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Posts Tagged ‘Mesmer

“What I should have been, you see, is a neurologist”*…

Franz Anton Mesmer; drawing by David Levine

It was in a mood of irritable skepticism that the Scottish surgeon James Braid attended a public demonstration of Animal Magnetism—in which people were said to fall into trances—on the night of November 13, 1841. From everything he had read and heard about the trances that occurred at the bidding of the operator—the person who induced the trances—he reports that he was “fully inclined to join with those who considered the whole thing to be a system of collusion and delusion, or an excited imagination, sympathy, or imitation.” After observing the demonstration, he considered that the trances were quite genuine, but at the same time he felt satisfied “that they were not dependent on any special agency or emanation passing from the body of the operator to that of the patient as animal magnetizers allege.” He returned to the demonstration when it was repeated by popular demand a week later, and on this occasion he felt that he had identified the cause of these mysteriously punctual onsets of “nervous sleep.” He was to devote the last eighteen years of his life to the topic, and under the proprietary title of Hypnotism he explained and redescribed the process in terms which would have been unrecognizable to its eighteenth-century discoverer, Franz Anton Mesmer…

With its intriguing combination of occult powers, clairvoyant trances, and invisible weightless fluids, animal magnetism seemed to guarantee the existence of a reality beyond the world of the senses, and many people saw it as an irresistible alternative to an increasingly mechanized picture of the universe.

The remarkable Jonathan Miller— remembered as a partner of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Allan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe and for his later career as a distinguished stage and opera director, but trained as a doctor– explains how Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” was wrangled by doctors and scientists into “hypnotism,” and how it birthed an understanding of the Unconscious that pre-dates Freud… and that’s undergoing a renaissance, as it’s proving more useful than the psychoanalytic version that obscured it for a century: “Going Unconscious” (an unlocked essay from The New York Review of Books archive).

* Jonathan Miller

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As we go deep, we might send polymathic birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794. A scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science, he was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

At a time when specialization was increasing, Whewell was renown for the breadth of his work: he published the disciplines of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, and economics, while also finding the time to compose poetry, author a Bridgewater Treatise, translate the works of Goethe, and write sermons and theological tracts. In mathematics, Whewell introduced what is now called the Whewell equation, defining the shape of a curve without reference to an arbitrarily chosen coordinate system. He founded mathematical crystallography and developed a revision of  Friedrich Mohs’s classification of minerals. And he organized thousands of volunteers internationally to study ocean tides, in what is now considered one of the first citizen science projects.

But some argue that Whewell’s greatest gift to science was his wordsmithing: He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He also named linguisticsconsiliencecatastrophismuniformitarianism, and astigmatism.

Other useful words were coined to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, electrode, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).

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“MESMERISM, n. Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked Incredulity to dinner”*…

 

mesmer

Detail from a colored etching after C-L. Desrais depicting people gathered around the “baquet” at one of Franz Mesmer’s group animal magnetism sessions — Source.

 

Patients, mostly women, are sitting around a large wooden tub filled with magnetic water, powdered glass, and iron filings. From its lid emerge a number of bent iron rods against which the patients expectantly press their afflicted areas. A rope attached to the tub is loosely coiled about them, and they are holding hands to create a “circuit”. Through the low-lit room — adorned with mirrors to reflect invisible forces — there wafts incense and strange music, the other-worldly sounds of the glass harmonica (invented by a certain Benjamin Franklin). Meanwhile, a charming man in an elaborate lilac silk coat is circulating, touching various parts of the patients’ bodies where the magnetic fluid may be hindered or somehow stuck. It appears that these blockages, in the ladies in particular, are generally in the lower abdomen, thighs, and sometimes “the ovaria”. The typical session would last for hours and culminate in a curative “crisis” of nervous hiccups, hysterical sobs, cries, coughs, spitting, fainting, and convulsing, thus restoring the normal harmonious flow of the fluid.

The man in the lilac coat is Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer and this scene could be describing any number of animal magnetism sessions he held in late eighteenth-century Paris. While Mesmer’s antics are perhaps familiar to many today, lesser known is the key role they played in the development of the modern clinical trial — particularly in connection with the 1784 Franklin commission, “charged by the King of France, with the examination of the animal magnetism, as now practiced at Paris”…

Benjamin Franklin, magnetic trees, and erotically-charged séances — Urte Laukaityte on how a craze for sessions of “animal magnetism” in late 18th-century Paris led to the randomized placebo-controlled and double-blind clinical trials we know and love today: “Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial.

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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As we ponder proof, we might send thoroughly-analyzed birthday greetings to Anna Freud; she was born on this date in 1895.  The sixth child of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays (the aunt of Edward Bernays, the “father” of modern propaganda and public relations), she continued her father’s work, with special interest in the young.  Indeed, with  Melanie Klein, she is considered a founder of psychoanalytic child psychology.

220px-Anna_Freud_1957 source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 3, 2018 at 1:01 am

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