The Magazine

Believing Is Seeing

The continuing saga of human credulity.

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), the spellbinding celebrity healer of late-18th-century Vienna and Paris, is one of those mercurial, charismatic characters who can only be described as, well, mesmerizing. Not everyone gets to be a verb and an adjective. For Henri F. Ellenberger, in his massive history of modern psychology, The Discovery of the Unconscious, Mesmer represented the turn from “exorcism to dynamic psychotherapy.” Freud, who began his career by studying trance states with Charcot in Paris, and for whom hypnotism was the first “royal road to the unconscious,” was one of Mesmer’s heirs. Others include the psychic performers who have bewitched, bothered, and bewildered the modern world. 

Animal Magnetism at work

Animal Magnetism at work

photo researchers / getty images

Mesmer hovers, a ghostly presence, over this book about belief in strange things. As author Peter Lamont points out, mesmerists were the first mindpower specialists to take to the stage in early-19th-century England, putting people into trances that made them insensible, or obedient to suggestion and command, before rapt audiences and suspicious scientists.  

What made belief in psychic feats different from belief in earlier phenomena like witchcraft or demonic possession is that those who performed them insisted that no supernatural powers were at work, just an unusual ability to exert or channel a natural force not yet understood by science but one that, once understood, would be fully compatible with it. Mesmer thought he had discovered a subtle vital fluid that he called “animal magnetism”; a royal scientific commission in Paris, however, led by the American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin, decided in 1784 that there was no such thing. It conceded the occasional successes of Mesmer’s methods but attributed them to “imagination,” which, for future psychologists of the unconscious, could itself be considered a mysterious natural force.

The natural powers of X-rays, atomic energy, and cell phones would all have been inconceivable before they gradually weren’t, so one has to be cautious about deciding what improbable things are impossible. This seems to be Lamont’s main point, and it’s hard to argue with it—at least until you look at some of his subjects. If Mesmer demonstrated, without realizing it, the power of the subconscious mind, the psychics and spiritualist mediums who populated the Victorian era (and are still going strong) have mostly demonstrated the power of clever guesswork and deception. 

Spiritualism was one of America’s early cultural exports. It began in 1848 with the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, conducting table-rapping séances. A few years later, Daniel Dunglas Home, born in Scotland but raised in Connecticut, launched his own spectacular career of séances and levitations (of both furniture and himself). He dazzled eminent Victorians in London and royal audiences on the continent, including Napoleon III and the czar of Russia. He won over a skeptical Royal Society scientist named Crookes, but not Charles Dickens or Robert Browning, who publicly ridiculed him. 

Lamont doesn’t dwell on the fact that Home and others were caught using patented tricks. He’s only concerned with how people reacted to their apparently inexplicable feats and tried to explain them. So Lamont ushers his characters offstage quickly, eager to get back to his painstaking, hair-splitting discussions of belief and disbelief. He has some valid points to make about the circular reasoning deployed by both defenders and debunkers of psychic phenomena, and about the questions raised by their attempts to establish expertise and evidence. But he belabors them, repeats them, and turns them inside out without ever arriving at an illuminating psychology of belief, which I kept hoping was the point. 

There’s too much talk, in the academic fashion, about “framing” and “constructing” events and not enough about whether the table really did rise off the carpet in the dimly lit Victorian parlor. 

In the author note, Lamont is described as “a senior lecturer at the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh”—as might be expected. He’s also described as “a longstanding member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, a former professional magician, an Associate of the Inner Magic Circle and Past President of the Edinburgh Magic Circle”—as might not be expected. The book could have used some girls being sawed in half.