Mysticism and Dissent

This short essay will address William James’ 1902 publication Varieties of Religious Experience (specifically Lectures XVI and XVII, Mysticism), and attempt to draw differing conclusions concerning the source(s) and authoritativeness of mystical states of consciousness. My argument is that religious/mystical experience cannot by itself prove the existence of God (argument from experience), but nonetheless remains subjectively and psychologically important. While I will support my thesis with a number of sources, this essay will attempt to draw primarily from Varieties: Mysticism. First, I will look at mysticism itself through James's definition, and then wade through some of C. B. Martin’s dissenting opinion. But first, the terms used by James need to be vetted, so that we better understand exactly what we are talking about when we say “mystical experience.”

James’ Four Defining Points of Mysticism

Beginning his lecture on mysticism, James asks, “What does the expression ‘mystical states of consciousness’ mean? How do we part off mystical states from other states?”(i) He follows by offering four points of peculiar psychological/empirical factors that, if evident, classify an experience as mystical. (1) Ineffability, in that “mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.”(ii) (2) Noetic Quality, meaning that these “states” have a certain element of knowledge embedded within them; “they are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain.”(iii) (3) Transiency, meaning mystical states are mostly temporary and unsustainable, and finally (4) Passivity suggests, “The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance”(iv) during the course of the experience.

In the above clarifications, James defines the mystical experience. For the purposes of this essay, points 1 and 2 are the more salient. Transiency (3) is simply the understanding that these states are temporary, and adds nothing to this argument. The Passivity (4) claim further dilutes the conclusions arrived at in (2) by drawing even more problematic deductions from these experiences. Passivity is James’s understanding of “abeyance” (the mystic being controlled by a superior power), which is a purely subjective interpretation on the mystic’s part that his feelings originate outside of himself, that causality is from God or a godlike entity. The argument whether mystical states are purely psychological, or originate outside the individual, will be dealt with later in this essay, but at the outset it needs be understood that there is a general disagreement on this point, between the theists and non-theists.

Ineffability and Noetic Quality are, in James’s opinion, the leading indicators of mystical experience. For a form of consciousness to be categorized as “mystical” it must possess this sense of the ineffable, awe and wonder. The mind must be transfixed and left speechless insofar as communicating that occurrence remains. This quality of ineffability, with its metalanguage and use of symbol, remains transcendent of religious or linear boundaries, and is scattered through the accounts of mystics from all ages and creeds. But what exactly are they experiencing? Is it, again, self-emotive or caused by some other force?

Finally, James’s conclusions invoke the possibility of an imparted quality, the Noetic Quality, within these experiences. They offer something to the one experiencing them, revelation or some form of knowledge previously unknown. But this knowledge or revelation is nearly impossible to translate and the mystic is left with the lingering felling of transcendence. Their knowledge, if it is imparted at all, has become stationary, or simply a psychologically comforting feeling about the oneness of things or transcendent beauty of life. James concludes that these definitions comprise the “mystical group.” In short: A person has an emotional experience wherein something profound is felt or perceived. The experience doesn’t last long, but he/she is left thinking (usually) God had something to do with it.

Knowing something then about mystical experience, what types of conclusions does James draw concerning their authority for the one experiencing them, or for anyone else? He states rather boldly, “as a matter of psychological fact, mystical states of a well-pronounced and emphatic sort are usually authoritative over those who have them.” But this type of exegesis, or mystical postpartum, isn’t always authoritative, and many questions are left lingering.

Mystical Encounters

It may help at this point to put “mystical experience” in context by using an analogy to make the case. George Mavrodes, in his Belief in God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion relates the story of a woman hearing church bells on New Year’s Eve.
I have suddenly realized for the first time the greatness of God!…As the bells rang out, telling of the inexorable and endless march of time, it has been borne in upon her that God was infinitely greater than she had ever imagined. The voice of God had spoken to her through the voice of the bells, and she had answered. Her answer could be read in her radiant face.(v)
She felt the power of “God” in that moment (an exegetical decision on her part), and no one is in a position to say that she in fact did not. But, even though our woman (lets call her Jane) claims she felt the presence of God in the moment during the ringing of the bells, that is all it is, a claim. For her, this might very well remain an important psychological experience, but for others, probably not.

Jane’s experience was certainly ineffable and possessed that noetic quality in that she took something away from the experience. For Jane, God exists and she has felt His spirit, she has had conformation of her faith. James would say to Jane that she was in her epistemic rights to draw this conclusion. But, C. B. Martin would challenge Jane’s assumption that A therefore B follows deductively. Martin would hold to the position that Jane had a psychological experience, not an existential one, and through her own exegesis found something within the experience that wasn’t originally there. “The only thing I can establish beyond correction on the basis of having certain feelings and sensations is that I have these feelings and sensations.” Jane states “I felt God,” and there is no doubt that she means it. Psychologically though, this statement is very similar to other statements like

(1) I feel the stars are aligned today....
(2) Sometimes when I’m in danger I can feel my guardian angel near by.

These statements are not provable by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is Jane’s “I felt god” claim, they are all of the sort and class of psychology, and not empirical at all. An empirical claim would be able to be tested and proved, and repeatedly seen across other cases and incidences. The above claims, important as they are to the individual, don’t actually do anything for the world outside of the individual, and thus are destined to remain important only as far as they remain psychologically meaningful to the beneficiary of that experience.

Authoritativeness of Mystical Experience

There is a sense in which mystics tend to fit their experiences within a preexisting conceptual framework, the belief structure that previously surrounded them. We have very little evidence of mystics denying their previously held religious beliefs after a mystical experience; indeed many of the religious paths (Yoga, Sufism) are aimed at producing variations of mystical experiences, and have been historically successful in this reproduction. But the argument because “I have direct experience (knowledge, acquaintance, apprehension) of God, therefore I have valid reason to believe that God exists,”(vii) could as easily be translated into, because I had this experience as a Christian, it thus proves my previously held Christian beliefs. Michael Martin confronts this point in his essay Religious Beliefs and Basic Beliefs (a response to Alvin Plantinga’s The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology) by noting that certain experiences can trigger different reactions in different people. Whereas Jane heard the bells and thought of God, equally “beholding the starry heavens can trigger a pantheistic belief or a purely aesthetic response without any religious component. Sometimes no particular response or belief at all is triggered. From what we know about the variations of religious belief, it is likely that people would not have theistic belief when they beheld the starry heavens if they had been raised in nontheistic environments.”(viii) So, the question remains, is mystical experience authoritative? Are the mystic’s visions footnotes by which we can validate the existence of God? Do they justify the prophets? Or are they simply meaningful psychological experiences that we choose to interpret depending upon our particular bent.

James is very careful here to say that no absolute authority outside the individuals experience can rationally be drawn—but throughout the history of Religion we find great emphasis given to certain individuals mystical experience. Muhammad’s repeated visitations by the angel Gabriel weren’t witnessed by anyone else, but are generally accepted as religious fact by most Muslims. Joseph Smith claimed visitation by the angel Moroni, and again, it is taken as truth. We often believe because of another’s mystical experiences, and act out of that belief regardless James’s caution that we do not.

For James, these mystical states confirm the presence of God, the existence of distinct and other states of consciousness. Though he doesn’t necessarily say it in those terms, he hints at it; the mystic, he claims, should be above the reach of the skeptics. Jane, our case subject, is in this category. Her experience was unique, and to the extent that it dealt with “other” states of consciousness, incommunicable. For Martin, there is an underlying problem here:
Because ‘having direct experience of God’ does not admit the relevance of a society of tests and checking procedures it places itself in the company of the other ways of knowing which preserve their self-sufficiency, ‘uniqueness’ and ‘incommunicability’ by making a psychological and not an existential claim…a perfect refuge because no one can prove him wrong, but its unassailability has been bought at the price of making no claim about the world beyond the claim about his own state of mind.(ix)
This is perhaps the most important piece of philosophical dissent against the perceived authoritativeness of any psychological, mystical state…especially to the experiencing individual. It begs the question, a very important question, about the very authority these experiences could or should hold over the ones having them.

There exists a latent and creeping element of danger within mystical experience, in that there may be someone, other than the mystic, who takes their experience deadly serious, and may even build his or her belief on it. We have only to think back through the religious traditions of the West to find test cases for this scenario. The Old Testament is replete with mystical encounters, from Jacob struggling with the deity, to Abraham and Isaac, Ezekiel and many others. The Bible is a book founded on men talking to God, enjoying noetic union with the deity. There are many Christian literalists who take these things at face value, even preach sermons decrying the unbelievers for their obdurate stubbornness in accepting these experiences, and in turn use them as prima facie reason for belief in YHVH. Would James argue against Protestants or Catholics, even Jews, basing their own faith on the mystical experience of Biblical prophets, or is it only modern experience that is treated in this kind of inferior way? Remember Smith? There are now millions of faith-based believers who have established their faith on the improvable mystical experiences of a young New York teenager.

My primary complaint with James’s lectures isn’t with his conclusions. James, again, stated emphatically that mystical experience could only have authority for the individual having that experience, and while I might disagree with that, it is a well-intentioned assumption. But James leaves something out of his study, perhaps the most important part. Mystical experience can be very dangerous in how it is witnessed, understood, disseminated and received (by others). Again, Joseph Smith; a charismatic young man comes along and spins a story so compelling, so unbelievably believable, that invariably there are going to be people that follow this individual. His story contains some compelling answers, and some complex theology, and a lot of personal gravitas. His mystical experience of God told him to start a religion of his own, and that he did. But is Mormonism an entirely good thing? Of course that question is too large to tackle here, but my short answer would be an emphatic no. At best, Mormonism is neutral. Basing an entire religion on the personal experience of one individual is a very dangerous trend to be setting, as it allows room for error to be made in that one individuals experience and the parsing of it. Perhaps this is why Buddhism is ever-more the universal religion than Christianity—that it isn’t based upon another’s experience but upon a process of becoming a better human being; through deeper and deeper understanding we may all yet “see,” and here are the basic steps to do just that.(x)

Smith advertised his mystical experiences like a salesman; he used them to convince others to follow his odd brand of Christianity. To the credit of his creativity, those experiences were rich in detail and revelation (of the sort he was selling). But we can imagine others, like a Charles Manson or a Jim Jones, who with similar cunning and strength of personality, convince others to do something that is certainly not in their own best interest, nor that of their children. James doesn’t caution his listeners strongly enough against accepting another’s mystical (or religious) experience, and the latent dangers involved in that act. Indeed, religion itself is a long parade of people kow-towing beneath brazen images of seers and saints, and James doesn’t once point this out.

This idea of the latent dangers of interpreting mystical experience doesn’t get enough ink. C. B. Martin and I would insist mystical experiences remain psychological important and cannot be entirely tossed aside, but taking them as factual and authoritative, even for oneself, can be dangerous, unless they are put in context. This context would be something like a deeper and older tradition acting as the tempering agent against ones fantastic experiences. In this way, Smith was able to channel his new mystical experiences (if in fact he had any) into older Masonic and Christian traditions(xi), and thus they were tempered in the fire of history, disallowed to take on an entirely new flavor and point of view. Because of this, Mormonism isn’t as dangerous to the individual as say, Scientology, which isn’t based on any tradition at all and makes very bold claims about the individual that have no basis in history or philosophy; they are a traditionless religion of the sort that rise and fall with successive generations, never finding a niche because they fail to draw on the traditions of the past.(xii) And here is the irony; though we can never accept another’s experience as basis for belief, we can look at the history of various religious traditions and decide, based upon the voluminous sources available, the “truths” contained therein. The basic moral idea of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is found in many faiths. There are others embedded within the multicolored fabric of religious scripture, and it is these basic articles that should act as our guide when either having or parsing a mystical experience. Otherwise the element of danger, for oneself and others, is too real (and my caution extends to nontheists, who may need the voluminous works of philosophy to parse any mystical experience he or she may have).

James’s almost pantheistic approach to understanding this complex subject gives him a very open mind when it comes to finding truth in other traditions, but he never really attempts to stake out some line which shouldn’t be crossed. Would he say Scientology is a live, forced and momentous decision for someone raised in a community of scientologists?(xiii) There has to be some filter through which acceptance of another’s view of this world is processed. Faith is dangerous; it is perhaps the most dangerous element of human psychology. It can cause all kinds of trouble for ourselves and others because it enjoys a “sacred” tradition, off-limits from normal lines of questioning. As Martin said, “no one can prove him wrong.” No one can prove Smith wrong. His theophanic vision of God and the Christ on that morning in 1820 was a genuine, so far as Smith relates, mystical vision. It contained all the necessarily elements of James’s basic characteristics of mystical experience, and so far as anyone knows, happened as Smith said it did. No one can prove him wrong, but the opposite of that is also true.

George Santayana once said, “Religions are better or worse, never true or false.”(xiv) We can have more hope in the benefits of Mormonism than that of Scientology(xv), entirely because it is better, it gets closer to the truth and is founded, more or less, in tested traditions. But does Mormonism get close to the great human religions like Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Catholicism? No, certainly not. The visions of “mystics” can be as dangerous as they are profitable. Caution is called for, pragmatism is needed; otherwise we may all yet be made fools of.


James is to be applauded for his groundbreaking study on mysticism. He makes important conclusions about the authoritativeness of mystical experience and its defining characteristics. But questions remain. As previously mentioned, where I think he misses the mark is precisely where a hole in his logic appears. He is all too willing to use Saint Teresa and others to back up his argument, to use their mystical experiences as proof that a deeper or different consciousness exists, and that the mystics have found it. But he ends by saying that these experiences are not “authoritative” for anyone else but the one experiencing them, and we are all left wondering at his slight-of-hand. C. B. Martin’s response then is a justified argument that deserves further study and consideration, because too many gaps remain in James’s reasoning.

Perhaps I would suggest an updated version of James’ argument, one that could make use of a more dissenting opinion. I don’t doubt the uniqueness of certain “conscious” states of being, but to let them go unvetted, to let them remain standing as they are is to give too much power to the mystic. Yes, certain experiences may, for many individuals, be “mystical,” or indefinable in our current psychological milieu. But the more important question is “so what?” Or a better question perhaps: “Does that experience make you a better human being?” If so, show me the fruits of that better life. Show me the flower that has come from the seed of that fruitful encounter, and as a lover of flowers I’ll sniff it out. As a botanist, I’ll examine the petals. On July 9th, at 11:23 am, your life was changed. Good, lets see the results…and if they are shown to be beneficial perhaps then we can say that this experience meant something, was psychologically important, was cathartic. Beyond that, what can we say? If God was perceived to be involved, fine, I guess. But, the buck must stop when the mystic begins to claim authority to recruit others toward his particular brand of insight. Again, it is very dangerous for others to believe on the basis of another’s religious experience. It leads inevitably to spiritually hacked-up new-age novels about conversations with god, or other such nonsense. Does it benefit anyone other than the one selling something?

Mystical experiences prove nothing beyond the capacity of humans to experience “other” states of consciousness. The further afield we get from this understanding, the more our wanderings lead into the dark and dangerous wilderness of conjecture.



(i) Steven M. Cahn, Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 395.
(ii) Ibid.
(iii) Ibid., 395.
(iv) Ibid.
(v) George Mavrodes, Belief In God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion (New York: University Press of America, 2008), 68-69.
(vi) Cahn, Ten Essential Texts, 428.
(vii) Ibid.
(viii) Ibid., 393.
(ix) Ibid., 433.
(x) I am making broad generalizations here that remain mostly unsupported.
(xi) For a fair accounting of Smith’s theology, see Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. Smith, it is well known, was fascinated with the intersections between Christianity and the occult, or Masonic.
(xii) In a sense, this is why Christianity and Islam have done so well. They based their theology on existing traditions, drawing upon that history and tapping into that deep intellectual and spiritual reservoir. Also, we cannot imagine Buddhism without Hinduism, an earlier spiritual tradition that it was no doubt based upon. But this theory does nothing to establish where the first causes of religion came from, or what, if anything, they were based upon.
(xiii) James’ theory in The Will To Believe confronts this idea of forced, momentous and live decisions, especially where belief in God is concerned. While it is too much to go into here, Michael Martin does a fair job at responding to James thesis in William James and the Will to Believe.
(xiv) Cahn, Ten Essential Texts, 439.
(xv) I use Scientology here as a prototypical example of a religion based upon the madness of one individual – and not necessarily one who had a mystical experience. Scientology is more dangerous because L. Ron Hubbard makes no claims of “vision,” but tries to sell it as a scientifically based spiritual practice, when the science isn’t really there. It is no wonder, after seeing the rise and spread of Scientology, that humans are dopes (and I say that with empathy). I can understand belief in God, and it’s rich history of practice through the myriad faiths, but to base a religion on scientific practices when the science isn’t there is an extraordinary and brazen feat of chutzpa (I had heard he did it all as a bet, which in retrospect seems very plausible).

D. Reese Zollinger
© 2009

Title Mysticism and Dissent is inspired by Steven Ozment's publication (London: Yale University Press, 1973) of the same name. From the jacket:
It is characteristic of social innovators in all ages that they have advanced the new by invoking the old. This seeming paradox has never been truer than in the sixteenth century. The most radical nonconformists - men now regarded as precursors of the "modern" trends in social protest - looked backward for inspiration and justification to the religious writings of an earlier time. In the works of medieval mysticism these learned dissenters found a tradition to wield against tradition, a view of man's nature and God's design that could challenge, even undermine, ruling ideologies and institutions.



This election has been truly historic, and I've been humbled to see America come to embrace a new path, one that will hopefully lead toward national healing and smarter policy. We need to build a new country that honors work by creating and securing jobs, and dignifies life by making health care affordable to all. Every journey begins with the first step, so please vote.

The video above is a fitting bookend to this campaign, as Senator Obama's meme of yes we can-change became the defining theme that defeated all others.

Obama/Biden '08

This Fucking Election

You can see the whole thing here.

Now get out and vote!


Notes to a young atheist

Atheism is not a defining term; it represents the negation of a thing, not a thing in itself. It is a definition based upon doubt, and as such is inherently negative.

Imagine if you had to define yourself as an aunicornist, or an aflying-spaghetti-monsterist.

Don't define yourself by what you don't believe in, but by what you see and experience.

Atheism is a term better left unused, except in strict circumstances.


Russert Tribute

It has been so long since my last post rivers have drained in the interim. The last entry showed Tim Russert declaring Senator Obama the winner of the democratic primaries. He was right, but more importantly he was the only figure of the traditional media bold enough to say it. I appreciated that, that night. I respect reason and good judgment, and while T.R. didn't always practice that principle he equally pissed everyone off....

So, as a tribute to the future, and a salute to the past, here are some highlights from his career.


It is over.



F. A. Mesmer

When considering the history of modern science, the student of human behavior consistently encounters certain individuals who, knowingly or not, failed to see past their own prejudice when reaching supposed objective conclusions. William James said of that type – “his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other…He trusts his temperament, wanting a universe that suits it.”(1) This is the individual who believes despite evidence, a framer of his own paradigm. This potpourri approach—assembling ideas, however disparate or supportable, to conform to ones philosophy—has no place in the modern scientific method, but this fact doesn’t keep that fiction out of the world of science, and the litany of conclusions spun by charlatans continues to rage against the scientific method.

This short essay will follow the life and work of Franz Anton Mesmer, perhaps a perfect case study in the personality type described above by William James. My intention here is first to establish that what Mesmer found was in fact a valid scientific point (placing him—somewhat awkwardly I might add—as an historically important figure in the history of medicine), and second, conclude that personal bias stood in the way of his understanding that discovery. “Although there is much to ridicule in the origins of mesmerism” wrote Sherwin B. Nuland, “its legacy must be taken very seriously—from crackpot concepts may arise useful theories and useful tools.”(2)

Mesmer was born in Iznang, Germany, in the year 1734. Very little is known about his early years. “In 1743 nine-year-old Franz Anton Mesmer entered a school run by monks to begin the studies that would prepare him for the university and ultimately the priesthood.”(3) In Bavaria, at Jesuit schools in Dillengen and Ingolstadt, he studied philosophy and theology, later renouncing the profession of priest and entering law school in Vienna. “Realizing he had no aptitude or desire for the priesthood, he refused to accept holy orders or a place in the Church,”(4) and yet left unapologetically armed with Aristotelian logic and inspired by the curious mathematics of Newton and the even curiouser theology of Leibniz. Finding that law was not his way, Mesmer entered the Vienna Medical School in 1760, working and studying for six years with perhaps the most qualified medical community in Europe at the time.

It was while studying medicine in Vienna that Mesmer developed an early theory of animal magnetism, which he later distilled and published in a dissertation written in Latin and entitled, provocatively, Idssertatio Physico-medica de Planetarum Influxu (Influence of Planets on the Human Body), an idea swelling with occult and metaphysical undercurrents so popular in 18th century Europe. Isaac Newton himself grouted the mosaic foundation of occult-science by his unrepentant study of metaphysics and alchemical processes popularized by Paracelsus and others of the western hermetic traditon. Indeed, with statements like the “most subtle spirit which pervades and lies hid in all gross bodies” [published] in the fantastic last paragraph of his Principia (1713 edition),”(5) Newton offered license, in a way, to the outlier metaphysics of Mesmer.

To understand Mesmer, or the century in which he practiced, means understanding the difficulty with which burgeoning scientists grappled with theories developed in an environment of mysticism and rational thought, and indeed the “temptation to become mystical remained strong in Germany…the homeland of Faust and Paracelsus."(6) The occult pedigree branching out of the chunky hermetic trunk (alchemy, magic, kabbalah, taort, etc) followed a number of diverging paths through the late eighteenth century. With Freemasonry gaining rise in western Europe and America, underground Rosicrucian movements claiming spiritual descent from C.R., and the early rumblings of Theosophy, the old science was proving alive and well. There were just enough pieces of the hermetic tradition floating around Europe for one skilled enough to make strategic use of them, which Mesmer convincingly did.

Finishing up his time at school, Mesmer turned to more practical issues. He found a financially gratuitous marriage and entered the circle of elites of Vienna in tow with his new spouse. For a number of years Mesmer’s world orbited around those elite circles and the medical school, making contacts and establishing himself as a physician. He worked with a number of prominent doctors in Vienna, attending wards and lectures and gaining valuable real-time experience in the art of medicine, leading him to open an in-house clinic (1767) “where besides an office and dispensary he maintained a research laboratory. Here he examined his patients, diagnosed their ailments, and prescribed remedies…most of his prescriptions, treatments, and cures were ordinary enough, nothing to alarm his patients or his colleagues.”(7)

It was during this period of relative normalcy that Franz Mesmer undertook his earliest clinical work in animal magnetism. In the case of Francisca Oesterlin, a relative and house guest of the Mesmer's, he found the state of western medicine sorely lacking when it came to understanding psychological problems, hysteria in the case of Ms. Oesterlin. “With Franzl, he stayed with the methods to hand until his patient’s inability to respond forced him to conclude that orthodox medicine was not enough. She resisted his treatments until she forced him to develop a totally new theory of the neuroses, the theory that gave rise to the first important modern school of abnormal psychology.”(8)

Mesmer used his earliest work - The Influence of Planets on the Human Body - to develop a more refined theory that included Newton’s universal fluid and other current discoveries in the fields of electricity and magnetism. He named his new theory of health and disease Animal Magnetism, and with his two Viennese patients Francisca Oesterlin and Maria Theresa (a blind pianist) Mesmer set out to prove to his medical colleagues its scientific validity. While his repeated attempts at validation found a few lone nods, for the most part the medical community in both Austria and Germany viewed his work as slipping toward a shadow world of science and magic – a sideshow.

Mesmer’s biggest problem was his repeated success. If he had been entirely unsuccessful no one would have noticed him. To Mesmer, success meant he was right, and they were wrong; “many observers who believed there was something in Mesmerism could not see what it was because Mesmer obscured their view by throwing up a smoke screen of baffling theories,”(9) like those laid out in his Propositions (the supposed proofs of Animal Magnetism), the most important of which are included in the following list.(10)

1. There exists a mutual influence between the Heavenly bodies, the Earth and Animate Bodies.

2. A universally distributed and continuous fluid, which is quite without vacuum and of an incomparably rarefied nature, and which by its nature is capable of receiving, propagating and communicating all the impressions of movement, is the means of this influence.

8. The animal body sustains the alternate effects of this agent, which by insinuating itself into the substance of the nerves, effects them at once.

10. The property of the animal body which brings it under the influence of the heavenly bodies, and the reciprocal action occurring among those who are surrounded by it, shown by its analogy with the Magnet, induced me to term it Animal Magnetism.(11)

It was with these propositions that Mesmer lost the battle with the medical community in Vienna. What he was proposing was a kind of unified field theory, a panacea if you will, for medicine, through the subtle manipulation of energy. That Mesmer had figured out the first rules of psychoanalysis and hypnotism never received the attention it might have because of this persistent “smoke screen” of ideas used to justify his successes. The points in his propositions read like Blavatsky or Leibniz, dramatically proposing truths as though it was in your power to do so. This kind of inspired reasoning was more suited to the romantic—which it turns out would certainly be the case.

It is during this gestation period of mesmerism that the first cracks appear in its thin façade. In Austria, Mesmer was perhaps the closest he would ever come to objectively understanding the importance of certain techniques he used to aid the patient. With Maria Theresa he actually achieved some significant progress toward returning her eyesight when the rest of the medical community there had failed, but it never occurred to him that his long visits, his establishment of a doctor-patient relationship, his use of autosuggestion and trance, were the real cures. He read into his successes a script that didn’t belong there - autosuggesting himself into belief that the universal fluid was a real thing, and the evidence of its reality, though not physically detectable (as of yet), was observed during a mesmeric trance, and that observation of these events was itself proof of this mysterious agent, this illusive ether. It was a shaky argument, one that he never won within the medical/scientific community.

In 1778, with scientists and physicians disputing his claims, Mesmer abandoned Vienna altogether and moved to the intellectual hub of 19th century Europe, Paris. “Linking his fluid to health and promoting his theraputic salon with consummate showmanship, Mesmer converted animal magnetism into probably the most widely discussed theme in France during most of the 1780’s. In a decade during which an equally invisible fluid could raise a balloon aloft, mesmerism found easy popular acceptance.”(12) Where in Vienna he was an outcast, in Paris he was all the rage. Though the medical community if France distanced itself from Mesmer, his ideas and salons touched an anti-rationalism nerve within the Parisian elite. His tubs and rods, the glass harmonica, patients (often women) fainting on the floor in some mesmeric crisis touched on being devilishly fashionable around court but was entirely dismissed by strict rationalists and natural scientists.

Mesmer hit a nerve in France, tapped into deep-seated emotions and insecurities. His critics were vocal, and relatively unanimous within the medical community, but slowly it became apparent that “critique from the establishment fostered rather than weakened the hold of mesmerism on the popular mind.”(13) The medical community couldn’t do but watch on as France fell into the piercing eyes of the Wizard from Vienna and his cacophony of devotees, and from Mesmer’s point of view, it was a chance to play the two parts of his personality, his logic and his imagination, on the mercy of France. “Mesmer’s doctrine caught the historical currents of both intellect and emotion as they moved forward, often in conflict, from the rationality and the sentimentality of the eighteenth century…and like other visions of the period, it appealed to the heart as well as to the head. And consequently mesmerism had not only a strand of scientific but also an elaborate weave of romantic and revolutionary utopianism that contained threads from western societies inheritance of religion and magic.”(14) In a sense, Mesmer’s pseudoscience helped propell France from the enlightenment to the romantic period. Robert Darnton’s book entitled Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France documents how mesmerism was a major “mediating force in the transition from the ‘cold rationalism of the midcentury’ to a ‘more exotic intellectual diet’ marked by the yearning for the supernatural and the scientifically mysterious.”(15)

The theme developing here is obvious—science being perverted as a personal crusade, justified by prevailing superstitions and complex metaphysics. Mesmer’s first Proposition categorically states “there exists a mutual influence between the Heavenly bodies, the Earth and Animate Bodies.” This is what Mesmer understood as science, as research. How do we know that heavenly bodies (sun, moon) have a mutual influence with animate bodies? The research doesn’t really say, but gallons of ink are wasted on theorizing the complexities of these interactions and to spelling out the abc’s of manipulating animal magnetism. His propositions propose and pronounce, but the facts are left wanting.

In 1802, Mesmer left France for good. The last 13 years of his life would be spent in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Constance, where he would remain for the most part forgotten. “At the time of Mesmer’s death in 1815, Mesmerism had split into three distinct varieties: scientific, occult, and political. Political Mesmerism died in the French Revolution, [while] occult Mesmerism continued, and continues, more or less unadulterated, to this day.”(16) The mystical strain of Mesmerism influenced key figures over the next century, including Mary Baker Eddy and Madame Blavatsky, the latter even writing in her most popular work Isis Unveiled that “Mesmerism is the most important branch of magic; and its phenomena are the effects of the universal agent…”(17) The third movement to spring out of Mesmer’s work was the one actually concerned with the how’s and why’s, the mechanics of the mesmeric trance. It is this legacy that impacted real science in the nineteenth century, and slowly the mesmeric trance gained wider acceptance until it was fully proved as a psychological phenomena by Hippolyte Bernheim (1888). “Burnheim shows how this [new] understanding of hypnosis makes sense of all the authentic medical cures recorded by the Mesmerists from Mesmer onward.”(18) Animal Magnetism was kicked to the curb, so to speak, and what was left was the really interesting and scientifically verifiable point – which again, Mesmer never saw because of his strongly held personal convictions.

Mesmer, for all his faults and self-induced philosophical distractions, was the first individual (in the modern age) to isolate and promote an early form of hypnotism. It is for that that historians write complex biographies of Mesmer and give some credit where it is due. He encouraged western medicine to move toward a more human way treating the mentally ill, and proved that conversation and autosuggestion are very powerful healing tools. Yes, he was a charlatan, but he was the type that sold the snake oil without completely understanding its therapeutic ingredients.

Quackery is a common theme throughout the history of science and medicine. The scientific method is continually under assault from people like Mesmer, who see the world, as William Blake convincingly wrote, through their “temperament, wanting a universe that suits it.” We may think, being modern Americans, that we are beyond all that, but even a cursory look at the “intelligent design” debate proves otherwise.


(1) James, William. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. As cited in Jung, Carl. Psychological Types. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 300
(2) Nuland, Sherwin. Doctors. New York: Vintage, 1995. p. 272
(3) Buranelli, Vincent. The Wizard from Vienna. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1975. p. 29
(4) Ibid. p. 31
(5) Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968. p. 11
(6) Buranelli, Vincent. The Wizard from Vienna. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1975. p. 35
(7) Ibid. p. 47
(8) Ibid. p. 60
(9) Ibid. p. 104
(10) Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968. P. 177
(11) Mesmer, Anton. Mesmerism: A translation of the Original Scientific and Medical Writings of F.A. Mesmer. Los Altos: William Kaufmann, 1980. p. 67
(12) Young, James H. “Review: An Influential Pseudoscience.” American Association for the Advancement of Science. Vol. 163, No. 3873 (Mar. 21, 1969), p. 1318. JSTOR online resource.
(13) Ibid
(14) Ibid
(15) Ibid
(16) Buranelli, Vincent. The Wizard from Vienna. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1975. p. 205
(17) Ibid. p. 207
(18) Ibid. p. 214

Fair use of above material...



demo c rats

From the first uttered word humans have been communicating via language, developing that perfect combination between sound, pitch and idea. Think of any word. What images flash through your mind? How many ideas shoot like branches off that first idea? How many words build themselves off of the first word, like a mind game of evolutionary scrabble?

Language conveys nearly everything, we communicate with words and sounds and are equally understood. We learn to love through words, but we also learn to hate through words. We probe the fringes of society through language, but do any of us fully understand it?

If you look at the title of the post, you'll find demo, and you'll find rats. The C in the middle is like a greater-than sign, which suggests that rats are greater than demo. It's language, and we manipulate it as we like (though the above example can be rejected as being entirely fallacious). The alphabet can be manipulated for the betterment of the individual, or used to their detriment. Not all language is equal, and some language is decisively detrimental.

Now, politics circa 2008. Language - be it republican or democratic - is so guarded and calculated that the lines between manufacturing results and campaigning for votes becomes blurred. Manufacturing language through scientific algorithms tested with focus groups and then leaked to drudge does not equate a dialog with the American people. Language is being manipulated before our very eyes; on CNN and FAUX, and to a lesser extent MSNBC, language is being abused. Notice the commentator vs journalist coup on cable television. Language - on right wing radio, left wing radio (yea, I'm talking to you Air America), is divisive and partisan. Truth is spoken occasionally, but not often does an individual bridge the exclusive caverns of both camps.

Language. It is Hillary's crutch. She can't say anything that will encourage republicans to join her, and the more she talks the less democrats want to vote for her. She has said recently that McCain is more qualified to be president than Obama, handing the opposition live fuel and then laughing it off as silly and reinforcing the necessity to stick to the issues. Ferraro, a supporter of Clinton, said recently that the only reason Obama is where he is is because of his skin color (yea, Geraldine, everyone understands the overwhelming advantage African Americans have in the US). Wow, the power of words. The Clinton camp seem to be using the sub-genius strategy of ninja wordsmiths. Words are important - and when you use words which represent the opposite of what you say, your either deceiving us or yourself - so which is it?

Words matter. Clinton cannot continuously shout 'wolf' with impunity. Her surrogates can't decry his advantage because of race and at the same time expect to remain above the fray of racism. For Clinton to repeatedly maintain that she and McCain were qualified to be president because of their outstanding service to this country, but Barack only offered a speech in 2003 and thus has yet to cross the threshold of commander in chief, is patently absurd. Words matter. We are all judged by them, given grace or pardon by them. Perhaps we forgot words are actions, that our words preview our actions.

Language matters most when it remains consistent, a thing nearly forgotten in politics. Barack is consistent in his argument, and doesn't descend beneath the fray except to defend himself. Watch the exchange, watch when they say one thing but exhibit another. McCain was vehemently against torture but has now acquiesced to the administration, and seems to think no one remembers his previous position.

Language is an action. Remember that, and judge the candidates upon the entirety of their character. None of them are perfect, but then we aren't electing a savior or messiah. We can only know them by their actions and words (and even then can be deceived - you have to be shrewd), and the most trustworthy now appears to be Barack Obama. His language and action appear positive and consistent. Words do that, they convey hope or fear depending upon their users intention. In the Clinton campaign, fear has surpassed hope, and she is betting that America will be convinced.

Fear is a 3am phone call. Fear is Barack's middle name - Hussein. Fear is loosing. Fear manifests into strategy, and strategy into words. Clinton's words are bowing like serfs beneath her anxiety. Words are our barometer to truth or falsehood. When they are misused, purposely or not, it is found out. Clinton has repeatedly misused words in order to gain momentum - a kind of audacity of fear.

Yes, words matter. People declare their intentions by their words, and then set out in an effort to accomplish those intentions. Remember we are trapped in a war of aggression upon another nation, unprovoked, which is costing us 12 Billion dollars a month to sustain, and remember that words and actions brought Hillary Clinton to vote for that war, and to not since reject it, and to pronounce words that suggest Obama had only those poor judgments (actions) and speeches (words) to oppose the inevitable debacle. Yes, words and actions matter.

By a raise of hands, how many of us support the war in Iraq? Exactly. Words matter, votes matter, actions matter. How can we allow those who contributed to the problem to be in charge of the solution? Really, I wonder. Even Einstein wondered...

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

Lets be honest. Words lead to actions. Hillary voted for the K-L bill, for the Iraqi war, supported NAFTA and accepted millions of dollars in exchange for killing her universal healthcare plan during Bill's administration. She has been on the boards of both Walmart and Monsanto (two ethically challenged corporations), been involved in shady dealings in Arkansas, been husband to the man who oversaw the demoralization of the modern democratic party (sorry, guilt by association is a weak argument); and who will do nearly anything to attain power, even if it means imploding the party she is running to lead.

My analysis isn't based on race or gender, but on actions and words. Because of that, the rational choice is Obama. Can you make a more convincing argument?



YouTube Playlist

Track 1: The haunted king
Track 2: Off the Road
Track 3: Koyaanisqatsi
Track 4: A lapse of time
Track 5: Cell time
Track 6: One finger victory salute
Track 7: Rise and fall of empires
Track 8: The lighter side of evil
Track 9: Verbal tennis
Track 10: Could it get any worse?
Track 11: Ordering melange for Kirk
Track 12: Questionable endings


Googled (earth)

I've been absorbed in my Google Earth application a bit too much lately, scouring the deserts of Africa, flying over the Tibetan plateau, diving into the grand canyon. While I am landlocked and otherwise engaged, it offers some kind of proxy traveling experience.

While exploring the deserts of the Sudan recently, I came across some interesting villages in, what seems a Martian-like environment. But the villages are rather unique, and one can easily follow camel trails to other villages in the region. Fascinating. Here are the coordinates:

13 49 51.79 N 25 37 E

Just copy and paste that into the search window of G. Earth.



This Week In History

1922 drawing of Joyce by Djuna Barnes, via wikimedia commons.

  • Feb. 2, 1848: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is signed
In consideration of the extension acquired by the boundaries of the United States, as defined in the fifth article of the present treaty, the Government of the United States engages to pay to that of the Mexican Republic the sum of fifteen millions of dollars.
  • Feb. 3, 1820: U.S. population announced at 9,638,453 - representing a 33% increase from the previous decade.
  • Feb. 2, 1882: James Joyce is born. Often considered the greatest novelist of the 20th century, Joyce both inspires and confounds. Years ago I undertook Ulysses only to find myself wading through a mysterious kingdom of foreign words and obscure references. I gave up, I was defeated. The following is a verse from his poem Chamber Music, a bit more appealing to the commoner mind. Also, you can find his Dirty Letters To Nora at the link. A recording made in London, 1929, preserves for history the rhythm of his poetic style, and the cadence in his voice.
I hear an army charging upon the land,
And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering ships, the charioteers.
They cry unto the night their battle-name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.
They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?
  • Feb. 7, 1964: The Beatles arrived in the NY for their first US tour. By the look on their faces, they weren't expecting so many screaming banshees.
  • Feb. 8, 1600: Giordano Bruno declared a heretic by the Catholic Church. 9 days later he was burned at the stake. Bruno, like Spinoza and many other proto-scientists of his day, was a pantheist. They looked at nature, at the stars, and deduced that everything was and is part of a whole, that God is in all things, and all things are within God. Today that sounds perfectly appropriate, but in Bruno's day, such things once said were automatically attributed as a challenge to authority, to the church. It may be said that he is sciences first martyr. From The Harbinger.
    As a mystic, Bruno grasped the essential unity of this infinite universe and severely criticized the religious belief-system for its dualistic metaphysics. He experienced God as the world itself, an idea that transcends the empirical sciences and traditional theology. Therefore, it is not surprising that Brunian mysticism seriously threatened the rigid and closed politico-religious establishment of his time (this same dogmatic outlook by the Church would later force Galileo to recant all his discoveries in descriptive astronomy).
  • Feb. 9, 1895: Volleyball invented. Uhhh, yea.
  • Feb. 9, 1943: Joe Pesci is born. Later becomes George Carlin's god.