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Mesmer's Canary

By Susan H. Case

Franz Anton Mesmer was a bird enthusiast.  In a wrought-iron cage with an open door, he kept a canary, which sat on his head each morning and sang until his master would sigh and rise to dress. The morning that Mesmer died, the bird refused to leave its cage, and it maintained a mournful silence until, a few weeks later, it followed his example to the grave.

I identified with the bird. Mired seven years in my dissertation, I too had chosen, out of passion or force of habit, a cage over freedom.

Professor Johann Gustav Faber, my perpetual thesis adviser, played Mesmer to my canary. He had the final say on when my paper was complete, and, thus, ultimate power over my life. This made him the closest thing I could imagine to God. Mesmer, the subject of my inquiries, would have called this animal magnetism. My attraction to the man was not sexual–Faber was physically repellent–but he had been brilliant in his youth; I admired his mind.

I was never sure he read any of my work.  Still, at each visit, clutching my draft, I would wait for his advice and dutifully write it down in my notebook.

“Good beginning,” he’d say.

“Beginning?” I’d sigh.

“Work on the clarity,” he’d add, as he dismissed me, or, “definitely on the right track.” 

We’d make an appointment for the following month. 

I hoped that Faber encouraged me because my dissertation had promise. He had his intellectual progeny to worry about. But I feared he simply liked looking at me.

Mesmer knew all about trapped women. Most of his patients were repressed females suffering from a range of symptoms stemming from depression, melancholia they called it at the time. Under his auspices, they would ease themselves into a baquet, an oval wooden tub of iron fillings and magnetized water, while his assistants–strong, handsome young men–would massage their breasts and torsos, and embrace them between their knees. The women would have convulsions, redden, sob, laugh, shriek, and tear at their hair. Some would faint. They’d leave relieved of their various ills, having experienced a moment of free-fall, a brief, exquisite flight out of the cage.

While I too had headaches and pains in my teeth, I had no handsome young men to embrace me, no magnetized water. There had to be more to life, I thought. But change is worrisome. When Mesmer treated Baron Hareczky for spasms of the throat at his castle in Austria, the Baron ultimately decided that the spasms troubled him less than the violent delirium he experienced from Mesmer’s attempt to alleviate them.  Eschewing change, he decided to live with his illness.

Finally I realized that I’d have to chart my own flight through the cage door or never be free.  I resolved to do something dramatic.

After much thought, I turned to the teachings of Emile Couè, a nineteenth century French physician, who had abandoned Mesmer’s legacy of hypnosis in favor of simple suggestion. Couè believed that fixating on an idea would help it be realized and encouraged his patients to repeat, twenty to thirty times before going to sleep, the phrase: “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.”  He also believed that the harder one attempted something, the less successful one would be.  The trick, he deduced, was to replace weak emotions with stronger ones, but not to strain overly on the path toward self-improvement.

In a month, I had finished up with Mesmer and Professor Faber. After defending my dissertation with vigor, I decided to spend a year traveling across France, a nation that had rejected Mesmer’s theories years before I’d had the opportunity to do so. The trip required little effort and sounded like fun; Couè would have approved. 

From the wide, airy boulevards of Paris, I sent Professor Faber a postcard, a picture of a tiny yellow bird in an impossibly small beret. “Having a wonderful time,” I wrote. “Adieu, Professor, adieu.”


Susan H. Case is a college professor in New York. She has recent work in or forthcoming in: Eclipse, Georgetown Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, Karamu, Pebble Lake Review, Saranac Review, Slant, Tar Wolf Review, The Comstock Review, and The GW Review, among others. She is the author of The Scottish Café (Slapering Hol Press, 2002) and Hiking The Desert In High Heels (RightHandPointing, 2005).

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