De Puységur, the great forgotten explorer of the unconscious

Armand-Marc-Jacques Chastanet, Marquis de Puységur (1751–1825) belonged to one of the most ancient and wealthiest aristocratic families in France. Across the centuries his ancestors hold many prominent roles especially in the military field. Following their example he was colonel in the artillery regiment of Strasbourg. As the eldest son he inherited a large estate at Buzancy near Soissons. De Puységurs were also known for their philanthropic activities.


Armand-Marc-Jacques Chastanet, Marquis de Puységur

His youngest brother, Viscount Jacques Maxime, was a student of Anton Mesmer the founder of the “animal magnetism”, the first semi-scientific effective treatment method of hysteria. The second brother, Antoine-Hyacinthe was also a dedicated student of Mesmer. As a naval officer he introduced animal magnetism into the French colony, Saint-Domingue.

Armand-Marc-Jacques de Puységur and his brothers were typical French aristocrats of the Enlightenment era, a period from the middle of 17th until the end of 18th century. In this period the science has been shaken by the revolutionary ideas of Isaac Newton, who laid the foundation for classical mechanics, explaining law of gravity, motion and discovery of magnetic and electric phenomena. With Francoise Antoine de Lavoisier began the era of the modern chemistry. Lavoisier was the first who explored and explained the proper nature of combustion. He also discovered oxygen and hydrogen, overturned the phlogiston theory, wrote the first list of elements, and reformed chemical nomenclature. On the philosophical field in England Francis Bacon, the “father of empiricism”, advocating the scientific method of inquiry and investigation of scientific phenomena. In France Rene Descartes revolutionaries the scientific approach doubting previously paradigms and trying to prove their validity through evidence based investigation, whilst Voltaire criticized social convention and promoted radical republican ideas.

The members of the French aristocracy created their own laboratories on their estates and experimented with chemistry, physics, astronomy and other brunches of science. Armand-Marc-Jacques Chastanet, Marquis de Puységur belonged to this brilliantly educated part of the French aristocracy. As did many of his aristocratic contemporaries fellow aristocrats, he kept on his estate at Buzancy a “cabinet de physique”, where he experimented with electricity.

His brothers Viscount and Antoine-Hyacinthe had persuaded Armand-Marc-Jacques to join the newly formed “Society of Universal Harmony” founded by Franz Anton Mesmer. In 1784 he attended Mesmer’s seminar in Paris where he learned about the “animal magnetism”, presented by its inventor. Puységur learned the technique of a system that later has been described as hypnotism.

Having returned to his estate, on one day in May Puységur entered the house of Victor Race, who was a shepherd on his estate, who was suffering from congestion in his lungs and a fever. Victor Race was at that time twenty-three years old. His family served Puysegurs for several generations. Puységur began to “magnetize” the man. This involved making passes or sweeping movements of the hands over the body of the person. To De Puységur’s surprise, the magnetic passes he exercised on the young man had the opposite effect from what he had witnessed in Paris observing Mesmer’s stage performances and patients going into a “violent crisis”. In the “violent crisis” the “mesmerized” patients experienced a state of a severe agitation. To Puységur’s great surprise, after few minutes, Victor fell peacefully asleep. Puységur recognized, however, that Victor had not fallen into a normal sleep but had slipped into an unusual state of consciousness; he was awake while asleep, he spoke aloud, answered questions, and displayed a far brighter mind than in his normal condition.

Writing about the incident a few days later, Puységur said:

“He spoke, occupying himself out loud with his affairs. When I realized that his ideas might affect him disagreeably, I stopped them and tried to inspire more pleasant ones, imagining himself shooting a prize, dancing at a party, etc.… I nourish these ideas in him and in this way I made him move around a lot in his chair, as if dancing to a tune; while mentally singing it, I made him repeat it out loud. In this way I caused the sick man that day to sweat profusely. After an hour of crisis I calmed him and left the room. He was given something to drink, and having had bread and boullion brought to him, I made him eat some soup that very same evening something he had not been able to do for five days. He slept all that night through. The next day, no longer remembering my visit of the evening before, he told me how much better he felt” (Memoirs pour servir à l’histoire et à l’établissement du magnétisme animal (1784), pp. 28-29).

Intrigued, Puysegur magnetized Victor again and was able to create a similar state magnetizing other subjects. It immediately occurred to Puységur that a primary characteristic of subsistence in this in-between subconscious state was the devitalization of conscious willpower. To distinguish this trance-like state from the Mesmer’s “violent crisis” he called it a “perfect crisis”; later he used such terms as “mesmeric somnambulism”’, “artificial somnambulism” or “magnetic sleep”. Only much later James Braid gave this condition its present name: “hypnosis.”

Another characteristic of the magnetic sleep was suggestibility and “intimate rapport” (as Puységur called it) which means a special connection between magnetizer and magnetized. The hypnotic amnesia (as we call it today) was almost universal for magnetic somnambulism at the time.
Puységur observed other feature of the sommnambulic sleep and called it “divided consciousness.” In the sommnabulic state Victor displayed a far brighter mind than in his normal condition; he spoke about the “normal Victor” (his conscious personality) as a third person. This aspect of Race’s manifestation of an alternate personality proved vital in this context. This was the manifestation of two apparently independent parts of the personality. Not only that, Victor was different when he was in the state of magnetic sleep he was not his usual self. Puységur noticed right away a striking contrast in personality traits:

“when [Victor] is in the magnetized state, he is no longer a naïve peasant who can barely speak a sentence. He is someone whom I do not know how to name (1784, p.35).” Puységur, the educated aristocrat, even found himself turning to this strangely inspired somnambulistic peasant for advice about how to apply animal magnetism: “He is teaching me the conduct I must follow. According to him, it is not necessary that I touch everyone. One look, one gesture, one feeling of good will is enough. And it is a peasant, the narrowest and most limited in this locality, that teaches me this. When he is in crisis, I know no one as profound, prudent, or clear-cited (1784, pp. 32-3).”

De Puységur observed that once his subjects reached the state of “perfect crisis”, they were able to diagnose their own diseases, foresee its course of evolution and even tell which treatment they need. Puysegur called such abilities the “pressensation”.

Puységur described his experiences into a memoir, asserting that “the line of demarcation [in the personality during artificial somnambulism] is so complete that these two states may almost be described as two different existences”, and further that “in the magnetic state the patients have a clear recollection of all their doings in the normal state, but in the normal state, they can recall nothing of what has taken place in the magnetic condition.” Puységur assumed that artificial somnambulism resurrects otherwise disenfranchised fringes of consciousness, bequeathing to them the ephemeral gift of direct communication with external stimuli of the phenomenal world. These unprecedented propensities insinuated at an infiltration of deeper aspects of mind that are normally unconscious. He released these decisive insights to the public in 1781, roughly a year after the conclusion of his investigations with Victor Race.

The number of Puységur’s patients became soon so great that he started to magnetize several patients at once. Following an idea of Mesmer he magnetized a tree. In the park of his castle there was a spring with a large elm tree next to it. The peasants sat on the surrounding stone benches. Ropes were attached to the tree’s main branches and the peasants wound ends of the rope around the ailing parts of their bodies. The peasants/patients formed a chain holding each other’s thumbs. Later Puységur asked the patients to break the chain and to rub their hands. He chose few of them, touched them with the baguette (an iron rod) inducing the “perfect crisis.” These peasant became now ”physicians” and started to diagnose their fellow patients and prescribe the treatment. To ” wake them from their magnetic sleep, Puységur ordered them to kiss the tree. After they awoke, they were not able to remember nothing of what had happened. It was reported that within little more than one month, 62 of the 300 patients had been cured of various illnesses.

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Puységur’s elm tree and “magnetized” patients at Buzancy

Puységur’s discovery of magnetic sleep and its psychological origin contradicted Mesmer’s concept. Messmer assumed that the connection between the healer and its object was of physical nature similar to the invisible forces of gravity or magnetism; from the later he borrowed the name: “animal magnetism”.

Victor Race appeared to have an alternate personality within him, which emerged when he was in magnetic sleep. Puységur’s discovery of magnetic sleep and the alternate personality state introduced a radically new view on the human psyche. The importance of this discovery cannot be overestimated. Magnetic sleep revealed that the psyche is divided and that there exists a deeper level of insight quite different from everyday consciousness. This second level displays personality characteristics unlike those of the conscious state in judgments and mental acuity. The second “unconscious psyche” possesses its own memory chain, with continuity of memory and identity from one episode of magnetic sleep to the next, but it is separated from the person’s ordinary consciousness by a memory barrier, and the two levels of the human psyche are often sharply distinguished as though they were, as Puységur put it, “two different existences”. The “second consciousness” described by Puységur has been described one century later by Freud as the “unconscious”.

Puységur’s discovery was absolutely unique in his time anticipating the future development of the psychodynamic psychiatry. The treatment of Victor Race was the first ever psychotherapy carried out in the modern way. His notion of the therapeutic bond between the psychotherapist and the patient corresponds to Freud’s theory of transference and the conduct of therapy in the state of magnetic somnambulism refers to the modern hypnotherapy.

The feeling of alienation is due in part to the memory barrier and in part to the fact that a distinct sense of identity is often present in the second layer, which may contain thoughts or emotions very different from and even opposed to those of the ordinary self. If the polarity is very high, it can cause mental disorders. These insights became later the foundation of Freudian psychoanalysis and Jung’s psychoanalytical psychology.

One century later the first patient of Freud and Breuer, a young women Anna O. (Berta Pappenheim) showed in her “hysteric state” remarkable abilities resembling the phenomena observed by Victor Race. She communicated with her therapist in fluent English (instead of her native German), which she nearly forgot in her conscious state and to which she was exposed only in her childhood having an English gouvernante.

Few years later C.G.Jung studied a mediumistic medium, Ellen Preisberg. In the trance Ellen displayed a different personality and a far brighter mind than in her conscious state. She was able to speak High German whilst in her conscious state she spoke only the local Swiss dialect. Jung described the results of the research in his doctoral dissertation “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena”. This and later observations led Jung to the conclusion, that underneath the threshold of consciousness a deeper layer of personality was hidden, which Jung called “the Self”. He observed that the individual develops symptoms because of the growing polarity between the two layers of the psyche. He called the conscious part – following Freud – the Ego-consciousness and the unconscious part the “Self”.  The difference between Jung and Freud regarding their concept of the unconscious was of fundamental nature. Freud saw the unconscious in a static way, as place were the past memories and instincts are hidden. In contrary Jung’s “Self” possesses its own “personality” and it’s superior in its insight and wisdom to the Ego-Consciousness. This concept correlates with Puysegur’s observation of the alternate personality he observed in Victor Race in the magnetic sleep.

At the beginning of 1785, Puysegur took Victor to Paris where he used him for demonstrations. A worsening occurred in Victor’s condition, who explained during magnetic sleep that it resulted from him being exhibited to curious audience.

Puysegur thus learned that magnetism should be used only for therapeutic purposes and not for experimentation and demonstrations. This insight was later neglected by the French pioneer of hypnosis, Charcot, who used to demonstrate his patient in a hypnotic state to students but also to interested ley audience.

In August 1785 Puysegur was ordered to take command of his artillery regiment stationed in Strasbourg. The local Masonic society had asked him to teach the principles of animal magnetism to its members.  Puysegur gave a course, which he concluded with the following words:
In Strasbourg Puysegur organized the “Societe  Harmonique des Amis Reunis”,  whose aim was to train  magnetizers and to setup centers  for magnetic treatment. By 1789 it counted more than two hundred members including the elite of Alsacian aristocracy. The treatment was offered gratuitously, and the members were obliged to write accurate reports of all their experiences, and to submit them to the society. Under its supervision a number of treatment centers were setup throughout Alsace. The Strasbourg society published annual reports listing the cures with short case histories including the names of the practitioner and the patient and the nature of illness. This was the first evidence based approach used in the depth psychology. At that time the collective treatments have been abandoned.

It’s a matter of speculation how the movement would have developed, had it not been violently interrupted by the Revolution of 1789.  During the French Revolution of 1789 The Societe de I’ Harmonie was disbanded. Many of Mesmer’s aristocratic disciples emigrated; others perished on the scaffold, among them the brightest minds of French aristocracy for example Lavoisier. Being a fascinated by the revolutionary ideas of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” Marquis de Puysegur commanded the republican forces as a general. After one year, witnessing the terror of Robespierre regime, he resigned and subsequently spent two years in prison. Later he was discharged and returned to his castle at Buzancy. He continued writing literary works, and took up once again his research on magnetism.

After Napoleon came to power Puységur continued writing literary works, and took up once again his research on magnetism. He became the leading figure for the new generation of practitioners of mesmerism interested in inducing the sleeping trance instead the original method of Mesmer.

In April 1818, the sixty seven-year-old Marquis learned that Victor Race, who was now fifty-eight, was severely ill and continually talking about him. Puysegur went to see Victor and magnetized him in the same cottage in which he had done it for the first time thirty-four years earlier. He was struck by the fact that Victor, in his magnetic sleep, remembered every detail of his previous somnambulic life. Victor’s health improved, and the Marquis returned to Paris. Shortly thereafter Victor died and was buried in the cemetery at Buzancy. The Marquis ordered an inscription to be put on his tombstone.

In 1825, seven years after Victor’s death, Marqius De Puységur become severely ill and was transported to his castle at Buzancy. He died there at the age of seventy-four leaving the reputation of a thoroughly honest and generous man.

Puységur was in every inch an extraordinary man. Despite his great achievements he never took credit for having invented the procedure of hypnotic induction portraying himself as a disciple of Anton Mesmer.  Over the years his name gradually fell into oblivion; his writings became scarce.

The small village of Buzancy fall for centuries again in sleep to be violently awoken by the Great War. In July 1918 the village witnessed a violent battle between German Imperial and Allied forces. The soldiers of the 1st US Infantry Division, despite their courage and heavy losses, were not able to break through the German lines. On 28th of July 1918, the 15th Scottish Division launched an attack accompanied by a French heavy artillery and flamethrower section up the slope the chateau and the village itself. As its consequence the chateau was severely damaged.
Remnats of Buzancy Castel (3) Remnants of Buzancy Castel

Henri Ellenberger the author of the monumental work about the development of Dynamic Psychiatry “The Discovery of the Unconscious” visited in the late 60ties Buzancy. He wrote:
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Church Buzancy

Buzancy Village Church which contains the grave of of Amand-Marie- Jacques de Chastenet, Marquis de Puysegur