Conference Agenda

9D: From Mesmerism to Jean-Martin Charcot
Friday, 10/Sept/2021:
9:00am - 10:15am

Session Chair: Prof. Kaat Wils, KU Leuven


Mesmeric therapy of the self. Medico-spiritual guidance in Mesmer’s Mémoire (1779) and Précis historique (1781).*

Conickx, Chloé

Ghent University, Belgium

In relation to religious care, historiography has treated the curious medical therapy of mesmerism as an eighteenth-century ‘naturalization’ or ‘medicalization’ of traditionally ‘spiritual’ concerns, pathologies and healing practices. Mesmer (1734-1815) had introduced the existence of a magnetic fluid that connected all beings, thereby explaining health and disease as caused by natural, ‘magnetic’ influences rather than as the result of supernatural interventions. This paper problematizes the important elements of continuity between religious and medical/mesmeric therapeutics in Mesmer’s Mémoire (1779) and Précis historique (1781). More specifically, I argue that the appeal and specificity of particular vocabularies and imageries in both forms of therapeutics are symptomatic of their shared nature as technologies of the self (cf. Michel Foucault) or ascetic spiritual exercises (cf. Pierre Hadot).

By implication, I also suggest that a historiographical focus on secularization of religious discourses and world-views is not only uninteresting but also potentially counterproductive in understanding the specificity of such therapeutics. This paper overcomes presentist interpretations of medicine as progressing from ‘premodern religious practices’ to ‘modern scientific discipline’. In addition, it acknowledges that disciplinary borders were quite vague in this period and that early modern practices and discourses, like medicine and (Christian) religion, shared common concerns and ways of meaning-making.

Gérard Encausse: The Occult and Scientific-Self

Dally-Watkins, Genevieve

The University of Sydney, Australia

This paper will explore the life and works of the occultist and doctor, Gérard Encausse (1865-1916). Although the esoteric facets of Encausse’s life have been extensively addressed, he often falls into the footnotes of French neurological history. My paper will consider Encausse’s reconciliation of medical and occult sciences and assess whether his activities aligned with the broader medical and cultural climate of fin-de-siècle Paris. I will argue that Encausse demonstrates how the occult subject could connect to the medical doctor. Specifically, I propose the juxtaposition of degenerate and female passivity with masculine scientific rationality was a common construction within French occultism and medicine. I will contextualise this claim through examining an occult treatise by Encausse and Jean-Martin Charcot’s formulations of hysteria and mysticism. Fundamentally, the aim of this presentation is two-fold. Firstly, I will demonstrate how identity and disciplinary notions could link esoteric and medical practices. Secondly, I intend to illustrate that late-nineteenth century Paris had an eclectic tradition that melded together medical, aesthetic, and metaphysical systems. This paper demonstrates differing degrees of engagement with this tradition: on one end of the spectrum, figures like Charcot tried to extricate themselves from this framework; on the other, individuals like Encausse championed the system. Esotericists and physicians have been presented as oppositional agents around questions of positivism and faith. This paper will demonstrate that they collectively pathologised spirituality and spiritualised pathological inquiry.

Deconstructing the Miracle: Jean-Martin Charcot’s Neurophysiological Interpretation of Faith Healing in Hysteria Patients*

Muhr, Paula

Independent researcher

The late-nineteenth-century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot became famous for his research into hysteria, a mysterious disorder characterised by various somatic symptoms that appeared to lack a detectable organic cause.

Charcot’s approach to hysteria was purely materialistic. He thus argued that hysterical symptoms were caused by a hypothetical functional disturbance of the brain, i.e., a dynamic lesion. Moreover, in a decidedly anticlerical move, he retrospectively diagnosed famous saints, religious mystics and demoniacs as hysterics. Yet, in his last published text, “La foi qui guérit,” Charcot acknowledged the efficacy of miracle cures that transpired in religious sanctuaries. In this text, Charcot argued that miracle cures could only happen in individuals suffering from hysteria and that such patient had to exhibit excessive suggestibility.

Several contemporary scholars have taken these claims to mean that Charcot had abandoned his materialistic views and shifted to a psychologically inflected interpretation of hysteria. However, through a close reading of “La foi qui guérit” and Charcot’s earlier lectures on medical treatments of hysteria, I suggest that this was not the case. Instead, I show that in Charcot’ interpretation, faith healing was not a religious miracle but was grounded in the same neurophysiological principles that informed medical treatment of hysteria. In both cases, healing worked through autosuggestion, which, according to Charcot, was a form of a neurophysiologically determined cerebral reflex. In short, for Charcot, faith healing was effective because it physiologically altered hysteria patients’ brain function.