I cannot let Pushkin Press Fortnight pass without profuse thanks to Pushkin Press for its dedication to bringing the works of Stefan Zweig back into the anglophone consciousness I’ve written about his wonderful short stories here and here. Zweig was also a prolific non-fiction writer and Pushkin Press has been republishing many of his fine biographies in recent years. Of course I’ve been collecting them. It was Zweig’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, Maria Stuart, that accompanied my move from Germany to Scotland many years ago.
Today, however, I will concentrate on the first piece in the volume Mental Healers: Mesmer, Eddy, Freud. Zweig’s portrayal of Franz Anton Mesmer is highly sympathetic, showing his subject to be an honourable philanthropic man, whose destiny was of one born out of the due time. His theory of “animal magnetism” involved, after he had dispensed with the use of magnets, the transference of energy from himself to his patients and the induction of a psychological crisis beneficial to healing. I’m using Mesmer’s vocabulary there which even now sounds outlandish, perhaps a little uncanny. With alternative therapies still struggling for professional acceptance in our modern world, it’s no wonder the 18th-century Viennese establishment hounded him from the city, the scandal of the blind pianist being the final straw.
Zweig is at pains to point out that Mesmer was a bona fide physician and was not indulging in quackery. He practised according to a method even if he couldn’t explain it sufficiently to his detractors. But did he heal the pianist Maria Theresia Paradies as he claimed? Zweig is even-handed in this regard pointing out that she never saw again once she had left his care. And yet there is report written by her father, who was eventually bullied into removing his daughter from Mesmer’s hospital, which contains so poignant a description of the gradual rediscovery of the world of light ….. it would need a greater imaginative writer and psychologist than either poor old Herr Paradies or the practical minded Mesmer to invent such subtle observations and artificially to excogitate what the patient is alleged to have said about her psychological moods.
That invention or reimagination is the core of Alissa Walser’s Mesmerized. Reading over the contemporaneous report quoted in Zweig’s essay, I am convinced it was source material for the novel, which is also sympathetic to Mesmer, while at the same time showing human imperfection here and there. Walser does what Zweig cannot (at least in an essay). She takes us into into the minds of both Mesmer and his patient using broken sentences. Staccato phrases. An indirect stream of consciousness, which is not dissimilar to the voice within my own head. No surprise, then, that I liked it … very much. The story is made even more interesting by the addition of two female characters; Mesmer’s renegade maid, Kaline, and his older wife. Zweig mentions the latter but only in her role as a rich widow. Walser shows the frustrations she must have experienced as she and Mesmer were increasingly shunned by Viennese society and also the irony of a man who could manage the hysteria of his patients but not the passionate outbursts of his wife.
Mesmer was also an accomplished musician and, as such, understood the effects of music on mood and well-being. Could it have been the effects of sound waves on the human psyche that convinced Mesmer of the existence of other invisible energies, the energy he called “animal magnetism”? Do we have another name for it now? The irony is that mesmerism (hypnosis) was unknown to Mesmer! Zweig explains Mesmer was a forerunner, tapping into new knowledge but not fully understanding it himself. It was one of his French followers, Puységur, who made the breakthrough and opened the doors to psychoanalysis.
Now that’s a fascinating subject in itself and I look forward to reading the other essays in Zweig’s collection. More relevant to this blog, however, is the reading trail that leads from Mesmer and Puységur directly to the German Romantics. To quote Zweig once more: Romance was no longer to be sought under druidical oak trees, or in the world of the “little folk”; extraordinary adventures could now find their setting in the sublunary sphere between dreaming and waking, between willing and compulsion. He mentions such literary luminaries as Kleist, Hoffmann, Tieck, Bretano, who pressed forward to the exploration of the bizarre, fantastic, and gruesome realm. Given that my book of 2013 explored similar terrain, and left me wanting more, this is a path that I shall meander along for a little while longer.