Animal Magnetism

views updated May 29 2018


"Animal magnetism" is a term popularized by the Viennese doctor Franz Mesmer. In Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal (Propositions concerning animal magnetism; 1779) he defined it as the "property of the animal body that makes it susceptible to the influence of celestial bodies and the reciprocal action of those around it, made manifest by its analogy with the magnet." He believed that a cosmic fluid attracted animate beings to one another. He considered poor receptivity to the fluid to be pathogenic, and the cure consisted in transmission of the fluid.

In Paris, Mesmer enjoyed enormous success. Faced with a crush of clients, he installed a "tub," a round device around which patients sat in a group, and that was designed to concentrate and redistribute the fluid, resulting in beneficial convulsions. Mesmerism claimed to be a scientific discovery as well as a secret associated with initiation into a group of adepts.

In 1784 two committees appointed by the Académies Royales des Sciences et de Médecine (Royal Academies of Science and Medicine) drafted a report for the king on Mesmer's "discovery." The astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly, reporter of the first committee, concluded that the fluid likely did not exist, and he sketched out an explanation in terms of "imagination" and "imitation." In a secret report, released after the French Revolution, he noted the sexual nature of the convulsions, which he compared to orgasm.

That same year Armand de Puységur, a disciple of Mesmer, discovered (or rediscovered) that one can provoke calm crises that resemble the natural somnambulism of certain sleepers. He referred to this as artificial or induced somnambulism. From this point onward, magnetized subjects were no longer "convulsives," but "somnambulists," as in Puységur's model. The somnambulists appeared changed: they uttered prophecies, showed signs of split personalities, and, under the influence of the fluid, which was supposed to be transmitted by the "passes" of the magnetizer, exhibited extraordinary signs of "lucidity." Puységur and his followers developed a standard form of treatment that differed considerably from what was often suggested by medical authorities. The magnetized patient directed the treatment; the magnetizer questioned the patient and let her talk (almost all patients were female). It was assumed that in a somnambulistic state the person had self-healing capacities. Magnetism became a social and cultural phenomenon of considerable importance.

In 1813, in his public lectures, Abbé José Custodio de Faria claimed that there was no need of a fluid to induce sleep, since by a simple command, a state of "lucid sleep" could be brought about in a subject. In 1823 and 1826 the physician Alexandre Bertrand returned to Bailly's work on imagination and imitation. He connected Mesmeric phenomena to a traditional psychology of ecstasy, currently understood as a trance. An opposition was thus established, before the term "hypnotism" became popular, between orthodox fluidic Mesmeric magnetism and a heterodox psychological movement represented in France by Faria, Bertrand, and Joseph Noizet.

In Mesmeric terminology, the "relationship" refers primarily to the relation between the magnetized patient and the magnetizer. The literature in the field mentioned the sexual aspect of the relationship only rarely and with reticence. Yet love between a magnetizer and a somnambulist did become a distinct theme in fiction. Animal magnetism even became a kind of platitude, if we are to believe the article "Magnetism" in Gustave Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas : "An agreeable subject of conversation that can also be used to 'impress women.' "

Jacqueline Carroy

See also: Hypnosis; Liebeault, Ambroise Auguste; Occultism; Salpêtrière, hosptial; Suggestion.


Darnton, Robert. (1968). Mesmerism and the end of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious: the history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Flaubert, Gustave. (1954). Dictionary of accepted ideas (Jacques Barzun, Trans.). Norfolk, CT: New Directions Books.

Mesmer, Anton (1779). Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal. Geneva: P.F. Didot le jeune.

Puységur, Armand Marie Jacques de Chastenet, marquis de. (1786). Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire et à l'établissement du magnétisme animal. London: s.n.

Rausky, Franklin. (1977). Mesmer ou la révolution thérapeutique. Paris: Payot.

Roussillon, René. (1992). Du baquet de Mesmer au "baquet" de S. Freud. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

animal magnetism

views updated Jun 08 2018

animal magnetism An umbrella term covering a diverse set of practices, animal magnetism refers most often to the therapeutic methods originally developed in late-eighteenth- century France by Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) and his followers; more generally, it signifies the sympathetic attraction between people. Animal magnetizers generally claimed to effect cures for chronic ailments by their ability to redistribute the magnetic or nervous fluid circulating through a patient's body, frequently inducing a trance-like somnambulistic state. Magnetized patients might be impervious to pain, obey the magnetizer's suggestions, or display abnormal abilities. Like other currently discredited treatments, animal magnetism is too easily dismissed as charlatanry, and episodes must be considered within their cultural context. Its recurrent popularity derived from its apparently successful cures, its close relationship to other contemporary medical and scientific ideas, and its resonances with political and social interests.

Mesmer initially treated patients by strapping magnets to their bodies, but after arriving in Paris in 1778, he gradually moved away from this literal application to a more metaphorical vision of a universal magnetic fluid. The central feature attracting wealthy patrons to his fashionable, music-filled salon was the baquet, a large, oaken tub filled with magnetic materials, magnetized water, and aromatic herbs. Clients — predominantly women — sucked up its healing magnetic powers by holding protruding iron bars and wrapping ropes round afflicted limbs. Mesmer also treated patients individually, passing his hands around them while gazing intently into their eyes to achieve healing crises which resembled fits or trances. Leading to accusations of sexual misconduct, this technique was proclaimed to redirect and unblock the flow of universal magnetic fluid through the body — reflecting contemporary medical insistence on restoring natural circulation and equilibrium.

After a few lucrative years of intense popularity, Mesmer himself was discredited by a governmental enquiry, but his followers developed and propagated his methods. Often spreading through masonic and occultist networks, versions of mesmerism flourished throughout Revolutionary France, appealing particularly to radicals seeking a democratic scientific medicine. Adherents transmitted it to Germany, where, in the early nineteenth century, a more mystical and less therapeutic animal magnetism emerged, as part of a Romantic fascination with visionary states and paranormal powers also articulated by some English poets. Animal magnetism continued to become increasingly popular in France, and during the 1830s was exported to the US, where it was adopted by progressive reformers often associated with spiritualism, and to Britain.

Animal magnetism had been briefly popular in London during the 1780s, but was revived by theatrical demonstrators and progressive early Victorian medical men such as the university professor John Elliotson. Particularly after the dramatic and well-publicized cure of the journalist Harriet Martineau, interest escalated amongst the intellectual élite in therapeutic mesmerism and its use as an anaesthetic during surgery. Like phrenology, animal magnetism held appeal as a radical alternative which could be practised outside professional institutions, but was effectively suppressed by the scientific and medical establishment.

Patricia Fara

Animal Magnetism

views updated May 21 2018

Animal Magnetism

Alternative term for mesmerism. It appears to have been first used by Michel A. Thouret in his Recherches et doutes sur le magnétisme animal (1784) with the intention of disassociating the phenomena from the name of its popularizer Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815). Thouret reviewed similar phenomena throughout the ages, and the name "animal magnetism" was intended to disassociate it from ferro-magnetism, indicating that the mesmeric or magnetic fluid was associated with unusual phenomena in living organisms.

Animal magnetism became a preferred term for experimenters and writers like J. P. F. Deleuze (1753-1835), and William Gregory (1803-1858), translator of Baron von Reichenbach 's works on the " od, " or "odic force" (associated with animal magnetism). Animal magnetism embraced such paranormal phenomena as clairvoyance, transposition of the senses, and sympathy (rapport between operator and subject). A number of reputable scientists took a serious interest in animal magnetism and conducted numerous experiments, and for many years during the nineteenth century the subject formed a bridge between mesmerism, Spiritualism, and hypnotism. From time to time various alternative terms were proposed, largely in order to give the subject some scientific dignity. These included "psycodunamy" (Theodore Leger), "electro-psychology," and "electro-biology." Animal magnetism was eventually supplanted by hypnotism, which discarded many of the claimed paranormal aspects of the subject.


Binet, Alfred, and Charles Fere. Animal Magnetism. London, 1887.

Deleuze, J. P. F. Practical Instruction in Animal Magnetism. Providence, RI: B. Cranston, 1837. Reprint, New York: Samuel R. Wells, 1879.

DuPoteat, Jules. Magnetism and Magic. New York: F. Stokes, n.d.

Gregory, William. Animal Magnetism or Mesmerism and Its Phenomena. London, 1909.

Townshend, Chauncy Hare. Facts in Mesmerism, with Reasons for a Dispassionate Inquiry into It. London, 1844.