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Most people are probably passingly familiar with Franz Anton Mesmer, the eighteenth-century German-born physician and originator of what we now know as “mesmerism,” but the background that Robert Darnton (formerly of Princeton University, but now heads the Harvard University Library) brings to the this book puts mesmerism into not just medical and physical, but also political perspective. Pre-Revolutionary France was peopled with scientists trying to create new cosmologies to explain the mysterious universe around them. “Science had captivated Mesmer’s contemporaries by revealing to them that they were surrounded by wonderful, invisible forces: Newton’s gravity, made intelligible by Voltaire; Franklin’s electricity, popularized by a fad for lightning rods and by demonstrations in the fashionable lyceums and museums of Paris and other miraculous gases of the Charlieres and Montgolfieres that astonished Europe by lifting man into the air for the first time in 1783” (p. 10). It was a time of both experimentation and empiricism – and lots of quackery. Mesmer himself proposed that a superfine fluid pervaded the entire universe, but especially the body. “Individuals could control and reinforce the fluid’s action by ‘mesmerizing’ or massaging the body’s ‘poles’ and thereby overcoming the obstacle, inducing a ‘crisis,’ often in the form of convulsions, and restoring health or the ‘harmony’ of man with nature” (p. 4). There were, however, institutionalized consensus positions on scientific issues, and the literary and medical journals and professional societies who held them would openly call out Mesmer on his unsubstantiated claims. Mesmer was unconcerned, though. As he said, “It is to the public that I appeal.” The accreditation and approval of official societies meant nothing to him, and he didn’t bother seeking it; rather, he wanted to bring his science to the people and let it speak for itself, and accept it on their own accord. However, mesmerists didn’t think that mesmerism’s power stopped and started with the body. Instead, they suggested that the health of the body was related to many other things, including mental health, morality, and even the possibility for political change. Darnton details some of the more important people of Mesmer’s inner group, and the splitting into factions that eventually occurred. One of the factions, led by a man named Bergasse, “developed the social and political aspects of his theory – his own ideas about ‘universal morality, about the principles of legislation, about education, habits, the arts, etc.,’” (p. 78). “Carra [another one of the breakaways from Mesmer’s official doctrine] and his friends, especially Bergasse, dealt with the cosmological side of mesmerism by extracting a political theory from the obscure, strictly apolitical pontifications of Mesmer. ‘Political theory’ may be too dignified a term for their distortions of his ideas, but they themselves considered their theories consistent and reasonable, and the police viewed them as a thread to the state” (p. 107). What was it in mesmerism that appealed to the radical mentality before the Revolution? The mesmerists began to think that the professional, academic journals and societies had formed a kind of anti-democratic coterie whose job it was to marginalize legitimate scientists with valid ideas. In other words, some mesmerists began to see science as something other than what could be described, for lack of a better term, as an “elitist” enterprise. Science had no One Right Answer, and the ridiculing poorly known scientists for their ideas was no better than what Louis XVI was doing; science and political theory – namely, democracy – had collided. Obscure as it sounded, the ideas of Carra and Bergasse took Mesmer to his logical conclusions: unjust legislation, just like a bad moral disposition, “disrupted one’s atmosphere and hence one’s health, just as physical causes could produce moral effects, even on a broad scale” (p. 108)....
LibraryThing ReviewUser Review - LibraryThing
Please note that this is not in any way a biography of the life of Franz Mesmer. It is instead a wonderfully well-researched work that addresses Mesmerism as a significant scientific and political movement that occurred through pre-, during, and post- revolutionary France. Franz Mesmer is introduced, not as an individual, but as a key component of something broader and much larger than himself. Mesmer is eventually left behind as his ideas spread, evolve and adapt without his direction. As one continues through the book, one sees Mesmerism begin as a revolutionary medical procedure, then accepted as a form of entertainment in the salons, then an opportunity for struggling geniuses to partake in science, then as a form of propaganda for the revolutionary movement, then finally as a combination of the occult and Christianity (haute science) in an attempt to link science and God. Today, when someone mentions mesmerism, we often think of hypnotism and party games, but as Darnton shows, it was as a movement in history that could rival the Great Awakening in significance, and yet is still so largely misunderstood or ignored.
2 The Mesmerist Movement
3 The Radical Strain in Mesmerism
4 Mesmerism as a Radical Political Theory
5 From Mesmer to Hugo
Appendix 1 Mesmers Propositions
Appendix 2 The Milieu of Amateur Scientists in Paris