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I. The Unwritten Origin

When Comte de Chastenet Antoine-Hyacinth de Puységur arrived at Cap François in June 1784, the aristocratic naval officer had with him more than the equipment he would require to complete his cartographic survey of the islands north of Saint Domingue. His ship carried several baquets—tubs of “magnetized” water around which he would perform his mesmerist ministrations; he had already made use of one baquet to sustain his sailors’ health and high spirits during their four-month voyage from France, where he had studied with the iconoclastic master himself, Franz Anton Mesmer. In the de facto capitol of colonial Saint Domingue, and just seven years before the massive uprising among the island’s slaves that would culminate in the Haitian Revolution, the Comte installed his baquets and initiated magnetic treatments in the Maison de Providence des Hommes, Cap François’ poorhouse. As in France, [End Page 115] a popular craze for mesmerism quickly spread throughout the colony. When it found its way to the island’s enormous slave population, it became, in Henri Ellenberger’s words, a psychic epidemic (1970, 73).

That the Comte focused his energies toward the island’s poor inhabitants is not surprising given his experience treating peasants at his illustrious family estate in Bayonne in southwestern France. There, he had convinced his older brother, the Marquis de Puységur, of the medical value of Mesmer’s insights. For the next several years, the philanthropic Marquis would execute a number of therapeutic experiments through which he distilled Mesmer’s esoteric teaching into an accessible and systematized doctrine. He replaced “animal magnetism” and the instigation to “critical sleep” with the more positivist “artificial somnambulism.” This set on its course a medical and intellectual history that, beginning in the Enlightenment and the final years of the ancien régime, would wind its way through James Braid’s “hypnotism” (1843), Jean-Martin Charcot’s neuropathological investigations of hysteria (1882), and Auguste Ambroise Liébault’s and Hippolyte Bernheim’s school at Nancy (1886), before culminating with Sigmund Freud and the invention of psychoanalysis (Ellenberger 1970, 82, 90, 87).1

According to Ellenberger, whose intellectual history orients the present study, Mesmer’s inaugural importance to psychoanalysis lies in his insistence on his discoveries’ conformity to the spirit of the Enlightenment. In part because of his therapeutic successes, and in part because of the critical reaction they provoked among the foremost scientific societies of his time, Mesmer invited a clinical conversation among both his adherents and his detractors that resulted in an experimental investigation of the dynamic quality of the human mind, and this founded the scientific approach to the psyche out of which psychoanalysis later developed. Léon Chertok and Raymond de Saussure have observed, moreover, that the magnetic “rapport” by which Mesmer influenced his patients is an early example of the clinical phenomenon of transference which, although misplaced in the mesmerist’s magnetic powers and not in the patient’s projected encounters with her own unconscious, would provide the key to the Freudian discovery more than a century later.

Accounts of Saint Domingue’s status within this narrative are marginal at best. (Only Mesmer himself, it seems, considered the case, reportedly claiming [End Page 116] late in his life that the new republic of Haiti “owed its independence to him” [Ellenberger 1973, 73].) For the same reason, historical narratives of the mania for mesmerism that gripped the world’s most profitable colony never mention this event’s place within the history of dynamic psychology. In what follows, I address this lacuna by operating a focal shift from the metropolitan center of mesmeric activity to its unfolding within the colonial periphery, where, as we will see, the truly revolutionary dimension of this nascent dynamic psychology was most apparent. Through this analytic refraction, the origin of psychoanalysis will be displaced from its European, metropolitan center and installed elsewhere, along the margins of late eighteenth-century empire, where the Enlightenment ideals that had animated the bourgeois revolutions in North America and France found their internal limit in the economic necessity of trans-Atlantic slavery...


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pp. 115-138
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