Religion and Sight - Louise Child

Religion and Sight - Louise Child

6. ‘A Power Invisible’: How Somnambulists’ Blindness Reflected Debate on the Existence of Soul

Religion and Sight - Louise Child

Martina Bartlett [+-]
Winchester University (PhD student)
Martina Bartlett is currently reading for a PhD at Winchester University in the U.K. The focus of her thesis is on the work of John William Polidori, who was physician to Lord Byron, as well as being a poet and author in his own right. Polidori’s most notable work was The Vampyre (1819), and Martina is examining this, and his other literary works, in light of his medical thesis on somnambulism. She is a member of The Folklore Society, and gave a paper at their “Reflected Shadows: Folklore and the Gothic” conference in 2016. She is also a member of The Romanticism Association, and delivered a paper at their inaugural conference, “Supernatural Romanticism”, in Strasbourg, 2017. Martina also delivered at paper on Polidori’s novel, Ernestus Berchtold, or The Modern Oedipus at the “Frankenstein Unbound” conference, in 2018.


Franz Anton Mesmer believed he had discovered a new physical property of the universe – that of a vital fluid that permeated all organisms. He deduced that it was the disruption of the flow of this vital fluid which caused illness and if it could be unblocked and made to flow again, health would be restored. Unfortunately for Mesmer, the existence of his vital fluid was declared unproven by the investigation made in France in the late eighteenth century, but his practice of influencing the fluid, using what he termed animal magnetism, continued both in France up until the French revolution, and then was developed and practised in Europe, including the United Kingdom into the nineteenth century. Subsequent practitioners discovered that a trance state could be induced that was very similar to that of somnambulists in which the patients could demonstrate abilities beyond those of their normal waking state. At the beginning of the nineteenth century little was known about the state of somnambulism, and opinions were divided as to whether it represented a diabolic influence, or a physiological state. What was noted, however, was that somnambulists, whether their state was natural, or induced by an animal magnetist, did not appear to be using their sight, and yet could see perfectly well. By examining documentation of early nineteenth century case studies of somnambulism, this essay presents the debate that occurred as a result of approaches to somnambulism, which some saw as proof of the existence of soul, and divine intervention, and others saw as proving quite the opposite – that humans were mechanical, soulless automatons.

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Bartlett, Martina. 6. ‘A Power Invisible’: How Somnambulists’ Blindness Reflected Debate on the Existence of Soul. Religion and Sight. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. 106-121 Jul 2020. ISBN 9781781797495. Date accessed: 11 Jul 2020 doi: 10.1558/equinox.35751. Jul 2020

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