Wednesday, December 22, 2004

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Mesmerism. N. Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked incredulity to dinner.
-Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Darnton’s Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment presents a conservative approach to illuminist doctrines that appeared before the French Revolution. Through a careful examination of Mesmer’s ideas and his influence in Parisian culture, Darnton traces the significance of social mysticism as it progressed from reformist political theory to revolutionary radicalism. Mesmerism can best be generalized as a form of science fiction--the belief that super science, at face value, could sole the problems of mankind. This type of social illuminism did not contradict the spirit of the Enlightenment. It was the Enlightenment run wild. Illuminism provided a theocratic theory of society where reason provided none.

The science fiction quality in this period is expressed in the general belief that mankind possesses limitless possibilities, and it was this combination of political theory and mysticism that provided an abstract ideal, a hallucinatory grail, over the heads and hearts of the visionary philosphe. Darnton’s work attempts to show who invoked that limitless vision in the eye of the typical radical. It shows the general mood in Pre-revolutionary France, yet fails to perceive, at the most critical point, that the illuminist influence served as an underground catalyst that was to provoke radical social reform.

Basically, the theory advanced by Mesmer said that an aura of psychic “ether” pervades all space, and that heavenly bodies cause tides in this fluid, much like the influence of the full moon. Through various degrees of magnetism, these ever-moving currents produce various states of health. If something hampers the action of the individual, the result is sickness. In other words, health is man’s natural state; sickness is a blockage. From here, it is easy to see how practicing Mesmerists like Brissot, Bergasse, and Carra were alienated from the established medical profession. It is interesting, however, that various descriptions of this phenomena--this aura of the human body, known to various witches, shamans, philosophers, and sorcerers since the beginning of civilized history--has been repeatedly re-discovered by scientists, most of whom have been denounced as “cranks” or “charlatans.” Mesmer’s theory was nothing totally alien to previously existing occult beliefs, and many distinguished minds have since followed up with his theories.

Since Mesmer, Kirlian photography has demonstrated beyond all doubt that this aura, or animal magnetism, does exist.

This would seem to suggest tha tmesmer vaguely understood that supernatural qulaity, in those days before the Revolution, but he did not completely understand. At any rate, it was this basic element of truth that caused Mesmerism to be debated in the academies, salons, and cafes. Darnton writes, “It was investigated by the polic, patronized by the Queen, ridiculed several times on stage, burlesqued in popular songs, doggerals, and cartoons, practised in a network of Mason-like secret societies, and published in a flood of pamphlets and books. Alchemists, sorcerers, and fortune tellers had embedded themselves so deeply in Parisian life that the police found them to be better even than priests at spying and providing secret information.” The majority in Paris believed totally in Mesmer’s theories, for only complete belief could justify the sometimes orgiastic, hedonistic activities. It was, after all, a delightful way of losing repressions, and as a parlour game, only balloon flights could provoke more talk.

Mesmerism became so popular, in fact, that some of the greatest minds of the century were playing with it. It was the Englightenment run wild.

Typically, as the debate over Mesmerism grew, the established Academicians began to alienate the new and independent Illuminist philosophers, “then inflamed the government against them.” It was here that Mesmerists began to develop anti-social attitudes which, after condeming the aristocratic despotism of the academies, began to criticize the social order itself. The police viewed Mesmerists as a threat to the state. One of Mesmerism’s leading men, Brissot, played a major part in this general development of occult ideas into political radicalism. Darnton wrote, “Brissot’s mesmerism was a stage in the process of shifting his hatred of ‘nos aristocrates literaires’ (our literary aristocrats) to the aristocracy.” As the attack on mesmerism grew, the mesmerists gained momentum and Darnton says, “At this point it should be clear that an underground current of radicalism ran throughout the mesmerist movement and occasionally erupted in violent political pamphlets.”

As a result of France’s political circumstances, sects of Illuminists began to increase, propagating their unhappiness with the existing order, waving the bust of Rousseau like a flag, using science, using the Enlightenment, using abstract principles to provoke reformist hysteria, to produce the hope of building a perfect world where reason overcomes past superstition. Gaxotte said it very well, “Thus, the writers reacting on the societies, and societies on the writers, it came about that an unconscious band of brothers found themselves carried away by an increasingly rapid movement towards the advent of certain intellectual and moral type which no one had forseen, of which everyone would dissaprove, yet for which all were preparing the way: the socialistic Jacobin of 1793.”

It was this snowballing underground network of radical thought, using the abstract doctrine of mystic Rousseau and other illuminists, that provided the revolutionaries the substance with which to throw at the Ancien Regime. Darnton writes, “Brissot read occult messages into Rousseau’s works. In his pamphlet Examen Critique, which announced his own perceptions of “sublime glimmers . . . beyond our globe, in a better world,” he argued that to condemn illuminism was to condemn “almost all the true philosophers, and especially Rousseau.” This idea of a better world was rising like wildfire throughout the englightened elite. What this illuminated elite envisioned was a single, harmonious world utopia, and they used catchy slogans and phrases to promote this idealistic dream.

But, for instance, the words liberty and equality contradict themselves; they are mutually exclusive. Together they create a whole world of dischord and confusion. On one hand there is the limitless fredom in liberty--every man able to do whatever he wishes, to pursue his own potential, bypassing lesser men--but equality does not exist there. On the other hand, if it were possible to mold humanity into one equal class, there is no freedom there; there is no liberty. Both of these two words in unision create a strong dischordian poison to throw any existing system into a torrent of left wing chaos.

One of these illuminist societies, Cercle Social, would just get together and preach some mystic doctrine of utopian communism to several thousand, including Brissot, Paine, Condorcet, Sieyes, Desmoulins, Mme. Roland, and other revolutionary leaders and produce even more dangerous methods and beliefs for social change. Furthermore, Darnton writes that, “Mesmerism exerted a more persuasive though less obvious influence on the Revolution through the Cercle Social, an association of mystic revolutionaries who hoped to establish a Universal Confederation of Friends with a masonic organization.” The implications of this link with a “a masonic organization” is ominous, and it would take another paper to follow the significance of this relationship. It is important to note, however, that an even more dangerous slogan, which would change the entire face of history and mold the modern world, would arise out of this society of illuminated thought.

After reason destroyed, for the illuminated, the ancient concept of Christianity, the need for a new, revised theodicy, lefet the Enlightenment without meaning. It was Condorcet, member of the Girondists, who answered the need for theodicy by establishing the concept of “progress” as a force that would triumph over superstition and create the perfect utopian age. One only needs to review the world as it presently stands to understand the awesome impact of this one word, progress. I do not see things getting better.

In Darnton’s disappointing conclusion, he says the mesmerism’s radical character does not prove that the “Ancient Regime was mined by a secret network of revolutionary cells like those imagined by Abbe Barruel.” It is strange that Darnton uses words like illuminism or network or underground so often, but then refutes his own findings. I suppose it takes a great deal of courage for a reputable historian to claim that a conspiracy did exist, for to say so suggests something ominous about our own time. It was Joseph de Maistre who wrote that there is a Satanic quality to the French Revolution, and perhaps this statement should be followed up using the various associations presented by Darnton.


William F. Church, “The Influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution,” D.C. Heath and Company, p. 88.