A Cultural History of US Mesmerism

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Emily Ogden
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , March
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mesmerism is an enthralling subject, and Emily Ogden has produced a particularly subtle history of its multiple embodiments in the nineteenth-century United States. Ogden takes up the story after enlightened skepticism had already demoted the European physician Franz Mesmer’s healing techniques from scientific discovery to quack superstition. With Benjamin Franklin helping to lead a learned investigation into the phenomenon, Mesmer’s performances had been reclassified as the staged manipulation of popular credulity, not the therapeutic control of a hitherto unknown fluid. As Ogden argues, American mesmerists used that debunking as an opening to claim new forms of knowledge and power; they dealt not in the occult, but in the management of gullibility and suggestibility. If the enlightened thought they could laugh such priestly impostures off the stage, they were dead wrong. Instead, mesmerists flourished as wily students of psychology and hypnotic effects. They saw enchantment as a tool—the calculated use of which established their own standing as agents of secular modernity. Their ability to hold the credulous in their thrall, to incite obedience from their entranced subjects, was the sign of their own superior rationality and technical expertise. By Ogden’s artful telling, that was stage one of American mesmerist promotion. They were selling a fantasy of mastery in which practices of animal magnetism would support a managerial regime of surveillance and discipline from factories to plantations. “Enchant them to manage them,” Ogden aphorizes of this mesmeric aspiration (100). 

Predictably enough, harnessing mesmerism for such purely “enlightened” usages proved problematic from its American arrival in the 1830s through its heyday in the 1840s and 1850s. The posture of mesmerists as detached authorities at a safe remove from the credulous subjects with whom they worked so intimately was hard to maintain. “The more one listened to credulity’s siren song, the more fascinating it became,” Ogden observes. “It turned out to be difficult to supervise others’ enchantment without becoming enchanted oneself” (20). The relationship between mesmerists and their subjects often became densely collaborative, and Ogden makes especially effective use of “traveling clairvoyants” to establish that point, particularly the case of the converted skeptic William Stone’s partnership with the blind seer Loraina Brackett. Stone passed from disbeliever to imaginative co-participant with Brackett, sharing in her clairvoyant flights around New York and elsewhere. There was something crazily uncanny about the practices that mesmerists were intent on instrumentalizing, something so captivating that they invited romantic engagement beyond tried-and-true theories of impostures, overwrought imaginations, and imitative sympathies. Animal magnetism hardly withered in the face of philosophical exposure; instead, it flourished at the tangled intersection of doubt and credulity, agency and disempowerment, control and convulsion, wide-awake reason and somnambulistic insight. Ogden does an excellent job of showing how disenchantment and enchantment crisscross one another—not simply in mesmerist performances, but in the very constitution of modern, post-Enlightenment identities. 

Ogden is a literary scholar who is (appropriately) as much interested in improving a close reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as she is in contributing to the history of religions or even American religious history. Her work in that way is another compelling indicator of the renewed flourishing of religion and literature as a subfield, but Credulity is also compelling as cultural history. It is theoretically engaged, especially with Talal Asad and Bruno Latour on constructions of the secular and the modern, but it is also historically rich and filled with nuance. Throughout the book Ogden displays an impressive command over (and rapport with) her mesmerist archive. She uses that familiarity to question the ways in which scholars have been too enamored with enlightened notions of autonomy, agency, and empowerment to appreciate fully the mischief-making of mediums, somnambulists, and mesmeric subjects. Likewise, though, she sows doubt about the scholarly enchantment with enchantment—that it is not so much a mode of romantic resistance to rational disciplines, but another contrivance for modern operators to deploy against those who have not made similar progress toward secular modernity. Believe me, Credulity is a clever book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Leigh E. Schmidt is the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emily Ogden is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia.


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