Émile Boirac’s 1876 ‘Déjà Vu’ Open Letter – A Christening

I’m always interested in phenomena history, and surprisingly, theory naming does not always belong to the first to observe, nor record an anomaly -especially with ignorable words- and so it is with Émile Boirac‘s ‘déjà vu’ neologistic christening.

Boirac’s credit was radicated in a damn long open letter, indeed it was a reply to an anonymousone of our readers’ remarks that was recorded in the Information Notes, Correspondence section of the Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger magazine. 

The innominate reader recounted his eidetic souviens du souvenir’ (recalls of memory) experience, and all too human, wondered if he was the only one who had the as yet unnamed condition.  I suspect the unacknowledged Monsieur kept his privacy for the same reason the reader referred to himself as ‘having a sound mind’ -a hint of the 1876 climate for psychological illnesses -brutality.  Regardless, Émile Boirac‘s accessit was the ‘déjà vu’ cognomination.

My transverbation below is from an original Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) magazine copy, and I have made it simple as possible.  I’m uncertain if other Émile Boirac 1876 French ‘déjà vu’ missive English translations are on the internet, but mine is what I would call ‘clean’, in that, I avoided tarting-up the language -though I did correct one (or two) printing typos, and supplemented some words for clarity -in blue Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger

Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger


The translation:

Without having examined the facts described in the article, I will report on an illusion of memory which to me, resembles the same type.

It happened when I first saw a monument, a countryside, a person, which made me all of a sudden realize, and in spite of my judgement, I had already seen what I was seeing.  Impossible to say where, nor when: the memory, like the sensation of deja vu was no less ‘very alive’ and ‘very clear’.  This did not disappear upon reflection, but to the contrary, seems to increase.  I had principally observed this in me, when I arrived to reside in a city as of yet unknown to me. -I already had recorded this (experience) with my reading: suddenly, for no apparent reason, I recall having read that page, these lines, these same words printed with their letters; and the particular taste of the mental state where I had found myself then, comes back very freshly. It goes without saying, that it is imaginary, and that I have never read that very book. – Other times, taking part in a conversation, in a situation then altogether insignificant, I happen to recognize a falseness (unreality), by a sort of sudden reflection, a combination of words, movements, feelings where I believe, I am witnessing this for the second time.- I had heard it said to several people, that they also know from experience, this memory illusion .

How to explain this phenomenon? – Must we assume like imagination, the memory has it’s own hallucinations?

Until (there is) something better, I venture to propose a psychological explication. I am only giving this as a hypothesis to study. 

Recognition’s subjective condition (nature) is perhaps (due to) the presence, under a current perception, residuals of same type perceptions: these are reborn perceptions that are aging the present perception.  They combine, they merge with it,  to the point of escape from consciousness.  This instant, and unconscious fusion of sensations, and images is a very general fact -which could include many examples.  As at the Opera, the listeners who were in front of the libretto could hear distinctly, despite the blending of words sung, that were rendered indistinguishable, in virtue of this merger, the sung words were for all others indistinct.  The hypothesis consists of admitting  that when the merger operates spontaneously, with an unconsciousness promptness and sufficiency, it produces recognition.  Now, under the law of similar associations, new perceptions can excite and spontaneously absorb the residues of prior perceptions (that are) more or less similar:  these old perceptions are increasingly unable to revive (resurface) alone,  in part, because they are more distant, as they are already more intimately fused together, despite their differences, during a long interval where they have ceased to appear in our brain.  However, they are sufficient to produce the senior illusion.  – In certain cases (probably because the residues do not have sufficient intensity), for the merger (fusion) to completely take place,  the new perception must repeat a certain number of times.  The residue it leaves, then unites much easier with the oldest.  –  When changing your environment, If the illusion is more frequent, there is more chances that old and forgotten perceptions are evoked by mixing with unaccustomed objects, and without being recognized, new perceptions age.  This is perhaps another element of explanation.

We can admit that all sensation, all special representation, especially when the mind is not yet accustomed, it is single feeling (in English relish) and we could also name this its stamp, an emotional nuance.(just a note; the French are culturally-prone to stamp the hell out of documents, a legal curse)  In the case which occupies us a now, a new object can excite the mind perhaps with the same undefined feeling, as the older unnamed object that it does not necessarily resemble, and that has been long forgotten:  or a recognition of an already known mental disposition, in effect,  an impotent effort to resurrect the original perception that it was part of.

² I come now to the facts described in the note (‘souviens du souvenir’ experience). It does not seem to me very clearly explained, I’m not quite sure on the exact process. If I am not mistaken, this is what it is

All memories that come back to the brain are accompanied by this remark (the acknowledgement of having seen or lived it?) that it was preceded by another memory on the same object, backwards, so to speak, this same object in a so distant memory that it seems out of the boundaries (possibility) of present life……

Perhaps if he (the anon man) had simply wanted to indicate the facts that I mentioned myself.   If we see a new object for the first time, it appears as such: but if we see it often (and) repeatedly, it may happen that it seems old, already known (familiar), “for a time out of all proportion with the reality of things”

On the other hand (conversely), when it is also vague, also dubious (phenomena), is it really scientific to wonder if this could be be mainly explained physiologically, especially by combinations of brain nerve cells forces?  In this matter, the most truly rational approach, consist, in my opinion, to not seek an explanation of individual psychological facts, (based) on psychological laws, more or less, generally duly verified (established): it is then up to physiology, to determine the organic, and physiological conditions of these laws.

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6 Responses to Émile Boirac’s 1876 ‘Déjà Vu’ Open Letter – A Christening

  1. wishfulwitch says:

    coool article bro! And it’s an honor to help you in this article. I’m also into “phenomena history” as you call it, tho i just started. I find your article very helpful and intriguing. :) Nice work!

  2. thirdnews says:

    I’m interested in the debate over the physiological vs psychological explanation, and interestingly this discussion was reflected in a second open letter from a man named Hoewiez.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. chrismoulin says:

    I cannot tell you how useful this is, and how it will be – thank you so much. To my shame, despite working so much in the field, and understanding a bit of French, I’d never taken the trouble to find this important source. I’ve had a look, though at some of Arnaud’s and Claparede’s writings, and I’m slowing translating Arnaud’s 1896 article, because the case resonates so much with one of my own.

    My feeling is that this is definitely what we would describe as déjà vu nowadays, and the theory resonates with the single element familiarity and the Gestalt Familiarity ideas which are gaining traction through Anne Cleary’s contemporary research. But perhaps the key use of ‘déjà vu’ is not in the contemporary sense – it seems this could just be any form of a feeling of recognition.

    Anyway, thanks again for your excellent work.

  4. thirdnews says:

    Chris, there is more to the déjà vu work, including an editorial introduction to Boirac‘s letter, a second reply with an opposing POV, and of course, the original article that inspired both men to write.

    I’ve committed to translating the remaining information, and in retrospect, their replies are found following an article, and this may be indicative of a theme linkage -I need to read it too.

    Observationally, It is common journalism, and research to accept translations as canon, but our own politics, religion, and culture often prejudices -possibly mine too. I tried to be veridical to Boirac‘s words, but his standpoint is indeterminate.

    I found it interesting that Émile Boirac‘s French was comprehensively simple (is that because it was not literature?), Boirac clearly understood English (he translated a word by its intent, and not literally), and possibly he considered using this style of writing with respect to a duple readership.

    BTW, Émile Boirac may have had other letters to the editor

    Good luck with your work, I would like to read it too.

  5. Pingback: Why An Author’s Work Oftentimes Has Never Been Read -You Only Think You Did | Third News

  6. chrismoulin says:

    Thanks for your reply – your original post and later comments have been an inspiration – I’m currently writing my habilitation à diriger des recherches at the University in Dijon…

    Today I’ve found a critical paragraphe in his 1902 Leçons De Psychologie Appliquée À L’éducation where hé describes the expérience perfectly and then says it has been given the name… paramnésie! Fascinating.

    Thanks again – I’ll keep you posted, and will watch your work with enthusiasm.

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