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Book Review - Mesmerized The History of Mesmerization

Cultic Studies Journal, 18, 215-217

Mesmerized: The History of Mesmerization in Victorian Britain.

Alison Winter

University of Chicago Press, 1998.

It is amazing how books on what appear to be unrelated subjects often cast light upon cultic issues. Alsion Winter’s book, Mesmerized, gives a fascinating view of the interrelationship of mysticism and science in the analysis of mind and the relationship of science and society.

Reaching out to understand hypnotic phenomena in the nineteenth century resulted in a plethora of scientific and medical analysis undertaken in England by such institutions as the Royal Society, The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, The Horticultural Geological and Astronomical Society, The Zoological Society, The Statistical Society, The British Medical Society, The Meteorological Society, The Medico-Botanical Society, The Royal Institution, the National Gallery of Political Science, The Royal Polytechnic Institution, and the numerous colleges and private anatomy schools and museums (pg. 33).

Explanations range from those trying to fit the phenomenon into old theories, such as animal magnetism, to the development of new understandings relating to the effect of the mind on the body. The book traces the interplay of the phenomena, which were “unbelievable,” and the attempts to reconcile these phenomena, which were often viewed as entertainment. Nonetheless, the study of mesmerism gave rise to new approaches to medical treatment, such as the development of anaesthetic treatment and the psychological exploration of the workings of the mind.

It should also be noted that the phenomenon gave rise to an analysis of the process of “demesmerizing” (pgs. 299-300). Groups of mesmerizers asserted that only they, whose training gave them expertise about very specific and delineated patches of nature, could speak about issues that belonged to their “territory.” Such a result undermined the power of science by denying nature’s accessibility to intelligent inquiry. Since the observed phenomena did not fit into the emergent scientific disciplines, they were often “abandoned” as areas of scientific inquiry. Sound familiar?

The widespread rejection of testimony by persons who are mesmerized made examination complicated and, of course, there was much derogation of the persons participating in these activities and castigation of their credibility. An interesting sidelight with obvious contemporary relevance is a legal proceeding brought in the 19th Century against a mesmerizer who was charged with “kidnapping” a person because ”……the kidnapper had done something to his mind that compelled him to accompany him without protest.” In the trial an “expert witness” demonstrated mesmerization and caused the complainant to obey directions and disregard the directions of others. Regardless of the assertion that mesmerization was not a recognized practice, the jury found the mesmerizer guilty of kidnapping or, as the writer phrases it, “mental theft,” because “he had stolen “the person.” He was sentenced to nine years imprisonment, but was later pardoned (pg. 205).

The development of the theories of relations between mind and body and the concept of unconscious mental activity likewise rested upon understanding externally induced behavior not compelled by physical force. Mental reflexes and the development of the theory of the unconscious modified concepts of volition. Theories were advanced to explain trance behavior as connected to external stimulation. Researches concluded that the “subjects‘ voluntary control over the current of thought is entirely suspended, the individual being for the time (so speak) a mere thinking automaton, the whole course of whose ideas is determinable by suggestions operating from without.” The similarity of these observations to the arguments about the existence of “brainwashing” without the use of threat of physical force is self-evident.

The book is an excellent and well written narrative about the impact of mesmerization on the understanding of the mind/body continuum. It also reminds us about current cult-related issues, the contest between science and pseudo science, the nature of power wielded over a subject by a persuasive influencer, and the continuing debate over the extent to which one can gain control over another’s behavior without exercise of physical force. The book reminds us that controversies over alleged “brainwashing” did not begin after the Korean War, but have a long and well-documented history that ought not to be ignored.

Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq., President

American Family Foundation

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, page