“Nature may be as selfishly studied as trade. Astronomy to the selfish becomes astrology; psychology, mesmerism (with intent to show where our spoons are gone); and anatomy and physiology, become phrenology and palmistry.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson Nature
A fraud, quack, and a healer? Franz Anton Mesmer’s controversial concept of mesmerism had shaken not just the scientific community but the social community of the 18th century. Mesmer’s concept of “animal magnetism” or “mesmerism” became a massive discussion point for those in social circles, political offices and literary groups. The mesmerist became a cheater, a villain and one who could control the weak and manipulate the masses. Literature has long since viewed this figure under a negative light until Edgar Allan Poe in his work The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar did his best to redeem the mesmerist as not a fraudulent thief to devoted healer.
Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician, had idea and it was simple “all animated bodies including man were affected by a magnetic force which also mutually influenced the celestial bodies and earth” and by ‘controlling’ those magnetic forces, one could then in theory control the entire human body. This control typically led patients into “violent convulsions, crying, laughter, or other physical symptoms which was then suspended by an extreme lack of energy.” Mesmer was also known for his use of what became his famous ‘baquet’ which was a system of rods and tubes filled with various substances such as opium, alcohol, and arsenic. Many claimed to be healed by Mesmer prompting investigation by both German and French medial commissions. Most of these reports found Mesmer’s miraculous claims of healing the sick and curing an entire menagerie of illnesses baseless. But despite overwhelming evidence that mesmerism is little more than the power of suggestion people claimed and do continue to claim to be healed by mesmerism. Were these people actually cured or was it merely psychosomatic? Did they believe they were cured so they were?
Mesmerism is not a new concept just coined by one individual, the power of suggestion or pure charisma has been employed as an effective means of control since the Druids and further by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Means of control using mesmeric qualities including the use of psychotropic drugs, threats of violence and manipulation of the individual, but pure mesmerism should never involve such means. At its very worse, mesmerism is little than the placebo effect in which those who believe they are receiving medicine for whatever ails them, get better despite only being given sugar pills.
Mesmerism can be found in faith healers using the power of charisma to control the masses, even considered to be found in Freud’s psychoanalysis which was said to be little more than Freud monopolizing the emotions of fragile women. Mesmerism also morphed into the early 20th century snake oil salesman who through galvanism and countless tonics and elixirs could cure anything from melancholia to consumption most of said elixirs contained copious amounts of alcohol or opium, ingredients bound to brighten anyone’s day or at least ‘clear’ them of their symptoms.
Modern reincarnations of mesmerism include hypnotists that claim that any of the body’s issues can be fixed by unlocking the inner power of the self, with the facilitation of a hypnotists and often copious amounts of money spent on sessions and tapes and time spent in offices for visits. And the benefits from said therapy can be anywhere from weight loss, the curing of disease and uplifting the mood.
The placebo effect is not harmful, but if that is the case where do most literary figures and social figures for that matter conjure up the idea that mesmerism and Mesmer’s idea of controlling the body to be such a horrid thing? The people who followed Mesmer were willing and praised him for his miraculous cures of various ailments and diseases. The upheaval over Mesmer came most from the Transcendentalists.
The Transcendental movement began as a response to the Jacksonian era spending and industry. The Transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman valued individualism over all else, sought to find themselves through Nature and the eternal oneness that was the universe. The concept of valuing the self above all else was directly violated by mesmerism. The idea that someone could control the body contradicted their concepts of individuality and it one is able to control just one person, then by interconnectedness we are all controlled.
Many Transcendental writers railed against Mesmer as the craze hit the United States. But while most were naturally critical of any individual that could claim healing with just suggestion, the Transcendentalists vilified Mesmer and his work in the only way the Transcendental writers could, through their writing. But the Transcendentalists also were strictly against phrenology as well, the study of bumps on the head which could be connected to any aspect of the human from assertiveness to virility.
Such pseudosciences were just as damning as the views of the Calvinists and Puritanical which they had strived so hard to distance themselves from and their deterministic views that provided no place for personal expression or uniqueness, did not celebrate the specialness of the self and its relationship with the universe and with the Divine. One’s entire being can be controlled by magnets and their entire lives were determined by various and random bumps upon the head. These concepts were ones fundamentally the Transcendentalists couldn’t support.
Edgar Allan Poe had been noted for his blatant disliking of the Transcendentalists and their works and ideals. His views on life and the afterlife were radically different than the soft and connected views of writers like Emerson and Thoreau. It was his life experiences mostly that lead him down a path to viewing these certain pseudosciences with less hostility. Having lost his mother at an early age to tuberculosis and his child-bride to the same crippling disease, he like most was ready and willing to accept more non-traditional answers to the large questions of life and was not content with the answer simply being ‘the eternal oneness’. He was a believer in phrenology and further, mesmerism.
Poe has often been noted for his use of many forms of science and psuedoscience in his work, his extensive use of anatomy to create more gruesome horror stories. His use of the occult and the supernatural to raise suspense and his mastery of universal human experience to stir up the sympathy and emotion of his readers.
His work, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar surrounded the concept of the mesmerist doing his very best to use his art to do good for his patient, Mr. Valdemar. The narrator, our mesmerist, had noticed that no one had used mesmerism “in articulo mortis” (Poe 721) in believing that “Death might be arrested by the process.” (Poe 721). He decided to attend to his friend, Mr. Ernest Valdemar, who had been suffering for a long time of a dreadful illness, most likely tuberculosis. Our mesmerist cited having “put him to sleep with little difficulty” (Poe 721) but found that his patient was never “positively, or thoroughly under my control” (Poe 721), claiming that to be a function of his patients’ nerves due to his condition and to the physical deterioration caused by his condition. The mesmerist is called back to Mr. Valdemar’s home finding the man on his deathbed. Mr. Valdemar agreed to let himself be mesmerized, and hence frozen right at the point of death, with the hopes of in theory living in sleep forever. The mesmerist succeeds in mesmerizing Mr. Valdemar, bringing sleep to the man just as he was about to die, and controlling at least part of the dying man’s body though not all of it.
Eventually Mr. Valdemar’s condition grew to be that of a dead man’s, “there was no longer the faintest sign of vitality in M. Valdemar” (Poe 726). The mesmerist left his patient after one week of intense observation , returning in seven month intervals to check in on his patient. Mr. Valdemar as reported by his nurses “remained exactly as I have last described him.” (Poe 727) in the same lifeless and near vegetative state. During his visit, the mesmerist had tried his best to rouse his patient like any attentive physician would, but found the task increasingly difficult. Though the answers the mesmerist receives from Mr. Valdemar as the trance deepens become increasingly disturbing, not sure if he wanted to wake up and face the pain of death or to stay asleep and let his consciousness lay dormant for all eternity.
Mr. Valdemar’s condition continues to become increasingly worse; the only words the patient uttered were “dead!” (Poe 728). What happens next was an unexpected turn for the worse for our patient and the mesmerist treating him “his whole frame at once—within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk-crumbled, absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.” (Poe 728).
Poe’s depiction of the mesmerist as little more than a dedicated healer, not the traditionally evil manipulator of the masses. Poe’s mesmerist was only doing his best to save his friend given the one talent he had and it followed along the more traditional notions of the mesmerist being more healer than villain. The moral though of the story is that no matter what the intention, death cannot be stopped even with science or magic. Despite Poe’s relationship with mesmerism being a more positive one than most of the other writers of his time, his views remained the same on the absolutes of life, and no one of any level of skill can stop those.
Contrastingly, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance shows us a very different aspect of the mesmerist, a more wicked incarnation whose only real goal was not to help the community, but to gain as much money and power as possible using his art as more manipulation than assistance. Hawthorne, despite being an Anti-Transcendentalist himself did share more views with the Transcendentalists than Poe, his work The Blithedale Romance was meant to show that communal living as such popularized by the Transcendental writers of such publications as The Dial and other Transcendental publications could not and would not work in reality. This tale was meant to be cautionary but used a very particular figure to highlight the main concern of any communal living situation: the appearance of someone who can control the weak and thus bring the entire community to its knees with just the control of one or two key figures.
The mesmerist in this work Professor Westervelt is a man of science but is revealed to be a master manipulator. But another key distinction is that he is known in the novel as a magician with the abilities more of hypnotist, using his mesmeric powers to control the mysterious Veiled Lady to do his bidding “.she was a phenomenon in the mesmeric line; one of the earliest that had indicated the birth of a new science, or the revival of an old humbug.” (Hawthorne 35). Westervelt is meant to display the negative forces at play with not just high amounts of intelligence but the drive to use that knowledge for malicious purposes. Though, the members of Blithedale found the act of the Veiled Lady mysterious and exotic.
The one fear of the Transcendental writers, that people would be so caught up in the act that they would be willing to look past the more sinister aspects of control of the body by outside means. Westervelt’s description is also radically different than the warm and caring mesmerist of Poe’s work. Westervelt is cold, calloused and even described as statuesque, having little concern for the life of his patients or his partner the Veiled Woman. He also displays a high level of pride, showing little sympathy when Zenobia commits suicide, even judging her for a foolish death.
Hawthorne’s depiction of the mesmerist is more along our view of modern hypnotists or 20th century snake oil salesman that they are fine as long as it only affects one or two individuals in the home but as soon as it begins to affect the community, problems arise. It was not uncommon for mesmerists to travel from city to city bringing their exhibits to the country, similar to Westervelt’s exhibit which just happened to be in Blithedale. The other concern lies in that these exhibits became distractions from work and more important societal tasks. The other key issue with communal living, is that if someone doesn’t pull their own weight and find themselves distracted by the wonders of the outside world, work doesn’t get done and the entire community could easily collapse.
Mesmer claimed that he could control trees with his baquet and with the powers of mesmerism and with that he captivated an entire generation. Mesmerism was at the time considered to be a real and actual science. But the idea where mesmerism began to become baseless and another one of the major grievances of the Transcendentalists was when Mesmer and his followers claimed clairvoyance with the use of mesmerism.
Clairvoyance along with other forms of divination and magic were strictly against the Transcendentalists. Clairvoyance in its simplest form is being able to read the thoughts of others. Many have claimed to posses such a power through various means tarot cards, crystal reading and by simply being born with the gift of mind-reading. The more sinister cousin of clairvoyance is little more than mind-control. If one can read the thoughts, other thoughts can be supplanted and then the entire mind can be controlled.
But controlling the mind, body and other objects did not just stem from Mesmer and mesmerism, older forms come from the Haitian voodoo priests who claimed that with curses and elixirs they could control the body and mind creating the fabled zombie curse of voodoo. The victims of the zombie’s curse remember very little before being put under the zombie spell but then are forced into work and slavery by the voodoo priest. The science behind the voodoo zombie came about in the 1980s where it was discovered that a very special toxin found in puffer fish was found to be a powerful toxin and a powerful paralytic agent which means that it could easily destroy both the blood and nerves and paralyze the body, consistent with the reports of the zombies looking dead medically and physically according to the doctor’s reports.
The reports of mesmerism working with such great success can be accounted for with more than just the placebo effect. His famous baquet, which included plenty of ingredients that could in fact make patients feel better without actually solving a single problem, could account for some of the great stories of success. Alcohol and opium in combination can easily make one feel better hence the wild usage of opium in the medical community to treat everything from toothaches to tuberculosis.
It was a similar case to the Victorian treatment of syphilis with mercury. Syphilis is a chronic sexually transmitted disease that stayed with the person for their natural lives, at the time there was no known cure for the disease which afflicted people in every social strata like no other disease had, but one of the most common treatments for the disease was the toxin mercury. The mercury would have eventually killed the patient at about the same rate as the syphilis, but often times the insanity and violent mood swings that came with mercury poisoning could make the patient believe they were not as sick as they thought. Though it was found with later research that the mercury did provide some ‘relief’ from the symptoms by destroying bacteria in the body along with all the other vital body tissues.
We modernly use herbs and other forms to treat many diseases including St. John’s Wort, a naturally occurring yellow flower, for depression. Valerian, a natural herb, for the treatment of anxiety. Other herbs like rosemary, mint and thyme for such healing purposes as cleaning wounds, relieving pain and speeding recovering.
Another modern incantation of the mesmerist lies within a fear we all face, being controlled by an outside and evil force. Cultists for years have employed similar means as the mesmerist, using drugs and the power of persuasion to get people to follow their message. Cult leaders like Jim Jones convinced hundreds to follow him into death by using threats and drugs to control the members of his cult, a bit extreme for the mesmerist of the 19th century but not entirely uncommon.
My fascination with the mesmerist? It stems from my mother’s own personal experiences with hypnotism. She found that her hypnotist was bringing up memories of hers that she thought to be laying dormant within in. She claimed that she had lost weight, conquered her agoraphobia, and even had the confidence to go out and date after my father’s death. She encouraged me to try it thinking it would cure all of my problems as well. I tried one appointment and noted that this ‘professional’ had made such outlandish claims that came to be just as baseless as Mesmer’s supposed control over trees. The appointment began with her asking me a battery of questions about my past and family history. She then went on to try to lure me into some kind of trance. Perhaps there are claims to the idea of being too intelligent to be hypnotized. I found the entire experience to be just a waste. But I was then allowed a very privileged place in watching my mother’s appointment. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, the same battery of questions but my mother fell into a deep sleep-like trance. And was now revealing information I was not aware she even knew. Pieces of memories long lost to time, words and phrases my mom never used, this trance just didn’t seem real. It seemed like the powerful use of suggestion, and as long as my mother believed this doctor was helping her, she was in fact curing herself. But at what cost, outside of losing some major respect points with me her daughter? These sessions often hours long cost my mother $150 each. And she went to one every week. This was costing my sick, unemployed mother thousands just so that she could work through her own problems on someone else’s time. What made it worse was that I was helpless in the entire situation. My mother believed she was being helped, so she continued the treatments. I found myself in Coverdale’s shoes, wanting so badly to help the Veiled Lady find her freedom, but this wasn’t just an anonymous broad, this was my mother.
Our fascination with the mesmerist is simple. We are afraid of the mesmerist and his power. We do not want to be controlled, by anyone. Even ourselves to an extent. We fear that someone with little effort could come in and use our own mental weakness against us and use that for evil. And not just for the sake of evil, but even for the small things, controlling us for money or for even emotional power. We naturally want to be free and anything that controls us concerns us greatly.
The difference in opinion between the two authors is the same as the two varying opinions of the act of mesmerism itself. One side sees it as a legitimate way to help society by unlocking a power that is within all of us. One side sees it as a direct violation of the human spirit and a painful intrusion to the self. Moreover, the power this figures gain in society could in theory uproot our entire concepts of democracy and individuality, values the average American holds very dear.
We fear the mesmerist because there is a part of him in all of us. We use persuasion to win cases in court, charm our way out of bar tabs and seduce others into choices they would not usually make. But the implications to that control and the extent of the control forced upon others is entirely up to the individual. Poe’s view finds our mesmerist as a man of science, only doing his part to try and help relieve pain as per Mesmer’s original design. Hawthorne sees the mesmerist as a villain, trying to manipulate those around him to bring order to its knees. Both aspects are not entirely false, but it is up to the reader to decide where we place this character. As harmless medical practitioner or charming fraud whose only goal is to make money and use the weak. What we must understand is that to an outsider, is that the teachings of Jesus Christ very well can look like little more than mesmeric trickery.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, and Tony Tanner. The Blithedale Romance. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1998. Print.
“Mesmerism.” The MYSTICA.ORG. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/m/mesmerism.html>.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007. Print.