FRANZ ANTON MESMER
Falsely credited with having invented hypnotism, with which his name has become synonymous, Franz Anton Mesmer is however, a curious figure in the world of psychic practitioners.
In some ways the beliefs and
practices of Mesmer look back to an earlier period of
magical medicine as far back as two hundred years before his own time to the
era of Paracelsus. Yet Mesmer, born in
His principal theory is remarkable in light of recent discoveries in the realm of latter 20th century physics. Mesmer believed that a kind of psychic ether pervades all space, and that the astral bodies far and near cause tides in this fluid, or ether.
Although today's scientists certainly would not jump to such conclusions, their recent identification of something they call "dark matter", theorized after repeated calculations on the universal mass and gravitational forces proved fantastically understated when compared to mathematical projections, tend to evoke a healthy air of credibility to the theories of some of the earlier shamans, including those of the remarkable Anton Mesmer.
He believed that this ether operating in individuals, when flowing naturally, results in a normal healthy condition throughout creation. Should the natural flow of this ether be impeded in any way, all sorts of sickness result. If a blockage has occurred in a patient, it must be dislodged. In this fashion Mesmer anticipated the Christian Scientist teachings of Mary Baker Eddy a century later.
A wealthy English dame passing through
After bleeding a patient, which was common practice for nearly every ailment back then, Mesmer noticed that as he approached the patient the flow of blood increased, and lessened noticeably when he stepped away. This was enough to convince the forty year old lay doctor that his own body must be some sort of magnetic force, hence the term, animal magnetism.
His practice boomed when word of this new miracle cure spread, although the combined faith of both healer and the patient in the process certainly was a persuasive factor in these cures, much like the placebo effect, well documented today. That the innate powers of a charismatic personality synchronizes the strong notions of a believer to effect untold numbers of miraculous payoffs cannot be denied.
Fame was heaped upon Mesmer after a hypochondriac baron in Rokow sought his help after being sarcastically referred to him by his own physician who finally tired of his complaints of back spasms, which the doctor felt were simply a product of the idle baronŐs imagination.
After five days of failure, on the sixth day of Mesmer's magnetic treatment the baron began to feel relief
from this latest writhing bout with muscle spasms. News of the cure enflamed
As his recognition grew, so did the outrageousness of his methods. Mesmer devised a simple apparatus purported to distribute the magnetic forces to whole groups of willing patients. He constructed a whole system of healing tools designed to reach the most people in the least amount of time, beginning by immersing magnets in several jars of water connected with steel bands. He then collected the jars into a wooden tub resonating with iron filings and more water, and attached a hose and nozzle to this contraption to help spray the magnetized healing about the room or garden area busy with patients lounging and holding hands by the dozens. As expected, results were astounding.
Later a blind pianist, young and attractive, was to cross his path. Mesmer promised to cure her if she would take up residence in his house so that he could concentrate his efforts. Although there is evidence that the young artist's sight malady was caused by a detached retina, she soon believed that she could see ever so dimly. His women patients invariably were outfitted in a loose smock to insure a freer transference of his magnetic powers, and it is quite likely that his technique included the hands-on kneading of their breasts, thighs, buttocks, and wherever Mesmer deemed the flesh seemed knotted unnatural concentrations of etheric fluid.
Long before Freud, Mesmer seemed to realize the effects of sexual repression and nervous hysteria. His seductive techniques released many neurotic patients to the fresh feeling of an aspiring humanity, at least temporarily, free from the bondage of the host of mental and sexual insecurities modern society encourages.
Skeptics abounded nevertheless. While he managed to
"cure" many resident patients, all pretty young
ladies, his elderly wife remained ailing. The young pianist is
said to have actually been helped by Mesmer's
attentions, but she was whisked away against her will when the Imperial
Morality Police intervened. He escaped to
There, his successes continued. His sensual healing
techniques became the talk of society, women and men. King Louis XVI offered
the practitioner a lifetime pension if he would sign a contract to remain in
His animal magnetism cures were indubitably gathering
a devoted and strong-willed following. Instructing pupils in his methods, he
established centers in major cities across
Investigating doctors were convinced that no evidence of a magnetic fluid existed, although they accepted the possibility that the charlatan seemed to possess great powers of suggestion.
Shortly after, a doctor faked an illness, faked his
cure, and then published the dirt on Mesmer, as the
wave of favorable public opinion was beginning to
Mesmer's contribution to real science can be distilled in the fact that he understood that illness is not natural. Some kind of blockage of natural forces will inevitably yield stagnation and sickness. An instinctive desire to free the vital forces from restraint kept Mesmer successful as long as his own ability to acknowledge the forces he was using was strong, but the ruling establishment, then as now more often than not, always seems to overwhelm the harbinger of fresh insight concerning the body's spiritual essence, despite the best of intentions.
Mesmer died in 1815, comfortable and somewhat vindicated. The discovery of the hypnotic state was stumbled upon by accident by one of Mesmer's disciples, the Marquis de Puysgur, one day when trying to magnetize a young shepherd boy. Rubbing the boy's head had put the lad into a hypnotic, or spasmodic sleep (as he called it). Trying to arouse the lad to consciousness, the Marquis gave several commands, such as stand up, walk, and sit down, and was astounded to observe the boy obey, yet still remain in his sleeping state. When the shepherd boy finally woke up, he had no memory of these events.
And while the story of this strange 18th century man may
delight, offend, or mesmerize the reader, Franz Anton must surely appear to us
as no more a quack than some of the 20th century psychologists who must trace
their intellectual roots to this man whose name is now a part of our language.