Franz Anton Mesmer and the Mimetics of Attraction (and Sex)
Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can't you see?
Sometimes your words just mesmerize me. —Notorious B.I.G.
(Okay, those are not the real lyrics—but they should be. Alliteration.)
An Untold Story
Franz Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician who practiced medicine shortly after Sir Isaac Newton, was fascinated by the corollary between the psychological ‘movements’ he observed in the world and the physical effects Newton described in his theory of gravity. Could there by a relationship between the two, he wondered?
In his Dissertatio physico-medica de planetarum inflex, written in 1766, he remarked: “One must grant to Newton the greater praise, because he has clarified to the highest degree the reciprocal attraction of all things.”1
Thinking of mimetic desire—and desire in general—as a movement of desire that is influenced by the mass and proximity of models (not objects) in an analogous way to a gravitational pull is one of the most helpful mental models that I have ever run across in 7+ years of studying mimetic theory seriously.
Mesmer (whose name is where the English word “mesmerize” comes from) intuited that there was some psychological principle at work that accounted for the attraction to or between certain people—but he made the mistake of thinking that it must be due to some invisible substance in the body which was affected by the gravitational pull of the planets and the interaction of the substance in the bodies of other people.
He called his theory “animal magnetism”, and he devised ornate therapeutic rituals to cure people of various ailments. A person was placed into a trance-like state and physically manipulated by Mesmer (the ritual sounds much like the ‘tarantism’ rituals in southern Italy, which began in the Middle Ages)—to try to manipulate the flow of this invisible fluid in a person and bring it back into balance.
Here’s a fascinating description of one of Mesmer’s sessions (they eventually attracted the attention of King Louis XVI himself):
His patients were received with the air of mystery and studied effect. The apartment, hung with mirrors was dimly lit. A profound silence was observed, broken only by strains of music which occasionally floated through the rooms. The patients were seated around a sort of vat which contained a heterogeneous mixture of chemical ingredients.
With this, and with each other, they were placed in relation by means of cords, or jointed rods, or by holding hands; and among them slowly and mysteriously moved Mesmer himself, affecting one by a touch, another by a look, a third by passes with his hand, a fourth by pointing with a rod.2
We now know that Mesmer was about two centuries too early—before the discovery of mirror neurons, and before René Girard first articulated his theory of mimetic desire. As wacky as his tactics sound, I think Mesmer should be rightfully regarded as a genius (as others have called him) for intuiting the relational aspect of psychology; he just identified it with the wrong thing.
As most readers of this newsletter will know by now (but there are many new ones, so I always try to recap a bit), René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire describes the psychic force—I would even say spiritual force, if that’s what desire is—that binds people together and pushes them apart, and which often makes them behave in irrational ways once they enter into a Subject-Model relationship. (And especially when they enter into a Model-Model relationship, or double-bind.)
Let’s explore further.
I first learned of Franz Anton Mesmer in Jean-Michel Oughourlian’s excellent book The Genesis of Desire, where he discusses Mesmer and relates it to hypnosis—going so far as to call hypnosis the “essential model of all psychotherapy” because it reveals to patients the essential nature of their desires: that is, that they are completely suggestible and subject to some Other. In this view, hypnosis is simply an extreme form of what we all experience on a daily basis—and in that sense, it’s revelatory.
Most importantly, Oughourlian describes his own experience as a psychotherapist who has worked with thousands of people applying lessons learned from René Girard and his deep understanding of mimetic desire.
Some of the more fascinating stories that he recounts in the book have to do with married couples or romantic partners.
Oughourlian refers to something he named the Infernal Seesaw—a type of relationship that is almost entirely mimetic, and which therefore relies on each member of the relationship unknowingly identifying the other as a type of rival to dominate or by dominated by. Third parties (like an attractive coworkers or mutual friends) or third objects (like alcohol) play the role of weapons in their mimetic war with one another, mediating the desires between them.
Oughourlian recounts the story one couple in a toxic relationship. The woman drank too much in order to damage herself and her relationship with her husband—it was a form of self-sabotage, no doubt, but also a way to exert some form of power over her husband, who had taken a mistress. Both of them tell Oughourlian that they are doing what they’re doing (drinking too much, being unfaithful) because of the other.
“Francoise drinks because Lucien deceives her, or Lucien deceives her because Francois drinks—we see the seesaw at work,” Oughourlian writes.
He recommends to the man that he leave his mistress, but the man protests. He tells him (emphasis mine): “What I find remarkable is that between you and your wife there is nothing but rivalry and conflict, and yet that holds you together powerfully. Between you and your mistress, there is only desire, and that desire holds the two of you together just as powerfully. Why, between you and your mistress, is the desire so pure, so empty of all rivalry?”
Desire and rivalry always go hand-in-hand. Even in the best, more pure relationships, rivalry always threatens to seep in.
The challenge is to eliminate or decrease the rivalry without killing the desire, and to increase the desire without introducing more rivalry (which is one of the main problems that swingers are trying to solve; we’re deluding ourselves if we think it’s “just sexual”—these things are always matters of desire, and with that rivalry).
Below is one more example that Oughourlian gives from his practice on the sexual dynamics between men and women. I’ll give my thoughts on these mimetic relationships below, but first I want to quote this passage from Oughourlian at length because it illuminates a concrete pathology through the mimetic framework, and one some may be able to relate to:
“There are some women who resent it fiercely when men give them pleasure. They feel as if they have been conquered, that they have been proven weak, that they have allowed themselves to be possessed. 'He had me, I yielded to him!’ As one of my patients explained to me, ‘Men! I let them take pleasure as I please, but never myself.’ The day one of them succeeded in bringing her, against her will, to sexual climax, she had only one thought in mind: to regain the advantage and destroy him. When neither wants to climax before the other, the foreplay can prolong itself for hours until one of them, exhausted, finally gives up…. In this type of pathology, one can see that the rivalry seems to have no precise object. It is the desire to dominate along, mimetic and identical in the two partners, that absorbs and imprisons them..”
(He devotes equal time to a similar pathology in men. ED is real, no doubt—but with many pathologies, like anorexia, Girard and Oughourlian would both agree that the mimetic psychology is often not taken into proper account.)
Oughourlian’s term for the type of psychanalysis that he practices is “interdividual psychology.” It’s an attempt to show that psychology does not have an individual character but an interdividual character—in other words, there is always at least one more ‘individual’ involved in a pathological situation, and his approach involves identifying who those people are and what their mimetic effect on another person might be.
This can be dangerous, though. For example: he would often see couples for marriage counseling who can’t agree on anything and seem to be in perpetual conflict and rivalry with one another. But somehow, after their first session with the therapist, end up agreeing that he, Oughourlian, is the problem—they bind together for a brief moment and turn him into their mini scapegoat in order to not have to deal with the real sources of their mimetic pathologies.
(And so, Oughourlian says, he usually requests to see them one-on-one, not together. This advice applies equally well to managers in the workplace, by the way.)
Ordered and Disordered Relationships
Now please forgive me for bringing a theological framing into this discussion. I think it provides part of the missing metaphysical basis for understanding what is really going on.
If you look carefully at the creation myth in the very first chapters of Genesis, it is essentially describing a movement away from ordered and non-rivalrous desires and into a situation of disordered desires.
So perhaps it’s worth asking ourselves: What specifically are each of our most important relationships ORDERED to?
You will have probably noticed in the examples from Oughourlian cited above that the romantic relationships are ordered toward the domination of the other—nothing more. There is no transcendent purpose at all. They are zero-sum games. The only way to resolve the conflicts, which is extraordinarily difficult, is to open their eyes to the mimetic dynamics of the game and try to help the couples play a different game.
(This is why, by the way, it’s rare that I run a workshop anywhere without the introduction of some kind of game. In no context are mimetic dynamics both revealed and more easily broken down.)
Some couples may claim to have a clear order to their marriage: pro-creation, raising children, and building a union of love between one another and in the household, which extends out and embraces their extended families and communities. And perhaps they go further and order their relationship toward some specific legacy that they want to leave for future generations. This is often what I see with multiple generation family offices, for instance.
I think that’s a good start, but it needs to go much further and be much more specific.
Of course there are remote ends and proximate ends. The remote end of my relationship with my buddy in Michigan—the thing which our lifelong friendship is ordered to—is the good of the other. But this summer it’s simply learning how to fish and helping one another get in better shape; and maybe learning how to actually use my Big Green Egg.
That might seem like trivial stuff, but at least we both know what we’re doing—and the minute that the fishing isn’t fun because it’s no longer about learning how to fish but about who can catch more fish, then we know we have to make a change because the order became disordered. It’s amazing what a simple awareness of these dynamics can do to a relationship when both adults are open and honest.
I think this kind of framework is helpful in business settings. If one person’s idea of a relationship is that it’s ordered toward a transaction/s, but the other’s idea of that same relationship is that it’s ordered toward the cultivation of a friendship—then there are problems.
“Oh, he’s so transactional,” some people say months or years later. It takes them a long time to figure it out. But if each of us took inventory of our key relationships right now and figured out what they’re ordered to—and how that order might need to either change or be more clearly defined—then it might prevent some misunderstandings, and perhaps even a heartache.
Identifying is the first step; articulating a close second.
I know what my relationship with my priest is ordered to; it’s different than my relationship with my landscaper, my wife, my friends, and my colleagues.
Ultimately, they’re all ordered to the same thing: dying well someday, as sobering as that might sound, with my heart aflame and desiring the next step in the journey, having left it all on the table here and poured myself out for those I was given to love in this world.
But that doesn’t mean that there are not differences in the roles that each person has to play to help me get there, and differences in the various ways that I must attend to each particular person who has come into my life.
I realize it may be difficult to order a relationship—to point it in a certain vector—if we don’t know where we’re going, and if the people around us don’t have a clear vision of where they’re going either. That’s normal. But perhaps helping one another figure that out is a great thing to order those relationships to for now.
We are all, in a real sense, midwives to the personal vocations of others. None of us can discover ours alone.
And one of the most powerfully mimetic (and positively mimetic) desires of all is that of a person who does have a sense of mission—who knows where he or she is generally headed, and who moves forward courageously toward that destiny.
These people are in short supply today. Young people are straining their eyes, looking for them; hoping to find one, anyone, who might show them the full range of possibilities that lay before us and who takes hold of the one that they are uniquely positioned to bring into existence.
This paragraph, and much of this edition of the newsletter, is credit to the book The Genesis of Desire by Jean-Michel Oughourlian (trans. by Eugene Webb), part of the excellent Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture by Michigan State University Press.