Mesmeric revelation by Edgar Allan Poe

by Edgar Allan Poe

WHATEVER doubt may still envelop the rationale of mesmerism, its
startling facts are now almost universally admitted. Of these
latter, those who doubt, are your mere doubters by profession- an
unprofitable and disreputable tribe. There can be no more absolute
waste of time than the attempt to prove, at the present day, that man,
by mere exercise of will can so impress his fellow as to cast him into
an abnormal condition, of which the phenomena resemble very closely
those of death, or at least resemble them more nearly than they do the
phenomena of any other normal condition within our cognizance; that,
while in this state, the person so impressed employs only with effort,

and then feebly, the external organs of sense, yet perceives, with
keenly refined perception, and through channels supposed unknown,
matters beyond the scope of the physical organs; that, moreover, his
intellectual faculties are wonderfully exalted and invigorated; that
his sympathies with the person so impressing him are profound, and,
finally, that his susceptibility to the impression increases with
its frequency, while in the same proportion, the peculiar phenomena
elicited are more extended and more pronounced.
I say that these- which are the laws of mesmerism in its general
features- it would be supererogation to demonstrate; nor shall I
inflict upon my readers so needless a demonstration to-day. My purpose
at present is a very different one indeed. I am impelled, even in
the teeth of a world of prejudice, to detail without comment, the very
remarkable substance of a colloquy occurring between a sleep-waker and
I had long been in the habit of mesmerizing the person in question
(Mr. Vankirk), and the usual acute susceptibility and exaltation of
the mesmeric perception had supervened. For many months he had been
laboring under confirmed phthisis, the more distressing effects of
which had been relieved by my manipulations; and on the night of
Wednesday, the fifteenth instant, I was summoned to his bedside.
The invalid was suffering with acute pain in the region of the
heart, and breathed with great difficulty, having all the ordinary
symptoms of asthma. In spasms such as these he had usually found
relief from the application of mustard to the nervous centres, but
to-night this had been attempted in vain.
As I entered his room he greeted me with a cheerful smile, and
although evidently in much bodily pain, appeared to be, mentally,
quite at ease.
“I sent for you to-night,” he said, “not so much to administer to my
bodily ailment, as to satisfy me concerning certain physical
impressions which, of late, have occasioned me much anxiety and
surprise. I need not tell you how skeptical I have hitherto been on
the topic of the soul’s immortality. I cannot deny that there has
always existed, as if in that very soul which I have been denying, a
vague half-sentiment of its own existence. But this half-sentiment
at no time amounted to conviction. With it my reason had nothing to
do. All attempts at logical inquiry resulted, indeed, in leaving me
more sceptical than before. I had been advised to study Cousin. I
studied him in his own works as well as in those of his European and
American echoes. The ‘Charles Elwood’ of Mr. Brownson for example, was
placed in my hands. I read it with profound attention. Throughout I
found it logical but the portions which were not merely logical were
unhappily the initial arguments of the disbelieving hero of the
book. In his summing up it seemed evident to me that the reasoner
had not even succeeded in convincing himself. His end had plainly
forgotten his beginning, like the government of Trinculo. In short,
I was not long in perceiving that if man is to be intellectually
convinced of his own immortality, he will never be so convinced by the
mere abstractions which have been so long the fashion of the moralists
of England, of France, and of Germany. Abstractions may amuse and
exercise, but take no hold on the mind. Here upon earth, at least,
philosophy, I am persuaded, will always in vain call upon us to look
upon qualities as things. The will may assent- the soul- the
intellect, never.
“I repeat, then, that I only half felt, and never intellectually
believed. But latterly there has been a certain deepening of the
feeling, until it has come so nearly to resemble the acquiesence of
reason, that I find it difficult to distinguish the two. I am enabled,
too, plainly to trace this effect to the mesmeric influence. I
cannot better explain my meaning than by the hypothesis that the
mesmeric exaltation enables me to perceive a train of ratiocination
which, in my abnormal existence, convinces, but which, in full
accordance with the mesmeric phenomena, does not extend, except
through its effect, into my normal condition. In sleep-waking, the
reasoning and its conclusion- the cause and its effect- are present
together. In my natural state, the cause vanishes, the effect only,
and perhaps only partially, remains.
“These considerations have led me to think that some good results
might ensue from a series of well-directed questions propounded to
me while mesmerized. You have often observed the profound
self-cognizance evinced by the sleep-waker- the extensive knowledge he
displays upon all points relating to the mesmeric condition itself,
and from this self-cognizance may be deduced hints for the proper
conduct of a catechism.”
I consented of course to make this experiment. A few passes threw
Mr. Vankirk into the mesmeric sleep. His breathing became
immediately more easy, and he seemed to suffer no physical uneasiness.
The following conversation then ensued:-V. in the dialogue
representing the patient, and P. myself.
P. Are you asleep?
V. Yes- no; I would rather sleep more soundly.
P. [After a few more passes.] Do you sleep now?
V. Yes.
P. How do you think your present illness will result?
V. [After a long hesitation and speaking as if with effort.] I
must die.
P. Does the idea of death afflict you?
V. [Very quickly.] No- no!
P. Are you pleased with the prospect?
V. If I were awake I should like to die, but now it is no matter.
The mesmeric condition is so near death as to content me.
P. I wish you would explain yourself, Mr. Vankirk.
V. I am willing to do so, but it requires more effort than I feel
able to make. You do not question me properly.
P. What then shall I ask?
V. You must begin at the beginning.
P. The beginning! But where is the beginning?
V. You know that the beginning is GOD. [This was said in a low,
fluctuating tone, and with every sign of the most profound
P. What, then, is God?
V. [Hesitating for many minutes.] I cannot tell.
P. Is not God spirit?
V. While I was awake I knew what you meant by “spirit,” but now it
seems only a word- such, for instance, as truth, beauty- a quality,
I mean.
P. Is not God immaterial?
V. There is no immateriality- it is a mere word. That which is not
matter, is not at all- unless qualities are things.
P. Is God, then, material?
V. No. [This reply startled me very much.]
P. What, then, is he?
V. [After a long pause, and mutteringly.] I see- but it is a thing
difficult to tell. [Another long pause.] He is not spirit, for he
exists. Nor is he matter, as you understand it. But there are
gradations of matter of which man knows nothing; the grosser impelling
the finer, the finer pervading the grosser. The atmosphere, for
example, impels the electric principle, while the electric principle
permeates the atmosphere. These gradations of matter increase in
rarity or fineness until we arrive at a matter unparticled- without
particles- indivisible-one, and here the law of impulsion and
permeation is modified. The ultimate or unparticled matter not only
permeates all things, but impels all things; and thus is all things
within itself. This matter is God. What men attempt to embody in the
word “thought,” is this matter in motion.
P. The metaphysicians maintain that all action is reducible to
motion and thinking, and that the latter is the origin of the former.
V. Yes; and I now see the confusion of idea. Motion is the action of
mind, not of thinking. The unparticled matter, or God, in quiescence
is (as nearly as we can conceive it) what men call mind. And the power
of self-movement (equivalent in effect to human volition) is, in the
unparticled matter, the result of its unity and omniprevalence; how, I
know not, and now clearly see that I shall never know. But the
unparticled matter, set in motion by a law or quality existing
within itself, is thinking.
P. Can you give me no more precise idea of what you term the
unparticled matter?
V. The matters of which man is cognizant escape the senses in
gradation. We have, for example, a metal, a piece of wood, a drop of
water, the atmosphere, a gas, caloric, electricity, the luminiferous
ether. Now, we call all these things matter, and embrace all matter in
one general definition; but in spite of this, there can be no two
ideas more essentially distinct than that which we attach to a
metal, and that which we attach to the luminiferous ether. When we
reach the latter, we feel an almost irresistible inclination to
class it with spirit, or with nihilty. The only consideration which
restrains us is our conception of its atomic constitution; and here,
even, we have to seek aid from our notion of an atom, as something
possessing in infinite minuteness, solidity, palpability, weight.
Destroy the idea of the atomic constitution and we should no longer be
able to regard the ether as an entity, or, at least, as matter. For
want of a better word we might term it spirit. Take, now, a step
beyond the luminiferous ether- conceive a matter as much more rare
than the ether, as this ether is more rare than the metal, and we
arrive at once (in spite of all the school dogmas) at a unique mass-
an unparticled matter. For although we may admit infinite littleness
in the atoms themselves, the infinitude of littleness in the spaces
between them is an absurdity. There will be a point- there will be a
degree of rarity at which, if the atoms are sufficiently numerous, the
interspaces must vanish, and the mass absolutely coalesce. But the
consideration of the atomic constitution being now taken away, the
nature of the mass inevitably glides into what we conceive of
spirit. It is clear, however, that it is as fully matter as before.
The truth is, it is impossible to conceive spirit since it is
impossible to imagine what is not. When we flatter ourselves that we
have formed its conception, we have merely deceived our
understanding by the consideration of infinitely rarefied matter.
P. There seems to me an insurmountable objection to the idea of
absolute coalescence;- and that is the very slight resistance
experienced by the heavenly bodies in their revolutions through space-
a resistance now ascertained, it is true, to exist in some degree, but
which is, nevertheless, so slight as to have been quite overlooked
by the sagacity even of Newton. We know that the resistance of
bodies is, chiefly, in proportion to their density. Absolute
coalescence is absolute density. Where there are no interspaces, there
can be no yielding. An ether, absolutely dense, would put an
infinitely more effectual stop to the progress of a star than would an
ether of adamant or of iron.
V. Your objection is answered with an ease which is nearly in the
ratio of its apparent unanswerability.- As regards the progress of the
star, it can make no difference whether the star passes through the
ether or the ether through it. There is no astronomical error more
unaccountable than that which reconciles the known retardation of
the comets with the idea of their passage through an ether, for,
however rare this ether be supposed, it would put a stop to all
sidereal revolution in a very far briefer period than has been
admitted by those astronomers who have endeavored to slur over a point
which they found it impossible to comprehend. The retardation actually
experienced is, on the other hand, about that which might be
expected from the friction of the ether in the instantaneous passage
through the orb. In the one case, the retarding force is momentary and
complete within itself- in the other it is endlessly accumulative.
P. But in all this- in this identification of mere matter with
God- is there nothing of irreverence? [I was forced to repeat this
question before the sleep-waker fully comprehended my meaning.]
V. Can you say why matter should be less reverenced than mind? But
you forget that the matter of which “mind” or “spirit” of the schools,
so far as regards its high capacities, and is, moreover, the
“matter” of these schools at the same time. God, with all the powers
attributed to spirit, is but the perfection of matter.
P. You assert, then, that the unparticled matter, in motion, is
V. In general, this motion is the universal thought of the universal
mind. This thought creates. All created things are but the thoughts of
P. You say, “in general.”
V. Yes. The universal mind is God. For new individualities, matter
is necessary.
P. But you now speak of “mind” and “matter” as do the
V. Yes- to avoid confusion. When I say “mind,” I mean the
unparticled or ultimate matter, by “matter,” I intend all else.
P. You were saying that “for new individualities matter is
V. Yes; for mind, existing unincorporate, is merely God. To create
individual, thinking beings, it was necessary to incarnate portions of
the divine mind. Thus man is individualized. Divested of corporate
investiture, he were God. Now the particular motion of the
incarnated portions of the unparticled matter is the thought of man;
as the motion of the whole is that of God.
P. You say that divested of the body man will be God?
V. [After much hesitation.] I could not have said this; it is an
P. [Referring to my notes.] You did say that “divested of
corporate investiture man were God.”
V. And this is true. Man thus divested would be God- would be
unindividualized. But he can never be thus divested- at least never
will be- else we must imagine an action of God returning upon
itself- a purposeless and futile action. Man is a creature.
Creatures are thoughts of God. It is the nature of thought to be
P. I do not comprehend. You say that man will never put off the
V. I say that he will never be bodiless.
P. Explain.
V. There are two bodies- the rudimental and the complete,
corresponding with the two conditions of the worm and the butterfly.
What we call “death,” is but the painful metamorphosis. Our present
incarnation is progressive, preparatory, temporary. Our future is
perfected, ultimate, immortal. The ultimate life is the full design.
P. But of the worm’s metamorphosis we are palpably cognizant.
V. We, certainly- but not the worm. The matter of which our
rudimental body is composed, is within the ken of the organs of that
body; or, more distinctly, our rudimental organs are adapted to the
matter of which is formed the rudimental body, but not to that of
which the ultimate is composed. The ultimate body thus escapes our
rudimental senses, and we perceive only the shell which falls, in
decaying, from the inner form, not that inner form itself; but this
inner form as well as the shell, is appreciable by those who have
already acquired the ultimate life.
P. You have often said that the mesmeric state very nearly resembles
death. How is this?
V. When I say that it resembles death, I mean that it resembles
the ultimate life; for when I am entranced the senses of my rudimental
life are in abeyance and I perceive external things directly,
without organs, through a medium which I shall employ in the ultimate,
unorganized life.
P. Unorganized?
V. Yes; organs are contrivances by which the individual is brought
into sensible relation with particular classes and forms of matter, to
the exclusion of other classes and forms. The organs of man are
adapted to his rudimental condition, and to that only; his ultimate
condition, being unorganized, is of unlimited comprehension in all
points but one- the nature of the volition of God- that is to say, the
motion of the unparticled matter. You may have a distinct idea of
the ultimate body by conceiving it to be entire brain. This it is not,
but a conception of this nature will bring you near a comprehension of
what it is. A luminous body imparts vibration to the luminiferous
ether. The vibrations generate similar ones within the retina; these
again communicate similar ones to the optic nerve. The nerve conveys
similar ones to the brain; the brain, also, similar ones to the
unparticled matter which permeates it. The motion of this latter is
thought, of which perception is the first undulation. This is the mode
by which the mind of the rudimental life communicates with the
external world; and this external world is, to the rudimental life,
limited, through the idiosyncrasy of its organs. But in the
ultimate, unorganized life, the external world reaches the whole body,
(which is of a substance having affinity to brain, as I have said,)
with no other intervention than that of an infinitely rarer ether than
even the luminiferous; and to this ether- in unison with it- the whole
body vibrates, setting in motion the unparticled matter which
permeates it. It is to the absence of idiosyncratic organs, therefore,
that we must attribute the nearly unlimited perception of the ultimate
life. To rudimental beings, organs are the cages necessary to
confine them until fledged.
P. You speak of rudimental “beings.” Are there other rudimental
thinking beings than man?
V. The multitudinous conglomeration of rare matter into nebulae,
planets, suns, and other bodies which are neither nebulae, suns, nor
planets, is for the sole purpose of supplying pabulum for the
idiosyncrasy of the organs of an infinity of rudimental beings. But
for the necessity of the rudimental, prior to the ultimate life, there
would have been no bodies such as these. Each of these is tenanted
by a distinct variety of organic rudimental thinking creatures. In
all, the organs vary with the features of the place tenanted. At
death, or metamorphosis, these creatures, enjoying the ultimate
life- immortality- and cognizant of all secrets but the one, act all
things and pass every where by mere volition:- indwelling, not the
stars, which to us seem the sole palpabilities, and for the
accommodation of which we blindly deem space created- but that space
itself- that infinity of which the truly substantive vastness swallows
up the star-shadows- blotting them out as non-entities from the
perception of the angels.
P. You say that “but for the necessity of the rudimental life, there
would have been no stars.” But why this necessity?
V. In the inorganic life, as well as in the inorganic matter
generally, there is nothing to impede the action of one simple
unique law- the Divine Volition. With the view of producing
impediment, the organic life and matter (complex, substantial and law-
encumbered) were contrived.
P. But again- why need this impediment have been produced?
V. The result of law inviolate is perfection- right- negative
happiness. The result of law violate is imperfection, wrong,
positive pain. Through the impediments afforded by the number,
complexity, and substantiality of the laws of organic life and matter,
the violation of law is rendered, to a certain extent, practicable.
Thus pain, which is the inorganic life is impossible, is possible in
the organic.
P. But to what good end is pain thus rendered possible?
V. All things are either good or bad by comparison. A sufficient
analysis will show that pleasure in all cases, is but the contrast
of pain. Positive pleasure is a mere idea. To be happy at any one
point we must have suffered at the same. Never to suffer would have
been never to have been blessed. But it has been shown that, in the
inorganic life, pain cannot be; thus the necessity for the organic.
The pain of the primitive life of Earth, is the sole basis of the
bliss of the ultimate life in Heaven.
P. Still there is one of your expressions which I find it impossible
to comprehend- “the truly substantive vastness of infinity.”
V. This, probably, is because you have no sufficiently generic
conception of the term “substance” itself. We must not regard it as
a quality, but as a sentiment:- it is the perception, in thinking
beings, of the adaptation of matter to their organization. There are
many things on the Earth, which would be nihility to the inhabitants
of Venus- many things visible and tangible in Venus, which we could
not be brought to appreciate as existing at all. But to the
inorganic beings- to the angels- the whole of the unparticled matter
is substance; that is to say, the whole of what we term “space,” is to
them the truest substantiality;- the stars, meantime, through what
we consider their materiality, escaping the angelic sense, just in
proportion as the unparticled matter, through what we consider its
immateriality, eludes the organic.
As the sleep-waker pronounced these latter words, in a feeble
tone, I observed on his countenance a singular expression, which
somewhat alarmed me, and induced me to awake him at once. No sooner
had I done this than, with a bright smile irradiating all his
features, he fell back upon his pillow and expired. I noticed that
in less than a minute afterward his corpse had all the stern
rigidity of stone. His brow was of the coldness of ice. Thus,
ordinarily, should it have appeared, only after long pressure from
Azrael’s hand. Had the sleep-waker, indeed, during the latter
portion of his discourse, been addressing me from out the regions of
the shadows?

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