The Birth of the Fantastic

Or, how two crazy men influenced the thought of a generation of writers.

Franz Anton Mesmer was born in Germany in 1734. After 13 years of study in various disciplines he produced a dissertation ‘On the Influence of the Heavenly Bodies on the Human Body’ (1765) In it, Mesmer adapted Newton’s theory of tides to the human body; he postulated a universal gravitational fluid, through which the influence of the planets was transmitted to human bodies and he subsequently claimed he could create tides in the human body by use of magnetism. He liked to see himself as an original thinker and a misunderstood genius; in fact his work was derivative and firmly of its time. He made an excellent society marriage to wealthy widow Maria Anna von Posch and was friends with Mozart. ‘There is only one illness,’ he claimed, ‘and only one cure’. According to Mesmer, all illness was caused by the blockage of magnetic fluid in the body, and the cure was to free the blockage with a magnetizer, throwing the patient into a healing crisis. Often the context took on the trappings of the occult with patients in trance-like state, shrouded in shadowy lighting, and relied heavily on the power of suggestion. This may sound ridiculous, but he had extraordinary success and became famous across Europe as a healer. Where he did get into trouble and found his work regarded suspiciously was in the practice of healing, which generally required physical contact with the sufferer and was therefore viewed as morally dubious. He came to Paris from Vienna in 1778, having had a reversal in fortune with a notorious case that went wrong. Despite scorn from medical authorities (although let’s face it, medicine at this stage in history was no more than an alternative set of sharp practices) he became extremely popular amongst moneyed classes and had so many patients he would try to treat up to 30 at a time, making them hold hands in a ‘magnetic chain’. In 1784, however, after a series of tests set up by the medical faculty in Paris, the practice of mesmerism was banned.

Now allied to this practice and influenced by it is the work of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg’s texts also profess a belief in a universal fluid-like force permeating consciousness and the universe. He portrayed it in slightly different terms, most significantly for us he portrayed it as a language, but its magical properties are much the same. Swedenborg’s interest and belief in the fantasy of such a universal language influenced a generation of European writers including Balzac and Baudelaire. Like so many explanatory narratives that seem irrational and bizarre at first glance but which end up gaining huge popular support, these attempts to stitch mankind into the forces of nature respond to an underlying cultural dream. We can see in the theories of Mesmer and Swedenborg a longing for wholeness, which became transposed into the theory of an invisible absolute language, and was bound up in the popular belief in science’s ability to perfect the social world. These theories spoke to a longing for human beings never to be sick or suffering, to be in perfect harmony with the world they lived in, and to be profoundly, divinely meaningful. After a century of revolution, bloodshed, uncertainty and drastic social change, it’s easy to understand the growing sway such theories held over writers across the 19th century. Although these doctrines purported to be science, it’s also possible to see how much better they fit the frameworks of cultural ideology, politics and, eventually, psychoanalysis. Swedenborg’s doctrine follows Mesmer’s in its attempt to map out the contours of a whole world that extended beyond the boundaries of the senses, and for both men this meant a keen interest in dreams and dream interpretation. Swedenborg’s first major book was a dream diary, which he kept during his travels in London and Holland (1743-44). Although it may not be immediately apparent, the principle of the microscope, discovered 50 years or so before Mesmer and Swedenborg were writing, was highly influential here. If the human body had suddenly turned out to contain wonders that had previously been invisible to the naked eye, it seemed quite likely that it also contained invisible languages in its labyrinthine passages, or unexpected doorways into other worlds in the strangeness of dreams.

Swedenborg’s theories were not that popular in their time. Kant criticized him rigorously, declaring him a raver who mistook dreams for truth. Yet for the next 50 years his work filtered into the European consciousness and was closely allied to that of Mesmer and also to the power of the masons who had their own language of symbols. All these related movements were part of a general tendency to construct idiosyncratic symbolic systems that assumed cosmological proportions. They were then also used as a language of initiation in to a community of equals (something The Da Vinci Code plays with). Bound up in these theories is a steady belief in coherence and harmony, in divine inspiration, and in absolute certainty. It is easy to see how the turbulent years of the 19th century found much to be interested in here. These authors never had mainstream support, but they infiltrated the work of marginal and popular writers who were equally keen to see a radical transformation of the social order. Equally their work influenced the growing interest in the occult, suggesting some argued, a means of communicating with spirit worlds. Beyond this too is a new way of viewing the city, as a conglomeration of hieroglyphs and symbols expressly designed to contain a secret meaning. So, such ideas permeated the popular cultural conscious around the middle of the century and provided a pseudo-scientific backdrop to a general fascination with a rapidly evolving world in which man found himself dislocated, disoriented and often disenchanted. And it was within this context that the literature of the fantastic began to develop a significant strand of works.

7 thoughts on “The Birth of the Fantastic

  1. Don’t forget Blake. My favourite crazy man of the era (probably). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with it’s mixture of Miltonian Imagery and Taoist Philosophy (well…only to the biased eye) was very heavily influenced by Swedenborg. I was sure I remembered a gag in honour of the loon, but I can’t seem to find it any more.
    Ah well, see for yourself over here:

    The proverbs remain the easiest to digest, but I love Blake’s colliding forces, morality subsumed by a constant conflict between energy and stasis.

    Depends on your point of view though I guess.

    Thanks for the post, great to be reminded of Mesmer and Swedenborg, two figures that cropped up in my studies that I never took the time to look into fully.

  2. It shames me to say it, but the only knowledge I have of Blake comes from helping my son with his homework. This is particularly bad as my husband’s grandfather was one of the founders of The William Blake Trust, founded to promote the study and the publication of Blake’s work. My husband ate his Sunday lunches under the original of God reaching down and dividing up the world with his fingertips. So it’s shameful not to know more!

  3. What a fascinating post (& a perfect subtitle!). I’ve heard of mesmerism, but I had no idea that there was actually a Mesmer with whom it originated…

  4. I have to investigate Swedenborg more — his name came up in the book I recently read about the original Ghost Hunters (Debra Blum). (A good book, you might want to check it out. Talks about mesmerism and the movements of the Victorian Age — reaction to Darwin’s Theory. Fascinating stuff.)

    I love Blake, too. Crazy but multi- and mucho talented.

  5. Very interesting — isn’t it fascinating to learn about all the bizarre theories people had about how the body works? (And also to wonder what theories of our own today people will one day consider bizarre?)

  6. Pingback: The Inheritance of Links « Torque Control

  7. Dear Kate – thank you so much! I didn’t know there was a Mesmer either, but I read a very interesting book, Hidden Depths by Robin Waterfield on the history of hypnosis. I can thoroughly recommend it! LK – and thank you very much also for the tip on the Debra Blum book. Certainly something I’ll be checking out. Dorothy – oh and never a truer word spoken. Medical science is fascinating and terrifying for the radical changes in perspective it has undergone. What’s coming next, the cyborg dimension, is going to be equally crazy…

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