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Sunday, January 15, 2006

the magnetized age

In his entertaining Conducting the Vital Fluid: The Politics and Poetics of Mesmerism in the 1790s, Timothy Fulford writes:

BY DECEMBER 1795 PRIME MINISTER WILLIAM PITT WAS WELL ON THE way to crushing political dissent in Britain. he had tried reformers for treason, passed laws restricting the right of association and suspended habeas corpus, all without an outcry from British people about their loss of freedom. To one radical, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the people's quietude was an uncanny sign of a new malaise coursing through the body politic:

WILLIAM PITT, the great political Animal Magnetist, ... has most foully worked on the diseased fancy of Englishmen . . . thrown the nation into a feverish slumber, and is now bringing it to a crisis which may convulse mortality!'

Coleridge was not alone in seeing Pitt as an animal magnetist, mesmerizing his countrymen into a trance to be followed by the convulsions of war. According to James Tilly Matthews, returning to London in 1796 after imprisonment by the Jacobins, the Prime Minister had been "actuated" by "magnetic spies" sent from revolutionary France.2 Now controlled "like a mere puppet by the expert-magnetists," Pitt was himself a traitor, part of a Jacobin conspiracy to mesmerize the nation towards its destruction.

Puppet or not, Pitt acted decisively when Matthews repeated his allegations from the gallery of the House of Commons. he had Matthews locked up in Bedlam madhouse. On the ministry's reading, it was Matthews, and not the Prime Minister, whose mind had been "possessed"-Matthews had himself been an enthusiast of mesmerism, and had now been hypnotized by the practice he had gone to France to study.”

In a reactionary time, it does seem to a dissenter like society has fallen into some magnetic sleep. LI has also used the notion of zombies to explain the hypnotized followers of Bush – which is not to imply that the intelligence and character of Bush and Cheney find their natural counterparts in the set of British Prime ministers, like William Pitt. Rather, comparison should be made to the cast of the Dukes of Hazard. Let’s value our own times (die so grossen war) and our governing class with the contempt that both deserve, shall we? But the war of magnetic spies seems somehow appropriate, seems to call up images, that might be useful for looking at the war of drones and mirrors.

I am referencing Fulford’s essay to give us a fuller sense of the scientific image of mesmerism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which was blurred, so to speak, across such disciplines as medicine and physics. We pay too little attention to this kind of thing when looking at philosophers – LI’s argument about Schopenhauer is that too great a preoccupation with establishing Schopenhauer’s relation to Kant and Hegel ignores other sources and models of the Will, that eminently 19th century category.

For instance, this anecdote, from Fulford, was just the kind of information that Schopenhauer would seize upon:

It was in this inchoate and contested medical context [of an insufficiently institutionalized medical culture] that Franz Anton Mesmer's therapy proved popular. It did so, in part, because the latest experiments suggested that it might be possible, by an act of will, to detect and transmit to others an imponderable life- giving fluid. When the anatomist John Hunter published his dissections of the torpedo and gymnotus fish (in 1773 and 1775), the anatomical organs for transmitting electricity were laid open. They revealed, Hunter concluded, "that the will of the animal does absolutely control the electric powers of its body; which must depend on the energy of its nerves."6 Joseph Priestley soon incorporated Hunter's demonstration into his theories7-if electricity could be transmitted at a distance through water, perhaps that was formed by a combination of electricity with other vital principles. The power of the fish, the medium through which it passed and the body receiving the shock must all be akin. Hunter noted that the "oscillation" produced by the gymnotus:

may be so strong, as not only to check and overpower those in the part which touches the fish, but also to propagate themselves along the skin and up the nerves, to the brachial ganglion, and even to the spinal marrow and brain; whence the person would first feel the stupefaction ascend along the arm to the shoulder, and then fall into a giddiness.

The very terms, here, are echoed in Schopehauer’s essay, which makes use of the phrase action at a distance in the same way – using it, further, as a scientific basis upon which to combat materialism. Similarly, when Marina Warner, considering the effects of the magic lantern slide show upon Western sensibilities, cites early 19th century classifications of the sleep cycle, we see this so distinctly echoed in Schopenhauer’s text that we can be confident of some influence:

In l825, Samuel Hibbert published a foldout chart about dream states, which he called a ‘Formula of the various comparative Degrees of Faintness, Vividness, or Intensity, supposed to subsist between Sensations and Ideas…’ With scientific method, he tabulated eight transitions in his full cycle, ranging from Perfect Sleep to Somnambulism by way of ‘the common state of Watchfulness’ to ‘the tranquil state’ to ‘extreme mental excitement’, and he graded no less than fifteen different phases in each of them. They start from ‘Degree of vividness at which consciousness begins,’ where it is still possible to impose the will on vision, to ‘Intense excitements of the mind necessary for the production of spectres.’”
Not to brag, but I would guess that LI is the first to point out this similarity – showing how badly the history of philosophy needs to expand its focus of study.
Which brings us to the issue that we started with: ghosts. The specter that has haunted the specter in this essay finally manifests itself in the one passage from the essay that has been extensively quoted – in anthologies of Ghost literature. At least, the first sentence is quoted. I’m translating the whole passage, and that will be the end of LI’s sermons on the Master Grouch of Philosophy. Still, it bears noticing that Schopenhauer seems to treat the Kantian Ding an sich, here, as a ghost. Something which would, of course, flutter the dovecoats if it were suggested in one of Derrida’s essays.

"To explain this explanation, the following general remark may serve. The ghost belief is innate among people. It is found in all times and all places, and perhaps not a single person is completely free of it. The great pile and the people, really of all lands and times, distinguish the natural from the supernatural as two fundamentally different yet equally present to hand orders of things. They prescribe miracles, omens, ghosts and magic unthinking to the supernatural, but also allow that in general nothing is thoroughly, down to its root, natural, but nature itself rests on the supernatural. Therefore the people understand themselves very well when the question is posed, “does that occur naturally or not?” Essentially, this distinction is in synch with the Kantian one between appearance and the thing in itself; only that the affair is treated more precisely and correctly in that the natural and supernatural aren’t two divided and split apart kinds of essences, but one and the same, which taken as it is in itself should be named supernatural, because only then it first appears – that is, enters upon the perception of our intellect and therefore goes into its forms, in which nature represents itself, whose phenomenal lawfulness is just what one understands by “the Natural”. I for my part, to repeat, have only clarified Kant’s expression when I named “Appearance” “Representation”. And if you still take heed that, many times, in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Prolegomenon, Kant’s thing in itself only emerges just a bit from out of the darkness in which he keeps it suspended, and lets us know it as the faculty of moral calculation in us, thus as the will – so you will also gain the insight, through referring to the Will as the Thing in Itself, how much I have simply clarified and completed Kant’s thought."

The hidden theatrical scene here, the thing-in-itself that dare not take its position on the stage – I could go on about how connected this is to the early nineteenth century entertainment of the Phantasmagoria, which in turn was connected to the theater of the magnetic sleepwalker. Kant, in this scenario, plays the master of the sonambule -- and Schopenhauer plays the master of Kant. I told you this would end in a wild Caligarian chase, as all the philosophers lure you to the madhouse, strap you down, and mutter, now I know the source of the disease!

Ah, but don’t worry – I’m not going to bore you with this any more! Also Sprach LI.


Setholonius said...

"action at a distance" is not only used by Schopenhauer to combat materialism but also by 20th century quantum physicists to combat relativity, the notion that nothing can communicate faster than the speed of light. spooky.

roger said...

Mr. S., the career of 'action at a distance' is fascinating. Gleick in his little bio on Newton pointed out that Newton's introduction of forces to replace Descartes unwieldy vortices revamped alchemical concepts -- such as 'action at a distance.' And this made Newtonian physics controversial on the continent, until force simply became a mathematical description -- a course traced between Leibniz and D'Alembert. When Maxwell introduced the field theory, he did so with a little meta-physical essay about the problems with action at a distance.
And... isn't Schopehauer a hoot? I have a theory that the evil doctor in Von Trier's The Kingdom tv series is based on Schopenhauer.

Patrick J. Mullins said...

Roger--have you read Wade Davis's 'The Serpent and the Rainbow', his late 80's study of Haitian zombification. There's much on Zora Neal Hurston in it, and though the style is somewhat romantic, it's not fictionalized a la Frey and given the Winfrey Seal of Mediocrity. Was definitely anthropoligically sound, funded by psychiatrist Nate Kline and B'way producer David Merrick, who was interested for some reason I forgot.

What interests me is when a few of those zombies figure out, perhaps out of innate cleverness, how not to be zombies any more. Davis's book does not follow his particular zombified subjects long enough for this to have had time to develop (and only a few actual examples are given, usually individuals given extreme scapegoating by families who considered these individuals to have gone too far from the ruling ethos, or who had tried to obtain land the majority didn't think rightly was theirs, or had 'cursed' the family). This kind of zombification has interested me since I first read the book, since it is one of the most extreme forms of scapegoating, in which the potion that allowed the live burial does not kill the subject and he is revived after 3 days, usually banished and always with a broken will. So to find a way out of it once the zombification has occurred, whether physically or slightly more psychologically, requires great stealth and probably luck if one has survived at all.

As for followers of Bush being zombies, that seems apt in a general sense, but what I don't understand about the current moment is that the POTUS is supposed to have been at an all-time low in polls, so is he succeeding in solidifying executive power or not? I can't tell, what with Delay one day, then Abramoff, then what will still happen with Plame and Rove, and this VVoice person talking about impeachment,etc., and on the other hand Alito's confirmation virtually certain and the creep going to New Orleans and saying how improved the situation is by visiting the Garden District. Sounded as though he may have even gotten a hostess to pull it together for some Oysters Rockefeller from the other remarks he made. These last New Orleans remarks seemed to me to perhaps be the most lunatic things he has ever said--I mean, not just egregious, but literally Caligulesque.

Patrick J. Mullins said...

(I needed to add that a sensationalized trash movie was made from certain events from Davis's book, but even a look at IMDb shows that the 2 by that time are completely unrelated, as Davis is himself the main character in his book, and there is no listing for a Davis character for the movie. He went very deeply into the vodoun world and found it to be a viable worldview, or at least as viable as others. Hard to do, all of it.)

roger said...

hey, you won't get me to go against Oprah, man. She is trying to restore the Mittelstand of literature -- as in the golden fifties days, supposedly, when Will and Ariel Durant ruled the Saturday evening post lined roost, and Humbert Humbert could make fun of the Great books club and highbrow could live off of making fun of middlebrow and the lion lay down with the lamb. Get rid of the mittelstand and I gotta feeling the literary world collapses into an adjunct of video game world.

As to the zombies -- have you read any of the vast vast vast three volume novel about Toussaint L'ouverture by Madison Bell Smartt - or is it Smartt Bell? I reviewed those novels and interviewed Bell for Publishers Weekly, and learned much about vodou -- and then looked up some stuff myself about Duvalier. It isn't commonly known -- I think -- that Duvalier, before he was a dictator who used vodou, was an doctor/anthropologist who wrote about it. In particular, he styled himself Baron Samedi -- the god of the churchyard, the terrifying loa -- by, among other things, dressing like the Baron. A very very scary man. But Toussaint supposedly had a loa, too, and you know that the Haitian revolution was derived from a legendary seance held under a tree that might have included a voodou rite.

However, I don't know a lot about this. When I review or interview, I become an instant expert, but the research dribbles quickly out of my head. I've read some of the Davis, and of course Hurston, but I don't understand the religion. I know much more about the lurking magnetic sleeper, the sonambulist -- which has a strange and powerful career in German culture.

Patrick J. Mullins said...

Thank you, that's all interesting. I like Schopenhauer a lot anyway, musicians always do. I just don’t know anything beyond the superficial on him, except that he’s not talked about nearly enough I’ve noticed. The book on l’Ouverture may interest me, and the other remarks on the revolution and Duvalier go right along with the rest of the way Haiti operates.

Yes, I suppose Oprah would have told Didion 'I don't have a problem with that' if she'd falsified any (all?) of the various facts at UCLA and the long operation her daughter had after the massive hematoma. 'It's FAMILY, girl, whatever works for you...now I wanna give YOU a big hug for sharing as much of this as you wanted to with us. What a positive and life-affirming book. Now you can't really mean your husband didn't believe in the resurrection of the body, now can you, girl...and that other one, where you were talking about your mama and how she didn't believe Jesus was the son of God. Oh, Law'

Oprah also promoted hugely 'a Course in Miracles' written by Helen Shucman of Columbia U. (who claimed Jesus really wrote it) when Marianne Williamson, that preacher from down your way, was hot and went on the show sometime after she married Liz Taylor and the 1991 husband. I never have understood if that marriage was legal or not.