Hypnotist, Fraud or Visionary?
Franz Anton Mesmer was born in 1734 in Vienna, Austria. Mesmer is credited with being a source of ideas that eventually led to hypnosis, but would not be considered a hypnotist by today’s definition. Still, his name has become synonymous with hypnotic states, and anyone whose name becomes a common verb could be considered to have had a major impact on society.
On his way to becoming a highly successful doctor in Vienna, he published a dissertation proposing that the human body can be markedly influenced by the sun and the moon. This was a theme throughout his work, where objects, including living bodies, were thought to exist in a state of constant interconnection and interaction through a mysterious flux field, which was then sometimes known as the ether”.
For a time, Mesmer applied the new technology of magnetism in the treatment of patients. He experimented with the use of magnets to control the flow of energy in the diseased bodies of patients. He eventually moved away from the use of external magnets and began to propose the idea of ”animal magnetism”, an innate force that flows through humans and can be used to loosen blocked energy flows in other people for healing purposes.
Mesmer became very famous with many ardent followers. He opened centers throughout Europe that practiced his methods. But it was also very controversial. Some people thought that his treatments were simply departures from the repressed social mores of the time. They allegedly involved sensual massages from patients who were often pretty young society ladies (ie, the Paris Hiltons of 18th-century Europe).
Mesmer caught the attention of the King of France, who offered Mesmer a large sum of money if he would stay in Paris and prove the truth of his methods based on the conditions set by the King. Mesmer made a bad political move; he was making so much money from his centers all over Europe that he refused the King’s conditions. So the King decided to appoint a commission that included the famous chemist Antoine Lavoisier and Ben Franklin, to investigate Mesmer’s claims about a mysterious fluid flowing through the body. They concluded that the fluid did not exist and that any effect resulting from Mesmer’s treatments was in the patient’s imagination. This was part of a gradual decline in Mesmer’s popularity and credibility, to the point that today his name is often seen alongside the word healer or charlatan.
Mesmer is an interesting person because of the controversy that surrounds him. Due to his political troubles and the gossip that spread about him, it’s hard to tell if he was a true believer, or someone who just wanted to party (and massage) the rich and famous, or an insane person he may have been right after everything. His ideas about interconnectedness and hidden energy fields are making a comeback among those interested in alternative healing.
It is also interesting that the commission that studied him did not find that his treatment was ineffective, only that the mysterious energy force could not be identified. This is similar to overly skeptical people today who dismiss the effects of something simply because they cannot identify empirical causation. On the other hand, supporters of alternative healing often rely heavily on personal or anecdotal stories that are presented as “evidence.”
Some other facts about Mesmer:
– Being rich, he was a patron of the arts; its most famous beneficiary is probably the composer Mozart, who included a reference to Mesmer in one of his operas.
– A couple of movies based on Mesmer include 1994’s “Mesmer” starring Alan Rickman and a 1999 Norwegian film “Magnetist’s Fifth Winter” about a “magnetist/hypnotist/healer” who shows up in a small town in Norway.
– The popular online computer game “Guild Wars” features an illusionist-type character class called Mesmer. Players playing this class can use spells like Ether Feast, Mantra of Concentration, Conjure Phantasm, Guilt, Imagined Burden, and Shatter Delusions.