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Animal Magnetism - Fiction or Reality ?

Mesmer

In the second half of the eighteenth century, Paris became passionate about a new process, magnetism, which seems to operate miraculous cures. The method is decried by official medicine, but it is nevertheless at the origin of a certain number of scientific discoveries.

The "tub" of Mesmer

Mesmer cares for his patients around tubs, transformed in some way into magnetism dispensing devices. For this, magnets and a mixture of iron filings, crushed glass and sulfur are immersed in water containers connected to each other by iron wires. The patients dive articulated iron rods, which they can direct on themselves or on the diseased parts of their body. They also hold hands to receive waves of magnetic current and form a chain. Darkness and silence, as well as immobility is recommended during these collective sessions. Only Mesmer moves into the room, placing his hands on patients or touching them with a wand. Music is sometimes admitted.

In 1779, Mesmer, founder of magnetism, published his memoir on the discovery of animal magnetism. He expounded in twenty-seven articles his doctrine, and the text became the charter to which all his faithful refer.

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Animal magnetism

Born in Germany in 1734, Franz Anton Mesmer studied medicine at Vienna School and graduated in 1766. At that time he was already a doctor of philosophy. He opened a practice in Vienna and, in 1772, began experimenting with a magnetic method on his patients. The German starts from the premise that there is a universal fluid that is interacting with celestial bodies and other animate bodies. It results from this mutual influence the effects of flux and reflux, which act on man by insinuating themselves into the substance of the nerves. However, all diseases come from a poor distribution of the fluid inside the body. The link between man and the universe being of the same kind as the link between the magnetized objects, it is therefore sufficient, thanks to a magnet ("mineral magnetism"), to drain the fluid in order to rebalance the body.

Mesmer first cares for his patients by applying magnets he has made by the workers of the Vienna Observatory so that they can be adapted to different parts of the body. Then, after a year of practice, realizing that he gets equally good results only by the laying of hands, he gives up the magnets. It thus passes from mineral magnetism to animal magnetism, that is to say transmitted by the body itself, in this case the fingers.

Controversy and success

Mesmer's therapy consists of hand laying ("pass"), localized or general following the illness. It must restore nervous tone to the patients and remove particular pains and tics. The first relation of this treatment concerns a certain Osterwald, a member of the Bavarian Academy, whom Mesmer almost miraculously cured of total paralysis and blindness. But the Vienna General Hospital refuses to authenticate this cure. This is the first confrontation between Mesmer and official medicine, which will always deny any legitimacy to its practices.

Mesmer then decides to try to cure conditions such as hemiplegia, ophthalmia or even blood vomiting. And he seems, indeed, to get results. The Grand Duke of Bavaria, Maximilian Joseph, had him come twice to Munich to explain his method. He really becomes famous with the healing of Baron Horka, who suffers from spasm of the pharynx and that no doctor could previously relieve.

But in 1775, the Berlin Academy published a letter in which it calls magnetism a form of mystification. Mesmer still continues his treatments. Several failures, however, and the continual opposition of the doctors made him leave Vienna for Paris, where he settled in 1778. The following year, his Memoir on the discovery of animal magnetism assured him a success of curiosity and he resumed his treatments.

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The "tub" of Mesmer

Realizing that the properties of the magnet can be transmitted to other objects, such as iron bars, Mesmer thinks that animal magnetism can also be transmitted, especially to water. He thus invents his famous "tub" and develops the practices of "collective magnetism" which includes a dozen patients. The collective magnetism alternates with the "individual magnetism", which can be practiced in the patient's home, Mesmer then engages in manipulations that are limited to the deficient body of the patient, these manipulations can sometimes take the form of long massages. He usually prescribes very little medications.

In the years 1783-1784, Mesmerism became the fashionable cure: it was then that the Faculty of Medicine obtains the ban sessions, resulting in the anger of patients and opinion. As a result of this affair, Louis XVI decided to create two commissions to study the phenomenon. One composed of members of the Royal Society of Medicine, the other of scientists from the Academy of Sciences. Their verdict is without appeal. It concludes at the inexistense of the universal fluid and insists on the role of the imagination in the practice of magnetism. A last report notes that mesmerism can be dangerous for morals because of its sexual connotations (including touching by the laying on of hands).

Disillusioned, and the practice of magnetism being forbidden to him despite the cures attested by the sick, Mesmer retired to Constance, where he lived peacefully until his death (1815).

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The theory of the universal fluid

Mesmer postulates the existence of a universal fluid. According to him, there is a mutual influence between the celestial bodies, the Earth and the animate bodies. A fluid universally diffused, which does not suffer from any emptiness, is the means of this influence. In this he is the heir of a number of authors and philosophers. Thus, the world soul ideas and raw material due to Plato, Aristotle's doctrine of the fifth element called "ether" or "first body", theories taken up by Hermeticism to give birth to the alchemical notion of fluid.

For the alchemists, the raw material is a chaos, an absolute substance and present in everything. Universal energy, by uniting with it, forms the world and all the beings that it shelters, and becomes the unique vital principle. The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) estimates that the light is active and its action is exerted on the primitive chaos, and he sees in the aura, double psychic of the human body, a manifestation of the universal vital principle.

Spiritual doctrine also places an important place on the notion of fluid, because it remains the intermediary agent whose minds use to manifest themselves to the sensible world. Modern spiritualism gives it a more scientific name by using the term wave or radiation.

From magnetism to hypnotism

The disciples of Mesmer, whose principal ones are Deleuze, the abbot Faria and the Marquis de Puységur, continue his work. In 1784 Puységur was surprised to see his patients fall asleep when he practiced the laying on of hands. He thus discovers the phenomenon of artificial somnambulism (which he calls "spasmodic sleep"). A Manchester dentist, James Braid, who uses this "artificial sleep" as a method to anesthetize his patients, replaces in 1843 the word hypnotism, somnambulism, eager to assert a certain break with mesmerism. Professor Charcot (1825-1893), finally, a neurologist practicing at Salpêrière, uses hypnosis in his therapies. Shortly after, Dr. Sigmund Freud shows, first, that hypnosis allows manifestations of the activity of the unconscious, and it is from his practice that he discovers psychoanalysis. If hysterics remain the most easily hypnotizable subjects, it has been shown that this is also the case for all those whose imaginative and creative faculties and religious credulity are particularly developed.

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