Franz Anton Mesmer's concept of animal magnetism exercised a profound influence on key European and American thinkers. Mesmer, who saw in his discovery the secret of health, had hoped to recover the harmony between man and nature by harnessing the power of magnetic fluids. In calling attention to the existence of a second self that surfaces in the hypnotic trance, Mesmer made his real contribution and took the first, decisive steps on the road leading to the unconscious. While most critical studies of mesmerism originate in the history of science or medicine, Maria Tatar's book takes a fresh approach by tracing the impact of mesmerism on literature.
The author launches her account with a portrait of Mesmer and places his views in the context of eighteenth-century thought. She then explores the significance of Mesmer's ideas and studies their influence on nineteenth-century German, French, and American writers. In conclusion, she examines the ways in which modern authors absorbed and reshaped the mesmerist legacy bequeathed to them by earlier generations.
Whether discussing the electrical energy vibrating through Kleist's dramas, the electrical heat radiating from Hoffmann's figures, the streams of magnetic fluid coursing through Balzac's novels, or the magnetic chain of humanity linking Hawthorne's characters, Professor Tatar recaptures the meaning of ideas, motifs, and metaphors often overlooked by literary critics. Her study illuminates, in a remarkable way, the subtle connections between science, psychology, and literature.
Originally published in 1978.
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