Animal Magnetism

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A sketch of Franz Anton Mesmer.
Animal magnetism was a system of healing theorized by the Austrian physician and astrologist Franz Mesmer in the late 18th century. While discredited as a medical technique even within Mesmer's lifetime, Mesmer's students used the practice to explore the psychosymptomatic relationship between mind and body, eventually giving rise to practices of somnambulitic sleep, hypnosis, and psychotherapy.


Animal Magnetism: A System of Healing

Mesmer began generalizing a salutatory relationship between celestial bodies and human wellness in his 1766 Dissertation upon the Influence of the Stars on the Human Body. In this text, Mesmer used Newtonian physics to argue that the gravity of the planets influenced the human body and illness (Tinterow 31). Mesmer took up work as a physician, only to be dismayed by standard--and often painful--medical practices such as bleeding and blistering (Pintar and Lynn 13). Seeking gentler forms of treatment, Mesmer began experimenting with magnets, hoping to bring about an “artificial tide” in his patients.

Dissertation on the Discovery of Animal Magnetism

Mesmer elaborated upon these ideas in his 1779 dissertation, Mémoire sur la Découverte du Magnétisme Animal or Dissertation on the Discovery of Animal Magnetism, in which he asserts a fully formed concept of animal magnetism:

I maintained that just as the alternate effects, in respect of gravity, produce in the sea the appreciable phenomenon which we term ebb and flow, so the INTENSIFICATION AND REMISSION of the said properties, being subject to the action of the same principle, cause in animate bodies alternate effects similar to those sustained by the sea. By these considerations I established that the animal body, being subjected to the same action, likewise underwent a kind of ebb and flow. I supported this theory with different examples of periodic revolutions. I named the property of the animal body that renders it liable to the action of heavenly bodies and of the earth ANIMAL MAGNETISM. I explained by this magnetism the periodical changes which we observe in sex, and in a general way those which physicians of all ages and in all countries have observed during illnesses (Mesmer 35)

According to Mesmer, the healing system of animal magnetism is founded on one essential truth: "that nature affords a universal means of healing and preserving men" (Mesmer 33). Mesmer details the mutual influence between the Heavenly Bodies, the Earth and Animate Bodies, suggesting a field of "universally distributed and continuous fluid" motivating organic life itself. This universal fluid was a fundamental apparatus of animal magnetism, and Mesmer theorized it as "quite without vacuum and of an incomparably rarefied nature, and which by its nature is capable of receiving, propagating and communicating all the impressions of movement" (Mesmer 54). Ebb and flow massaged this movement between the magnetic poles of human, organic and celestial bodies. Bodies possess both negative and positive poles, which may be "communicated, propagated, stored, concentrated and transported, reflected by mirrors and propagated by sound" (Mesmer 55). Given these properties, it seems the “fluid” of animal magnetism not only operated like a liquid, but also maintained some elements of light, air and electricity, all of which were being more formally theorized in the late 18th century.

Animal Magnetism as Mediation

As a force theorized as both naturally abundant and uninhibitedly available, Mesmer's "all-penetrating fluid" was a means of transfer in the macro-mediation of universal harmony dubbed "animal magnetism". Mesmer himself played no small role in this process of mediation; he functioned as its human operator, bestowed with the unique (but not sole) capacity to direct universal fluid into others through his own immensely potent animal magnetism. Illness, as understood by Mesmer, was a disruption of an individual's inner harmony and fluid flow, and he believed that he could, mentally and physiologically, self-produce enough magnetic force to artificially imitate celestial forces and reset the magnetic direction of a patient.

In many ways, Mesmer's process of healing patients through the application of animal magnetism was a mediation based in the equilateral harmonization of all organic nodes in the network of existence. Mesmer's theorization of the fluid as universal and equally present in all places at all times suggests a cosmic refutation of the classical model of the Great Chain of Being. Rather than understanding animal magnetism as a force from above spreading downward (like the natural ladder--scala naturae--of the Medieval period), Mesmer envisions a rhizomatic constellation of forces in which any two bodies may operate or manipulate the influence of magnetic fluid. Animal magnetism, in this sense, is practiced through a decentralized--rather than hierarchical--network, although this should not suggest a level field of access to Mesmer's universal fluid (Mesmer guarded his secrets religiously for fear that those untrained would pollute his theories).

The analogy of the ocean could not be more apropos: Mesmer's universal fluid lacked discrete streams, routes or channels--it was diffuse rather than vectoral, indiscriminate rather than intentional. However, animal magnetism was able to pass between any two or more bodies, via said fluid. Different bodies had different natural charges, and different capacities to retain or manage their own charge. Thus, while universal fluid itself may reflect a decentralized wetwork, the harmonization of the universal fluid via the practice of animal magnetism still required a secondary apparatus to secure the direct application of said harmonization: Mesmer himself. Mesmer functioned as the operator of a unique process of protocols that opened the human gateways for freely moving magnetic fluid. His first step was to locate the "blockage" in his patient, then apply correct measures of magnetic fluid to the patient. Finally, a blockage had to be pushed out through the "crisis", which often mirrored a seizure or hysterical fit.

In animal magnetism, the harmonization of the body becomes the balanced universe writ small, even as it operates as a physiological foreshadowing of the unconcentrated theories of power to be proposed by Foucault and Deleuze. However, animal magnetism is not without its archaic throwbacks; the practice is fundamentally based in unknowable conditions of the human body that could not be rationalized within the scientific framework of Newtonism, empiricism, and the increasing regulation of bodily acts, or practices of biopower. It is at once undifferentiated in its access to bodies, yet it cannot produce knowledge about said bodies. As will be further explored, animal magnetism exemplified a unique tension saddling late 18th and early 19th century medical, therapeutic and physiological thought.

The Blockage

The practice of animal magnetism sought the ideally harmonized body, a body in which magnetic ebbs and flows pass unobstructed through the patient. The expression of physical symptoms of illness, then, were merely bodily testaments to a cosmic imbalance; illness had no specific relationship to the organs or systems of the body. The body was thus a barometer of its own celestial harmony. Mesmer addressed illnesses as “blockage”, an interruption of the flow of magnetic action that created an unnatural impediment in the patient’s body. Mesmer's goal was to clear the blockage and restore the body to harmony, at which point the work of animal magnetism was complete—Mesmer believed only ill bodies were sensitive to magnetism (Crabtree 6-7). As far as Mesmer was concerned, physicians could aid the sick, but not through cures or medicine; if any improvement occurred, it was through sheer accident that the physician had brought animal magnetism to bear on the patient. What precisely was “blocked” in the patient is somewhat ambiguous in Mesmer's own accounts; nonetheless, it was clear to him that blockage prevented the harmonious “ebb and flow” of human magnetic properties.

Blockage as a Crossroad for Classical vs. Modern Ideas of Perception

In 1776, Maria-Theresa Paradis, a blind and well-known pianist, was brought into Mesmer’s home for treatment (Tinterow 48). Paradis’ case was noteworthy in that she experienced blockage in more ways than one: first in the physical and medical form of her blindness, second in the limitations that arose from conflicting views of visual perception that were imposed upon her after the treatment. Mesmer's efforts to "cure" her blindness illustrate unexpected discoveries regarding animal magnetism as a mediation hovering at the crossroads of classical and modern concepts of perception. After strenuous treatment, Paradis regained a modicum of sight, “although with some reported distortion and limited understanding of what she saw” (Lanska and Lanska 304). Paradis was upset by this partial restoration to sight: light aggravated her, but when her eyes were covered, she was unable to move without guidance, whereas prior to the treatment she had been able to navigate space with complete confidence (Crabtree 304). She found great difficulty in learning to touch what she saw and combine the two faculties, and to conceptualize depth and distance. Thus, after the treatment there was a lingering sense that there was something sub-par about Paradis’ restored sight.

After providing a solution for her blindness, one of the perceived shortcomings of animal magnetism was that it did not in fact restore the balance that Mesmer had desired. This is one of the many criticisms he faced with the Paradis case, but Mesmer noted that there was a critical distinction between the fact that Paradis’ eyes were working and the ability to cognitively and perceptually see as knowledge of one’s surroundings. The assumptions the scientific community and patient herself had placed on her recovery reveal conflicting notions of vision and proper perceptive functionality. What was the restoration of harmonious magnetic balance supposed to entail? What sort of changes was this reinstated magnetic harmony supposed to inscribe on the body of the patient? Mesmer himself did not foresee or equip himself with the necessary measures to deal with the aftermath of a case like Paradis’. Although he could intercede on the behalf of patients and channel magnetic fluid to clear a blockage, he could not replace a blockage with the proper sense of perception.

From analyzing what animal magnetism both succeeded and failed to realize with the body of the patient, we may witness how Mesmer’s mode of mediation was caught in the midst of conflicting beliefs of his time, snared as it was between lingering assumptions of the classical model of sight as a passive, receptive faculty and a burgeoning modern model where vision was enmeshed within the “unstable physiology and temporality of the human body” (Crary 70). The classical model of vision as perception was “a form of immediate knowing”, in which there was an assumed transparency of the subject-as-observer (Crary 70). Foucault had expressed that “Natural history [in the 18th century] is nothing more than the nomination of the visible” (Crary 70), hence, the expectation that, upon restoring Paradis’ sight, she would not only be able to see, but to perceive as if she had never been blind before. The modern perception of sight, foreshadowed in the tension that Paradis’ case had raised, signaled “an interrogation of the physiological makeup of the human subject”, where “both the viewer’s sensory organs and their activity are now inextricably mixed with whatever object they behold” (Crary 72). This would entail that Paradis indeed could not look upon objects and things before her without experiencing confusion, because visual perception was also wrapped up in the lived-in experience of her body in relation to such outside objects. This was the point Mesmer raised as an objection to the criticism he had faced from his skeptics, that they were “confusing the necessary inability of those blind from birth or at a very tender age with the knowledge acquired by blind persons operated on for cataract” (Tinterow 48). The effect of re-established magnetic harmony, he therefore argued, was that of removing the blockage that obstructed Paradis’ ability to see, not to affect what or how she went about making use of her visual faculties.

Magnetic Poles, Magnetic Passes, and Mesmer as Magnetic Arbitrator

A mesmerist passing magnetic fluid out one hand, into a patient, and back into the opposite hand.

Once Mesmer determined a blockage existed, he set out to provoke its clearance through techniques of the magnetic pass. For Mesmer, the body functioned like a compass, replete with all the magnetic properties therein. As he writes in his 1779 Dissertation: A non-magnetized needle, when set in motion, will only take a determined direction by chance, whereas a magnetized needle, having been given the same impulse, after various oscillations proportional to the impulse and magnetism received, will regain its initial position and stay there (Mesmer 36). Unmagnetized, the body could fall prey to the direction of "chance", failing to find its true and harmonious direction. Properly magnetized, however, the body had the capacity to not only be restored to its true direction, but to retain its direction. Like a magnet, the body also had magnetic poles, for which he claimed, "different and opposite poles may likewise be distinguished, which can be changed, communicated, destroyed and strengthened" (Mesmer 55). He considered his hands to be a north and south magnetic pole in which he would send a current of magnetic fluid through one hand, into the patient, and back through his opposite hand. Despite the implications of a feedback loop, Mesmer never considered the possibility for the quality of the magnetic current to change in relation to the patient's inner blockage or harmony.

Mesmer made some use of magnets in his early practice, but discontinued them when colleagues accused him of fraud and suggested that the magnets, not Mesmer, were the crucial source of healing properties. These accusations occurred during the 1773 treatment of Franzl Oesterlin, Mesmer's first patient to be treated entirely via animal magnetism. Oesterlin suffered from “various hysterical symptoms, including convulsions, vomiting, aches, fainting, hallucinations, paralysis, and trance” (Crabtree 5). He put three magnets on her body: one on her stomach and on each leg (the fact that this centralizes the uterus of his female patient should not be overlooked). The reaction to the magnets “caused severe pain” but the treatment “resulted in an improvement in her condition that lasted for several hours” (Crabtree 6). For Mesmer, the magnets were merely conductors, mineral tuning forks that enabled him to focus his practice, but conductors he nonetheless dispensed with in order to claim autonomy in his practice.

After moving his practice to Paris in 1778 and taking on large groups of patients, his work became more performative and grandiose (he frequently practice in a dark room, wearing a velvet robe and wielding a magnetic wand), and so to did his actions become more gestural and symbolic of actual physical manipulation (Pintar and Lynn 18). Mesmer used his hands to make close passes that traversed the length of a patient's body (magnétisation à grand courant), as well a passes from a distance (passes longitudinales) whereby the magnetic force was transmitted through his fingers held in the shape of a pyramid or through a brass or iron wand (Crabtree 14).

By foregoing any aiding substance and treating his body as a site producing the therapy of animal magnetism, Mesmer marked himself in a unique position in relation to the universal fluid. Mesmer was not necessarily a mediator of magnetic fluid, in the sense that he did not take it from a higher source and dispense it to a lower source. As stated previously, magnetic properties existed between any and all sets of bodies; the celestial magnetic relationship was fundamentally rhizomatic. However, Mesmer was a mediator in that he was able to intercede on behalf of individuals when this relationship became unharmonious. It is precisely the tension between Mesmer's role as an arbitrator of the body versus a gatekeeper of wellness that resonates so deeply with the late 18th century struggle between Medieval scientific thought and Rational scientific thought. Mesmer is caught decidedly at the crux between the empirical expectation that his work as a physician was to diagnose illness and produce a cure (turning the body into an object of his evaluation) and the therapeutic reality that his research produced no data of the body. Only the patient could speak to their own wellness, and Mesmer desired no knowledge of the patient's body, as the patient's body was ultimately not the source of illness. Despite its performative nature, this was not a mediation in which one could derive information from physical signifiers of sickness. This problem of Mesmer's non-existent knowledge of the body has salient epistemological consequences, as the 18th century was identified by the rising tide of biopower, particularly in the arbitration between the state and the “health” of the masses.

The Crisis

Mesmerist Session: Woman on the right enters 'crisis'. Woman in background is convulsing an being carried into a padded 'crisis room'.

If Mesmer's work with animal magnetism was successful, it would provoke a crisis in the patient. The crisis was a replication of the patient's symptoms on a grander scale, and the ultimate cue that the magnetic practice was working through a blockage (Darnton 4). Numerous accounts of Mesmer's work in Paris detail the convulsions, fits, faintings and ecstasies that resulted from treatments of animal magnetism, particularly among women (Darton 4-6). Mesmer's treatment spaces included “crisis rooms” where convulsing patients could be carried to spasm and pass out safe from others and out of sight.

In many ways, Mesmer's inducement of a crisis exemplifies Foucault's notion of the “truth-thunderbolt”. For Foucault, the truth-thunderbolt (also referred to as the truth-event) is an metaphor of the classical and medieval relationship between science and truth. Foucault writes: “ […] there is always a moment for the truth of illness to appear. This is precisely the moment of the crisis, and there is no other moment at which the truth can be grasped in this way. In alchemical practice, the truth is not lying there waiting to be grasped by us; it passes, and it passes rapidly, like lightening” (237). Truth, in this sense, is a discontinuous moment, an opportunity to be seized rather than knowledge to be discovered; it is a fundamentally archaic way of understanding the relationship between humans and the world, “a truth provoked by rituals, captured by ruses […] this kind of truth does not call for method, but for strategy” (237). Opposed to the truth-thunderbolt was the “truth-sky” or “truth-demonstration”, the truth-sky is the truth that is found, “a series of constant, constituted, demonstrated, discovered truths” (237). The truth-sky was intended to be infinitely provable and ever-present, like the presence of the sky itself: whenever one looks up, there it is. For Foucault, the transition from the truth-thunderbolt to the truth-sky is correlated to the “political procedures of the inquiry”, in which a subject can be tallied up, reported, cross-checked and evidenced according to a multi-plexing of physical and psychological measurements. Despite Mesmer's best efforts to rationalize his practice, he could not win the acceptance of the medical academy--not because his treatments were not effective, but because his methods were not measurable.

In this sense, Mesmer could never make good on the promises of animal magnetism to cure the masses, as it could not calculate the masses. In his magnetic hands, the masses were a fluid body of ebbs and flows, sensible only through an immaterial feeling, through cosmic massage. The crisis was a carnival of the body: it disciplined no one. As the 19th century moved toward an increasing manifestation of an epistemological medical order in the form of “a general surveillance of populations and the concrete possibility of establishing a relationship between a disease […] the birth of pathological anatomy and, at the same time, the appearance of a statistical medicine”, Mesmer was rendered a relic of a practice that could not overcome its own reliance on the immeasurable (Foucault 248).

Works Cited and Referenced

Crabtree, Adam. From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.

Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968.

Foucault, Michel. Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the College de France 1973-1974. Jacques Lagrange, Ed. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Picador, 2003.

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Lanska, Douglas and Lanska, Joseph T. "Franz Anton Mesmer and the Rise and Fall of Animal Magnetism". Brain, Mind and Medicine. Ed. Harry A. Whitaker, Christopher Upham Murray Smith, Stanley Finger. New York: Springer-Verlag New York, LLC, 2007.

Mesmer, Franz Anton. "Dissertations on the Discovery of Animal Magnetism." 1779. Foundations of Hypnosis: From Mesmer to Freud. Maurice M. Tinterow, Ed. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher: 1970.

Pintar, Judith and Steven Jay Lynn. Hypnosis: a Brief History. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Tinterow, Maurice M., Ed. Foundations of Hypnosis: From Mesmer to Freud. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher: 1970.

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