Who Wrote Gullible on the Ceiling? On Mesmerism, Debunking, and Belief

On a blog like this one, we think about belief a lot. Belief as a […]

Kendall Gunter / 8.15.19

On a blog like this one, we think about belief a lot. Belief as a comfort, as a maker of meaning, as a fragile gift, as an absence. By which we mainly mean belief in the Gospel. Let’s shift focus for a moment to consider this orientation of the mind (and heart) from a slightly different vantage. We believe in a lot of things. These other objects of hopeful trust end up telling us something about capital-B Believing that wasn’t quite apparent before.

What do we believe in? In love, in fairytales, in ourselves, in the scientific method, in the power of positive thinking, in Santa Claus—the list could go on. Well, from the 1830s to the 1850s, a number of Americans believed in mesmerism. Emily Ogden, professor of English at the University of Virginia, recently wrote a book about it. She introduced the phenomenon over at Aeon, where she describes this form of hypnotism, also called “animal magnetism,” that enchanted not only believers who practiced it but the skeptics who wrote against it — “debunkers,” she names them. In her estimation, the relation between these two figures resonates far beyond their small slice of history:

Debunk is a story of modernity in one word – but is it a true story? Here’s the way this fable goes. Modernity is when we finally muster the reason and the will to get rid of all the self-interested deceptions that aristocrats and priests had fobbed off on us in the past. Now, the true, healthy condition of human society manifests itself naturally, a state of affairs characterised by democracy, secular values, human rights, a capitalist economy and empowerment for everyone (eventually; soon). All human beings and all human societies are or ought to be headed toward this enviable situation. Some — and these are often non-Western people, people of faiths other than Christianity, people of colour — have regrettably gotten themselves faced in the wrong direction. They are still ‘barbaric’ or ‘medieval’ or even ‘primitive’. Maybe they are even getting more so. Turns out the debunking will have to continue. We’ll have to keep de-worming on an individual, an institutional, or a geopolitical scale until everyone is all right.

So it seems we’re talking about a microcosm of a larger history. What is most striking about her account, though, is not the cultural critique or the fantastical reports of mesmerist visions, intriguing as they are. What fascinates me are the stories of debunkers who become believers, even against all evidence.

One extraordinary example involves a Loraina Brackett and a William Leete Stone. Brackett was a blind woman who claimed to travel spiritually to places she’d never visited physically. Stone was a newspaperman and a professional debunker. Curious parties came to Brackett to test her skills, to ask her to travel to their own homes and describe what she saw. So Stone stopped by, too. But instead of rigorously questioning her, he asked her leading questions, prompting the right answers even when she was clearly failing. He didn’t debunk her, and she didn’t convince him. He chose to believe. Why did she keep up the game? And why did he go along?

Whether or not we can give satisfying answers to these questions depends on the picture of the human agent we adopt. We won’t get particularly satisfying answers if we imagine the people in this scene as what [anthropologist Talal] Asad has called ‘secular agents’. Secular agency is the picture of selfhood that Western secular cultures have often wanted to think is true. It’s more an aspiration than a reality. Secular agents know at any given moment what they do and don’t believe. When they think, their thoughts are their own. The only way that other people’s thoughts could become theirs would be through rational persuasion. Along similar lines, they are the owners of their actions and of their speech. When they speak, they are either telling the truth or lying. When they act, they are either sincere or they are faking it. Something like this model of agency not infrequently accompanies the fable of modernity with which I began. The two conceptions make sense together. Modernity, in this picture, is when we take responsibility for ourselves, freeing both society and individuals from comforting lies.

… The debunker might be someone who aspires to secular agency: to that happy state of being the owner of one’s acts and the free thinker of one’s thoughts. But debunkers are no less aware than anyone else of the experiences that such a model explains poorly. In other words, debunking might be the way that they live out an attraction to credulity that they don’t quite want to acknowledge to themselves. Maybe, instead of being surprised at Stone’s conversion from skeptic to ally of animal magnetism, his contemporaries should have expected it from a career debunker such as him. Credulity was what he had been interested in all along.

What does this history say to believers of a different kind, who try to trust that an eccentric Jew was the Being Beyond Being and rescuer of humanity? It makes me a little uneasy. I spend vast amounts of time trying to consume Christian intellectual material, but the New Atheists still scare me. I can historicize and critically theorize them away, but I still regard them as a danger. What if I crack? What if they prove the tradition I’m relying on isn’t a rock but a thread, and their rhetoric snaps it, Jonathan Edwards style (“Chumps in the Hands of a Pretend God”)? Here and now, I can write these questions with some distance and humor, but they have unnerved me for a long time and still do, off and on.

Last year, I was waiting outside my professor’s office admiring the many cartoons and other witty artifacts taped to faculty doors. Among other items, she’d posted a newspaper clipping. The article described the logical superiority of secular humanism—in particular, the ways that rationalism could provide ethical judgments with greater coherence than “religious” frameworks. And then I remembered that still more unnerving claim that few but Christians seem willing to make: that our “rationality” is biased and unstable, that we don’t know what we want and are too divided against ourselves to perfectly achieve it anyway.

So where does that leave us? If we believe, are we just dupes like Stone, in all his willful credulity? As Ogden notes, however, faith had been attracting Stone the whole time, whether he wanted to disprove it or to vindicate it instead. Which is to say, the full contents of his mind and heart were never transparent to him, nor was he ever in full control, as skeptic or as believer. In situations like this one, the good news glints a little brighter. Comparing the fantasy of rational human continuity and the weak foolishness of Jesus, I think I know which one is more realistic.

Of course, I’m not self-transparent either. And that’s why belief attracts us in the first place, I suppose.

Image credits: Wellcome Images (modified)