You may know Jonathan Miller as one of the members of the Beyond the Fringe comedy troupe, along with Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, and Peter Cook. Perhaps you may know him from his dozen or so BBC documentaries, including “The Body in Question” and “On Reflection.” He has also written more than a dozen books, and is a director of operas.
What you may not know, is that Miller is also an M.D., having trained in neurology before being sidetracked into other fields. Perhaps stemming from his early studies, one of his abiding interests is the history of mesmerism. Miller’s keynote address to a Social Research conference on Altered States of Consciousness serves as an excellent introduction to the sensation created by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815).
Mesmer was a German physician and astronomer/astrologer. He believed in animal magnetism, an “impalpable” or “imponderable” fluid connecting all inanimate and animate things. This was the glue that held the universe together, the medium through which light, gravity, and magnetism all traveled.
Mesmer was hardly alone in his beliefs. The older notion of “animal spirits” and Isaac Newton’s “subtle spirit” set the stage for Mesmer’s celebrity. Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, who more or less believed in animal magnetism themselves, headed a Paris commission to study Mesmer’s claims that he could use this force to heal people. They were dubious of Mesmer’s claims, charging them up to the imagination of those who said they had been healed. This wouldn’t be the first time that a patient’s eagerness to be healed would far surpass any treatment.
Today, “mesmerized” and “mesmerizing” are synonymous with hypnosis, but this connection was mostly a later development, largely after Mesmer himself had passed into the aether.
Miller touches on the alchemical, metaphysical, and transcendental yearnings mesmerism aroused in Romantic poets, reform movements, and even the medical establishment. He sees the ferment part of “the spiritual, radical, and millennial longings of an age that was undergoing massive intellectual change.” Reading his learned prose, one can only wonder what currents today will be studied with such wit and respect in the future.