Ancien Régime Turkophile Destroyed By Magnetizers?

by John Holbo on March 15, 2015

Having made one recent post that topped 1000 comments, I thought I would try to be more abstruse for a time.

I have a trivia question for you. I’m reading Volney’s The Ruins. Why? Because it’s one of the books that Frankenstein’s monster overhears:

“The book from which Felix instructed Safie was Volney’s Ruins of Empires. I should not have understood the purport of this book had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations. He had chosen this work, he said, because the declamatory style was framed in imitation of the Eastern authors. Through this work I obtained a cursory knowledge of history and a view of the several empires at present existing in the world; it gave me an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth. I heard of the slothful Asiatics, of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians, of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans—of their subsequent degenerating—of the decline of that mighty empire, of chivalry, Christianity, and kings. I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.

“These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing.

So I thought I would read some Volney. After all, Thomas Jefferson made the first English translation (of the first 20 chapters). If it was good enough for Jefferson to translate, it ought to be good enough for me to read. The Wikipedia entry quotes a bit that seems very Frankenstein appropriate:

From this we conclude, that, to live in harmony and peace … we must trace a line of distinction between those (assertions) that are capable of verification, and those that are not; (we must) separate by an inviolable barrier the world of fantastical beings from the world of realities …

I’m not going to summarize Volney for you. But the monster, overhearing this particular work of Enlightenment philosophy, is a nice emblem of the (inevitable? tragic? ironic?) breakdown of the line of distinction Volney advocates, i.e. separation of church and state. Safie and Felix happily reading that sentence, while behind them – weirdly undetectable! – looms a fantastical being, one who yearns for Enlightenment and acceptance? Who will be bitterly disappointed! Nicely staged, Ms. Shelley!

But I said I had a trivia question and it is this. “Since the evils of society spring from cupidity and ignorance, men will never cease to be persecuted, till they become enlightened and wise; till they practise justice, founded on a knowledge of their relations and of the laws of their organization.”

And then, a long footnote:

A singular moral phenomenon made its appearance in Europe in the year 1788. A great nation, jealous of its liberty, contracted a fondness for a nation the enemy of liberty; a nation friendly to the arts, for a nation that detests them; a mild and tolerant nation, for a persecuting and fanatic one; a social and gay nation, for a nation whose characteristics are gloom and misanthropy; in a word, the French were smitten with a passion for the Turks: they were desirous of engaging in a war for them, and that at a time when revolution in their own country was just at its commencement. A man, who perceived the true nature of the situation, wrote a book to dissuade them from the war: it was immediately pretended that he was paid by the government, which in reality wished the war, and which was upon the point of shutting him up in a state prison. Another man wrote to recommend the war: he was applauded, and his word taken for the science, the politeness, and importance of the Turks. It is true that he believed in his own thesis, for he has found among them people who cast a nativity, and alchymists who ruined his fortune; as he found Martinists at Paris, who enabled him to sup with Sesostris, and Magnetizers who concluded with destroying his existence. Notwithstanding this, the Turks were beaten by the Russians, and the man who then predicted the fall of their empire, persists in the prediction. The result of this fall will be a complete change of the political system, as far as it relates to the coast of the Mediterranean. If, however, the French become important in proportion as they become free,and if they make use of the advantage they will obtain, their progress may easily prove of the most honorable sort; inasmuch as, by the wise decrees of fate, the true interest of mankind evermore accords with their true morality.

OK, I’ll bite. In the days just before the French Revolution, there was some prominent French alchemist advocate of intervention in the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92; a turkophile astrologer, who was some sort of Martinist and would-be communicant with Sesostris (thus a Freemason?); who fell in with ‘Magnetizers’ who destroyed him? Magnetizers?

All this needs is Vril to make it complete. Some sort of failed attempt to aid the Turks by harnessing vril.

Who is Volney talking about? And why hasn’t Mike Mignola already written this as a one-shot spin-off within the Hellboy-verse, within a Volney-within-Frankenstein frame?

Bonus points: I was Googling “cast nativity” to figure out if there was some significance beyond the astrological sense of read one’s destiny from one’s birthday. It turns out Samuel Butler derided Mountebanks, like so: “He casts the nativity of urinals, and tries diseases, like a witch, by water.” I take it Butler is making fun of people who think testing urine samples might be a valid medical procedure? Also, he thinks witches tell you to pee into a cup, for testing purposes?

No serious responses to these queries will be disregarded.

See also this old post. (In case you thought I was just some Volney-come-lately student of this stuff.)



John Quiggin 03.15.15 at 5:03 am

Magnetizers is presumably a reference to Mesmer, who (IIRC) originally used iron magnets before discovering that blocks of wood worked just as well, inferring that the active force was animal magnetism.


John Quiggin 03.15.15 at 5:06 am

And, by an apt choice of pseudonym, one of Mesmer’s followers is represented in our commentariat.


John Holbo 03.15.15 at 5:19 am

“Magnetizers is presumably a reference to Mesmer”

Ah, yes, I should have caught that. I was hoping for people wearing u-shaped magnet-helmets, looking like Kirby characters. But you can’t have everything.

Wait? Which devotee of the great Mesmer lurks in our commentariat? You are freaking me out, man.


dsquared 03.15.15 at 6:38 am


Mesmerists. It was a form of early psychotherapy based on magnets before it developed into hypnotism. The only legacy of the magnet bit is the phrase “animal magnetism”, which did not originally refer to Russell Brand.


dsquared 03.15.15 at 6:47 am

Aagh, beaten to the tape by JQ!


John Holbo 03.15.15 at 6:49 am

I get the sense that no one reads Crooked Timber but us these days, you guys.


Asteele 03.15.15 at 6:57 am

I read.


Ronan(rf) 03.15.15 at 7:12 am

I bookmark.


John Holbo 03.15.15 at 7:12 am

Ah, I was worried that could only careen from feast (1000+ comments) to famine!


TripleMused 03.15.15 at 9:45 am

This might add a bit to Butler’s remarks–when uroscopy became uromancy:


Fred Bush 03.15.15 at 1:34 pm

“He casts the nativity of urinals, and tries diseases, like a witch, by water.”

I think the second clause says that the mountebank checks for diseases as one would check for a witch, by dunking them and seeing if they float.


John Holbo 03.15.15 at 2:12 pm

“I think the second clause says that the mountebank checks for diseases as one would check for a witch, by dunking them and seeing if they float.”

Ah yes, that does make sense.


John Holbo 03.15.15 at 2:12 pm

Thanks for the link as well, TripleMused. Yes, that seems explanatory.


David Blake 03.15.15 at 2:26 pm

Are we talking about de Peysonnel?


PJW 03.15.15 at 3:56 pm


Alan White 03.15.15 at 4:04 pm

“Since the evils of society spring from cupidity and ignorance, men will never cease to be persecuted, till they become enlightened and wise; till they practise justice, founded on a knowledge of their relations and of the laws of their organization.”

This will be my watchword and song in defense of my university against my governor, who uses Rovian Magnetizers.



David Blake 03.15.15 at 6:23 pm

What did De Faria write about Turkey?


JLK 03.15.15 at 7:54 pm

An alternate reading might be that a 70-year old Voltaire had just published his biography of Putin the Great…I mean, Peter the Great, with the support of the Russian government. In that book he had much to say about Russia and its military exploits against the Sultan, and the enemy of my friend is my enemy right? Anyway, it is hard to overlook that the beginning of Voltaire is “volt” and Frankenstein ostensibly used plenty of those to animate his monster (which my iPhone just autocorrected to ‘minaret,’ which proves it). The legitimacy of this reading depends on Volney having successfully predicted the later synthesis of electromagnetism, but that is nothing that 20-30 guys with laptops in a Pakistan coach house could not have reasonably been assumed to have figured out. (So maybe it makes a better David Graeber chapter than Jack Kilby comic. I still think you can use the helmets though.)


floopmeister 03.15.15 at 11:35 pm

Thanks for the introduction to Volnoy! Just downloaded the Project Gutenberg text and I’m going to peruse it next weekend.


Kresling 03.16.15 at 3:52 am

Speaking of books within books, one of my favorites was ‘À rebours’ (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans. It’s obliquely mentioned in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ when Dorian becomes so enamored of an unnamed decadent French novel that he has a copy bound for each day of the week. Made me want to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed.


oldster 03.16.15 at 9:27 am

Just a point about syntax:

“he found Martinists at Paris, who enabled him to sup with Sesostris, and Magnetizers who concluded with destroying his existence.”

The person whose existence was destroyed by the Magnetists is not the original “he,” (i.e. the pro-turk author) but rather Sesostris. I.e. the Martinists conjured up some spiritual manifestation of Sesostris, and the Mesmerists debunked it.


John Holbo 03.16.15 at 9:42 am

I considered that reading, oldster, and decided it was more plausible that the sentence should read ‘ he found Martinists at Paris … and Magnetizers.’ But you could be right.


Adam Roberts 03.16.15 at 10:16 am

Volney is talking about his own book, Considérations sur la guerre actuelle des Turcs (1788). It’s on Google Books, here. Google books is amazing.


Adam Roberts 03.16.15 at 10:22 am

The other volume, written to disprove Volney’s, must be this one: Examen du livre intitulé Considérations sur la guerre actuelle des Turcs par M. Volney, by Charles de Peyssonne (also 1788). I appreciate this is some drysasdust data, and adds little to the MCU splendor of the original Holbonic meditations. But: I dug those two volumes out of the internet in two minutes. When I did my PhD in the 1980s it would have taken me days, possibly weeks, of library labour, cross-checking catalogues and schlepping about. I repeat: Google Books is amazing.


John Holbo 03.16.15 at 10:57 am

Thank you, Adam Roberts! You win the prize, clearly and with justice – free from cupidity and founded on knowledge &c.

Did you know this about Volney beforehand? Or did you guess he was talking about himself from the tone of the footnote, then went to check it out? (I should have thought to try that possibility myself.)

By the by, Google books IS absolutely amazing, yes, and this post is the result of me going on a Google books tear this week. Weirdies and Volney and beyond.


John Holbo 03.16.15 at 11:00 am

Just to clarify that last comment: I was doing some Google book searches on occurrences of ‘degenerate’, and Frankenstein-plus-Volney came up, and – given my past interest in this very passage – I decided to take the deep Volney plunge, finally.


Doug Muir 03.16.15 at 11:23 am

Google books is indeed amazing, but don’t get too attached — by all accounts, it’s about to fall down the same neglect-hole that took Google News Archives and Google Groups fka Dejanews.

Google seems to have stopped scanning new books and also to have stopped updating or improving the search functions. The Google Books blog and Twitter feeds both stopped updating a while ago. So, enjoy what’s on there while it lasts, but don’t be surprised if stuff starts to disappear, or for that matter if Google Books simply stops working some day. Google makes almost no money off it, and even if they were still taking “don’t be evil” seriously there’s no reason for that to extend to “keep supporting a cost sink just because it makes academics and book nerds happy.” The current pattern is one of long-term neglect and slow degradation, but there’s really no compelling reason for them not to just pull the plug without warning. Also, apparently Google refuses to answer direct questions on its intentions WRT Google Books, which cannot be considered a good sign.

As an alternative, there is the Internet Archive, which runs on the Wikipedia model (donor-funded, uses volunteers) and right now looks to be long-term sustainable. It’s public domain only, so it’s not much good for recent stuff. But for older books and articles, it’s not too bad.

Sorry to be a buzzkiller. Just… don’t get into the habit of relying on Google Books.

Doug M.


Adam Roberts 03.16.15 at 11:43 am

I did a books search on guerre, turque, russe, and limited the search window to 1785-95. Couldn’t be simpler. Though I knew about Volney, a bit. Doug M.’s news is rather alarming, I must say.


John Holbo 03.16.15 at 11:53 am

Ah, that IS rather obvious. My French is never good enough. My German is ok! So I never bother to wade through French results. (Also, I thought Google books didn’t allow you to search by date before 1800? No?)

Doug M.’s news is indeed dismaying. If I got up one morning and Google books was gone …


Doug Muir 03.16.15 at 2:59 pm

Think of it as a friend with a heart condition. He could linger for many years, gradually growing feebler but still good company. Or, bam, tomorrow.

Doug M.


rea 03.16.15 at 3:14 pm

“sup with Sesostris”

Sesostris is an old-style name (now Senusret) for several Pharaohs, right? But it evidently has some Masonic significance, although exactly what is a secret. The same guy as Sarastro ( the Queen of the Night’s ex) in Magic Flute, I guess?


Rich Puchalsky 03.16.15 at 3:26 pm

“As an alternative, there is the Internet Archive, which runs on the Wikipedia model (donor-funded, uses volunteers) and right now looks to be long-term sustainable. ”

As a freelance librarian, I have to say that on a social level it’s BS that core archival projects are done “donor-funded, uses volunteers” rather than being paid for as part of government supported academic and research activities. Sure, volunteers will do it, just as many doctors will stop by the side of the road and give free medical care to someone in a car crash if it looks like the ambulance isn’t going to show up. But using this as a reason not to publicly fund an ambulance system means that society is going to get the best free medical care that no money will buy.

Imagine the horror if Google announced that it was going to take over running your university’s library and that it would scan and index everything, because there was some kind of vaguely defined expectation of profit down the road from having data on everything and because it was a nice, non-evil corporation. What would happen a decade later when predictably enough anything resembled a profit failed to materialize? Would there even be a native library indexing system that was still maintained that wasn’t proprietary to Google? Now imagine that the library turns to some friendly volunteers and says “We got a $100K donation from a charitable foundation which I guess will buy the core hardware and pay the electric bills, can you keep the library going?” What are they going to say, no?


Glen Tomkins 03.16.15 at 3:31 pm


Is it entirely prudent to give away Masonic secrets online? Remember, Magic Flute was Mozart’s last opera, before his untimely passing. Coincidence?


Matt 03.16.15 at 5:38 pm

There is already a good replacement system for Google Books academic content, the HathiTrust:

It includes content from Google Books, the Internet Archive, and smaller scanning projects. It is run by a consortium of academic institutions. Google provides copies of the book scans to the academic institutions whose libraries were digitized, and the data is added to the HathiTrust system.

Two advantages: HathiTrust is not run for ad dollars or a whim. It is run for scholars, and if you want to do statistical research across large corpuses they are already set up for that. Also the HathiTrust operators are a lot more aggressive (better) at displaying works that are in the public domain. Google automatically hides a lot of content from 1923-1963 even though the majority of American works from that period are now public domain under US law. Google doesn’t want to do the work of checking the provenance of individual works. The HathiTrust does, and as a result the public can read a lot of stuff that is hidden on Google Books.

The HathiTrust doesn’t display pseudo-public content, like 1970s issues of New Scientist or 5 page snippets from modern books. That stuff is a Google monetization revenue sharing area and there is no way for Hathi to do the same. Though if you are a member of an institution with a large print library, your membership in HathiTrust allows you to access the print works held by your library in digital form regardless of copyright status.

One disadvantage is that the HathiTrust online book reader is a lot slower than the one on Google Books, or the Internet Archive one for that matter. I hope they’ll fix that one of these days. If you want to read a large work from their collection it’s better to download a local copy first. That’s easy if you have a partner institution login, or you can do it with third party software otherwise:

Another disadvantage, it appears, is that it is fairly unknown even among academics who love Google Books! It has been around since 2008.


Rich Puchalsky 03.16.15 at 6:16 pm

I’m not really sure why HathiTrust is really a good alternative to Google Books currently. HathiTrust currently has 6.7 million books digitized (from sidebar here). Google Books has scanned over 30 million as of April 2013, according to its wiki page.

This seems to me like exactly the kind of resource disparity that produces a usability disparity that leads to the abandonment of public systems for private ones. Not that HathiTrust is about to go away, and I have no idea whether its interface is better or worse than Google Books’, but when you want a wide-ranging search collection size is very important.


Matt 03.16.15 at 6:46 pm

I think a better comparison is the 13.3 million volumes in HathiTrust vs. the 30 million+ claimed by Google. It’s still a significant disparity, but not as large. AFAICT the Google count on the wiki page is “the number of things that have been scanned,” including many duplicates of common books and journals, not number of unique titles. The 6.7 million in HathiTrust refers to unique titles, I believe.

France has an actual government funded digitization effort called Gallica run through the Bibliothèque nationale de France, hurray! But it’s small compared to even the Internet Archive’s book collection, boo. I can say the same for the Digital Library of India.

The world outside of Google would be closer to having Google-scale book collections if the various fiefdoms weren’t guarded against outsiders. In the early 2000s before any tech giants were scanning books I contacted librarians at Cornell about adding their Making of America digital library content to a collection started with material from the Digital Library of India. They were adamant: no republishing their content, not even for non-commercial purposes! Now I’m not sure if copyright law even allows them to claim ownership of digital copies of books from the 1850s, but the reaction discouraged me from moving forward. And since then I have seen other digital library projects — including, sadly, HathiTrust — actively oppose further aggregation by means both social and technical. Some years ago I used the public HathiTrust API to write open source software for saving local copies of books even if you weren’t at a partnering academic institution. They reacted by cutting off key parts of the public API. Sayre’s Law seems to remain in action.


rea 03.16.15 at 7:21 pm

Glen Tompkins, yes, I guess, but the masons aren’t the only dangerous ones:

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother’s oath!

Was the Queen of the Night a Mesmerist?


Glen Tomkins 03.16.15 at 7:34 pm


Much worse. Her appearances suggest that she is some sort of incubus, a demon released by the dream state. The aria you cite occurs very clearly, in the libretto, in a dream of Pamina’s. Her earlier appearance to Tamino is often staged as a dream. Her third and final appearance, just before the finale, is similarly insubstantial, something that just disappears when the lights are turned on.


Doug Muir 03.16.15 at 8:58 pm

It’s a damn shame, but I’m not sure I see what the alternative is. As with many social goods — not all! but many — if there’s no way for anyone to make any money from it, it won’t happen.

As noted, Google does indeed munge a lot of its content from after 1923. (That’s why you get all those annoying missing pages.) The task of figured out what’s PD and what’s not would require a respectable army of lawyers and researchers, so it’s not really surprising Google hasn’t tried.

Anyway. WRT to the death of Google Books, the questions are the same as about most future deaths: not whether, but when, how, and what if anything comes after. In theory there’s no reason Google couldn’t simply hand everything over to the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, or whomever. In practice, the experience of Google Archive and Dejanews/Google Groups suggests that they’ll just let it decay to some point, then shut it down and walk away whistling.

Doug M.


Anderson 03.17.15 at 8:01 pm

As a freelance librarian …

Wait. What?


hix 03.18.15 at 12:33 am

That post about the ancient german phantasy novel collection that got no comment at all way back was great too!

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