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HOME / 9.5 Matinée mesmerique. Theatrical Laboratory on the Power of Distraction

Tuesday 9 May 2017, 12:00am-4:00pm

Helen Martin Studio, University of Warwick.

Organized by Alessandra Aloisi.

Paola Cori (Cardiff), Elsa Richardson (Strathclyde), Mariano Tomatis (IAS Warwick), Susannah Wilson (Warwick).

Matinée mesmerique
Theatrical Laboratory on the Power of Distraction

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From Medicine to Stage Magic

Mariano Tomatis, IAS Warwick

In the second half of the 19th century, the word “Mesmerism” appeared in theatre programmes, offered as a form of entertainment for an educated audience. However, Franz Anton Mesmer’s doctrine was born with therapeutic purposes. Its progression from medicine to stage magic followed a twisted path where imagination, subjection, seemingly paranormal phenomena, tricks and deception are inextricably linked. From Franziska Öesterlin’s psychic perceptions to Magdeleine’s “sixth sense”, from the epigastric sight of Petetin’s somnambulist to Giuseppina Sisti’s eyeless vision, the laboratory will give a brief overview of the history of Mesmerism and the key role of women from the point of view of a secular magician. During the lecture, an actual somnambulist will give a live performance of extraordinary feats of clairvoyance and the audience will take part in the show, reviving a typical 18th-century demonstration of “animal magnetism” and experiencing the power of distraction.

Click to see slides, script and listen to the audio track of the theatrical laboratory.


Slides, script and audio track of the theatrical laboratory by Mariano.

Exercise 1 "Where is Fraulein Öesterlin?"

Exercise 2 "Martina Piperno’s Eyeless Vision in Somnambulic State" (*)

Exercise 3 "Martina Piperno’s Book Test in Somnambulic State" (*)

Exercise 4 "Tony Slydini performing Paper balls over the head trick"

(*) Photo courtesy Fabio Camilletti

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Hypnotism, Criminal Suggestion and Medical Experimentation

Elsa Richardson, Strathclyde

Through the closing decades of the 19th-century cases of so-called ’hypnotic crimes’ were reported in Europe and Britain; instances of unconscious lawbreaking that captured the attention of the mainstream press. In court defendants claimed to have acted under the influence of post-hypnotic suggestion and lawyers looked to the medical community to help support or refute this unusual defence. At the same time as they were being called as expert witnesses, some psychiatrists had begun to conduct their own experiments into hypnotic suggestion and its possible relationship with criminal activity: was it possible to induce someone using hypnotic techniques to commit acts that they would never consider in their everyday waking state? This talk returns to these strange experiments and explores how they contributed to the contested status of hypnotism within mainstream medicine by further blurring the line between therapeutic practice and staged entertainment.

Audio track of the speech (27”27’).


The case of "Madeleine Lebouc"

Susannah Wilson, Warwick

The talk will consider the case of Pauline Lair Lamotte, a self-proclaimed mystic under the care of Pierre Janet at the Salpêtrière during the 1880s and 1890s, and who called herself "Madeleine Lebouc". This patient experienced stigmata and religious ecstasies, interpreted by Janet as a "délire d’union avec Dieu". The shifting mental states described by Lamotte in her writings are, first, an "état de consolation" which can be read as a manifestation of narrative energy being inwardly directed, constructing a textual refusal of reality and retreat into blissful isolation; second, the "état de torture" or "délire de séparation avec Dieu" is considered as a painful form of refusal, in which energy is outwardly directed; finally, the intermediary states are read simultaneously as a subversive voice in dialogue and a passive voice of resignation. Lamotte’s delusions serve the purpose of metaphorically reversing her limited status by providing a realm of rich and dramatic experience denied her in "reality".

Audio track of the speech (32”27’).


Magnetism, religion and the philosophy of exposure in the 19th century

Paola Cori, Cardiff

The history of magnetism from the eighteenth to early twentieth century is one in which progressive substantiation of the invisible also brings about a more physical experience of vicinity and merging between the subject and the object of representation. The image switches ground and from being a mere object of contemplation it starts to inhabit the body in a more concrete, fulfilling but also uncanny way. This talk discusses different regimes of visuality with particular attention to the work of Giacomo Leopardi. In his work it is possible to detect a philosophy of exposure in which religious and magnetic imagery seem to overlap.


Photos of the event

Alessandra Aloisi introducing the Matinée Mesmerique.

Mariano Tomatis.

Elsa Richardson.

Susannah Wilson.

Paola Cori.

Mariano Tomatis pointing at the word "Mesmerism", handwritten by Giacomo Leopardi in his Zibaldone.

The audience.

"Everything Is Real, There Is No Audience" by Mark Titchner from the University of Warwick Art Collection.


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Mesmer è curato da Mariano Tomatis, già autore di La magia della mente (2008), Te lo leggo nella mente (2013, prefazione di Max Maven) e L’arte di stupire (2014, prefazione di Derren Brown).

Insieme a Wu Ming ha curato il Laboratorio di Magnetismo Rivoluzionario, sperimentazione teatrale tra mentalismo e letteratura.

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Per contatti: mariano.tomatis@gmail.com

Il materiale è distribuito con Licenza Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0