"a case of mistaken identity..."

March 19th, 2014, 1am

What I see in my mind’s eye is that I am still in the process of dissecting a moment, and as I bring my scalpel of language to cut open this moment about the word mesmerized, just as when Salvador Dalí & Luis Buñuel slice open the eyeball during Un Chien Andalou, out spills the Shimmering Chimera into a glass of Moonbeams that, somewhat shyly, here it is…take a drink…now are you thirsty for tales that are tangled like kelp in a mermaid’s hair when she sings an operatic aria of forgetfulness & remembering? Drink this spell, this potion made from pale blue eyes, this serum of moonbeams until we arrive at a pair of improbable lives who tried to whisper timeless secrets that we modernists may have failed to comprehend. My job here is to peel back this burlesque of words until you see more than what you were looking for, and aren’t we looking for so many things that shimmer?

For the sake of nostalgia, go back in time and listen to the Philly soul of The Blue Magic singing, “Let the sideshow begin… Hurry, hurry…step right on in!” …and take another sip…

Ah, mesmerized…to fall under the spell of a mystery. This is the simplest meaning of the word in everyday usage. If we treat the word like a cultural Rorschach test, what do you associate with the word? Me? I hear Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wailing his apocalypso hit, “I Put a Spell on You,” then The Police insinuating our oh-so-modernist police state under the visage of Vladimir Nabokov in “Every Breath You Take,” and I am mindful that the beating heart of the word is oceanic as le mer greets le mystere and I am pulled toward the shores of Desire, as though The Sirens sang a song for all that I wanted but could not have, mesmerizing us with lust…for what we don’t know about ourselves.

My editorial quest for brevity shatters as I skylark amidst moonbeams, suggesting that we consider the modernist origins of mass media mesmerizing lurks in the clinical eyes gracing the billboard for the optometrist, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, in The Great Gatsby. Presiding over a suburban wasteland near the glittering metropolis in 1925 when F. Scott Fitzgerald published Gatsby, those eyes surely symbolize these eyes that watch over us in a never-ending cascade of radar, signals, satellites, and surveillance that surround every move we make at the outset of our 21st Century blues.

Is it any wonder we are collectively mesmerized that a huge 777 jet airliner from Malaysia seems to have vanished under the cloak & dagger of a malevolent magician, whether by unprecedented accidental bad luck, or by darker designs we shudder to fathom; the question remains the same: How does a jumbo jet simply disappear from beneath the steel mesh gaze of technology’s cold, empirical, all-seeing eyes?

We are mesmerized by this doomed, oh-so-modern mystery refracted in moonbeams & lost radar, poised in a very eerie silence frozen in Time hovering over le mer which, amidst the frenzy & the shouting of frothy multimedia eyes, admits more than meets the eyes of our fear & trembling for all of our lives suspended in these flying machines that dare moonbeams & deadlines to become the simply everyday objects of ordinary desire, rather than to remember these are the extraordinary vehicles we have together dreamed about since before Icarus took his doomed, yet magnificent, flight….

Ah, to be mesmerized…how does it happen that this hypnotic word exists? Well, as a dedicated etymologist, it pays to start at the beginning, and the beginning of this word inhabits the deeds of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). His salon, where he offered his treatments to restore the balance & flowing rhythms of healthy being through transmissions of Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism (or hypnosis, as it was later dubbed) to the wealthy high society circles of Mozart’s Vienna & Louis XVI’s Paris, was by equal measures notorious & wildly popular.

Was Franz Mesmer a charlatan, or a pioneer holding a brand new metaphysical truth? In 1784, Louis 16th (the last French king of Bourbon lineage, who was to meet his own fate with a guillotine, alongside his wife Marie Antoinette, a scant nine years later in 1793) convened a panel of four French scientists and Benjamin Franklin, who of course had famously bumped into electricity whilst flying a kite in his feckless youth, to examine whether Franz Mesmer had discovered a new physical fluid of interpersonal magnetism. The panel’s independent experiments could not verify a substance that could be measured, and in 1785 Mesmer was discredited & exiled from the scientific community for the last 20 years of his life.

Somehow, the scandal of this scientific rebuke brought by Ben Franklin & his four esteemed French colleagues stirred up the public imagination so much that mesmerize was born as a word. Can we even hail the misunderstood glory of Franz Mesmer, whose name lives on, like a cruel mirage, within the two languages used by the scientists who scorned his scientific theories he wished to bring to the fields of medicine? What are we moderns to make of this old controversy? Hypnosis remains relegated to the fringes of medical treatment, but has a usefulness; and just remember that magnets, X-rays, the entire field of nuclear medicine, not to mention the basic understanding of molecules & the sacred helix of DNA were as yet unimaginable portents swirling inside the intuitive moonlight of Franz Mesmer’s hypnotic eyes….

Just allow yourself a moment to ponder all the unseen things that modern medicine now clearly sees. Ah, that splash off in the distance? Are you sure you heard something? Pay it little heed…probably nothing more than a word you misheard, snatched from garbled songs blown on the wind from those voices we sometimes hear beckoning, beside the waters.

This is the Mesmer I already knew from my etymological field research, grazing in my meadow of dictionary memories. But a funny thing happened on my way to the memory banks to check these facts & to dig deeper for the buried treasures in the tale of Franz Mesmer. I came across another dreamer named Mesmer, whose story is every bit as mesmerizing & evocative in his quest to see what others cannot imagine.

Gustav Mesmer appears nearly like a figment of imagination, plucked from the pages of that favorite exotic fruit of dictionary eaters, the disambiguation. When looking up something specific in a search, a proper engine will supply the curious reader with similar sounding results; in this case, the other fame-worthy Mesmers were assembled like toy soldiers from various battlefields of Time. This tableau of other Mesmers who might matter form the disambiguation in my search for Franz (not Friedrich) Anton Mesmer. Imagine my surprise to meet the epic yet lonely & misunderstood inventor Gustav Mesmer, the one born in 1903 in the village of Althausen, Germany. Ah, traipsing through the secret meadow of words inside The Dictionary yields an intrepid word sleuth such rare pleasures! Please allow me to share this nearly overlooked life. Perhaps if we measure the wingspan of our dedication to our ideals according to the passion of Gustav Mesmer, we can measure the secret

Thus, we meet “The Icarus of Lautertal” (1903-1994), in the mesmerizing & operatic biography of Gustav Mesmer, who was incarcerated in a mental asylum for most of his adult life after renouncing the priesthood rather too vigorously; his life of freedom repudiated by his family and the authorities for disrupting a Mass, a few months after he dropped out of monastic studies. He was declared schizophrenic, and despite repeatedly pleading for his freedom, he was denied his release over & over again. Gustav turned to his work in the facility’s printing shop, where during his lengthy stay at the Bad Schussenried asylum, he encountered the idea that would be the lietmotif of his life: to build flying machines powered only by human motion & the ingenuity to engineer wings that could pedal Gustav skyward.

In the early years of Gustav’s asylum confinement, the National Socialist Party of Hitler seized a mass hypnotic power in Germany. Eventually, the asylum that kept Gustav Mesmer working diligently as a book binder and locked up as a harmless lunatic who would never be released became part of the hideous chain of Nazi institutions that conveyed millions of people into the concentration camps & gas chambers. Gustav Mesmer narrowly avoided being sent to that gruesome fate, as much by benign neglect as by design; and somehow, through those horrors, there are records of Gustav Mesmer’s ceaseless drawings of a man fitted to a solo flying machine, often pedaling a bicycle harnessed to homemade wings, as if he could wish to rise above the dark chaos, pedaling furiously toward a more peaceful life, sailing like a kite over the sorrows of war & destruction.

After World War II was over and at his own request, in 1949 we find Gustav sent to a larger psychiatric hospital in Weissenau, where he continued to invent his flying machines & musical instruments. In this facility, Gustav was granted materials to begin a workshop to actually build prototypes. Gustav apparently succeeded in being held in a certain regard as a diligent worker who posed no threat to others nor to himself, and his creative if whimsical obsession with flying won him limited access to test his machines in public.

Finally in 1964, Gustav is released to an old folks home in Buttenhausen, Germany where there are sporadic reports of the elderly man testing his winged machines, biking down the steep hills of his village in search of flight. Gustav comes to be recognized as a kindly zany folk artist, and as a marvel for his feats of engineering, even though his machines never caught air (well, there was this one time he went sailing about 50 meters when nobody was around, he shyly smiles), he never lost his spirit to tweak, to improve a design or boldly imagine a new model, to hope his wings might inspire other dreamers. Gustav Mesmer continued to experiment with his quixotic, handmade flying machines until his death on Christmas Day, 1994.

Please allow me the pleasure to now step away from this sideshow, this gift of a disambiguation, to give you room to find your own footprints of discovery as you map the mesmerizing quest for flight by Gustav Mesmer. I suppose I earn magical bonus points if you also say “Open, sesame!” to reclaim the myths behind the vanished salon of Franz Mesmer.

I have heard that there is an annual absurdly fun flying machine festival, celebrated in Buttenhausen, to embrace the memory & dedication of Gustav Mesmer. As for myself, I only hope that you, My Dear Reader, will sow seeds of mischief & fantasy whenever you tell this tale of the etymology of pleasure to be told in this particularly mesmerizing word.

It is a lovely Spring day in Oregon, as you saw in the profusion of blooming red camellias captured by my smart phone. The chill of Winter is fading, like memories of the last century. I hesitate to draw the perfectly obvious conclusion, but isn’t it a perfect day to fly a kite?

“Linger on…your pale blue eyes…linger on….”

Kristen, Adrian, Zoe and David Wade said thanks.

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Chris DeBarr

Chef who believes in eating the world to save it. Wine & language & sharp knives are the tools of my métier. At heart, I'm a warm & fuzzy Dadaist.

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