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Modernity’s Spell 

Clare Coffey

Why debunking mesmerism only made it stronger

Every so often, I consider getting into healing crystals. I like the way they look in the light. I like their names, often full of sibilants and dentalized consonants: amethyst, citrine, celestite, selenite. I like the picture of myself as the kind of person who might keep them in her house — a house with a lush shrub garden in the back, punctuated by strange and beautiful statuary, where I would talk in a soft voice to unexpected visitors. There would be a copper kettle on a gas stove, and a rosewood tea box. I would wear linen and wool.

In short, crystals allow me to indulge in aspirations à la Goop (Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand) without the hassle. There’s none of the cherry-picked data that keep much of the wellness world turning in its orbit, no worrying about what my Jungian archetype means for my nutritional plan. The premise is simple: The world is full of beautiful glowing stones, and they are magical. Take it or leave it. You don’t even need to be into wellness; maybe you just want to be a beneficent sorceress and don’t mind paying for the opportunity.

Also, I remind myself, the placebo effect is real and powerful. If I got into crystals, maybe I could believe in them enough to cure a headache. Really, wouldn’t getting into crystals make me the most rational one of all? The meta-rational?

Like my aspirationally beloved crystals, this attitude presents different faces depending on how the light hits it. Is the desire to believe in magical glowing stones more or less stupid when you are consciously exploiting your own naïveté? Is the desire to believe meaningfully different from belief? Which self is more real, the one in search of a bewitched amulet or the one keeping the other under strict if indulgent monitor? Should I just go out and buy a damned kettle?

All this is to say that the problems Emily Ogden, assistant professor of English at the University of Virginia, deals with in her new book are by no means confined to the antebellum period, on which she focuses — a time when Benjamin Franklin famously served as an investigator into mesmerism in Paris. Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism is less a fully detailed narrative of mesmerism’s ups and downs than a laser-focused inquiry into the constitutive role “irrational” belief plays in maintaining rational supremacy....

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Clare Coffey is a writer living in Moscow, Idaho.

Clare Coffey, "Modernity’s Spell," The New Atlantis, Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 111-119.