2. Mesmerism and the Challenge of Spiritualism, 1853–1859
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chapter two Mesmerism and the Challenge of Spiritualism, 1853–1859 64 At a séance held in the summer of 1859, a distinguished committee of French Mesmerists attempted to reach a definitive conclusion about the reality of spirit phenomena. These eight doctors, journalists, and idealistic bourgeois considered themselves uniquely qualified to answer the vexed metaphysical and psychological questions such manifestations continued to pose. The committee members, chosen months before at a special meeting of the Société philanthropico-magnétique de Paris, had devoted their lives—or at least a substantial portion of their spare time— to the field of magnétisme animal. All considered themselves experts in the experimental study of the human mind, the impalpable forces it exuded, and the unique states of consciousness those forces provoked. Where the Académie des sciences had refused to accept the tables tournantes and parlantes , declaring them to be the hallucinatory product of amour du merveilleux and involuntary muscular tremors, these Mesmerists took the new phenomena seriously. The commission d’enquête (commission of inquiry) gathered at the home of Honorine Huet, who had acquired a reputation as France’s most gifted medium. This meeting had not been easy to bring about. France’s leading Mesmerists had spent months persuading Huet to subject herself to the experiments they wished to conduct. She was well aware of the suspicion with which many members of the committee viewed the more spectacular manifestations said to occur in séances: Several had written articles expressing disbelief at the highly colored newspaper reports that made their way from America to France. While these magnétiseurs—as French Mesmerists called themselves—may have been receptive to the notion that the mind had an array of mysterious powers, they were not necessarily willing to believe the deceased capable of producing material wonders in the world of the living. Huet’s repertoire of prodigies was humbler than those of the most famous mediums on the other side of the Atlantic, but it was impressive enough, and she shared the American conviction that the presence of skeptics was inimical to an effective séance. Even so, hands flat on the table, feet resting daintily on a small stool, she began in the usual way, with a look of intense concentration. Soon, the men seated around her heard tapping noises, which appeared to come from under the table. In sequence, each person in attendance beat a different rhythm. The spectral raps responded in kind, seeming to move about, first occurring near the medium, then at the table’s center, then close to its edges. Huet’s friend and publicist, the pharmacist P. F. Mathieu, placed a large piece of cardboard, marked with the letters of the alphabet, on the table. He produced a wooden pointer, which he moved slowly across the alphabet; the raps spelled out messages by indicating the appropriate letters. The first message was not encouraging: “science pas ce soir” (no knowledge—or science—this evening).1 Despite this warning, the committee members insisted on trying a new experiment, which they believed would conclusively determine whether these noises were the work of an autonomous otherworldly intelligence. One of the committee members took the cardboard and held it vertically on his lap, so Huet could not see the alphabet. He then moved the pointer at random across the letters, and asked the invisible force producing the raps to spell out a message. A series of noises followed, though more slowly, and without their former confident snap. When the taps stopped, the committee member read out the letters they had indicated, which “did not form any word it would even be possible to pronounce.” Huet produced further raps, but this did little to redeem her previous failure. At a meeting after the séance, the Mesmerists drafted their formal report, which ended with a declaration that “the phenomena the committee witnessed were not conclusive.” Six members voted in favor of the committee ’s decision to publish the report, and two voted against. A bitter polemic raged for months afterward.2 This unsuccessful séance and the polemic that followed it marked a decisive moment in the history of French heterodoxy, one in which advocates of an older way of thinking about the mysterious powers of the mind made their last serious attempt to counteract the emergence of a newer approach . The phenomena of American spiritualism precipitated this transition by posing a knotty challenge to students of magnétisme...