particularly impressed by the romantic occult novels of Joséphin Péladan. And like Stanislas de Guaita, he wrote an admiring letter to the author, which resulted in a personal interview.
We know nothing of this meeting, or what he made of the larger than life Joséphin Péladan, with his aureole of long black hair and Assyrian beard, calling himself ‘Sar’ (or King!) Péladan and claiming direct descent from of ancient Assyrian and Chaldean royalty. What we do know is that it seems to have led to helpful advice and important introductions. Not far from the Bank of France, the ‘Librairie du Merveilleux’ had recently opened, and one evening the young Yvon LeLoup presented himself there.
The event was recorded by Victor-Émile Michelet – if in grudging rather than flattering terms.
I found myself one evening in the famous shop on the rue de Trevise where the good Chamuel reigned, when in came a slow witted young man who abruptly declared :
“I’ve come to take up occultism!”
I could hardly stop from laughing at the awkward and unpolished appearance of this new arrival. What followed showed me how wrong I was. Papus, who knew how to make use of people, didn’t laugh. He said:
“Very well old chap. Come over to my place tomorrow morning.”
And that Sunday Papus entrusted the neophyte with putting his precious library in order.
Thus began the advanced studies of the Breton youth called Yvon LeLoup.
This story may not be quite as recounted or assumed by Michelet, who over the years found it difficult to keep up with Sédir’s progress through the mysteries, and fell out of sympathy with him. Yvon and Papus had probably already met, for the shop did not open until 1890 and Sédir recalls their first meeting being in 1889. Thus the lad was not quite so gauche nor Papus quite so naively trusting with strangers as might appear.
Whatever the case, Yvon Le Loup certainly made himself extremely useful to Papus and his associates. Not only did he help Papus to sort out his library and organise his somewhat chaotic affairs but he was welcomed to Stanislas de Guaita’s large Paris apartment where he was building his own extensive (and indeed unique) occult library of a couple of thousand volumes. Thus Yvon began to spend more and more time in the company of this group of esoteric activists, who were in the thick of building the C.I.E.E. organisation, establishing the journal l’Initiation, and founding their Martinist and Rosicrucian Orders.
During this time he was not only helping to organise, but learning how to write articles and later small books on various aspects of occultism. He was helped in this by having the run of the libraries of his friends, and may well have found it possible to do a certain amount of writing during banking hours. He also developed a very wide correspondence, not only with like-minded provincials such as Jollivet Castelot, but internationally as well, making him highly knowledgeable in oriental as well as western esoteric traditions. Thus in his little book the 48 page Le Fakirism Hindou he expands on what Papus, in his early explanations of magic, had first had to say about the Hindu fakirs, but states that his references are taken not so much from books but from what he has learned of oriental occultism from travellers and initiates in these countries.
Rightly or wrongly Jollivet Castelot considered Sédir to have advanced clairvoyant powers and assumed he had developed them by the use of “magic mirrors”; and indeed Sédir did write a 64 page booklet Les Miroirs Magiques. In addition to mention of traditions associated with the likes of Swedenbourg, Cagliostro, John Dee and Nostradamus, Sédir also typically cites in some detail an oriental group event reported by a Colonel Stephen Fraser.
Magic mirrors are obviously devices for focussing attention upon inner perceptions, whether by way of a concave mirror, a circle of tin foil, a copper sphere, a black obsidian disc or a crystal (not glass!) vase full of water, accompanied by various spoken formulae. One is aware of similar approaches to hypnosis being experimented with at about this time, but without the quasi-religious formulary.
What is clairvoyance? Sédir calls it the faculty to see beyond the range of physical sight, and that can be exercised in Time or Space. In Time it is a question of future things (presentiments or prophecies) or revelation of events in the past. In Space it produces what the psychotherapists of the day called “visual telepathic hallucinations”. Since Mesmer, famous philosophers, particularly Germans such as Kant or Schopenhauer, had been preoccupied with this faculty, looking for a theory. At this period, Papus and his friends were principally concerned with the practice and ways to develop it.