Thursday, May 10, 2018

Emily Ogden's "Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism"

Emily Ogden is assistant professor of English at the University of Virginia.

Here she dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism:
Like Americans in the present, Americans in the nineteenth century worried about fake news: they were surrounded with financial scheming, quackery, and shady politics. When I describe mesmerism, you’ll probably think it was part of the problem. Mesmerists claimed they could entrance people, control minds, and gift their subjects with clairvoyant powers. More quackery, right? But they took the US by storm: everyone wanted to mesmerize or be mesmerized. Why?

I think it’s because, even as mesmerists were accused of duping people, they tried to explain how duping worked. They said that the mesmeric trance was, essentially, a state of belief: their experiments could explain how and why people come to be credulous, or gullible. Their explanation wasn’t simple—nor was credulity itself.

My book, the movie has four lead actors: two male-female pairs whose relationships illustrate the strange turns belief can take. Both male characters become mesmerized by the women they thought they could wrap around their little fingers. Both women conquer terrible adversity—and maybe the laws of physics—by charisma alone. These roles require men who can transform themselves from self-assured peacocks into enthralled fans: Jim Broadbent, of Moulin Rouge!, and Andrew Scott, who plays Moriarty on Sherlock. And they require women with a spare but irresistible magnetism: Sally Hawkins, from The Shape of Water, and Frances McDormand, from Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Scott and McDormand’s pair founded mesmerism in the US. The mesmerist (Scott) was also a slaveholder; his clairvoyant stage partner (McDormand) worked in a textile factory. The slaveholder-mesmerist thought he could manipulate the worker. But instead he came to depend on her as his equal, his co-conspirator, and his private physician.

Hawkins and Broadbent’s pair made mesmerism nationally famous. A blind clairvoyant (Hawkins) claimed she could travel in spirit to New York. A pompous newspaper editor (Broadbent) was certain she was lying. But then they met. She won him over so completely that he published a book in her defense. Broadbent and Hawkins have worked with director Mike Leigh before, and in a dream world, he would take on the project. This movie crosses his period pieces with his dramas of the magic in ordinary relationships (like the unforgettable Happy Go Lucky).

In both of the two stories my book tells, the man starts out with the upper hand, then loses it, then forgets why he wanted it in the first place. How did Gleason and Brackett cast their spells? That's the question Credulity answers.
Learn more about Credulity at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue