A place for new ideas to settle.

03 September 2015

REVIEW: "Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France" --- The demon-haunted Ancien Regime

Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark contains many excellent parts, but this is among the best and most foreboding:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
Here's the thing: this scenario already came to pass—in France of the 1780s. Just a little over two hundred years before Sagan published his prophecy, the Ancien Regime fulfilled a weird inverse. The spirit of the age was Science, the idea that Science had unlocked so many secrets of the universe that men had become as gods, that everything half-mythical would be proven true. It was this milieu that provided the main vector for transmission of radical ideas from the intellectual elite—those very few who had actually read Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract—to the common people, and therefore fomenting a Revolution. This vector, the pseudoscientific theory of mesmerism (or "animal magnetism"), is the focus of Robert Darnton's book Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France.

Darnton packs quite an argument into about 150 pages: that the pseudoscientific medical-philosophical theory of mesmerism provided the rhetorical basis for later radical politics in pre-Revolutionary France, and that this lead directly to the abandonment of Enlightenment ideas in favor of esotericism, mysticism, and Romanticism. Not that the Revolution would have failed to reach the masses without mesmerism, but that few people actually read Rousseau's work, and so they needed some more popular medium to be transmitted through. Thanks to the fervor for science (well, "science") in the Ancien Regime, pseudo-scientific language was the perfect medium.

Overall the book is excellent, and Darnton injects just the right amount of irony in his observations---mesmerism is somewhat quaint in its original form, but was taken to ludicrous heights in later years in the search for a "universal system"---but unfortunately this is a book for scholars of French history, so lots of French text is presented without translation! I felt rather left out. Thankfully it doesn't much impede the thrust of the argument, but I would have liked more translation, even brute-force literal translations.

The most striking thing, to me, was Darnton's use of primary sources to illustrate the attitude of literate Frenchmen at the time before the Revolution: namely, that revolution was the last thing on their minds! And yet, in their fervor for hot air balloon flights and chemistry demonstrations, one sees the epistemic rot in the system. France was so enthused by the discoveries and demonstrations of scientists, that they imagined that surely all magic and mythical beasts would soon be proven true. In other words, mysticism and supernatural belief never seemed more acute than now, at the very height of the Enlightenment.

In a way this provides a damning critique of the Enlightenment as it first emerged as a world-view: it did not yet have the capability to effectively block out pseudoscience and supernaturalism. In particular, the academies of medicine of the time were barely science-based, so the mesmerists had legitimate critiques of the establishment! It didn't help that the prevailing tendency (held over from older, pre-scientific times) seems to have been censorship rather than criticism and testing in the face of challenges to the orthodoxy. 

Of course, in this work of history there's something to be gained with comparison to the present. I thought it was the height of irony that late-18th-c. France was more "science minded" than contemporary America, at least going off of what people said. And yet, I can't quite see this as a bad thing: it seems that in general science is normalized far more than it was back then, so it's not quite the Big Shiny that let weirdos use it to slip nonsense through people's bullshit sensors. Then again, maybe it's just that 21st-century American society is less monolithic with respect to social movements than 18th-century France was—society-wide faddishness does seem to be a historical defining feature of French society...

The other fascinating thing about Darnton's extensive use of primary sources is how freaking old pseudoscience is. The basic concepts of mesmerism weren't especially original to Anton Mesmer, though they were repackaged into the "fluid" paradigm of contemporary science. And yet they get recycled over and over and over and over into the 21st century, fading into the background but never really dying out. Apparently mesmerists still exist in France, though they are on the obscure-and-sad fringe that nobody much pays attention to, like Theosophists (or, lately, Christian Scientists) are in America.

I give this book a hearty recommendation for anyone who likes the history of ideas, skeptical history, history of science, or French history. However, there was one annoyance: as this is a book for historians of France, there are several passages in the footnotes which are untranslated! I was very disappointed. Still, overall it's definitely worth reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment