Archive for September 3rd, 2021

Rabbit Hole


That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.

–Aldous Huxley

I was going to write abut this quote from Aldous Huxley, the late write/philosopher who gave us the dystopian classic Brave New World. It does, after all, seem to be pertinent to much of what is happening in this country. It seems that we often fail to see or ignore the lessons of history and then go on to repeat many of those same actions. With the same result. Or worse.

I stand by these worlds from Huxley but the interesting thing this morning was that while researching this quote, I found myself running down a long and twisting rabbit hole. The quote, you see, is the first sentence Huxley wrote in a 1956 article for Esquire Magazine titled A Case of Voluntary Ignorance. The first several paragraphs discuss our willingness to ignore the lessons of history, instead believing that we will somehow produce different and better consequences.

But beyond that the article goes into a discussion of the history of mesmerism and hypnotism. and its place in the medical world of the 19th century. It’s not a subject about which I have any knowledge and I found it interesting. Huxley wrote about a British surgeon in India in the mid 1800’s who did a wide range of dangerous surgeries painlessly on patients without any sort of anesthesia — there actually was none yet available at that time– by the use of mesmerism alone. It was also called magnetism from the term animal magnetism which many early purveyors of this pseudoscience used to describe the animating life force of all living creatures.

The surgeon, James Esdaile, would bring in patients– almost all lower caste criminals from a local prison (which means he was actually doing human experimentation that would no doubt border on crimes against humanity) and without telling them would mesmerize them over the course of several hours until they were in a deep trance-like state. He would then operate on whatever ailment needed attention. This included amputation of limbs.

His patients felt no pain and most recovered. The recovery is the most amazing thing because at that time, major surgery in any place on the face of he earth meant that the patient had a very good chance of dying either during surgery or in the aftermath. Surgeons and their staff didn’t even wash their hands beforehand and the idea of antiseptics or anesthesia was still years away.

Most surgeons had fatality rates among their patients well over 25%. Esdaile had a rate of less than 5%.

The article goes on to discuss how his results were debated and denied among the medical establishment of the time. Many physicians believed that pain was necessary and that anything that diminished it was against science as they knew it. However, mesmerists became part of that establishment for a time in the 19th century.

It was an interesting article. Hypnosis and mesmerism are not subjects we discuss often, after all. To see them play so prominent a role in the medical world of that time ( and even the 1950’s as Huxley  wrote about in the article) was eye catching.

I ended up looking through the online historical newspaper to see if their were mesmerists who practiced locally in that era. I didn’t spend much time so I can’t speak definitively but found that mesmerists were mainly entertainment attractions in this area at that time. Several had large following and returned year after year for a week or two at a time at large halls and auditoriums.

One, John Reynolds, appeared throughout this region — all of New York state and much of Pennsylvania– for many years. He eventually retired and began selling magnetic bearing items which were supposed to have curative powers. These were advertised in local papers throughout the region.

The animal magnetism actually had something to do with magnets, it seems.

You probably are wondering what the heck the point is here. I guess there isn’t one. This has no bearing on anything and I have no end to this little bit of writing except that it’s odd how one thing sometimes leads us in directions we weren’t expecting.

If you’re looking for something of more consequence, you can go the Esquire article from Huxley by clicking here. The first three paragraphs certainly pertain to this and any time.

Okay, too much time spent underground in this rabbit hole. Gotta go.

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