The Nightside of Nature in German Romantic Mesmerism
It is well known that Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of “Animal Magnetism” stands at the origin of several important developments in nineteenth-century religion, psychology, and popular medicine. But whereas much solid research has been done on the reception history of “Mesmerism” in France, England, and the United States, the German-speaking domain has been largely neglected. This is remarkable, for precisely the German context is decisive for what Henri Ellenberger has referred to as “the discovery of the unconscious” that eventually led to modern psychology and psychiatry. The close connection between early psychology and “the occult” remains a controversial topic, but one that cannot be avoided if one wishes to understand the history of religion in modernity.
Modern concepts of the unconscious are ultimately derived from what German Romantic mesmerists referred to as “the Nightside of Nature”. The concept has its origins in the first decade of the nineteenth century, with an innovative medical theory proposed by the physician Johann Christian Reil in 1807 and the publication of Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert’s Ansichten von der Nachtseite der Naturwissenschaft in 1808. The Nightside of Nature became a topic of broad public controversy after the publication in 1829 of Justinus Kerner’s Die Seherin von Prevorst, about his somnambulic patient Friederike Hauffe, whose spectacular visions and “paranormal” feats attracted the attention of such famous names as Schelling and D.F. Strauss. The central focus of my research project will be on Kerner and his personal network (Schubert, A.K.A. Eschenmayer, J.F. von Meyer, and others), and on the debate that developed between defenders and critics during the 1830s and 1840s. In addition to contemporary books and brochures, important sources in this regard are Kerner’s journals Blätter aus Prevorst and Magikon, general journals such as Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände, and several manuscript archives located in Germany.
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Hanegraaff, Wouter Jacobus