28 January 2013

André Blavier #6: Jules Allix

Jules Allix (1818–97) was a militant socialist and a committed feminist, but he earns a place in Blavier's Les Fous littéraires for his long article in two October 1850 issues of La Presse, which he called 'Communication universelle et instantanée de la pensée, à quelque distance que ce soit' ('Universal and instantaneous communication of thought, from any distance whatsoever'). This article gave details of the 'boussole pasilalinique sympathique ou plus communément les escargots sympathiques' ('The pasilalinic-sympathetic compass, more commonly known as 'sympathetic snails'), or as many have named it: the snail telegraph.

The discovery, made by Jacques Toussaint Benoît and Biat-Chrétien, was that snails have the ability to maintain long-distance contact with each other after having sex. They release a kind of animal magnetism, an electric fluid for which the earth acts as a kind of conductor, developing and unravelling, Allix said, like a spider's or a silkworm's thread, but which never breaks and can continue indefinitely. This 'sympathetic escargotic fluid' is completely invisible and has immediate effect.

With this revolutionary discovery in mind, Benoît and Biat-Chrétien invented a message-conveying machine, a kind of ship's compass which involved the 25 letters of the French alphabet and unfortunate snails stuck to basins. Exactly how it was supposed to work remains obscure to my unscientific mind, but then of course it didn't work anyway: Benoît (who was mentally disturbed) was just stringing his financial backer along, and disappeared when things got too hot.* His 'colleague' Biat-Chrétien, who was supposed to be collaborating with him in America, did not in fact exist outside Benoît's imagination.

But the press made fun of the project for years: one cartoon, for instance, shows snails with quill pens at work at a post office desk.

* Allix too was mentally disturbed, and was an inmate in Charenton on several occasions. He published Curation de l'aliénation mentale: Introduction in 1867: a link to the text is here. His brother was Léon-Émile Allix, one of Victor Hugo's doctors.

Links to my other posts on André Blavier's Les Fous littéraires are below:

André Blavier #1: Jean-Pierre Brisset, Paulin Gagne
André Blavier #2: Alexandre Ansaldi, G. Clair/Rupin Schkoff, Camarasa
André Blavier #3: Hyacinthe Dans
André Blavier #4: Ernest de Garay, aka Karl-des-Monts
André Blavier #5: Francisque Tapon-Fougas

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