A few years ago, I took a course called “Psychology of Religion”. During that course we discussed several psychological theories on religion or religious phenomena. We discussed early developers of psychology, including Freud, and one of his predecessors: Franz Anton Mesmer. Even though I am not a particular fan of Freud, I found the introductory information about Mesmer fascinating. Here a few of my interests came together: the mysterious power of “animal magnetism” (often understood in terms of charisma and hysteria later on, though Mesmer would call it decidedly scientific), the history of science, and gender.
Can you imagine my joy when I received a review copy of this historical fiction novel on this very topic? Mesmerized tells the story of Mesmer’s quest to be recognised by his medical colleagues. It does so by tracing his treatment of the blind musical prodigy Maria Parradis, the daughter of the Imperial Court Official. A successful treatment may give Mesmer the chance to enter the higher circles, while it might enable Maria to become an internationally famed pianist. Shifting between the perspectives of Mesmer and Maria, Mesmerized allows us to learn about the struggles of both to be recognised as people in their own right, about the appeal and rejection of animal magnetism as a valuable treatment for disorders, and the scandal that soon starts to circulate about Maria and Mesmer’s presumed relationship.
The interesting thing about Mesmerized is that it manages to pack so much into a relatively short novel (250 pages). In a subtle manner Walser interweaves Mesmer’s animal magnetism theory as one of the first steps to a recognition of an understanding of something like mental illness. She also references the fine line between what we would now call hardcore science and the mystical that was less distinct during the emergence of science, by focusing on Mesmer’s belief in a natural force, animal magnetism, that could be transferred between animate and inanimate objects, and his quest to get it recognised as science instead of suggestion. At the same time, she manages to hint towards the later understanding of Mesmer’s treatments as resulting from his own influence over the patients, and the resulting state of hypnosis as well as hysterical episodes. Reading between the lines you can see how Mesmer’s patients calm down in his presence, might have fits when they want more attention from him, or lose their faith in the progressive treatment when they lose sight of him.
However, this is just the context for the specific story being told: that of Mesmer’s treatment of Maria. I was not entirely sure if I remembered correctly while reading the book, but wikipedia told me I was right in assuming Mesmerized is the retelling of a famous episode in Mesmer’s life:
The scandal that followed Mesmer’s attempt to treat the blindness of an 18-year-old musician, Maria Theresia Paradis, led him to leave Vienna in 1777. Miss Paradis had been blind from the age of four. Under Mesmer’s care her sight was partially restored. Her parents were at first overhelmingly grateful; but later, they insisted that Mesmer cease treating her. Bitter disputes followed, and the patient’s vision again deteriorated.
In effect, this is the story that Walser tells. But she does so in a way that gives us both the story from the imagined point of view of Mesmer, and Maria. Moreover, and something that I particularly appreciated, Mesmerized does not choose to favour one explanation of the events. Walser does not interpreted Maria’s treatment as a love affair, though there are hints that the novel could be read this way. Nor does she favour an overtly favourable portrait of Mesmer, because his ambition might make him forget about Maria’s needs from time to time. Neither is Maria reduced to a helpless or obstinate girl; by giving her her own voice, she tells us about her insecurities, the entrappedness she feels in the company of her parents, and her quest for safety and a life of her own, which is in part dependent on Mesmer and her parents. Maria’s contemplations of her maid Kaline’s fate adds an extra layer to the understanding of opportunities and marginalisations in the society of late eighteenth century Vienna.
It was Maria’s story I appreciated most, and identified with, while Mesmer’s at times failed to capture my interest. Overall, I particularly enjoyed Walser’s subtle but convincing interpretation of Maria’s life in Mesmer’s environment. The prose was often effective and at times beautiful and moving. Unfortunately, it did not always affect me as much as I had hoped, leaving me to feel a little detached at all times. Nevertheless, I am very happy to have read Mesmerized. A fictional interpretation of a historical episode that is fascinating in itself often makes me want to find out more. And that is exactly what this novel did. I rather wonder if rereading the book after a more thorough introduction to Mesmer’s world might not reveal even more layers.
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