the thrill of superstition

Alexis de Tocqueville landed in America in May, 1831 and spent nine months there; out of that experience he wrote Democracy in America and became famous.

Charles Poyen never quite became famous, and is now utterly forgotten. He came to America by a convoluted journey worthy of a Greek hero – his itinerary was littered with omens, pronounced by somnambulists. He consulted a somnambulist, Madame Villetard, in Paris, looking for a cure for a chronic pain he suffered from. Her remarkable knowledge of his disease- which, we are assured in his memoir, The Progress of Animal Magnetism in New England, was not altogether beyond Poyen’s own comprehension, since he was a medical student – led him to ask her about his proposed journey to Guadaloup, where part of his family resided, apparently as plantation owners. Madame Villetard gave her approval, so off our hero went, to convalesce and further explore the mysteries of somnambulism. He did so, using some ‘colored servants’ as subjects, and proving to his own satisfaction that the mesmeric trance touched on something universal: …the human soul was gifted with the same primitive and essential faculties among every nation and under whatever skin, black red or white, it may be concealed.”

Admirable sentiments. However, the somnambulists of Guadaloup predicted that his illness would not resolve itself any time soon, so he set off for New England, where he had relatives. He went to Maine. He went to Lowell. He taught French. And, admiring his new country, he resolved to plunge into its difficulties, writing a book that ‘was calculated to avoid all social commotions and give equal satisfaction to the parties interested.’ This was in the 1830s, and it was to be expected that a plantation owning Frenchman would attack abolitionism – but, of course, not in the meantime defending slavery. Then Poyen turned his hand to translating and lecturing on animal magnetism. Of course, he felt the heat of prejudice – after all, the theory had been exploded by the ‘great Franklin’ fifty years before, alluding to the committee, including Franklin, Bailly, Lavoisier, Thouvet and other notables that investigated Mesmer, under the direction of the royal government in 1784, which concluded that Mesmeric effects were the result of pure suggestion. It was patriotic to disbelieve in animal magnetism. But the enlightenment America of Franklin’s time had disappeared. Paine, coming back to America in 1803, had already written bitter articles about the narrow and bigoted class that had supplanted the enlightened colonial elite. Poyen didn’t find the class particularly bigoted, except, of course, among the establishment medical men.

Poyen was just the kind of enterprising individual that America in the age of the Great Awakening tended to embrace. He had a story of sickness. He had a story of a cure. And the cure was not simply a cure, but a metaphysics, a cosmology, the beginning of a new world. From our diseases we make our discoveries.

Poyen confesses that he himself could not ‘magnetize’, but he quickly found a countryman of his, a Monsieur Bugard, a French teacher, who could. Thus began a practice that was also an exhibit.

It wasn’t that Poyen was the first Mesmerist in America, but he was the first well known Mesmerist missionary. And he had an effect in America that was, in some ways, larger than Tocqueville’s. He attracted a number of New England mechanicals who put down their tools and took up magnetic cures. Among them was a Mr. Phineus Quimby – the very name is like a Jules Verne character! – who heard Poyen lecture in Belfast, Maine, where Quimby worked as a clockmaker. Poyen saw that Quimby was a natural, and Quimby believed him, so like many a disciple, Quimby gave up his former life and embarked on a new one as a healer. Among those Quimby operated upon was Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

Between Poyen’s stay in America and Quimby’s own practice, certain parts of the mesmeric doctrine melted away – or rather merged with other intellectual currents in New England. It is no accident that Poyen was attracted to the slavery debate – abolitionism and other social causes – woman’s suffrage, temperance, etc. - and spiritualism were joined at the hip in pre-bellum America. As was the intellectual culture that, for Edgar Allan Poe, was the only ‘aristocracy’ in America.

Poe, in the 1840s, took up mesmerism as a convenient device for producing uncanny effects. It worked – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in a fan letter to Poe, mentioned that ‘Valdemar’ had produced a sensation in England. Indeed, it produced a sensation in mesmeric circles in general. The story begins with a pitch perfect reproduction of the tone of the animal magnetism pamphleteer, with its mixture of personal experience and scientific ‘fact’:

“My attention, for the last three years, had been repeatedly drawn to the subject of Mesmerism; and, about nine month ago, it occurred to me, quite suddenly, that in the series of experiments made hitherto, there had been a very remarkable and most unaccountable omission:—no person had as yet been mesmerized in articulo mortis. It remained to be seen, first, in such condition, there existed in the patient any susceptibility to the magnetic influence; secondly, whether, if any existed, it was impaired or increased by the condition; thirdly, to what extend, or for how long a period, the encroachments of Death might be arrested by the process. There were other points to be ascertained, but these most excited my curiosity—the last in especial, from the immensely important character of its consequences.”

Of course, the experiment in magnetic influence is held upon M. Ernest Valdemar – who is, of course, originally a Frenchman now resident in Manhattan. Poe has a lot of his usual fun setting up his joke: Valdemar, skinny and dying, is prevailed upon to allow himself to be subject to the mesmeric influence during his ‘dissolution’. Startlingly, after his death, Valdemar still communicates with the mesmerist:

“… here were two particulars, nevertheless, which I thought then, and still think, might fairly be stated as characteristic of the intonation—as well adapted to convey some idea of its unearthly peculiarity. In the first place, the voice seemed to reach our ears—at least mine—from a vast distance, or from some deep cavern within the earth. In the second place, it impressed me (I fear, indeed, that it will be impossible to make myself comprehended) as gelatinous or glutinous matters impress the sense of touch.
I have spoken both of "sound" and of "voice." I mean to say that the sound was one of distinct—of even wonderfully, thrillingly distinct, syllabification. M. Valdemar spoke—obviously in reply to the question I had propounded to him a few minutes before. I had asked him, it will be remembered, if he still slept. Now he said:
"Yes;—no;—I have been sleeping—and now—now—I am dead."
The story was published as a true account, originally, in England, although Poe didn’t intend it as a hoax. Poe’s own obsession/compulsion was with erotic resurrection. Always a great griever, Poe found a woman who reminded him of his dead wife – one Sarah Helen Whitman. She knew of him from common friends, one of whom had written to her about his ‘uncanny’ ways – ‘the strangest stories are told, and what is more believed, about his mesmeric experiences.’ He had talked to her a total of one time when, in 1848, he received a Valentine from her. That prompted one of his spookiest love letters, an outpouring that even ‘Helen’, as he decided to call her, must have found daunting. This includes this passage:
“Immediately after reading the Valentine, I wished to contrive some mode of acknowledging – without wounding youy b6y seeming directly to ackowledge – my sense – oh, my keen – my exulting – my ecstatic sense of the honour you had conferred on me. To accomplish as I wished it, precisely what I wished, seemed impossible, however; and I was on the point of abandoning the idea, when my eyes fell upon a volume of my own poems; and then the lines I had written, in my passionate boyhood, to the first purely idea love of my soul – to the Helen Stannard of whom I told you – flashed upon my recollection. I turned to them. They expressed all – all that I would have said to you – so fully – so accurately and so exclusively, that a thrill of intense superstition ran at once through my frame.”

Poe to Hitchcock - it is the same thrill of superstition that runs through Vertigo – oh, the male desire for the resurrected femme fatale!

And so this note of gloom and ecstacy became their intimate medium, if their letters are any evidence. As he writes in another letter to her:

“I am calm and tranquil, and but for a strange shadow of coming evil which haunts me I should be happy. That I am not supremely happy, even when I feel your dear love at my heart, terrifies me. What can this mean?”

Huh. Pursuing the modalizations that converged in PAM means pursuing the convergence of trans Atlantic cultures, which take us to strange places.