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Matter and Spirit in the Age of Animal Magnetism

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 30, Number 2, October 2006
pp. 329-345 | 10.1353/phl.2006.0042

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Matter and Spirit in the Age of Animal Magnetism

During the Romantic period, writers on both sides of the Atlantic explored the sleepwalker as a merger of holiness and horror. Emerging when scientific thinkers for the first time were connecting spirit to electricity and magnetism, the somnambulist became to certain Romantics a disclosure of the difficulty of harmonizing unseen and seen, agency and necessity. This problem prominently arose in Anton Mesmer's late eighteenth-century experiments in animal magnetism, in which the sleepwalker proved a paradox: an opaque revelation of transparent currents and an unconscious vehicle of sophisticated thought. Romantics such as Coleridge embraced the somnambulist as an embodiment of these troubles involved in relating motion and meaning. Coleridge and those who responded to him saw in the hypnotized human this sobering possibility: the invisible requires the visible to make itself manifest while the visible needs the invisible to become significant. 1 This is sublime and sinister: to elevate a material form to spiritual power is transcendence; to sink the boundless into a body is grotesque.

Here I explore the philosophical implications of animal magnetism, the place of the sleepwalker in the history of ideas, and the role of the hypnotized human in Romantic writers, especially Coleridge. I also meditate on relationships between matter and spirit, machine and human, word and thing. Along the way, I place the history of ideas and the works of Romantic writers in mutually illuminating dialogues. The literary texts shed fresh light on philosophical problems while the ideas reveal hidden literary elements.

The somnambulistic trance had been around long before Mesmer's magnetic sleeps. For centuries, shamans had used auto-hypnosis to sound [End Page 329] their souls and other-hypnosis to cure their tribe-members' ailments. However, somnambulism could not become a scientific phenomenon until Europeans in laboratories began to study electricity and magnetism. In the early modern period, Paracelsus argued that a vital fluid courses through the cosmos. The human being draws this flow like a magnet attracts force. When the body pulls to itself evil effluvia, it falls ill. To return patients to health, Paracelsus placed magnets on painful areas. He hoped to extract the unwanted current and return it to the cosmic swirl. 2 In "magnetizing" spirit, Paracelsus opened a door for empirical inquiry into the invisible world. In 1600, William Gilbert claimed that magnets correspond to the earth: both are animated by universal attraction and repulsion. 3 By the end of the seventeenth-century, Newton proposed that things are impelled by a force that draws and repels. Newton's theory of gravity inspired natural philosophers of the next centuries to search for a principle of which the magnet and the spark are manifestations. 4

During the second half of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth, natural philosophers explored electricity and magnetism with unprecedented precision. In 1752, Benjamin Franklin revealed the mystery of lightning and perhaps the spark of life. 5 Inspired by Franklin, F. C. Oetinger, J. L. Fricker, and Prokop Divisch developed a theology of electricity, based on the belief that God is the electrical current. 6 Later in the century, Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta debated over whether the galvanic flow might be the origin and principle of life itself. 7 A few years before Franklin harvested lightning, John Michell argued that the magnetic force is not constrained to lodestones but is possibly pervasive. Some years later, Franz Aepinus suggested that magnetism and electricity manifest a deep energy. Soon after, C. A. de Coulomb discovered the mathematical law by which electrical and magnetic forces operate (Whittaker, pp. 50–59).

These findings led to the breakthroughs of the nineteenth century. 8 In 1807, Humphry Davy hypothesized that chemical elements interact through electromagnetic affinity or repulsion. 9 In 1820, H. C. Oersted demonstrated the correspondence between electricity and magnetism. The same year, A. M. Ampere formulated the laws by which electrical and magnetic currents interact (Whittaker, pp. 81–86). Michael Faraday in 1831 revealed electromagnetic induction and thus inaugurated a second Copernican revolution: he showed that matter is not solid and discrete but a field of electromagnetic energy. 10 The dreams of [End...