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Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France [Paperback]

Robert Darnton

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Book Description

Jan. 31 1986
Early in 1788, Franz Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician, arrived in Paris and began to promulgate a somewhat exotic theory of healing that almost immediately seized the imagination of the general populace. Robert Darnton, in his lively study of mesmerism and its relation to eighteenth-century radical political thought and popular scientific notions, provides a useful contribution to the study of popular culture and the manner in which ideas are diffused down through various social levels.

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A fascinating study of the effects that the theories of the notorious Viennese physician, Franz Mesmer, had upon social and political thinkers during the two decades preceding the French Revolution. This book is a skillful exploration of the various psychological factors that made mesmerism a widely accepted attitude…[The book] will interest literary scholars as well as historians since mesmerism is examined as a phenomenon that bequeathed an attitude that found its expression in the writings of the preromantics and the romantics. (Virginia Quarterly Review)

This is an excellent book and one of singular interest both to the historian of science and to the French historian. (Isis)

[An] excellent and exemplary study in the history of ideas. Based on a thorough study of manuscripts, pamphlets, and journals, learned in its broad setting and persuasive in its internal logic, supported by richly relevant quotations and reproductions of contemporary engravings, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France provides a commendable model for those interested in the way 'true' and 'false' ideas interact and broadly influence behavior. (Science)

About the Author

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
The crashing failure of the Social Contract, Rousseau's least popular book before the Revolution, raises a problem for scholars searching for the radical spirit in the 1780's: if the greatest political treatise of the age failed to interest many literate Frenchmen, what form of radical ideas did suit their tastes? Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mesmerism, a magnet for many movements March 9 2010
By Jim Chevallier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
So you thought Mesmerism was just a primitive form of hypnotism, a precursor to that and, ultimately, psychoanalysis in the same way alchemy was a precursor to chemistry? In fact, it was many, many other things, as Robert Darnton methodically and (as always) entertainingly recounts in this work. He begins by outlining the enthusiasm for science - more often exuberant pseudo-science - which existed in France in the eighteenth century (an enthusiasm satirized in one section of Perfume). "Mesmerism suited the interest in science and 'high science' during the decade before the Revolution, and it did not seem to contradict the spirit of the Enlightenment." This section is amusing if only to see the range of creatively mad ideas which an ultimately valuable passion for science unleashed in this century so fertile in new ideas. Darnton then traces the rise not only of Mesmerism but of the opposition to it. This included a play which struck one of the most effective blows against the movement. Jefferson - a bit prematurely - noted in 1785 "Animal magnetism dead, ridiculed". In fact, the movement survived but drifted into supernatural territory Mesmer himself disapproved of. Darnton then explores the relation between Mesmer and radicalism, (One of the more moderate political figures associated with the movement was Lafayette.) The next chapter shows how this went further, inspiring political theories that drew on Mesmerism and managed to link it with, for instance, the ideas of Rousseau. "By injecting a Rousseauist bias into a mesmerist analysis of the physical and psychological relations among men, Bergasse saw a way to revolutionize France." The next chapter has the rather surprising title of "From Mesmer to Hugo" - surprising because this very eighteenth century movement endured in some form well into the next: "The spell that Mesmer had cast upon the French in the 1780's brought men of letters as well as political scientists under his influence during the first half of nineteenth century. Mesmer might be considered the first German romantic to cross the Rhine..." The territory explored through all this will certainly fascinate those with an interest in eighteenth century France, and in the ferment that surrounded the coming of the Revolution, but it is also worth reading for those who are simply interested in how ideas of apparently limited scope inspire movements that often surprise even their originators.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Science and Politics Meet in Pre-Revolutionary France July 2 2012
By A Certain Bibliophile - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
5.0 out of 5 stars Few Mesmer books around Feb. 5 2014
By Francis L Fitzpatrick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It's difficult to find books about Anton Mesmer in English. This one is informative and worthwhile to consider. I needed some background on Mesmer and received it.

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