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Chapter 22

LETTER XXII.

Animal Magnetism.—Somnambules.—Magnetised Patients.—My own
Examination.—A Prediction.—Ventriloquism.—Force of the Imagination.

To JAMES E. DE KAY, M.D.

Although we have not been without our metaphysical hallucinations in America, I do not remember to have heard that "animal magnetism" was ever in vogue among us. A people who are not very quick to feel the poetry of sentiment, may well be supposed exempt from the delusions of a doctrine which comprehends the very poetry of physics. Still, as the subject is not without interest, and as chance has put me in the way of personally inquiring into this fanciful system, I intend, in this letter, to give you an account of what I have both heard and seen.

I shall premise by saying that I rank "animal magnetism" among the "arts" rather than among the "sciences." Of its theory I have no very clear notion, nor do I believe that I am at all peculiar in my ignorance; but until we can say what is that other "magnetism" to which the world is indisputably so much indebted for its knowledge and comforts, I do not know that we are to repudiate this, merely because we do not understand it. Magnetism is an unseen and inexplicable influence, and that is "metallic," while this is "animal;" voilà tout. On the whole, it may be fairly mooted which most controls the world, the animal or the metallic influence.

To deal gravely with a subject that, at least, baffles our comprehension, there are certainly very extraordinary things related of animal magnetism, and apparently on pretty good testimony. Take, for instance, a single fact. M. Jules Cloquet is one of the cleverest practitioners of Paris, and is in extensive business. This gentleman publicly makes the following statement. I write it from memory, but have heard it and read it so often, that I do not think my account will contain any essential error.

A woman, who was subject to the magnetic influence, or who was what is commonly called a somnambule, had a cancer in the breast. M. ——, one of the principal magnetisers of Paris, and from whom, among others, I have had an account of the whole affair, was engaged to magnetise this woman, while M. Cloquet operated on the diseased part. The patient was put asleep, or rather into the magnetic trance, for it can scarcely be called sleep, and the cancer was extracted, without the woman's manifesting the least terror, or the slightest sense of pain! To the truth of the substance of this account, M. Cloquet, who does not pretend to explain the reason, nor profess to belong, in any way, to the school, simply testifies. He says that he had such a patient, and that she was operated on, virtually, as I have told you. Such a statement, coming from so high a source, induced the Academy, which is certainly not altogether composed of magnetisers, but many of whose members are quite animal enough to comprehend the matter, to refer the subject to a special committee, which committee, I believe, was comprised of very clever men. The substance of their report was pretty much what might have been anticipated. They said that the subject was inexplicable, and that "animal magnetism" could not be brought within the limits of any known laws of nature. They might have said the same thing of the comets! In both cases we have facts, with a few established consequences, but are totally without elementary causes.

Animal magnetism is clearly one of three things: it is what it pretends to be, an unexplained and as yet incomprehensible physical influence; it is delusion, or it is absolute fraud.

A young countryman of ours, having made the acquaintance of M. C——, professionally, and being full of the subject, I have so far listened to his entreaties as to inquire personally into the facts, a step I might not have otherwise been induced to take.

I shall now proceed to the history of my own experience in this inexplicable mystery. We found M. C—— buried in the heart of Paris, in one of those vast old hotels, which give to this town the air of generations of houses, commencing with the quaint and noble of the sixteenth century, and ending with the more fashionable pavilion of our own times. His cabinet looked upon a small garden, a pleasant transition from the animal within to the vegetable without. But one meets with gardens, with their verdure and shrubbery and trees, in the most unexpected manner, in this crowded town.

M. C—— received us politely, and we found with him one of his somnambules; but as she had just come out of a trance, we were told she could not be put asleep again that morning. Our first visit, therefore, went no farther than some discourse on the subject of "animal magnetism," and a little practical by-play, that shall be related in its place.

M. C—— did not attempt ascending to first principles, in his explanations. Animal magnetism was animal magnetism—it was a fact, and not a theory. Its effects were not to be doubted; they depended on testimony of sufficient validity to dispose of any mere question of authenticity. All that he attempted was hypothesis, which he invited us to controvert. He might as well have desired me to demonstrate that the sun is not a carbuncle. On the modus operandi, and the powers of his art, the doctor was more explicit. There were a great many gradations in quality in his somnambules, some being better and some worse; and there was also a good deal of difference in the intensity of the magnetiser's. It appears to be settled that the best somnambules are females, and the best magnetisers males, though the law is not absolute. I was flattered with being, by nature, a first-rate magnetiser, and the doctor had not the smallest doubt of his ability to put me to sleep; and ability, so far as his theory went, I thought it was likely enough he might possess, though I greatly questioned his physical means.

I suppose it is primâ facie evidence of credulity, to take the trouble to inquire into the subject at all; at any rate it was quite evident I was set down as a good subject, from the moment of my appearance. Even the somnambule testified to this, though she would not then consent to be put into a trance in order to give her opinion its mystical sanction.

The powers of a really good somnambule are certainly of a very respectable class. If a lock of hair be cut from the head of an invalid, and sent a hundred leagues from the provinces, such a somnambule, properly magnetised, becomes gifted with the faculty to discover the seat of the disease, however latent; and, by practice, she may even prescribe the remedy, though this is usually done by a physician, like M. C——, who is regularly graduated. The somnambule is, properly, only versed in pathology, any other skill she may discover being either a consequence of this knowledge, or the effects of observation and experience. The powers of a somnambule extend equally to the morale as well as to the physique. In this respect a phrenologist is a pure quack in comparison with a lady in a trance. The latter has no dependence on bumps and organs, but she looks right through you, at a glance, and pronounces ex cathedrâ, whether you are a rogue, or an honest man; a well-disposed, or an evil-disposed child of Adam. In this particular, it is an invaluable science, and it is a thousand pities all young women were not magnetised before they pronounce the fatal vows, as not a few of them would probably wake up, and cheat the parson of his fee. Our sex is difficult to be put asleep, and are so obstinate, that I doubt if they would be satisfied with a shadowy glimpse of the temper and dispositions of their mistresses.

You may possibly think I am trifling with you, and that I invent as I write. On the contrary, I have not related one half of the miraculous powers which being magnetised imparts to the thoroughly good somnambule, as they were related to me by M. C——, and vouched for by four or five of his patients who were present, as well as by my own companion, a firm believer in the doctrine. M. C—— added that somnambules improve by practice, as well as magnetisers, and that he has such command over one of his somnambules that he can put her to sleep, by a simple effort of the will, although she may be in her own apartment, in an adjoining street. He related the story of M. Cloquet and the cancer, with great unction, and asked me what I thought of that? Upon my word, I did not very well know what I did think of it, unless it was to think it very queer. It appeared to me to be altogether extraordinary, especially as I knew M. Cloquet to be a man of talents, and believe him to be honest.

By this time I was nearly magnetised with second-hand facts; and I became a little urgent for one or two that were visible to my own sense. I was promised more testimony, and a sight of the process of magnetising some water that a patient was to drink. This patient was present; the very type of credulity. He listened to everything that fell from M. C—— with a gusto and a faith that might have worked miracles truly, had it been of the right sort, now and then turning his good-humoured marvel-eating eyes on me, as much as to say, "What do you think of that, now?" My companion told me, in English, he was a man of good estate, and of proved philanthropy, who had no more doubt of the efficacy of animal magnetism than I had of my being in the room. He had brought with him two bottles of water, and these M. C—— magnetised, by pointing his fingers at their orifices, rubbing their sides, and ringing his hands about them as if washing them, in order to disengage the subtle fluid that was to impart to them their healing properties, for the patient drank no other water.

Presently a young man came in, of a good countenance and certainly of a very respectable exterior. As the somnambule had left us, and this person could not consult her, which was his avowed intention in coming, M. C—— proposed to let me see his own power as a magnetiser, in an experiment on this patient. The young man consenting, the parties were soon prepared. M. C—— began by telling me, that he would, by a transfusion of his will, into the body of the patient, compel him to sit still, although his own desire should be to rise. In order to achieve this, he placed himself before the young man and threw off the fluid from his fingers' ends, which he kept in a cluster, by constant forward gestures of the arms. Sometimes he held the fingers pointed at some particular part of the body, the heart in preference, though the brain would have been more poetical. The young man certainly did not rise; neither did I, nor any one else in the room. As this experiment appeared so satisfactory to everybody else, I was almost ashamed to distrust it, easy as it really seemed to sit still, with a man flourishing his fingers before one's eyes.

I proposed that the doctor should see if he could pin me down, in this invisible fashion, but this he frankly admitted he did not think he could do so soon, though he foresaw I would become a firm believer in the existence of animal magnetism, ere long, and a public supporter of its wonders. In time, he did not doubt his power to work the same miracle on me. He then varied the experiment, by making the young man raise his arm contrary to his wishes. The same process was repealed, all the fluid being directed at the arm, which, after a severe trial, was slowly raised, until it pointed forward like a finger-board. After this he was made to stand up, in spite of himself. This was the hardest affair of all, the doctor throwing off the fluid in handfuls; the magnetised refusing for some time to budge an inch. At length he suddenly stood up, and seemed to draw his breath like one who finally yields after a strong trial of his physical force.

Nothing, certainly, is easier than for a young man to sit still and to stand up, pretending that he strives internally to resist the desire to do either. Still, if you ask me, if I think this was simple collusion, I hardly know what to answer. It is the easiest solution, and yet it did not strike me as being the true one. I never saw less of the appearance of deception than in the air of this young man; his face, deportment, and acts being those of a person in sober earnest. He made no professions, was extremely modest, and really seemed anxious not to have the experiments tried. To my question, if he resisted the will of M. C——, he answered, as much as he could, and said, that when he rose, he did it because he could not help himself. I confess myself disposed to believe in his sincerity and good faith.

I had somewhat of a reputation, when a boy, of effecting my objects by pure dint of teasing. Many is the shilling I have abstracted, in this way, from my mother's purse, who, constantly affirmed that it was sore against her will. Now, it seems to me, that M. C—— may, very easily, have acquired so much command over a credulous youth, as to cause him to do things of this nature, as he may fancy, against his own will. Signs are the substitutes of words, which of themselves are purely conventional, and, in his case, the flourishing of the fingers are merely so many continued solicitations to get up. When the confirmation of a theory that is already received, and which is doubly attractive by its mysticisms, depends, in some measure, on the result, the experiment becomes still less likely to fail. It is stripping one of all pretensions to be a physiognomist, to believe that this young man was not honest; and I prefer getting over the difficulty in this way. As to the operator himself, he might, or might not, be the dupe of his own powers. If the former, I think it would, on the whole, render him the more likely to succeed with his subject.

After a visit or two, I was considered sufficiently advanced to be scientifically examined. One of the very best of the somnambules was employed on the occasion, and everything being in readiness, she was put to sleep. There was a faith-shaking brevity in this process, which, to say the least, if not fraudulent, was ill-judged. The doctor merely pointed his fingers at her once or twice, looking her intently in the eye, and the woman gaped; this success was followed up by a flourish or two of the hand, and the woman slept, or was magnetised. Now this was hardly sufficient even for my theory of the influence of the imagination. One could have wished the somnambule had not been so drowsy. But there she was, with her eyes shut, giving an occasional hearty gape, and the doctor declared her perfectly lit for service. She retained her seat, however, moved her body, laughed, talked, and, in all other respects, seemed to be precisely the woman she was before he pointed his fingers at her. At first, I felt a disposition to manifest that more parade was indispensable to humbugging me (who am not the Pope, you will remember), but reflection said, the wisest way was to affect a little faith, as the surest means of securing more experiments. Moreover, I am not certain, on the whole, that the simplicity of the operation is not in favour of the sincerity of the parties; for, were deception deliberately planned, it would be apt to call in the aid of more mummery, and this, particularly, in a case in which there was probably a stronger desire than usual to make a convert.

I gave the somnambule my hand, and the examination was commenced, forthwith. I was first physically inspected, and the report was highly favourable to the condition of the animal. I had the satisfaction of hearing from this high authority, that the whole machinery of the mere material man was in perfect order, everything working well and in its proper place. This was a little contrary to my own experience, it is true, but as I had no means of seeing the interior clock-work of my own frame, like the somnambule, had I ventured to raise a doubt, it would have been overturned by the evidence of one who had ocular proofs of what she said, and should, beyond question, have incurred the ridicule of being accounted a malade imaginaire.

Modesty must prevent my recording all that this obliging somnambule testified to, on the subject of my morale. Her account of the matter was highly satisfactory, and I must have been made of stone, not to credit her and her mysticisms. M. C—— looked at me again and again, with an air of triumph, as much as to say, "What do you think of all that now?—are you not really the noble, honest, virtuous, disinterested, brave creature, she has described you to be?" I can assure you, it required no little self-denial to abstain from becoming a convert to the whole system. As it is very unusual to find a man with a good head, who has not a secret inclination to believe in phrenology, so does he, who is thus purified by the scrutiny of animal magnetism, feel disposed to credit its mysterious influence. Certainly, I might have gaped, in my turn, and commenced the moral and physical dissection of the somnambule, whose hand I held, and no one could have given me the lie, for nothing is easier than to speak ex cathedrâ, when one has a monopoly of knowledge.

Encouraged by this flattering account of my own condition, I begged hard for some more indisputable evidence of the truth of the theory. I carried a stop-watch, and as I had taken an opportunity to push the stop on entering the room, I was particularly desirous that the somnambule should tell me the time indicated by its hands, a common test of their powers, I had been told; but to this M. C—— objected, referring everything of this tangible nature to future occasions. In fine, I could get nothing during three or four visits, but pretty positive assertions, expressions of wonder that I should affect to doubt what had been so often and so triumphantly proved to others, accounts physical and moral, like the one of which I had been the subject myself, and which did not admit of either confirmation or refutation, and often-repeated declarations, that the time was not distant when, in my own unworthy person, I was to become one of the most powerful magnetisers of the age. All this did very well to amuse, but very little towards convincing; and I was finally promised, that at my next visit, the somnambule would be prepared to show her powers, in a way that would not admit of cavil.

I went to the appointed meeting with a good deal of curiosity to learn the issue, and a resolution not to be easily duped. When I presented myself (I believe it was the fourth visit), M. C—— gave me a sealed paper, that was not to be opened for several weeks, and which, he said, contained the prediction of an event that was to occur to myself, between the present time and the day set for the opening of the letter, and which the somnambule had been enabled to foresee, in consequence of the interest she took in me and mine. With this sealed revelation, then, I was obliged to depart, to await the allotted hour.

M. C—— had promised to be present at the opening of the seal, but he did not appear. I dealt fairly by him, and the cover was first formally removed, on the evening of the day endorsed on its back, as the one when it would be permitted. The somnambule had foretold that, in the intervening time, one of my children would be seriously ill, that I should magnetise it, and the child would recover. Nothing of the sort had occurred. No one of the family had been ill, I had not attempted to magnetise any one, or even dreamed of it, and, of course, the whole prediction was a complete failure.

To do M. C—— justice, when he heard the result, he manifested surprise rather than any less confident feeling. I was closely questioned, first, as to whether either of the family had not been ill, and secondly, whether I had not felt a secret desire to magnetise any one of them. To all these interrogatories, truth compelled me to give unqualified negatives. I had hardly thought of the subject during the whole time. As this interview took place at my own house, politeness compelled me to pass the matter off as lightly as possible. There happened to be several ladies present, however, the evening M. C—— called, and, thinking the occasion a good one for him to try his powers on some one besides his regular somnambules, I invited him to magnetise any one of the party who might be disposed to submit to the process. To this he made no difficulty, choosing an English female friend as the subject of the experiment. The lady in question raised no objection, and the doctor commenced with great zeal, and with every appearance of faith in his own powers. No effect, however, was produced on this lady, or on one or two more of the party, all of whom obstinately refused even to gape. M. C—— gave the matter up, and soon after took his leave, and thus closed my personal connexion with animal magnetism.

If you ask me for the conclusions I have drawn from these facts, I shall be obliged to tell you, that I am in doubt how far the parties concerned deceived others, and how far they deceived themselves. It is difficult to discredit entirely all the testimony that has been adduced in behalf of this power; and one is consequently obliged to refer all the established facts to the influence of the imagination. Then testimony itself is but a precarious thing, different eyes seeing the same objects in different lights.

Let us take ventriloquism as a parallel case to that of animal magnetism. Ventriloquism is neither more nor less than imitation; and yet, aided by the imagination, perhaps a majority of those who know anything about it, are inclined to believe there is really such a faculty as that which is vulgarly attributed to ventriloquism. The whole art of the ventriloquist consists in making such sounds as would be produced by a person, or thing, that should be actually in the circumstances that he wishes to represent. Let there be, for instance, five or six sitting around a table, in a room with a single door; a ventriloquist among them wishes to mislead his companions, by making them believe that another is applying for admission. All he has to do, is to make a sound similar to that which a person on the outside would make, in applying for admission. "Open the door, and let me in," uttered in such a manner, would deceive any one who was not prepared for the experiment, simply because men do not ordinarily make such sounds when sitting near each other, because the words themselves would draw the attention to the door, and because the sounds would be suited to the fictitious application. If there were two doors, the person first moving his head towards one of them, would probably give a direction to the imaginations of all the others; unless, indeed, the ventriloquist himself, by his words, or his own movements, as is usually the case, should assume the initiative. Every ventriloquist takes especial care to direct the imagination of his listener to the desired point, either by what he says, by some gesture, or by some movement. Such, undeniably, is the fact in regard to ventriloquism; for we know enough of the philosophy of sound, to be certain it can he nothing else. One of the best ventriloquists of this age, after affecting to resist this explanation of his mystery, candidly admitted to me, on finding that I stuck to the principles of reason, that all his art consisted of no more than a power to control the imagination by imitation supported occasionally by acting. And yet I once saw this man literally turn a whole family out of doors, in a storm, by an exercise of his art. On that occasion, so complete was the delusion, that the good people of the house actually fancied sounds which came from the ventriloquist, came from a point considerably beyond the place where they stood, and on the side opposite to that occupied by the speaker, although they stood at the top of a flight of steps, and he stood at the bottom. All this time, the sounds appeared to me to come from the place whence, by the laws of sound, except in cases of reverberation, and of the influence of the imagination, they only could appear to come; or, in other words, from the mouth of the ventriloquist himself. Now, if the imagination can effect so much, even in crowded assemblies, composed of people of all degrees of credulity, intelligence, and strength of mind, and when all are prepared, in part at least, for the delusion, what may it not be expected to produce on minds peculiarly suited to yield to its influence, and this, too, when the prodigy takes the captivating form of mysticism and miracles!

In the case of the patient of M. Cloquet, we are reduced to the alternatives of denying the testimony, of believing that recourse was had to drugs, of referring all to the force of the imagination, or of admitting the truth of the doctrine of animal magnetism. The character of M. Cloquet, and the motiveless folly of such a course, compel us to reject the first; the second can hardly be believed, as the patient had not the appearance of being drugged, and the possession of such a secret would be almost as valuable as the art in question itself. The doctrine of animal magnetism we cannot receive, on account of the want of uniformity and exactitude in the experiments; and I think, we are fairly driven to take refuge in the force of the imagination. Before doing this, however, we ought to make considerable allowances for exaggerations, colouring, and the different manner in which men are apt to regard the same thing. My young American friend, who did believe in animal magnetism, viewed several of the facts I have related with eyes more favourable than mine, although even he was compelled to allow that M. C—— had much greater success with himself, than with your humble servant.

James Fenimore Cooper

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