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Edgar Allan Poe and Mesmeric Possibility

In American History, Arts & Letters, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Writing on May 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This piece first appeared here at The Literary Table in 2010.

Sidney E. Lind, writing in the 1940s, said of the “mesmeric lexica” of nineteenth-century America:  “It is safe to say that the terminology of mesmerism was bandied about in much the same manner as the language of psychoanalysis was to be eighty years later, and with, in all probability, as little real comprehension on the part of the public.”

Lind’s reference to psychoanalysis—signified, at that moment, by Austrian physicist Sigmund Freud—is particularly telling for 21st century audiences, who have witnessed an avalanche of criticism of psychoanalysis, a pseudoscience, according to the naysayers, the results of which are un-testable at best and bogus at worst.  Lind’s aim is not to destabilize the practices of psychoanalysis but to interrogate three short works by Edgar Allan Poe in which mesmerism features prominently:  “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”  “These three stories,” Lind submits, “constitute a series within which the mesmeric experiment becomes more profound, irrespective of plausibility or implausibility, or of whether or not Poe in at least two of the three was hoaxing his readers.”

Lind’s point is well-taken.  In Poe’s day, the subject of mesmerism was “in the air” and therefore “it was logical that Poe, as a journalist sensitive to popular interest, should have exploited it.”  True, these three stories exhibit, often wryly, a profound familiarity with mesmeric techniques and influences.  But more is going on in them than Lind lets on.  Indeed, Lind goes to great lengths to contextualize these stories within scientific (or other) discourses on mesmerism in Poe’s era, but he overemphasizes their “unity,” “theme,” and “intention” (always mimetic) instead of their singular dialogic contribution.  That is to say, Lind treats the stories as “echoes” or “reiterations” of other thinkers rather than as unique theses in their own right.  For Lind, the stories are indebted to other sources because they derive their vocabularies and methods from these sources.  I would suggest that Poe’s stories are in conversation with various dissertations on mesmerism rather than mere signs of cherry-picking or copying.  Although Poe’s modus operandi or preferred genre is fiction, his supposedly plagiarized passages lend substance to the notion that he might actually have been dissertating on mesmerism, animal magnetism, or hypnosis.  The luxury of storytelling is that the storyteller can dismiss unverifiable data as hoaxes or products of imagination; nevertheless, the storyteller can at least hope to hit on something real, novel, or scientific.  Two examples, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, writing well after Poe, conceived of technological advances—most notably space travel—long before such advances were practical.

Lind’s work, at any rate, is impressively researched, laying the foundation for future analyses of Poe and his infatuations with mesmerism.  But why does Lind downplay Poe’s role in developing pioneering work?  All arguments are indebted to previous arguments; indebtedness does not take away from the originality or force of their articulation or genre.

Unlike Lind, Matthew A. Taylor calls attention to the distinctiveness of Poe’s contributions to “mesmeric theory” (for want of a better phrase) and its progeny.  He locates Poe in contradistinction to Herbert Mayo:  “Unlike Mayo, […] Poe radically deviated from the utopian utilitarian, or benign notions of mesmerism at play in most contemporary discourses on the topic, picturing instead the unsettling implications for human ontology consequent upon the idea that persons are less sovereign entities than manipulatable effects of external powers.”  In short, Poe considered mesmerism a bad thing, or at least a dangerous thing that did not lead down a road to human improvement.  “Poe concluded,” Taylor opines, “that an all-encompassing cosmic energy inevitably troubles human-being by suspending the autonomy and interiority of individual humans; the disorientation of normal, corporeal functioning and the literal loss of self-possession attending mesmeric practice illustrated for Poe the fact that people are little more than occasions for the demonstration of an impersonal power.”  If Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism is not only unique but also quite sophisticated; it demonstrates a full understanding of mesmeric theory while simultaneously rejecting that theory.  More to the point, if Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism stands on its own and demands critical attention.  Unlike Lind, Taylor seems to acknowledge Poe’s special role in shaping mesmeric theory—or, more precisely, mesmeric counter-theory.  In fact, Taylor seems to think Poe’s ideas about mesmerism reflect an entire cosmology about human nature and the imperfectability of humankind.  This is a tall claim.  For present purposes, it shows that Poe might have been worried about more than entertaining readers with fanciful mind-candy.  He might have been positing a worldview that flew in the face of prevailing physics (that “perverse yet consistent calculus that unites everything in existence under a single, universal law that, by definition, eliminates all difference—including, of course, the human difference”).  Poe, the relativistic Renaissance man, might have been demonstrating his facility as both scientist and philosopher.  To further establish Poe’s uniqueness, I might add to Taylor’s observations the theological dimension of “Mesmeric Revelation,” which accounts for evangelical objections to mesmerism without plainly endorsing or rejecting them.

Besides the three stories that Lind interrogates, there are, Martin Willis claims, “many other tales that exemplify [Poe’s] abiding interest in the contestation between the science and the human, as well as his fascination with the borderlands of scientific achievement, both in terms of their advancement to new states of knowledge and their place within the scientific pantheon.”  Poe’s interest in scientific trends was not a passing one.  Willis points out that Poe spent years studying science in general before turning to mesmerism in particular.  Whether Poe “believed” in mesmerism is unclear.  It seems plausible that his stories about mesmerism were meant, in Willis’s words,  to “consider mesmeric debates in the realm of fiction rather than that of science.”  I would argue that Poe collapses any distinction between science and fiction by teasing out various theses—which, for all he knew, might one day be proven—through the medium of imaginary characters.  In doing so, Poe forges a distance between theories and their authors: if the theories turn out to be “true,” future generations will consider Poe a genius; if they turn out to be bogus, future generations will claim Poe was merely hoaxing.  Thus the dual-advantage of employing fiction to hash out scientific hypotheses.  Regardless of whether Poe is ultimately “right” about any of his dissertations, which he dresses up as fiction, he demonstrates an impressive breadth of knowledge that should not be ignored.

Not all scholars have ignored it.  Antoine Faivre takes pains to explain how Poe appropriated scientific knowledge and then inserted it into fictional narratives.  He suggests that many readers have mistaken or misread Poe’s tales as “factual, non-fictional case studies,” which in turn has led to a “flurry of reactions and debates.”  My point is not to argue that Poe treats his stories as factual case-studies but to suggest that he left open the case-study possibility.  In other words, Poe might have wanted readers to misread his tales as factual, or else to have some later scientist come along and verify the “truth” of his hypotheses, notwithstanding whether they were in fact his, or whether they were intended as reasoned argument at all.

Lind allows that Poe might not have been hoaxing readers in writing about mesmerism.  “Mesmerism as a theme for fiction,” he explains, “was, like metempsychosis and the exploration of the realm of the conscience, so well suited to Poe’s principles of literary composition that it was natural for him to work this new field, to attempt to achieve the sensational without deliberately attempting to mislead.”  More than simply avoiding misleading commentary, Poe might have been dissertating with the hopes that, one day, scientists would look on his fiction as a catalyst for new and innovative practices.  While not aspiring to complete verisimilitude, Poe’s stories about mesmerism are highly sophisticated tracts, informed by trendy scientific theories (and their counter-discourses), and very probably marked with the faint expectation that their subjects, though fictional, might somehow contribute to future systems of knowledge.

See the following for further reading:

Faivre, Antoine.  “Borrowings and Misreading:  Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Mesmeric’ Tales and the Strange Case of their Reception.”  Aries, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2007: 21-62).

Lind, Sidney E.  “Poe and Mesmerism.”  PMLA, Vol. 62, No. 4 (1947:  1077-1094).

Torrey, E. Fuller.  Freudian Fraud:  The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture. Lucas Publishers, 1999.

Taylor, Matthew A.  “Edgar Allan Poe’s (Meta)physics:  A Pre-History of the Post Human.”  Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 62, No. 2 (2007: 193-221).

Willis, Martin.  Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines:  Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century. Kent State University Press, 2006.


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