Somnambulism and Animal Magnetism
Given the sharp differences of opinion with regard to animal magnetism that were somewhat fudged in the founding of the School of Magnetism at Lyons, it seems worthwhile to make a brief survey of its development over the previous hundred years. What we have to say is a digest of our survey of the subject in The Circuit of Force (Thoth Publications 1998) which in turn had its source in Théories et procédés du Magnétisme by Hector Durville, teacher of the subject in the 1890’s.
We tread on shifting sand on any scientifically based evaluation of the Unseen. Despite all attempts at an ‘objective’ approach, the assumptions and the evidence, the questions asked and the answers given, vary from generation to generation. Great excitement arose toward the end of the 18th century when Benjamin Franklin channelled electricity from the atmosphere by the highly dangerous method of flying kites in a thunderstorm, and when Walsh found that electric shocks were given off by certain forms of deepwater fish. Then Galvani made the sensational discovery that dead frogs’ legs could be made to twitch by the discharge of electricity. In a spectacular experiment he connected a limb from one of his specimens to a lightning conductor on the top of his house at the height of a storm, to show the dead limb violently twitch each time there was a lightning flash. It seemed that electricity might be the source of life, and it was but a short step of the imagination to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein where a monster was brought to life from various disparate body parts.
More controlled experimentation became possible when Volta invented the electrical battery, and this led in turn to the discovery that magnetism was part of the same phenomenon. When an electric current passes through a wire it produces a magnetic field at right angles to the direction of flow. If the wire is then wound into a coil the effect is greatly amplified, and will magnetise a soft iron core placed inside it. Thus was the electro-magnet discovered and by whirling coils in a magnetic field Faraday invented the generator and electric motor.
What we now take for granted as simple experiments in school physics were, two hundred years ago, fascinating researches upon the very borders of life, and they attracted a considerable following, amateur and professional. These interests also embraced other subjects perceived to be on the frontiers of spirit and matter, such as mesmerism, animal magnetism, ‘odic force’ and communication with discarnate spirits and associated phenomena.
At much the same time an Austrian doctor, Antoine Mesmer (1734-1815), attracted attention by effecting cures by what he called ‘animal magnetism’. He established a successful practice in Vienna but faced with hostility from the church and fellow medical practitioners, moved to Paris where he was patronised by high society and began to publish works on the history and practice of ‘animal magnetism’.
Mesmer did not concern himself much with details of medical physiology but kept to general principles. He compared the human body to a magnet, which was also, in its way, capable of acting upon other bodies at a distance. To maintain the body in a state of health it was necessary for its internal magnetism to be in a state of equilibrium. Disease was a condition found when these forces were unbalanced. He considered the left and right sides of the body to be of opposite polarity, like the arms of a horseshoe magnet, and the hands of the magnetic healer were looked upon as conductors of magnetism of the appropriate polarity. Human and animals bodies were the most powerful source of magnetism, followed by growing vegetation, whilst iron and glass were the most effective conductors.
His methods were very simple, mainly concerned with ‘magnetically’ touching the patient, either with the hand or with a wand of glass or metal. Sometimes he treated patients individually, sometimes assisted by a ‘chain’ of healthy people linked in a circle about them.
He treated patients in groups, assisted by various reservoirs of magnetism, of which the ‘baquet’ is best known, a large container of magnetised water with which he could treat fifty or sixty people at a time. The baquet was a very large basin containing a number of bottles of magnetised water which were submerged under more water, or else buried in some conductor such as powdered glass, iron filings or sand. Thin iron rods protruded from the baquet, which were used to touch the affected parts of patients. A long cord attached to one of the rods could enable those about the baquet to wrap it around the affected part of the anatomy. They could also form a ‘chain’ about the baquet by linking thumbs with each of their neighbours, (the thumbs being considered important magnetic conductors), although the power could be increased if they sat in a close chain with thighs, knees and feet touching so as to form a continuous circle for the flow of magnetic fluid.
An early disciple of Mesmer, who simplified his theories and improved some of his practices, was the Marquis de Puységur (1751-1825), a distinguished soldier in his youth, a colonel at the age of 27, rising to brigadier general, who resigned his commission during the French revolution and returned home, where he gave refuge to many who were fleeing from persecution.
He was well read in the physical science of his day, understood the physical manifestations of electricity, and regarded animal magnetism not so much a circulation of invisible fluid but more a state of vibration. His experiments convinced him that the head and solar plexus were the parts of the human body most susceptible to magnetic emanation, and particularly the eyes. An important contribution of his was the discovery, in 1784, of ‘magnetic somnambulism’ with its unusual powers.
He did not describe many detailed techniques of magnetic passes because he considered thought and will to be of greater importance. He also realised that magnetic practitioners varied in their ability, although this might be dependent upon the training and instruction they had received. Like Mesmer, he used auxiliary equipment, including the baquet, but preferred the use of trees, which he said already contained their own power, that could also be augmented by human magnetism. His favourite was a great elm tree in the grounds of his mansion with cords fixed to the branches, hanging down to the ground, which the sick could wind about themselves.
Whilst the most dramatic effects that Mesmer attained were through nervous crises, which he believed got rid of morbid elements within the organism, de Puységur did not think such crises indispensable. He considered the true curative state to be, on the contrary, a calm and tranquil one, that he called ‘the magnetic state’ or ‘lucid somnambulism’. This was completely different from ordinary sleep, and included response to suggestion, even telepathic suggestion. He could thus inspire happier thoughts by means of silent mental commands, or induce a patient to make dancing movements by silently running a song through his head. It was not long before anasthaesia was discovered and a remarkable facility whereby sick somnambulists could describe the means for their cure.
Another important figure was Deleuze (1753-1835) librarian of the Museum of Natural History. He did not live far from de Puységur’s country establishment, where he found several people, one of whom was sick, formed in a chain. He joined the chain, soon saw the patient fall asleep, and did so himself.
On returning home he tried magnetising himself, obtained satisfactory results, and henceforth devoted himself to the study and practice of the subject. He was the most cautious of early writers on magnetism as he concentrates on fact and observation rather than speculative theories, and wrote up either what he had seen himself or received from those he considered trustworthy.
He was a disciple of Puységur insofar that he believed neither in human poles nor the influence of the stars. He thought Mesmer’s theories obscure, too complicated and not in agreement with several physical principles; and although he admitted that a universal fluid might be the cause of major phenomena he could not accept that anyone had the power to direct it over great distances. He differed from de Puységur by insisting on the paramount importance of the will, which he considered could obtain results without the need for belief. Both attached great importance to the somnambulistic state, or what would elsewhere be called trance.
He particularly advised that magnetism be practised only between members of the same sex on account of other sympathies that might be aroused by the process, and should it be necessary that a man magnetise a woman he prescribed detailed rules of conduct. He also recognised that different objects could be magnetised, acting as storage conductors and producing magnetic effects upon those with whom they were in rapport. These included linen or cotton handkerchiefs, leaves from trees, and plates of glass, gold or steel, which placed at a seat of discomfort could ameliorate it.
One of the most successful 19th century successors to these three pioneers was Jules-Denis, Baron du Potet de Sennevoy (1796-1881) more succinctly known as du Potet, whose career as a magnetiser began in spectacular fashion in 1820 at the Hotel-Dieu hospital as we have already described.
Another great 19th century figure was Charles Lafontaine (1803-1892) who travelled all over France giving public demonstrations and curing the sick. In 1841 he came to England where he met Braid, the discoverer of hypnotism, before returning to France in 1848 and thence on to Italy where he was granted a sympathetic audience by Pope Pius XI who helped and encouraged him.
He contributed little to theory but was convinced of the emission of a magnetic fluid closely akin to physical magnetism. He eschewed supernatural theories and believed the will to be an important part of the ability to magnetise - although not in the sense of imposing one’s will upon the patient.
He attached great importance to the somnambulistic state and describes it as a mode of consciousness that is not sleeping nor waking nor dreaming. The somnambule enjoys the full use of faculties, often greater intelligence, more delicate perceptions and sometimes faculties not ordinarily possessed, such as seeing at a distance without help of the eyes, prevision of events, knowledge of hidden things and an instinct for remedies.
Throughout his travels giving public demonstrations in France, England, Italy and Switzerland he was a great populariser of magnetism. His theories were admirably simple, free from all metaphysics and resting only on physical laws. His demonstration that the will of the magnetiser was not imposed on the patient gave the lie to fears of the abuse of power such as imagined in the dark figure of Svengali in George du Maurier’s novel Trilby in which a beautiful girl becomes the somnambulistically gifted slave and automaton of the villainous magnetiser.
On a lighter note the novel is also an excellent, if sometimes sentimentalised, description of the general atmosphere of young idealistic and artistically gifted bohemian and student folk – of whom George du Maurier was one – and also Papus and his friends – in Paris of the 1890’s.