Book: Religion and Sight
Chapter: 6. ‘A Power Invisible’: How Somnambulists’ Blindness Reflected Debate on the Existence of Soul
Franz Anton Mesmer believed he had discovered a new physical property of the universe – that of a vital fluid that permeated all organisms. He deduced that it was the disruption of the flow of this vital fluid which caused illness and if it could be unblocked and made to flow again, health would be restored. Unfortunately for Mesmer, the existence of his vital fluid was declared unproven by the investigation made in France in the late eighteenth century, but his practice of influencing the fluid, using what he termed animal magnetism, continued both in France up until the French revolution, and then was developed and practised in Europe, including the United Kingdom into the nineteenth century. Subsequent practitioners discovered that a trance state could be induced that was very similar to that of somnambulists in which the patients could demonstrate abilities beyond those of their normal waking state. At the beginning of the nineteenth century little was known about the state of somnambulism, and opinions were divided as to whether it represented a diabolic influence, or a physiological state. What was noted, however, was that somnambulists, whether their state was natural, or induced by an animal magnetist, did not appear to be using their sight, and yet could see perfectly well.
By examining documentation of early nineteenth century case studies of somnambulism, this essay presents the debate that occurred as a result of approaches to somnambulism, which some saw as proof of the existence of soul, and divine intervention, and others saw as proving quite the opposite – that humans were mechanical, soulless automatons.