Mesmerism And The Enlightenment In France Essay

, Research Paper

In his book, “Mesmerism and the Enlightenment in France”, Robert Dranton attempts to explain the mentality of the pre-Revolution Frenchman. He uses th etheory and expansions of Franz Anton Mesmer. In his noble effort, Dranton explains the frantic nature of the educated Frenchman at this time and since he has chosena specific “eye” to see through, his intention is satisfied. He also shows how the radical branches of mesmerism carried on long after the revolution and affected the thinking of many great men and women, such as Victor Hugo and Henri de Balzac. Dranton uses excerpts from the changes in the theory itself and the changes of the format in which it was used.

One of the characteristics of the primcipals of Mesmer was the complete transformation of the movement itself. It went from the medical uses that MEsmer propsed and, throughout time, was used in politics, religion and even to just fiy vertical movement of non-Aristocratic, intellectual citizens. When Anton Mesmer came to Paris, he brought ideas of “invisible fluid” that flowed throughout our bodies. When the harmony of these fluids was disturbed, that is when people became ill. He believed that through electricity, baths and a trained “mesmeris,” diseases, and all other troubles, could be cured. He likened his “animal electricity” or “animal magnatism” to that of gravity, fire, light and electricity, The system of complex theories put forth by Mesmer could be discussed at great lengths and, in time, they were. His and many other “scientific discoveries” were all the rage in the salons of pre-Revolution Parisian society. The Enlightenment brought about a surge in scientific interest and since the fluids than man intellectuals believed in were invisible it left “every philosopher at the liberty to make it whatever he please[d] (16)”.

At the beginning of Mesmer’s career there was an explosion of scientific interest. Experiments in hot air balloons, flying and even walking on water were no longer considered ridiculous. Not only that, anyone who decided to attemt these feats could, if they went about it the right way, easily stir up support and money from wealthy members of society. It has been said that one can conclude from “the pulp literature of the 1780’s: the reading public of that era was intoxicated with the power of science. . .it seized on any invisible fluid, any scientific sounding hypothesis, that promised to explain the wonders of nature(23)”. Darnton’s opinion of this blind faith seeps through and makes things interesting, “Parisians cared only about mesmerism, balloon flights and spectacular feats of heroism or humanitarianism(54)”.

Dranton devotes the first chunk of his book to explaining Mesmer and his direct influence. In this section, he also discusses the other ideas which were circulating at the time. MAny of these were quite extreme and made mesmerism look tame in comparison. But soon enough mesmerism becomes the catalyst for radical political and social statements. The rest of the book is devoted to explaining the influences of the radical strains of mesmerism that developed. The only mention from that point forward of the “true” mesmerist theory is how the mesmerists of the past probably would not have recognized what mesmerism had become.

Mesmer began with a strong following of intellectual and csientific support. Like any theory of the time, pamphlets were circulated for and against him, and despite the opposition, he was successful. Mesmer did study medicine and when he arrived in PAris he had a highly esteemed “staff”: Adrien Duport, a member of Parliment, the Marquis de Chastellux, a prominent solider, Nicholas Bergasse, a powerful speaker and founder of the Parisian Society of Harmony, and Guillaume Kornmann, a wealthy banker from Strasbourg. Each one helped in Mesmer’s baths and had diplomas which bond them to secrecy about their trraining(75). They, and every member of Mesmer’s society had to go through elaborate training explaining the three basic principals, “God, matter and movement(77)”. It may seem odd to see God placed so highly because the Enlighten ment often seemed to be a rejection of God as an explination. Onthe contrary, those who believed in mesmerism and God, saw God as the divine fluid that flows through everything and when it is disturbed God is too. Some did not believe this and when Father Hervier, an active mesmerist, interrupted one of his sermons to mesmeize a woman who was convulsing, he caused a split in his parish. Those who thought he was a saint for using the hypnosis and those who thought that he was a sorcerer. He was even suspended from preaching for a bit, but was then reinstatted because of the supprt from local parliment(58).

Before they were expelled from the mesmerist society, many of hte classes were led by Bergasse and Krnmann. It was observed in the diary of Baron de Corerbon that “there are plenty of symathetic spirits in Paris who would like to ‘Bergassize’ as much as to ‘mesmerize’(77)”. Eventually Bergasse was expelled from the Mesmer society bbecause he disagreed with Mesmer about matters of money and society. In his words he had “his theory-his own ideas about ‘universal morality, about education, habits, the arts etc’(78)”.

Kornmann and Bergasse believed that Mesmer had abandoned the original flight against depotism in the academmic world so they began their own fight that expanded into a “larger battle against political despotism(79)”. For their cause Kornmann and Bergasse commandeered d’Epremesnil, Duport, and Lafayette. The convocation of the Estate General in July 1788 initiated a large wave of political pamphleteering. Bergasse used mesmerism as a weapon against the aristocracy and elite literary and scientific societes “by extracting a political theory forn the obscure, strictly appolitical pontifications of Mesmer(107):. This statement illustrated that Dranton does not agree with the ideas of Bergasse and his followers and he spends the rest of the book illustrating the many absurd uses of mesmermism. He utilizes diaries, oetry letters and other shcolarly works to dissect this period of radical political frenzy.

The writings of the Kornmann group, as they were called, used science as a means to discuss politics. Jacques-Perre Brissot and JEean-Louis Carra, were two more influencial writiers whowere distusted woth the decadence of the aristocratical class. They used the contemporary theory of moral and physical health as an illustration of spiritual well being. They utilized mesmerism as a basis for their opposition to the aristoracy and in their most radical moments suggested that humans needed to return to a more terrestrail existance, believing that natural law ruled the moral and physical world(110-113). “The word society must not be taken to mean society as it exists now. . .but the society that ought to exist, natural society, the one that results from the relations that our guiding rule of society is harmony(118)”. Despite these and other lofty intentions there was a certainhypocracy amoung the radicals that Darnton illustrates through Brissot. He came from a humble background and began a rightous struggle against the lack of non-aristocratic mobility bout once he recieed power and prestige he quickly abandoned the morals he had before the Revolution. Even Mesmer himself was influened by money. When Marie-Antoinette offered him money to reside on her estate he refused, because it was not enough. Although he always said that he cared not who was a member of his society, as long as they could give the 100 Louis. Because Dranton includes these facts about some prominent mesmerists he suggests that mesmerism itself was not the concern of many of its followers. It was more about allience, power and money.

The long term influence of Mesmerism on thought is the last section fo Dranton’s account and includes some influential names, Balzac, Hugo, even Edgar Allen Poe commented on it. It also influenced some of the most radical theoires. The utopian strain was part of the Jacobin thinking. The communists also strove to reach some of the utilitarian ideals of the radical mesmerist theory.

In the end, Darnton suggests that the evolution of mesmerism clearly shows the evolutiion and fears of the French before, throughout and after the French Revolution. Science was a dramatic way of expressing any issue, political or otherwise. He also makes it seem as though mesmerism itself just ahppened to be the “lucky” theory that stuck throughout the time period. Mesmer was not a philosopher and his writing s were much less romantic than those of his followers. Burgasse’s variation on mesmerism is really what stood the test of time because he was a flamboyant writer and speaker who appealed to the sensational nature of the period.


Darnton, Robert. “mesmerism and Enlightenment in France”. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. 1968.



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