You Are Getting Sleepy...


You Are Getting Sleepy…

Perhaps that’s not the best way to beginning a blog post for a Monday morning, but I like how aptly it fits in with today’s theme.

The other day, while working on my second novel, I wanted to include a metaphor that conveyed mesmerized to my readers. (If you want to know more about how I approach metaphor in my writing, take a gander at this post.)

So, stumped by my lack of clear thought in regards to mesmerized, I looked it up, which introduced me to the word from which it’s derived, mesmerism. And quite suddenly I was off down a rabbit hole of discovery.  

Mesmerism- as the ism would suggest- is a system of theory that grew into a quasi-medical practice in the 18th Century. Today we call it hypnotism, and indeed, the foundations of modern hypnotherapy have fledgling roots in Mesmerism, although the actual practicing of the mesmeric pass in the late 1700s is vastly different from the more scientific lines of inquiry and practice employed today. (Although, I hear- and, with a youtube search, have seen- the mesmeric pass is making a comeback.)

The Mesmeric Pass...

Disappointed by the failure of industry acceptable treatments in the 18th century- bleeding, opiates, and various purgative remedies- Austrian doctor Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer delved further into science in the hopes of discovering a more efficacious treatment for his patient’s ailments. (I thoroughly applaud his dissatisfaction with the medical status quo. I’m quite certain leeches were just as disgusting to people in the 1700s as they are to people today.)

He became fascinated with Sir Isaac Newton’s Theory of Gravitation. Mesmer theorized that just as planets were attracted due to the gravitational force between two bodies proportional to their mass, humans existed within a similar construct of attraction, or universal fluid, as he referred to it. He called this attraction animal magnetism. (By the by, another etymological trip, we still use this phrase today, although it’s understood as the indescribable, but undeniable charm or attraction a person can possess.) 

Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism attempted at scientific import. Unfortunately for Mesmer and the disciples he spawned, his theory was soundly rejected by two Royal Commissions by Louis the XVI of France- one in which Benjamin Franklin participated. Furthermore, Mesmer was soundly rejected by his medical colleagues back in Vienna, too. Which does beg the question: How could a group of professionals who gave merit to the miasmas theory (in which the odor of rotting organic matter was held to blame for most of the ailments in society) and thought blood letting was a perfectly acceptable and preferred practice (to balance the humors in a person’s body), reject Mesmer’s supposition with such authority? I mean, given that context, does it really sound so outlandish? (Honestly, it’s not like the 1700s were the pinnacle of medical advancement; for goodness sake, the germ theory wasn’t even seriously entertained until the mid- to late-1800s. Truly, after all those blood lettings and opiate administrations, it’s amazing those ‘medical professional’ had any legs to stand on whatsoever.)

However, even today many relegate Mesmer to a charlatan. We can never know his heart on this. There are plausible hypotheses from both schools of thought; either he was an opportunist who wanted merely fame and fortune, or he was an altruistic doctor who failed to validate his theories through any scientific modes of documentation. 

Regardless of his true motivation, Mesmer is owed a debt of gratitude; after all, it was a mesmerist who ultimately captured Scottish scientist James Braid’s attention (pun intended) enough to prompt him to delve into the scientific veracity of eye fixations. This led to his coining the word hypnotism, that trancelike state in which a patient finds oneself after fixating upon a particular object thereby leaving them open to suggestion. (The evolution of hypnotism is somewhat more straight forward; Braid, wishing to distance himself from the circus that Mesmerism had become, turned to Greek mythology, invoking the god of sleep, Hypnos, as the foundation for his school of thought.) Where Mesmer never scientifically documented any of his patient studies, Braid did numerous, documented scientific experiments and treatments, even cataloguing his failures. His findings afforded a course of study that has brought us to modern hypnotherapy.

So, from Mesmer’s theory, we have the word Mesmerism. From Mesmerism, we developed mesmerists, disciples of Mesmer who followed his theory, particularly learning the complicated hand gestures and touches of the mesmeric pass. Mesmerists- wait for it- mesmerized people. (They continue to do so, actually. Mesmerism is still an enclave of hypnotherapy.)

Back to mesmerized and my quest for good metaphor. I never did make it. I looked up the word, followed the trail of breadcrumbs, and ended up becoming so engrossed with the history that I plum forgot what I had been trying to say in my own writing. (This is a hazard of the trade, and particularly, a curious mind.) I found the progression of the word, and how it affiliated with the progression of a medical theory into a plausible practice, fascinating. I suppose you could say the topic mesmerized me. (Oh dear Lord, I went there.)

How about you? Has anything like that ever happened in the course of your research? Has an unrelated tidbit of information held you spellbound so entirely, you spent more time than you ought engrossed in finding out about it? Do you know any words like this? With colorful histories? If you do, please, share, share, share. 

And, if you're etymologically curious, here are a couple other instances of etymological origins that you might find interesting: Keen as Mustard? and Why I Love Subtitles: Tact vs. Tack.