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mous, which the subjects pass to each other in some
way from hand to hand.

Similarly, also, when we say that a nerve transmits a
sensation, we must no more take this expression liter-
ally than when we say that the telegraph transmits a
despatch or that a letter transmits to us the thought of
its author. The sensation of pricking is not an un-
known something starting from the needle-point, pro-
ceeding along a nerve, entering the brain and then the
consciousness of the individual. It is a series of dis-
tinct states, specifically different from one another,
which follow in a certain order and of which each is,
so to speak, the promoter, the excitator of the one that
follows it.

All this is very true; but it is true also that in prac-
tise there is no serious disadvantage in employing the
language of appearances, so long as one is not led
astray by so doing. Astronomy itself, which well
knows that the sun does not rotate round the earth,
does not hesitate to speak, in everyday language, of the
rising and the setting of the sun.

Therefore those very savants who raise objections
against the radiation of a force and its action at a dis-
tance, end by declaring that " evidently, on the whole,
things happen more or less as if cosmic matter does not
exist and as if the force radiates at a distance." This
is why, undoubtedly, led by the force of habit, they
themselves employ expressions which they denounce,
and speak freely of transmitted excitation. 5

5 " Our peripheric nerves end at the nerve centers, and every time
they are excited they have nothing so urgent as the transmission of their


These expressions, • precisely because they present
things en gros, have the advantage of a brevity and a
convenience that would be difficult to obtain with more
precise and exact words.

Let us say, however, that the objection which we
oppose here is less against the conception of biactinism
or animal magnetism in particular than against all the
actual conceptions of physics, or rather against the
vocabulary which serves to express them. It appears
very doubtful to us that the great majority of physicists,
when they speak of action at a distance, of force which
radiates or is disseminated or transmitted from one
body to another, etc., understand all these expressions
in a literal sense and see in them anything but short-
ened forms, more or less metaphoric and in any case
convenient practically, to represent realities that they
know to be appreciably different from that representa-

A precedent is created when saying to a contem-
porary physicist that there is no action at a distance in
the proper meaning of the term; for he knows very
well that all action between two bodies distant from
each other, whether it be a question of heat, light, or
electricity, suppose an intermediary; and it is this inter-
mediary which is designated by the name of etheric
ambient or cosmic ether.

To call it cosmic matter is but to add one more name
to all those it has received since the time of Descartes,

excitation to the center to which they are bound ; this, in its turn,
transmits it to the others and in particular to the 'self.'" — Bardonnet.
6 " This conception of an animal magnetism which frees itself from
the individual and radiates imitates the classical conceptions of force;
but it is false here as in physics." — Bardonnet.


who appears to have had the first idea of it when he
called it subtle matter."'

It would be absurd to pretend that, when certain of
our contemporaries speak of heat, light, electricity, or
animal magnetism as circulating and radiating forces,
they really conceive each of these forces as being " a
quintesssence, a fluid, an imponderable element, capable
of circulating, of being discharged, and arrested " as
" a changeable principle, conductible, freed, radiating,
rarefied or accumulated; stored, concentrated, trans-
formed," etc.

We should then distinguish in all description or ex-
pression of natural facts, that which is essential and
that which is accessory: the true rapports of the phe-
nomena and the more or less imperfect images by which
we represent them in our minds. And we should un-
derstand that there is not an irremediable inconvenience
in employing this language of images, provided we can
always interpret it in the language of true rapports,
when necessary to do so.

It is the same conclusion which is reached by Bardon-
net when he says :

7 It is by the movement of subtle matter that Descartes explains not
only all the particularities of fire (light and heat) and of the magnet,
but also " an infinity of effects altogether rare and marvelous," and
especially those which are designated to-day under the name of psy-
chical phenomena, " as the wounds of a dead person can be made to
bleed when the murderer is approaching; to stir the imagination of
those who sleep, or even also of those who are awake, and to give them
thoughts which inform them of things happening far from them and
make them feel the great afflictions or the great joys of an intimate
friend, the bad designs of an assassin, and similar things." This curi-
ous passage from Principes de la ph'dosophie shows well that Descartes
had not disdained initiation in the sciences called occult, as he reveals
in the first part of Discours de la methode.


" The doctrine of animal magnetism is, then, false in
that it affirms a magnetism, that is to say a principle
which is freed and propagated outside of the individ-
ual; but true in that it affirms an exterior action, a
physical influence, of the operator." Farther on he
says: "The dispute among suggestionists, mesmer-
ists, and hypnotists, can be understood. In reality, it
is the mesmerists who are right; at least in that which
they affirm a physical influence out of the ordinary.
This physical influence consists not in animal magnet-
ism but in another method of excitation."

One can well see, from this last passage, that the
whole difficulty here comes from the associations of
ideas inseparably attached to the traditional term
" animal magnetism," even though this term essen-
tially designates for us only a " method of excitation "
which, instead of employing, as do suggestion and hyp-
notism, the ordinary senses, employs those of a special
sensibility, the sensibility to certain excitations of ether-
ic or cosmic matter.

The difference between our doctrine and that which
we oppose is but that of a word.

It is necessary for us to recognize that a doctrine or
an hypothesis, such as that of animal magnetism, can be
defined only by comparison with other doctrines or
hypotheses which are found, so to speak, in concurrence
with it and contradict it upon certain points where re-
ciprocally it contradicts them.

Perhaps this was not so in the time of Mesmer and
Puysegur, or even of Deleuze and Du Potet. But ac-
tually that which is essential, uniquely essential, in the
hypothesis of animal magnetism is that by which this


hypothesis is opposed to those of suggestion and hyp-
notism; all the rest is accessory and negligible.

The doctrines of suggestion and of hypnotism agree
in placing exclusively in the physical and psychological
state of the subject the necessary and sufficient reason
of all the parapsychic phenomena and in refusing to
acknowledge all real and direct action of the operator.
The doctrine of animal magnetism or biactinism con-
sists, above all, in attributing to the operator, to his
personality, to his own action, an importance at least
equal to that of the subject in the production of a cer-
tain number of parapsychic phenomena: viz., all those
which rightfully would not appear to be explicable by
the sole indications of hypnotism and suggestion.

The partizans of suggestion could claim, it is true,
that they recognize this action of the operator; for it is
the word or the gesture of the suggestioner which is,
according to them, the cause of all effects observed.
But any such action is of a moral or social order : it has
nothing to do with physiology, nothing to do with
physics. It is, moreover indirect, in that it is created
to arouse an idea in the mind of the subject, and it is
the idea which is the true cause. Suppress the inter-
vention of the operator and create the idea in any
other way whatsoever: the phenomenon will not con-
tinue, much less be produced.

Entirely on the contrary, in the hypothesis of biac-
tinism, the operator influences the subject by a special
action, wholly independent of the word and the gesture,
an action of a physiological and physical order, al-
though all psychological element may not necessarily
be excluded.


Evidently, this hypothesis has the disadvantage of
introducing an unknown quantity in the problem: i.e.,
the nature, not yet fully determined, of this special
action attributed to the operator. But it is not a ques-
tion, at the moment, of criticizing it, of weighing it.
The question is merely that of an exact conception and
understanding of it. True or false, it consists in be-
lieving that certain parapsychic phenomena are a func-
tion not only of a special physical and psychological
state of the subject, but also of a special physical and
psychological state of the operator.

To affirm this is to affirm animal magnetism, by
whatever name it may be called, and in whatever way it
may be imagined in detail; to deny it is to deny animal
magnetism. Nothing that is added to this funda-
mental postulate can, at least for the moment, be con-
sidered as essential.


Does this mean that it is useless to try to obtain a
less vague and less abstract idea of this action sui
generis that the operator is supposed to exert upon the
subject, where it determines certain parapsychic effects?

On the contrary, the advantage of this hypothesis is
that it opens to us a vast field of researches, whose aim
is precisely to determine more and more the unknown
which surrounds it.

But this progressive determination must be made
by observation and experimentation, not by imagina-
tion and reasoning only; and the results thus obtained
gradually must always remain subject to revision and
correction, as all that which comes under the experi-
mental method.


It is, then, natural and inevitable that those who ad-
mit of a biomagnetic or biactinic action because of cer-
tain facts observed by them, endeavor to represent it
more or less concretely from what they know of these
facts, without concealing the fact that this representa-
tion really comprises the artificial and provisional. It
is thus that they are brought to seek the analogies that
any such action can present with other actions or forces
already known : on the one hand with the nerve force,
on the other hand with the forces called radiating and
circulating — heat, light, electricity, magnetism, etc.

// does not seem possible to deny the existence of the
nerve force; but it is very necessary to acknowledge
that its nature is thoroughly unknown to us. We know
its principal effects; we know that it is the agent which
transmits to the nerve centers the excitations coming
from the periphery and gives birth to the sensations.
It is this also which transmits to the muscles the or-
ders of the Will, and determines the movements of the
exterior organs. It is this, too, which excites and
regulates the different vital functions: respiration, cir-
culation, assimilation, and catabolism. But we do not
know what constitutes it. The greater part of the time
it is believed to be like galvanic electricity, as a force
which circulates in its conductors between the centers or
focuses where it would be accumulated and condensed ;
but one must appreciate that this is only a rough sup-
position, and that it may be very far from the reality.

Be this as it may, if this force be supposed capable,
under certain conditions, of acting beyond the limits of
the organism in which it is, and of working thus a sort
of transfusion or of communication of sensitiveness, of


At the time of the experiment, when this photograph was taken,
one of the assistants went into an even deeper state of sleep, en-
tirely through sympathy.


will, of vitality, between two different organisms, a con-
ception of the biactinic force can be gained, which sums
up the principal facts upon which is based the affirma-
tion of those who believe in its reality.

This force would be, then, the nerve force radiating
from one organism to another, circulating from one
organism to another.

But our conception of the nerve force is itself very
vague, very indeterminate, and the only means we have
of making it more precise is to compare it to physical
forces to which it presents certain analogies, princi-
pally electricity. Hence there is not, perhaps, great
inconvenience — there may even be some advantage —
in trying to conceive the biactinic force in the light of
what we know of its analogies to physical forces, dis-
regarding all speculation upon nerve energy or nerve

Considered from this viewpoint — which brings to
mind that of the early partizans of animal magnetism
— the biactinic force can be regarded, if not as a form
of electricity or of magnetism, at least as an electroidal
or magnetoidal force, the effects and laws of which
are comparable, mutatis mutandis, to those of the
modes of universal energy. One will then be justified
in speaking to his subject of conductibility, of polarity,
wholly as if it were a question of electrical or magnetic

It goes without saying that the idea which will be
gained of the biactinic force will itself undergo varia-
tions, corresponding to those of the general conception
of electricity and magnetism; and it is this which takes
place historically. For example, from the time when


physicists compared electricity to a fluid, the mesmer-
ists attributed equally to a fluid the effects produced by
passes, the gaze, etc. At the present time it is not a
question of fluid but of vibrations, undulations, etc. It
is, therefore, a phraseology, or, if we may be per-
mitted this expression, an idealogy, of the same kind,
that tends more and more to be applied to biactinic
phenomena. If in the future a new and wholly differ-
ent conception of electricity must be imposed upon the
generality of scientists, it will not fail to model to its
image the conception of this particular order of phe-


The questions we have examined in this chapter up
to the present point are relative to words and ideas
rather than to the things themselves. They ask us
how we shall name and represent action at a distance,
the radiation of one nervous system upon another nerv-
ous system, supposing any such action to be possible
(and we have shown that there is not, a priori, any
impossibility in conceiving such an action) . But the
fundamental question remains:

Does biactinism exist?

And this question can be answered only by facts.
It is a question of proving — not by definitions and
reasonings, but by observations and especially by ex-
perimentation — the reality of nervous radiations, in
conditions which leave no room for doubt.

In Our Hidden Forces we described the facts which
convinced us of this reality. We do not hesitate to
say that any one earnestly bent on experimentation,


while observing the precautions indicated, possessing
all the patience to conduct his researches to finality,
even if his first results appears to be negative, will
inevitably be convinced.

The great difficulty lies in the possibility of confusing
the effects of suggestion with those of animal magnet-
ism. This, it will be remembered, was the objection
which the king's commissioners made to Mesmer and
his partizans when they attributed to imagination all
the phenomena they had witnessed.

However, this difficulty is not insurmountable. It
may be overcome, in experimenting, by following rigor-
ously some very simple rules. 8

Even in the time of Mesmer certain observers —
among them, Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu — had been
able to constate cases of biactinic action entirely free
from all suggestive or imaginative element. In a book
written at that time we have found the description of
a case of this kind which perhaps is worthy of being
quoted here :

Toward the end of November, 1778, I invited Dr. Mesmer
to dinner with me in a house where all, including myself, im-
patiently awaited his productions of magnetic phenomena. . . .
But here is what happened after dinner. I attest it as a fact
which I followed with the utmost care, and which the witnesses
studied with all the distrust imaginable.

The company assembled in the drawing-room. Dr. Mesmer
touched successively many persons. Some of them, especially,
had extremely irritable nerves; but none proved sufficiently sen-
sitive to be susceptible to animal magnetism.

8 See Our Hidden Forces, Chapter VI, " New Experimental Method
in Hypnology."


The tutor of the children in this house — a man of strong
temperament, robust, well constituted, not in the least credulous,
and strengthened in his incredulity by the unsuccessful attempts
which he had witnessed — complained after a while of a pain
in his shoulders. He offered himself to Dr. Mesmer as the
subject for a last attempt, though strongly persuaded that the
magnetism would not act any more upon him than it did upon
those whom Mesmer had touched. To tell the truth, it must
be admitted that it was not a new proof that he desired, but a
new occasion to deride this practise.

This last attempt, however, turned wholly to the glory of
Dr. Mesmer.

Perceiving, undoubtedly, the motive which brought this new
actor upon the scene, and wishing to give him the most con-
vincing proof of his skill, Mesmer refused to touch him but
instead directed his magnetic power against the subject without
contact and at a certain distance.

The experiment at once became more unusual and more inter-
esting. The subject stood with his back toward Mesmer, who
presented his finger at a distance of eight feet. As long as the
finger remained fixed and motionless, pointing in the direction
and held at the height of the subject's shoulders, he did not
feel any effect; and the questions which Mesmer reiterated for
the space of about two minutes only strengthened the subject
more and more in his incredulity.

Things were at this stage when Mesmer signaled to the assist-
ants to fix their attention more closely upon the subject of this
singular experiment.

Then he moved his finger up and down, giving it at the
same time a slight circulatory motion. Instantly the subject
said that he felt a shivering sensation in the upper part of
his back.

Dr. Mesmer suspended his operation. The subject turned
around, and attributed the effect which he had felt to the
action of the heat-register before which he had been standing.


The experiment was begun again, with the subject this time
far away from the register. Standing firmly upon his feet, he
presented his back to Mesmer. The same movements, but
more energetic, more determined, on the part of Dr. Mesmer,
took place ; and immediately the same sensations in the subject's
back, but less equivocal, more appreciable, were noted.

The subject was now thoroughly convinced of the reality
of these effects, and said that he could describe them no better
than by comparing them to a stream of hot water circulating in
the veins of his shoulders and all the upper part of his back.

This experiment was repeated two or three times, with the
same success; until the effect became so strong that the subject
refused to lend himself to further experimentation. Once
more, however, the experiment was performed. The master of
the house seized the tutor by one arm and I by the other, and
Dr. Mesmer proceeded with his passes. But the subject broke
violently from our hands, protesting that the heat which he felt
was unbearable. A moment afterward he exclaimed that he
was covered with perspiration over the part that had been
experimented upon. Placing my hand there — as did all the
company — I found that his shirt actually was soaking wet at
the back near the shoulders.

After a few minutes of rest, Mesmer faced the subject and
presented two fingers, one of each hand, to the two lateral parts
of his chest. The subject felt in these places, and even in the
whole extent of his chest, a similar sensation but not quite so
strong as before. Soon an uncomfortable heat rose to his
face and we saw his forehead entirely covered with perspiration.
Being impressed more and more by these phenomena, the
subject was very willing to lend himself to any new experiment
which Mesmer wished to make upon him. He presented the
index finger and thumb of each hand, the other fingers remain-
ing folded in his palm ; and Mesmer presented to him the same
fingers, very close to his own but without touching them. The


subject first began to feel a slight vibration, a tickling sensation,
in the palms of his hands. This tickling was followed by a
numbness. Heat succeeded immediately, and his hands were
covered with perspiration — not, however, as abundant as that
which we had seen on his forehead, and also less than that which
had been on his shoulders.

Such are the effects which I myself have witnessed, without
having perceived or having been able to suspect any mechanical
cause which had produced them.

His incredulity being wholly vanquished by these phenomena,
and having recovered from the surprise which they had caused
him, the new convert went the following morning to Dr. Mes-
mer. There he experienced again the same sensations. He
assures me of this in a letter dated December 2, in which he says:

My pain in the shoulder increased considerably until
Mesmer directed upon me the action of his / know not
what. I have felt a heat comparable to that of steam from
boiling water; prompt and rapid twitchings in the mem-
bers ; slight spasms and shivering in the fingers. When he
withdrew his hand, it seemed to me that a very cold air
blew into mine. I have repeated this experiment more
than twenty times.

The author of this account concludes with these very
sensible words:

In the meantime do not let us be so skeptical as to reject
the phenomena that we cannot undersand, but let us be more
circumspect about the cause of a multitude of effects, the appar-
ent marvels of which are due wholly to our ignorance.

We ourselves have observed, more than once, facts
similar to those just related. A certain number of
them are described in Our Hidden Forces. More re-


cently still, we have been able to ascertain that the re-
ceptivity of subjects, in respect to the biactinic action,
is not necessarily proportioned to their suggestibility or
their hypnotic sensibility.

Take, for example, the case of a boy of sixteen, who
was employed in a factory. He had never seen any
experiments of the kind, and was almost completely
ignorant of matters of this nature. He consented, out
of mere curiosity, to lend himself to an experiment of
hypnotization. He reacted quickly and with much
force to the process of Moutin, and to that test which
we have indicated as a variation of Moutin's method. 9
Submitted to the action of the passes and the gaze, he
fell into a state of torpor, or, rather, of manifest pas-
sivity. But this state was evidently very superficial,
for he suddenly opened his eyes and returned to his
ordinary state. His cutaneous sensibility remained
intact; although he was suggested that he felt nothing,
he continued to feel all contacts. Suggestions of heat
and cold, even though repeated with insistence, pro-
duced no effect. In short, he appeared very little sug-
gestible. Hypnotism (the process of Braid) gave no
appreciable result. There was no amnesia on waking
— if it can be called waking, from a state which had
no resemblance to sleep.

However, certain signs made me suspect that the sub-
ject was particularly sensible to biactinic action.
Therefore, in a second seance, after he was placed in a
state of torpor, with his eyes closed, I tried to verify
my conjecture. Seated in front of the subject, and
talking all the while to a friend who accompanied me,

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Online LibraryEmile BoiracThe Psychology of the Future → online text (page 11 of 22)