by Gregory Frost
What began as a noble social experiment ultimately descended to a level of absurd pretension and affectation that encouraged the sort of behavior the salon movement had wished to transcend.
To readers of fantasy literature, the salons are most famous as the wellspring of fairy tales. Beginning in the 1630s, these aristocratic women met in each other’s homes to entertain one another with tales culled from oral folk stories. Women were not allowed in universities. The salons were their intellectual alternative — places where they could discuss art, literature, and politics, as well as express their wit through storytelling. Eventually, some men joined them, but it was mostly a feminist phenomenon existing on the fringe of Louis XIV’s court. Madame d’Aulnoy, Mademoiselle l’Heritier, Charles Perrault, and many others, perfected their contes de fée within the salons for years before finally committing them to paper.
By the beginning of the 18th century, with the stories written down, the fairy tale culture within the salons was almost gone. It experienced a revival when, in 1704, Antoine Galland published his interpretation of "The Arabian Nights." After that, the momentum and development of fairy tales was such that the French salons no longer shaped their landscape. Mademoiselle de Villeneuve’s "Beauty and the Beast" was published in 1740, in the salon tradition, but not springing from the same culture. The women who had begun the movement by then had died, and the stories were evolving on their own.
So, too, were the salons. The fairy tale had moved into French literary tradition, but there were many radical ideas about, and the salons remained loci for the dissemination of thought. Radical and even absurd ideas took root there — fantasies of a quite different nature.
I. Of Steel Plates and FluidsThe 18th century can be viewed as a battleground in the struggle between religion and science.
In France notions such as Descartes’ faculty of natural light — that we are reasonable creatures and have it within ourselves to recognize and act upon that which is right, because of our reason — propelled the French toward a social revolution.
The first revolution occurred, however, in the sciences.
Rationalism declared that the world is available to anyone who views it through the lens of reason: Observation leads to knowledge — or ought to. Furthermore, knowledge should properly organize into a single system. The problem was, no one agreed on what that system should look like. Instead, there was a clash of systems, each with adherents and detractors, and each based upon "reasoned" observation.
Mesmerism was such a system.
It appeared in the 1770s through the work of the man whose name the system bears — Franz Anton Mesmer.
As a student at the University of Vienna, Mesmer read the works of Paracelsus, a 16th-century alchemist and healer, who claimed to have created a homunculus, and to have successfully extracted diseases from human bodies with a magnet and then transferred the afflictions into the Earth, which makes him, I suppose, the creator of the first toxic waste dump.
His magnets made a greater impression on Mesmer than they presumably did upon the Earth. He also read a 1673 treatise by Professor Sebastian Wirdig, which argued that a magnetic force bound all celestial bodies and even the individual bodies of humankind — all of life in fact; and the work of William Maxwell, who insisted that to work cures, one had to draw forth the "spirit from its slumbers."
This Mesmer could do. He had a powerful, commanding personality. Portraits of him show a man with dark penetrating eyes beneath heavy brows. At thirty-two, he completed a dissertation on how the planets influenced the human body, graduated from the University of Vienna, and married a considerably older and wealthier patient of his.
Comfortably well off, he began organizing the ideas of Paracelsus into a rational system, theorizing that an invisible "fluid" connected all of life and even filled the void between the planets.
While Mesmer was shaping his system, a Jesuit professor of astronomy at the University of Vienna, named Maximilian Hehl, was experimenting with magnetic plates.
An Englishwoman passing through Vienna had contacted him to cure her stomach cramps. He’d applied magnetized steel plates to her stomach, and her cramps had disappeared. In 1774 he described his success to Mesmer, who immediately began to treat his own patients with magnets. One of these was a woman who suffered from attacks of hysteria.
To begin, Mesmer had the woman drink a solution of tiny iron particles. Then he attached the magnetic plates to her legs and lower torso. The woman shortly announced that she could feel waves of energy coursing through her body, precisely as good Dr. Mesmer had promised. The power of the waves increased until, overwhelming her, they triggered another fit of hysteria. Mesmer had succeeded in inducing her fits. Now he must eradicate them. He brought her back for repeated sessions of magnetic treatment. Each time, she drank the potion and he applied his magnets. With each successive treatment the fits ebbed away until they ceased altogether. Triumphant, Mesmer shared his success with Professor Hehl.
Hehl soon published a discourse on the medical use of magnets, incorporating Mesmer’s examples. He referred to Mesmer as an assistant, a student. Mesmer responded with an attack in which he claimed he’d invented the magnetic system. When Hehl won local support, Mesmer attempted to defeat him by writing of "his" magnetic discoveries to various scientific and medical societies all over Europe, describing how he’d tapped into invisible fields of energy. Proof of their existence was that fact that the treatments worked.
Further, he wrote that on one occasion as he was bleeding a patient, he saw the blood flow increase when he drew near and decrease when he moved away from the patient. His own body, he concluded, must have the same power as magnetic plates. He tried using his hands to alter the fields created by the invisible fluid, sliding them over the patient’s body. Blood flow varied as his hands traveled. His hands were having an effect by themselves. For him this was proof that his hypothetical fluid did connect otherwise discontinuous living bodies. He coined a term for the phenomenon: animal magnetism. He had a system and worked thereafter to refine it.
Over time he magnetized "paper, bread, wool, silk, stones, leather, glass, wood, men and dogs . . . to such a degree, that these substances produced the same effects as [a] loadstone on diseased persons." It might have been interesting to watch him run a dog up and down someone’s body for its curative effects. Madame Blavatsky take note.
In Vienna Mesmer appeared before the German medical academy. He asserted that he had uncovered the source of all disease. Accepted treatments of the day — leeches, purgatives, and even bleeding, which only recently he’d performed himself — were at best ineffectual and at worst deadly. The success of any treatment, he asserted, depended upon the will of the physician, who passed what energies he harnessed on to the patient. Tap the invisible dynamic fluid of animal magnetism, and any powerful healer could work miracles. Failure to heal became a failure not of Mesmer’s system but of the physician. The system was flawless.
It comes as no surprise that men who applied leeches and performed bloodletting for a living did not embrace the news.
Having alienated the medical establishment, Mesmer attempted an extraordinary proof: He would give sight to a blind girl. Her name was Maria Paradies, and unfortunately for Mesmer her blindness was not hysterical. She had detached retinas. Like so many fairy tale heroines, Maria fell under Mesmer’s spell and after a few sessions desperately insisted that she could now make out vague shapes. It wasn’t true.
Her family soon got wind of how Mesmer conducted his "cure." His technique involved quite a lot of fondling, notably of the knees, thighs and breasts. The family decided to remove her from his influence. Although Maria put up a fight to remain in his care, the family won out, and the authorities were called in. Mesmer proclaimed it was all part of a cruel conspiracy against him. The authorities must sort it all out.
By then, Mesmer had packed up and fled. Almost upon the instant she was removed from his care, Maria’s blindness returned. Mesmer thought he had escaped. He was wrong.
II. Salon LifeIn 1779, just a few years before Charles Mayer produced the definitive forty-one-volume collection of salon fairy tales, Le Cabinet des fées, Mesmer published Mémoire sur la Découverte du Magnétisme Animal. By then he had settled in Paris, where the book of his philosophy was published. In the experimental French salons, Mesmer found his perfect audience.
There was no standard governing what constituted medical treatment. The nature of disease and its cure remained mysterious. Strange devices such as "electro-medico-celestial beds" and elixirs with properties straight out of the Arabian Nights were fobbed off on an ignorant, self-medicating public.
Neurotic aristocrats sought out Mesmer. Those not suffering from some malady wanted to watch those who were while Mesmer worked on them. Naive physicians defended him, to their later regret. Invited to soirées, he convinced most of his audience that he held the secrets of the universe.
Mesmer’s belief in his dynamic fluid and in the principles of animal magnetism was completely sincere: His belief fueled belief in others. Like Paracelsus, he was hugely egotistical, and certainly venal. The devotion of so many wealthy Parisian hypochondriacs swelled his head like one of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloons.
Mesmer’s sessions took on the atmosphere of a party, an orgy. Too many people wanted the great master, and he contrived a way to accommodate them all. Instead of going to their homes, they would pay to come to his. He would host his own salons and effect mass cures. The means to do this came in the form of a device called the baquet.
As the name implies, it was a tub. Made of oak, about four feet in diameter and one foot deep, it could accommodate as many as twenty people at once. Within it stood jars or wine bottles filled with "magnetized" water. The containers were corked, lying on their sides with the necks projecting outward. Water to cover the jars was poured into the tub and iron particles sprinkled in. Then a lid was fitted over the whole affair. The lid had small portholes through which protruded iron rods. While holding hands and pressing their knees against the persons next to them, patients pressed the rods against their afflicted parts. Gathered behind them, Mesmer’s assistants then began rubbing their backs, or their breasts — most of the patients were female — their thighs and feet. No one spoke.
A soprano sang from another room so that her disembodied voice wafted ghostly through the beautiful salon. He had outfitted it with stained glass windows. Orange blossoms scented the air. Incense burned in the corners. In this heady, almost hallucinatory atmosphere, it wasn’t long before a few of the more suggestible patients began collapsing in orgasmic fits.
Then Mesmer appeared. Wrapped in a lilac and gold silk robe, carrying a wand of ivory, he strode imperiously among them. His dark eyes caught and held their gaze. He ran his wand over each patient. For some, their crises of delirium ceased and they grew quiet. Many others lost complete control of themselves at his touch and were carried by assistants to an adjoining room where they were treated to an extra dose of hands-on magnetism, usually resulting in further orgasmic crisis and catharsis. Everybody emerged from their adventure refreshed, invigorated, and often claiming to be cured of what ailed them. At least for an evening: The experience proved habit-forming.
The salon’s reputation spread quickly. The French medical establishment, like the Germans before them, found his apotheosis absolutely galling. They petitioned to make him prove his claims.
He had also attracted the attention of the Queen of France. Marie Antoinette believed devoutly in animal magnetism. Mesmer wrote to her, requesting a pension and his own château. He insisted upon the amount of "four or five hundred thousand francs" for further research. He would be set up for life.
He was not, however, the only influence upon the queen. He was offered only twenty thousand francs, and that on the condition that the authorities first satisfy themselves about his cures. On the advice of one of his medical devotees, Monsieur D’Eslon, Mesmer refused to submit. By now he was, after all, the renowned Mesmer, the darling of the salons. He left Paris for Spa on the pretense of taking the waters, and D’Eslon in his stead was taken before the Faculty of Medicine and ordered to renounce his belief in mesmerism or suffer expulsion. Not only did D’Eslon refuse, he promised further breakthroughs. The Faculty formed a committee to oppose Mesmer. At the same time the Académie of Sciences formed its own investigative commission. As Mesmer had taken himself out of the picture, both bodies began their inquisitions without him.
Some of his worshippers followed him to Spa. One of them, named Bergasse, offered to open up a subscription to a teaching forum for Mesmer, which would accept one hundred students paying one hundred louis each. The master would teach them his secrets, and the students would agree to keep the secrets to themselves, while opening curative salons across the face of Europe, expanding his sphere of influence in court after court, nation upon nation, like a fast-food franchise for psychosomatics. Imagining a fortune before him, Mesmer agreed. Bergasse filled the subscriptions in a matter of days. Thus before the medical community could begin probing, Mesmer had created his Societies of Harmony — in effect, disseminating his message through the salons before the medical authorities could do anything to limit the damage. He now had more money than he’d demanded of Marie Antoinette.
* * *The Académie of Sciences had been created specifically to weed superstition out of the scientific garden. Mesmer was a perfect subject for them.
Members of the commission included such esteemed individuals as the great chemist Lavoisier, the historian Bailly, and the American diplomat and scientist, Benjamin Franklin. They labored on the mesmeric topic for five months. From interviews with his patients they discovered that Mesmer had successfully cured some people. The committee was unanimous, however, in their opinion that the remissions, when they did occur, were due entirely to the patient’s own beliefs. Of the touted all-pervasive magnetic fluid — the true focus of the inquiry — they found no trace. The cures were deemed irrelevant because Mesmer had no magnetic powers.
He attempted to refute them, but the commission rejected his appeals.
Thereafter, he became a subject of increasing derision. One sly physician went to him with a false story of illness, accepted treatment for it and pretended to be cured. He then wrote and published a scathing version of the events, portraying Mesmer as a fool and a charlatan.
And then, when it seemed that he could be humiliated no further, Maria Paradies, the blind pianist and his former patient, arrived in Paris to give a concert. The story of her "treatment" by Mesmer became the gossip of the hour in the very salons where he had only recently won devotion. At her concerts everyone could see that Maria was clearly, incontestably blind.
Mesmer could stand no more. He took the small fortune remaining from Bergasse’s subscriptions and fled across the border, back to Austria, where he bought a small house not far from Lake Constance. He remained there until his death in 1815.
In retiring, Mesmer escaped the chaos of the French Revolution, where other "scientists" did not fare so well. The revolution also put an end to the aristocratic salon experiments. The civilizing effect of women upon the contentious males had ossified well before then, in any case. Those whose salons still thrived at the end, like Madame Roland, found that their path ended at the guillotine.
III. Of Tractors and DetractorsAfter Mesmer quit the scene, charlatans and well-meaning but misguided physicians both took up his cause. On the continent, Cagliostro used mesmerism to promote his dubious reputation.
In England, an American named Benjamin Douglas Perkins, a self-styled surgeon, introduced what he called "metallic tractors": two pieces of magnetized metal that, when applied against the body, could cure nearly anything.
Perkins, a Quaker, got the Society of Friends to give his invention a tremendous reception. He made a small fortune before a Doctor Haygarth from Bath built some wooden tractors of his own and painted them to look the same as Perkins’ magnets. After he’d "cured" half a dozen patients with them, he wrote up his findings in a widely distributed pamphlet, Of the Imagination, as a Cause and Cure of Disorders, exemplified by Fictitious Tractors.
In response, Perkins applied his tractors to farm animals. Belief and imagination could not account for their cures. Unfortunately, neither could the animals tell anyone that they felt better. Perkins spoke on their behalf, embarrassing everyone, and finally had to flee the country.
* * *Some years later, a gentleman named Barbarin, in Lyon, approached mesmerism from a revolutionary perspective, doing away with all paraphernalia. The will of the operator alone, said Barbarin, induced trance. There were no invisible fluids: Lavoisier and Franklin had been right.
His theory implied that mind and body could divorce from one another.
With Barbarin, mesmerism took its first real step toward what we know it as today: hypnosis. It took the medical establishment a long time to credit hypnosis with any legitimacy. Regrettably, it seems to have arrived with all its fantastic elements attached: No less ludicrous than Mesmer’s salon cures are past-life regressions and "recovered" memories of Satanic rituals perpetrated upon children by their parents.
Today, while we celebrate renewed interest in fairy tales, we also confront revivals of both the magnet and touch therapies that followed them through the salons. Instead of tractors we have "tectonic" magnets, but the application is the same. Touch therapy, where the hands are run lightly over the body of the patient, is identical to Mesmer’s magnetic practice.
The antipodes of French salon culture — fairy tales and Mesmerism — continue to thrive right into our new century. Both remain as fantastic as ever they were.