Author: gymnosophista

Book Review: Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment

Book Review: Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment

Popular religious life in New England, unlike Europe, had no Christmas, cathedrals, abbeys, liturgies, wedding ales, or anything done away with by the Protestant Reformation of 1517. Yet the settlers did come with “folk” beliefs, sometimes older than Christianity, that had not been specifically targeted 

Book Review: Radical Spirits by Anne Braude

Book Review: Radical Spirits by Anne Braude

Ann Braude. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 2001. Anne Braude’s 1989 Religious Studies classic Radical Spirits was one of the first texts to discuss how religion empowered women politically through the late nineteenth-century phenomenon of Spiritualism, a 

Book Review: Riotous Flesh by April R. Haynes

Book Review: Riotous Flesh by April R. Haynes

April R. Haynes. Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

When Sylvester Graham offered the same sex advice to women as men—no masturbation, which would cause insanity, disease, and death, and no sexual excess in marriage—riots ensued. His 1833 “Lecture to Mothers” treated women’s passion as equal to men’s and instructed women to take control of their bodies and sex lives. Mobs of men, including libertines, reacted in violence to these teachings throughout the decade, claiming to protect women from a quack, but in reality protecting their sexual privilege. 

Moral reformers are usually remembered as for temperance and against prostitution, but Haynes demonstrates that they were also out to challenge the double standard of “male sexual privilege.” Women dubbed this “false delicacy” a term that became elastic over time. Thousands joined the female reform movement in order to challenge the fairly new (see Kerber and Lyons) definition of woman as weak and passionless so that they might take control of their bodies. This was “the first social movement led by women in United States history (10). But this desire to gain control of their own bodies and sex lives shifted entirely to policing others.

White, Protestant, middle-class women reformers responded by demanding the right to learn physiology, including women in the male-defined republican virtue (see Kerber), and limiting citizenship through virtue rather than gender. Women, rather than men, launched the first national anti-masturbation campaign.

African-Americans joined this reform group, which was also active in abolition. They noted a “false delicacy” in white men when it came to interracial sex, which caused race riots in 1834. The rioters had no problem with interracial sex so long as white men were in control. These women also rejected the white reformers ideal of virtuous female purity because it was associated with virginity, whiteness, fragility, and passiveness. Virtue without purity indicated responsibility, intention, and striving and transcended race and gender. Further, unlike purity, one could not lose her virtue through rape. 

White women instead focused more on abolishing masturbation, and turned their advancement of the right to sexual pleasure to consumerism and activism. Interracial solidarity lapsed and white women began to police others’ sexuality. In the 1940s entrepreneur, Frederick Hollick, encouraged heterosexual (an anachronism, as gendered sex was not described or judged as such until the 1890s) sex for pleasure if within marriage (unlike Graham). Race science was used to depict black women as sexually excessive in both lectures and anatomy books, which furthered a white and pure definition of virtue which white women activists engaged.

Haynes also explores how an African American teacher, Sarah Mapps Douglass, resisted white definitions of healthy sex by teaching her Black students. She counseled on women’s healthy need for love and pleasure, challenged the popular and racist cranial science, and educated girls about contraception. Douglass redefined virtue for her students, including but not emphasizing warnings of the solitary vice. 

Women’s reforms that promoted a healthy sexuality within marriage and warmed against masturbation eventually linked the “vice” to insanity. As moralism shifted to medicalization, physicians diagnosed “spermatorrhea,” the involuntary loss of semen due to masturbation, which reframed masturbation as a male problem in the public mind—women were so asexual as to be uninterested. By the 1860s, liberal feminists also considered feminine purity and sexual virtue one and the same, and African American women began to see this dominate their once-allies. Segregated sexual politics then became the norm, leading to the 1970s middle-class white feminists crusade for political liberation through masturbation, which did not take into account how absurd they seemed to Black and working-class feminists. 

Fabulous book. Must read. (Disclosure: I almost studied with Haynes and that fantastic UWisc-Madison department but could not imagine myself living 4+ years in Wisconsin). 

CATEGORIES: Women’s Sexuality/U.S. Social History, Sexuality Studies, Race, Female Masturbation, Health Reform, Women’s Rights, Intersectional Activism, Women’s Activism, 19th-Century U.S. History, Cultural History.

PLACE: United States

TIME PERIOD: 1830-1859


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Hypnosis & Self-Help: A Lineage (or, another book summary/review)

Hypnosis & Self-Help: A Lineage (or, another book summary/review)

Robert C. Fuller. Mesmerism and the American Cure of Souls. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. Robert Fuller writes a history of 19th-century mental healing traditions that connects European Mesmerism to the development of distinctly American religious-psychological traditions such as Christian Science and New Thought. Fuller 

Book Review: Wash and Be Healed by Susan Cayleff

Book Review: Wash and Be Healed by Susan Cayleff

Another! And finally we are moving into health books. Susan E. Cayleff. Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement and Women’s Health. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. Washed and Be Healed is a fantastic look at the history of women’s experiences of the mid-nineteenth century 

Book Review: Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism by Emily Ogden

Book Review: Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism by Emily Ogden

Like last time, because it’s relevant to this Gymnosophist project, I’m sharing a review I wrote that relates to our lineage here (or one of them)—a piece of the history of spirituality in the U.S., this time from a scholar of English. It is something of a Part Two from the last book, John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America

Three years after Orson Fowler found spirituality in the middle of the top of the head, the mesmerist and phrenologist J. Stanley Grimes located the brain organ for “credenciveness”: religious faith, superstition, and gullibility. Grimes opens not a new chapter of Modern, but Ogden’s Credulity: A Cultural History of Mesmerism, which reads almost as a sequel to Secularism in Antebellum America (I realized after I began reading that Modern is a series editor). Ogden, a scholar of English, continues to expose the fraught Weberian concept of secular disenchantment through her analysis of mesmerists in antebellum America. Phrenologist Grimes counseled that ancient prophets employed an esoteric technique to strengthen the “credensive” organ, a technique they used to control the ignorant masses. Ogden points out that a proper Weberian agent of the disenchanted era would have destroyed these techniques. Instead, Grimes exposed these ancient frauds and then repurposed their practices to new enlightened, rational ends: mesmerism.

Franz Anton Mesmer was a Viennese physician who created a vitalist system of healing based on fluids in the body in the 1770s. It was then thought that a magnetism or force controlled the heavens and inorganic world, and Mesmer applied this theory to all living things. He used magnets, physical gestures, eye contact, and psychic will to affect body fluids and promote healing. Long before Americans engaged with mesmerism, they had learned of its charlatanism. In 1784, ex-pat Parisian Benjamin Franklin was appointed co-chair of an academic committee to investigate Mesmer’s work. The committee, commissioned by the French government, surmised that patients were affected by the treatment because they imagined the healing in their bodies that Mesmer inspired. Their excessive belief healed them, rather than Mesmer’s alleged manipulation of fluid. This finding prefigured later understandings of the placebo effect.

Ogden is not simply interested in credulity. Like John Modern, she is invested in the relationships between secularity and enchantment, specifically between the mesmerist and his credulous patient. She engages Bruno Latour to explore why “the Modern”[1] so furiously needs the credulous to believe and finds that the Paris committee empowered belief in the same way that Mesmer had empowered magnetism. By debunking mesmerism as credulity, enlightened Moderns became more interested and engaged in the practice as something to be incited and managed (33). By the time Mesmerism took off in the U.S. in 1836, Mesmerists explicitly maneuvered their subjects to their own ends. Rather than enchanted primitives (as the narrative went), mesmerists were enlightened, “secular” actors who engaged the credulous in a healing and performative relationship. Ogden is interested in what these disenchanted, secular actors do in response to the “impossible demand that they be empowered and free.” She does not seek to describe secular agency but wishes to understand the effects of “its inevitable failure” as well as the agency of the credulous in relationship to their mesmerists, which intensified after a shift took place in mesmeric practice.

After the Franklin Committee Report and the French Revolution, mesmerism slowed before it regained popularity under Mesmer’s student, the Marquis A. M. J. de Chastenet de Puységur, who would later transform mesmerism into hypnotism. Mesmerists still conducted “magnetic passes” but instead of convulsions, the treatment now produced “somnambulism,” the trancelike state in which the credulous obeyed suggestions and occasionally developed psychic powers. The rapport between doctor and patient fascinates Ogden and she likens it to that of a sorcerer and enchanted victim. Known throughout history in “primitive” religious practices (recall that Howe frequently reminds readers how “primitive” Americans were in 1815) which used trances to communicate with their gods, de Puységur had found the true, secular, scientific reason for the trance: the manipulation of animal-magnetic fluid. But unlike the Franklin Commission debunkers decades before, he would encourage and exploit mesmerism for enlightened purposes—controlling the unenlightened and credulous.

From Credulity, p 169. Fig. 9. Cover of La Roy Sunderland’s magazine the Magnet 1, no. 2 (July 1842). Along the left and right margins run the words “PHYSIOLOGY, PHRENOLOGY, PHYSIOGNOMY, PATHOGNOMY, PSYCHOLOGY, MESMERISM.” Widener Library, Harvard University, WID_Phil22.9.

It was this brave new mesmerism that Charles Poyen, a Guadeloupe-born slaveholder, learned at medical school in Paris. When he returned home to the Caribbean, he saw mesmerism being used to control slaves on plantations. In 1836, fifty years after the Franklin Commission, he moved to the U.S. and slowly introduced the country to mesmerism. After a discouraging start, he lectured in Rhode Island where the physician and mill owner, Niles Manchester, saw him speak. He questioned Poyen about a loom worker, Cynthia Gleason, who had suffered poor sleep and nervous affliction for over a decade while working fourteen-hour days, six days a week. Her malaise made it difficult for her to wake for her morning shift. (Can you imagine?) Poyen was hired to address this. Under his mesmeric suggestion, she was trained to rise and shine as promptly “as a dollar bill.” Enchantment here, Ogden says, was a management strategy (76).

Poyen claimed to have implanted his will into the woman and coordinated her rhythms with the factory schedule. He used this “primitive religion updated for modern use”—the will of the capitalists. Are we surprised that American mesmerism, and with it an American occult tradition, was born of labor control? Gleason soon developed clairvoyant powers in her trance states and began to work with Poyen to diagnose other workers’ illnesses. Ogden uses this relationship between Poyen and Gleason as an example of shifting powers between mesmerist and mesmerized, a Foucauldian take on shifting locations of power. This builds on Modern’s analysis of agency in antebellum secularity. That Gleason was able to snatch moments of agency in her diagnoses of other workers’ ailments while “playing” with her submission to Poyen perhaps took the edge off of earning only enough to survive an 84-hour work week.

Are such unequal and shifting locations of power that Foucault proposed really offered to suggest that Gleason has an agency that affects her life in any substantial way? While it is crucial to acknowledge when and how power shifts and agency transforms, it is a dismal mistake to suggest that the oppressed are truly empowered or “healed” by these token agencies. The postmodernist drive to see behavior and culture as entirely conditioned and networked, as both Modern and Ogden argue, can lead to the dangerous attitude that our beliefs, behaviors, and communities are conditioned to the point that our actions are irrelevant and that our world exists post-fact. It also has the soothing effect of letting us off the hook for the State of Things.

Neither scholar is a historian, and these books are far denser and more theoretical than is typical for the history scholarship. Even so, both books provide a rich and fascinating analysis of the emergence and dependence of the secular in an enchanted and Protestant America.

[1] “Latour defines his “Moderns” as those who are “freeing themselves from attachments to the past in order to advance toward FREEDOM.” Ogden, Credulity, 18.

Emily Ogden. Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

CATEGORIES: Mesmerism, Hypnotism, Religious Studies, Antebellum U.S. History, 19th-Century Social Change, Spirituality, Literary Theory

PLACE: United States

TIME PERIOD: 1784–1890


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Book Review: Secularism in Antebellum America by John Modern

Book Review: Secularism in Antebellum America by John Modern

Hello, everyone. I abandoned you to my books and teaching for awhile, and for that apologies. I’m studying for exams and it’s just been impossible to post regularly even about fun stuff because frankly, I cannot bear to look at a screen any more than 

annalynne mccord, wim hof, and the power of masculine energy

annalynne mccord, wim hof, and the power of masculine energy

Wim Hof: “I am into mental healthcare. But we will shoot right straight in. Change the world. Cause, you know, I’m reaching about a hundred million people already [AnnaLynne: “Gasp”] but it’s going to be billions [AnnaLynne: clapping, yells “YES!“] and when we change billions of 

LOL ridiculous…about last

LOL ridiculous…about last

time. This just popped into my radar:

So how about a TV show where you can sit back and egg on celebrities as Wim Hof runs them through an ice-cold gauntlet?

Enter Wim Hof’s Superstar Survival. In this brand new BBC series, Wim guides a slew of celebs as they face “wild and death-defying challenges in Europe’s harshest conditions”. Yeah, we’re hyped too. However you will have to temper your excitement just a bit, as the show won’t air until 2022. Check out the details on the BBC website…

Will this encourage people to do the method? Or will it result in couch potatoes living vicariously through mini-god celebs? Methods require discipline, which I’m not sure that TV can inspire, but let’s see.

We also see a, if not the, dominant theme of the WFM on display in a new pod: “Power of Masculine Energy” brought to us by a smiling blond who, of course, saves women from trafficking and domestic violence. Moral entrepreneurship at its finest.

The first is with actress & activist AnnaLynne McCord. AnnaLynne does a tremendous amount of work combating human trafficking and helping victims of domestic abuse, and she found the Wim Hof Method to be exceptionally effective in tackling her own personal trauma.

In this episode, Wim and AnnaLynne delve into the negative consequences of sub-normal breathing; physical vs mental imprisonment; and how the masculine/feminine dichotomy is holding us back.

Oh, wait a second. It’s about “how the masculine/feminine dichotomy is holding us back” and not the “Power of Masculine Energy”? These are quite different themes. No, I haven’t listened yet, but already I have to roll my eyes at the branding. Would no one click otherwise? (Maybe not?)

If masculinity is so “natural” why must you all go on and on about it ad nauseam? If you don’t feel all that masculine–as it’s absurdly defined in the here and now–why not step back and enjoy how you do feel? What you do enjoy? Assuming that you have interests outside of video games and porn, enjoying who you actually are is quite hot.

Some Thoughts on the Relaxation of Human Bodies; and on the Misapplication of the Bark in That and Some Other Cases. London: printed for W. Nicoll, No. 51, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1783.

As I mentioned in the Circle Jerk post, the women who get the most play on youtube are cheerleader types like Gabrielle Reece and the Red Scare devushki who joyfully (lucratively) prop up masculinity tropes and sell their allegedly submissive sexuality. McCord is the only woman on Wim’s pod thus far.

But I will listen and possibly report back. As with his method, maybe there’s something more there.

Ir, spėk kas? Wim dabar yra lietuvių kalba.


bamboo squatty pottyWhen traveling abroad way back in the 90s, my then-partner and I talked about how one day we’d have squat toilets in our homes because they are vastly superior to the porcelain gods. But of course, in our post-modern 21st Century, instead we buy some wood so that we can squat in our chairs. This model is bamboo and comes with a fabulous foot massager, though this one is a bit better made. They also come in white plastic, which does blend better with most decors. I have and love the foot massager model, you might guess.

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youtube is a circle jerk

youtube is a circle jerk

Last time, I mentioned turning to youtube for inspiration teaching breathwork on zoom last winter. First, James Nestor’s Breath: The Science of a New Lost Art popped up, which I listened to on audiobook. (I have too much research reading on my plate now for