The Divided Lands of Mesmeria

As part of a course I am teaching together with Dr. Marco Pasi we have spent the last three weeks discussing the significance of Mesmerism and animal magnetism in the overlapping contexts of Enlightenment science and esotericism. It is an interesting topic in many respects. For starters, the status of Mesmerism is not uncontroversial in esotericism studies. Why?

To begin with it is not so clear that there is anything “esoteric” about it, by any definition of estoreicism. True, we may trace Paracelsian influences in Franz Anton Mesmer’s (1734-1815) doctrines, and his doctoral dissertation (published as De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum) was concerned with possible medical aspects of astrology . But his life’s “discovery”, animal magnetism, was proposed as a purely physicalist and even to some extent mechanistic theory of illness and healing. It postulated the existence of a universal, subtle fluid, completely on par with the other fluids of contemporary science, such as phlogiston and the many different ethers that were being proposed. He saw it’s working as a perfect analogy to mineral magnetism,  and indeed suggested a connection with both magnetism and electricity. In 1775 he even used his discovery to debunk the demonic possessions and exorcisms of the Bavarian priest Johann Joseph Gassner (1727-1779), producing an entirely physicalist interpretation of the observed phenomena.

In short, Mesmer dearly wanted to take part of a mainstream Enlightenment scientific discourse. While his methods and theories were undoubtedly exotic, they do fit against the context of scientific optimism and weird discoveries that were made in the fields of electricity especially. It also makes a lot of sense that it was in Paris that the magnetic physician made his breakthrough. Pre-revolutionary Paris seethed with interest in popular science and extravagant claims about new forces and exciting technologies, as historian Robert Darnton excellently demonstrated 40 years ago in one of the authoritative studies of Mesmerism in France.

Indeed, were it not to later developments in the organically evolving and disputed discourse on animal magnetism, the Mesmer affair might have gone into history simply as yet another curious sidetrack in the history of science. There is a compelling  argument to be made that later developments changed the historical memory of Mesmerism. In order to get into that story, we need to look briefly at some of the German physician’s disciples, as well as the reception of his doctrines in new cultural contexts, both abroad and at the Imperial margins.

One particularly important link was Armand-Marie-Jaques de Chastenet, better known as the Marquis de Puységur (1751–1825), a French aristocrat and artillery officer. Puységur was responsible for re-inventing the techniques of Mesmerism, downplaying the physicalist theories of Mesmer while emphasising instead the intimate psychic connection between mesmerizer and mesmerized, and especially the special rapport that seemed to take place between the two. He also replaced the mechanism of the treatment, referring to it as the induction of an “artificial somnambulism”.

For Puységur, the power of the mesmeric doctor was really to have his will intrude on the psyche of the other person, bending his/her (most often her) every muscle to his (again, the mesmerist was almost always male) will. It was also in Puységur’s practices that an emphasis was laid on a series of “supernatural” phenomena which seemed to go with the treatment: people would be able to read thoughts, display unusual intelligence and eloquence, and even develop clairvoyant abilities making them able to accurately diagnose their own as well as other clients’ ailments. By emphasising that people in such a somnambulist state displayed a completely different character and personality, he may also be regarded as one of the early creators of the problematic discourse on “multiple personalities”.

Already at this stage, things start to look a bit different. But the real switch has occurred after the phenomena and techniques belonging to Mesmerism were combined more explicitly with esoteric doctrines. In Lyon, for example, animal magnetism was taken up in the mid 1780s by a Masonic group which wanted to put it to use for alleviating the suffering of the less fortunate. One member of this group, the chevalier de Barberin, went much further. He adopted Puységur’s framework rather than Mesmer’s, but went beyond Puységur by using “entranced” patients to seek advice in spiritual concerns such as the nature of death, the afterlife, and the dimensions of heaven and hell.

Perhaps more influential still are the adoptions of Mesmerism by the Swedenborgians. The followers of the Swedish natural philosopher and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) were also enthusiastic about the manifestations of artificial somnambulism, but claimed that the real “mechanism” behind them were due to an actual intercourse with spirits of various shapes and shades. Now things start pointing towards the mediumistic seances of 19th century spiritualism.

To make a long story short (at least the end of it): what we seem to observe is an esoteric reception of Mesmer’s theories. It is not even a straight-forward, one-way reception. One of the other major difficulties in the history of Mesmerism is to account for the sometimes vast regional differences in how Mesmerism was perceived. It makes a difference whether we are talking about animal magnetism in Paris, the rest of France, in Germany, Haiti, England, or India. When the discourse had it’s “second coming” across the English Channel in the 1820-1830s, for instance, it got connected to politics, social questions, and the professionalization of medical expertise in a very different way from what it had on the Continent – a process which has been brilliantly analyzed in Alison Winter’s Mesmerized. Its significance was even quite fragmented on the local level: Conservatives at King’s College wanted to use Mesmerism to argue for a kind of mind/matter dualism, while progressive Whig physicians at University College put forward a version of Mesmer’s physicalist theory to advance a purely materialist theory of the mind. To complicate matters still, the Scottish surgeon James Braid (1795-1860) psychologized the Mesmeric discourse further when he invented the term “hypnotism” to account for the psycho-dynamic process which he thought was at play in Mesmeric and somnambulist phenomena.

Parallel to all of these scientific and philosophical junctures, Mesmerism continued to be integrated in 19th century esoteric thought. Especially in its puységurean form, it presented occultists such as Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875) with a seemingly scientific discourse in which to frame the magical potency of the will and the imagination. And as I already hinted at above, Mesmerism provided the techniques and experiential framework for the emergence and growth of modern spiritualism. Later on it would catch the eye of psychical researchers and parapsychologists. All in all “Mesmerism” has come to mean so much more, and so many different things, from the healing methods once practiced in the dimly lit “crisis rooms” of pre-revolutionary Paris.


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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] I tried to show in the previous post, “Mesmerism” has been a diverse and contested ensemble of ideas and practices, with a […]

  2. Interesting thesis that could well be extended into a book-length study. The case of Haiti is especially interesting in that Mesmerism may have been the needed catalyst, combined with Voudon practices and the liberal political theories of the French Sophists and Freemasons, for the Revolution.

  3. […] half of the 19th century as happened with Mesmerism earlier. As I wrote about Mesmerism earlier (here and here), the various phenomena and practices associated with it were used in favour of sometimes […]

  4. […] running on “Esotericism and modern science” (I’ve written about previous classes here, here, here, here and here)we talked about the encounter between two influential thinkers of very […]

  5. […] the post-Enlightenment era. I blogged about some of the classes earlier, particularly on mesmerism (here and here), spiritualism, the interactions with the ideological superstructures of naturalism and […]

  6. […] the post-Enlightenment era. I blogged about some of the classes earlier, particularly on mesmerism (here and here), spiritualism, the interactions with the ideological superstructures of naturalism and […]

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cole Tucker and Ted Hand, David Metcalfe. David Metcalfe said: The Divided Lands of Mesmeria by @easprem […]

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