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Published by: Malgrin2012 on Sep 19, 2012
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Mesmer’s Secret: The Scientific Rhetoric of Mesmerism in the Enlightenment
When Fraulein Oesterlin made her first visit to a medical clinic in 1773, she was in poor health, burdened with several severe ailments at once. A well-born Viennese woman with adelicate constitution, she suffered from fevers, constant vomiting, bowel inflammation,unbearable toothaches and earaches, depression, delirium, occasional blindness, and even boutsof paralysis. Her doctor, Franz Mesmer, listened to her incredible list of symptoms, butremained unfazed. In fact, he welcomed her with enthusiasm, for she was his ideal patient.Mesmer was determined to discover a new form of medical treatment – a universal panacea, acure for all diseases – and if he could relieve the poor Fraulein of all her various complaints, hissuccess would be known to the world. Fueled with these ambitions, Mesmer embarked on anunusual treatment method for Oesterlin. He attached two horseshoe magnets to her feet, andanother heart-shaped one to her breast. Her reaction was immediate. Excruciating painemanated from the magnets, tearing through her legs and chest. Mesmer, deaf to her protests,fastened even more magnets to her limbs, and monitored her with close attention as sheexperienced painful, sweat-drenched convulsions. After three weeks of this intensive treatment,Oesterlin checked out of the clinic. She was cured, she claimed, and in perfect health. Mesmer had performed a medical miracle.
 In the wake of this remarkable success, Mesmer continued to treat the afflicted of Vienna,and was able to perfect his methods on patients with various conditions. News of his work 
Franz Mesmer,
 Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal 
(Geneva: P. F. Didot, 1781), 18-33. Mesmer’sfirst success with Fraulein Oesterlin is also recounted in Derek Forrest, “Mesmer,”
 International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis
50 (2005), 298-300 and in Jean Vinchon,
 Mesmer et son secret 
(Paris: A. LeGrand,1936), 15-19.
traveled across the continent in 1777, when he cured a well-known musician – the beautiful,talented Mademoiselle de Paradis – of her chronic blindness. Mesmer’s triumph, however, didnot last. The leading doctors at the University of Vienna questioned his treatment of Paradis.Meanwhile, salacious rumors about Mesmer’s relationship with the singer – and his other female patients – started to circulate. Anxious to preserve her reputation, Paradis’sparents denied thatshe had been cured at all, and insisted that she had reverted to blindness. As Mesmer’s name became drenched in local scandal, he found it convenient to leave Vienna in search of afriendlier audience for his work. He found it, not in the provincial, superstitious backwaters of Europe, but rather, at its vibrant intellectual center.Mesmer arrived in Paris in 1778, when France was in the midst of its
 siècle des lumières
.In this Age of Enlightenment, the French witnessed the triumph of reason over superstition, aswell as the constant growth and organization of knowledge. Moreover, this was a time whenscience took great strides forward. Isaac Newton had sparked a scientific revolution with hisgroundbreaking laws of gravity, while in France, Antoine Lavoisier, Pierre-Simon La Place, anda whole host of other pioneering scientists fed the momentum with their own remarkablediscoveries. The advancement of science became the noblest of aims, and scientific rationalism,the most obvious means to reach it.
In this intellectual climate, where reason was so valued,Mesmer faced obstacles establishing a foothold. The theories which he espoused – in his thick,almost incoherent German accent – were curious and outlandish. Based on his observations inVienna, he claimed that he had discovered “a superfine, invisible fluid” which permeated theuniverse, and penetrated all bodies. When humans became sick, Mesmer explained to his new
For an understanding of the intellectual and scientific climate of Enlightenment France, see Robert Darnton,“Mesmerism and Popular Science,” Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (Cambridge: HarvardUP, 1968), 3-45.
 patients in Paris, it was because unnatural obstacles in their bodies had blocked the flow of thisessential fluid. Indeed, it was a fortunate coincidence for the French that Mesmer, the self- proclaimed healer, had learned how to monitor and control the magnetic fluid with FrauleinOesterlin and his other clients. He offered to cure the Parisians of all their ills, with an elaborate – but expensive – treatment method. For his French audience, Mesmer lent these unusualtheories the collective title, “
magnétisme animal 
Since then, however, most historians haveelected to use the term “mesmerism” to make clearer the association between the man and hisideas.
 Mesmer’s decision to relocate to Paris, of all cities, was curious. He had failed toconvince the Austrians: how could he expect, then, to succeed in France, the hotbed of thescientific revolution? The French had inherited from their most celebrated thinkers a powerfultradition of rationalism and doubt, exemplified in Descartes’ rigorous logic, and the stubbornskepticism of Voltaire.
Faced with these hostile intellectual currents, Mesmer should have prepared himself for an incredulous audience. Indeed, Paris should have had no patience for himand his invisible fluids. Given that scientific rationalism was the rule, and superstition wasscorned, it seems the enlightened Frenchman would have relied on his reason and dismissed thestrange, foreign doctor as a charlatan. Mesmer, however, was in luck. In France, he found a vast,enthusiastic audience for his ideas. This audience was not limited to the aristocrats and theaffluent bourgeoisie who could afford to check into his clinics; it also included an importantfraction of the literate population, which learned about mesmerism through the second-handchannel of the press. Mesmer’s theories were discussed in general newspapers, including the
Mesmer’s basic theories and mission are outlined in “Propositions,” in
, 70-77.
Darnton discusses his decision to use the term “mesmerism” in his preface to Mesmerism, ix.
Descartes published his seminal philosophical treatise, Discourse on the Method, in 1637. Voltaire published hisinfluential work Candide in 1759.

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