Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

De Quincey and Animal Magnetism

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

De Quincey and Animal Magnetism

Article excerpt

"Well has it been said, that the romance of absolute fiction is oftentimes less wonderful, and less startling to our previous expectations than the romance of real human life" (9:359) With this observation Thomas De Quincey opened his essay on "Animal Magnetism," published in Tait's Magazine, January, 1834. (1) Although it might sound like a variation on Lord Byron's declaration in Don Juan that "Truth is always strange;/Stranger than fiction" (DJ Canto 14, st. 101), De Quincey meant something more. He went on to say "that the resources of mere physical nature are more ample, and more effective in the production of the marvelous, than the imaginary world of magic or oriental enchantment." As evident in his childhood recollection of the tales of the Arabian Nights (10:387-388), De Quincey was especially found of "the imaginary world of magic or oriental enchantment." What then could more wonderful, startling, and marvelous? Not fictions but facts--facts gleaned from powers and energies of the natural world that were previously unknown and unsuspected. De Quincey invited his readers to imagine the sense of awe and mystery the mariners of the 12th century must have felt when the magnetic compass, a Chinese invention, was first brought aboard a European ship:

      Never was any natural agent discovered which wore so much the
      appearance of a magical device; nor even, to this day, has science
      succeeded in divesting of mystery that sympathy with an unknown
      object, which constitutes its power. It is still a mighty
      talisman; and differing from the talismans of superstition only
      thus far,--that it obeys a power acting by fixed laws, and in
      harmony with other powers composing the system of nature. (9:359)

When Franz Anton Mesmer introduced into medical practice a treatment that induced a trance-like state, he presented a theory to explain how his treatment worked, a theory based on the effects of the magnet. Because this analogous power affected "the animal system of man," he called it "animal magnetism."

De Quincey's essay provides a summary of Mesmer's career and his influence on the succeeding generation of medical doctors. His topic, however, is not simply an historical retrospect. It responded to the contemporary uproar over the second report on Animal Magnetism by the French Royal Academy issued in Paris in 1831. The first report of 1784, half a century earlier, had denounced Mesmer and his magnetic practice as quackery. In the second report, Mesmer is vindicated with extensive documentation on how trance is induced and case studies on how patients responded. De Quincey's essay is a detailed review of Dr. John Campbell Colquohuon's English translation of the second Paris report. (2) De Quincey celebrated the vindication without recognizing that the battle was far from over, that the second Paris report of 1831 would be followed by a third report of 1837, and that even then the debate would continue with periodic bursts of intensity through the century.

In an extraordinary volume entitled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness Of Crowds (1841), Charles MacKay included--alongside chapters on Alchymists, FortuneTelling, and Witch Mania--a chapter on Magnetisers. Although he wittily exposed the delusions of both the practitioners and their patients, he was also shrewd enough to suspend final judgment in his closing paragraph:

      Here we conclude the subject, as it would serve no good purpose to
      extend to greater length the history of Animal Magnetism;
      especially at a time when many phenomena, the reality of which it
      is impossible to dispute, are daily occurring to startle and
      perplex the most learned, impartial, and truthloving of mankind.
      Enough, however, has been stated to shew, that if there be some
      truth in magnetism, there has been much error, misconception, and
      exaggeration. … 
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