“Animal magnetism” appears in As I Lay Dying within Cash Brundren’s list which explains why he built his mother’s casket with beveled joints:

6. Except.
7. A body is not square like a crosstie.
8. Animal magnetism.
9. The animal magnetism of a dead body makes the stress come slanting, so the seams and joint of a coffin are made on the bevel. (83)

The term was coined in 1779 by the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) and is closely associated with his namesake therapeutic system, “mesmerism.” From Mesmer’s initial theory of “animal gravitation,” which suggested the planets influenced an imperceptible fluid in the body and nature, he shortly arrived at “animal magnetism,” wherein this fluid is and responds to a magnetic force more generally. Accordingly, a trained magnetist (mesmerist) could manipulate this vital current, alleviating obstacles in its bodily circulation through “crisis”: often convulsive trance states generated by the mesmerist, sometimes in large group sessions ("Franz Anton Mesmer").

By the 1840s, mesmerism began to circulate widely in America (including in Mississippi, likely) in association with another pseudo-science, phrenology: the study of the connection between regions or “organs” of the brain and various “mental functions” (Rosemary 25). A description from the magazine New Englander (1896) is telling of animal magnetism's popularity: “To accommodate the crowds who sought the supposed benefits of animal magnetism[,] trees were magnetized by the doctors. About these trees patients sat in rows—holding on to cords that were attached to the trunk—and supposed that through these cords they were receiving the magnetic fluid” (qtd. in “animal, n.” OED). The critic Rosemary Franklin notes that, according to animal magnetists not all people carry the same magnetic power or potential and “and some person made better subject, especially those who lived a simple, rural life” (25). Undereducated rural areas were commonly targeted by touring practitioners.

Animal magnetism is also associated with telepathy and other occult properties. Critic Alison Winter notes that mesmerists “commonly claimed that communication consisted in the transfer of vital fluids between two bodies, that people’s minds and souls touched each other (immaterially) in mysterious ways” (qtd. in White 94). In his Practical instruction in animal magnetisim (1879), Joseph Delueze says that mesmerized individuals show “a surprising clairvoyance, which is extended to objects that are very distant” and “have been known to read the thoughts of others, to have previsions” (qtd. in Franklin 31).

Franklin argues that “the concept of magnetism” offered in Cash’s list “metaphorically permeates the entire novel and, in many cases, helps to clarify problems encountered in characters other than Cash” (25). As she notes, among the Bundrens such magnetic powers belong especially to Addie and her oldest children Cash and Darl who, according to Addie, were born before “the wild blood boiled away” (31). Such a magnetism may help explain Addie’s belief that words are ineffectual, as well as her wordless, intimate connection with Cash both as an infant and as he constructs her coffin.

Most obviously, however, animal magnetism gives us insight into Darl, the character with the strongest clairvoyance, one often read by critics as a figure for the poet (Franklin 33). For one example, Darl intuits that Dewey Dell is pregnant though they never exchanging words on the subject. Dewey Dell explains:

He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words, and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew with words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us. (27)

Other examples of Darl’s magnetic powers may include his seemingly impossible knowledge of precisely how Jewel walks through the cottonhouse in the novel’s opening chapter, as well as his knowledge of Addie’s death from afar.

Cash likewise is magnetic, though more subtly. He and Darl appear to be on a unique wavelength. During the river crossing, Darl narrates “he and I look at one another with long probing looks, looks that plunge unimpeded through another’s eyes and into the ultimate secrete place where for an instant Cash and Darl crouch flagrant and unabashed in all the old terror and the old foreboding, alert and secret without shame” (142). Their magnetic connection is also demonstrated by Cash’s empathy for Darl when (or possibly before) he’s detained for institutionalization in Jackson.

Franklin points out that Cash’s original use of “animal magnetism” implies no formal understanding of the concept, which suggests he (and perhaps Faulkner, she speculates) knew the term, but had never seen a treatise or therapy (26). However, she notes that one law of animal magnetism is that “the vapors given off by a [living] body have a magnetic force” (27). Cash appears to have extended or misplaced this idea to a corpse; according to his logic, an energy leaves Addie’s body in all directions, including “slanting,” for a body is cylindrical ( "not square like a crosstie”). In essence, Cash continues to understand Addie’s body as “a vital, almost living, thing” (Franklin 27).

As Franklin points out, on a larger scale Addie’s will shapes the novel, demonstrating “the strange magnetic bond that exists between family members, both living and dead” (Franklin 31). Extending Franklin’s argument, perhaps we could interpret Addie herself as kind of “magnetist” that puts the family through “crisis."

Animal magnetism may also help us understand the plethora of animals and their role in As I Lay Dying more broadly. The critic Christoper White highlights the “zoo-semiotic” nature of the novel, observing that its characters are often described as animal-like, while simultaneously descriptions of actual animals often stand in for emotional/psychological representations of the novel's characters (White 82-3). At other times, animals seem to take on human characteristics. This trend represents a decentering of human authority. White points to the critic Akira Mizuta Lippit’s identification of this trend as important to modernism: Animals begin to symbolize “not only new structure of thought but also the process by which those new thoughts were transported. Animals—and their capacity for instinctive, almost telepathic communication—put into question the primacy of human language and consciousness as optimal modes of communication” (Lippit, qtd. in White 84)

Similarly, White links Cash’s interest in magnetism to his interest in the gramophone, a symbol central to the novel’s final chapters. White argues, “It is precisely this odd commingling of the gothic (or spiritualist) and scientific which characterizes the general turn-of-the-century fascination with bodily, cultural, and communicative transmission” (94). He argues the novel is an expression of the “the fears and anxieties that accompanied the uncanny collapse of distance experienced in ‘tele-phenomena’ of all kinds," both psychological and technological (94).

White also notes that, though Freud was critical of telepathy, he was interested in descriptions of it and the idea’s origin. Freud writes, “It is a familiar fact that we do not know how the common purpose comes about in insect communities: possibly it is done by means a psychical transference. One is led to a suspicion that this is the original, archaic method of communication between individuals” (qtd. in White 94-5).

In relation to Freud’s curiosity, it may be useful to consider a secondary, more recent definition of “animal magnetism”: a “natural charm or personal appeal; sexual attractiveness” (“animal, n.”, OED). If you’ll allow the author of this entry to speculate, the term’s evolution may suggest another reading of Darl’s insight into his sister’s sexuality: Might he be involved in the kind of chemical or pheromonal exchange now better known to science, the same that allows insects or other animals to communicate, or a couple to recognize each other as potential mates (the specter of incest)? Like the animals throughout As I Lay Dying—most notably the vultures—Darl may literally sense Dewey Dell’s changing state and vulnerability. If so, the distinction between mind and body breaks downs once more, just as the smells—or animal magnetism—emanating from the coffin communicate on multiple levels


Works Cited

"animal, n.". OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 6 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/273779?redirectedFrom=animal+magnetism>.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Franklin, Rosemary. “Animal Magnetism in As I Lay Dying.” American Quarterly, 18.1 (1966): 24-34.

"Franz Anton Mesmer." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 06 Oct. 2013.

White, Christopher. “The Modern Magnetic Animal: As I Lay Dying and the Uncanny Zoology of Modernism.” Journal of Modern Literature, 31.3 (2008): 81-101.

[Nick Neely]