John David's Reviews > Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France

Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France by Robert Darnton
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Jul 02, 12

bookshelves: curiosities, history-of-ideas, history-of-science, modern-history, politics, science
Read in June, 2012

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). By construing Mesmer so liberally (and so inaccurately), Carra, Bergasse and others were able to cast a single net around both the world of science, ethics, and revolutionary politics. “By injecting a Rousseauist bias into a mesmerist analysis of the physical and psychological relations among men, Bergasse saw a way to revolutionize France. He would reverse the historical trend of physico-moral causality, reforming institutions by physically regenerating Frenchmen. Improved bodies would improve morals, and better morals would eventually produce political effects” (p. 124).

I just happened to read this soon after finishing George L. Mosse’s “Confronting the Nation: Western and Jewish Nationalism,” which has a few chapters that discuss fascism and its relation to nationalism. In one of those chapters, he pinpoints the French Revolution as the historical event that allows movements like fascism to eventually develop, especially with the mass mobilization of politics. Although Darnton never explicitly suggests this, his book seems to be solid evidence of Mosse’s thesis. Mesmer choosing to ignore scientific consensus and saying “I wish only to convince the public,” his conspiratorial view well-known scientists trying to crush and demolish him, and the collusion of science and politics (especially more race-related “science” as we get into the nineteenth century) all have strong lines of continuity with what we will later call fascism. For anyone interested in how science, ideology and politics can become so easily and terribly entangled, I found this to be a wonderful case study.

But it’s just as good for those interested in the more pedestrian history or sociology of science. Darnton’s background in eighteenth-century European (especially French) history was essential for building the picture that he does, and for building the conclusions that he convincingly reaches. For those interested in something along the same lines but a bit more popular, Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre,” which I have also reviewed on this site, is a wonderful and equally insightful collection of essays on early modern French cultural and literary themes.
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