Thursday, January 7, 2016

Svengali and the Hypnotism of Trilby 1895


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[From the British Medical Journal, November 20, 1895]

(Ed.-Trilby is an 1894 novel by George du Maurier and one of the most popular novels of its time, and it is a novel which introduces the character of Svengali into western culture.)

Mr. Ernest Hart writes: 'Trilby' as a drama by no means corresponds in the development of its hypnotic motive and action with the originally artistic and yet scientifically well-drawn conception of Mr. Du Maurier in his novel. It is, perhaps, dramatically more effective, but it is the hypnotism of the platform and the stage play, and not that of Nature and pathology. In the 'Trilby' of Mr. Du Maurier, the influence of direct, open, and positive suggestion, which is the real working power of all 'hypnotic' conditions, is the mainspring of the action. The all-sufficient subjective change wrought by this agency is admirably used and developed with subtlety and fine literary effect. In the stage version a new hypnotism appears. Svengali— a magnificent study by Mr. Beerbohm Tree of the weird, unclean, spider-like mesmerist of the school of the popular imagination—a twentieth century Mephistopheles—possesses all the mystic powers of the mystery worker of romance, with a suggestion of decadent demonism. As an impersonation it is one of the highest efforts of histrionic skill seen in modern times. Svengali has a 'force' which he passes into Trilby; he hypnotises her from behind unseen he draws her to him from another room by 'force of will' he is exhausted by the transference to her of 'his life. All this is very effective from the stage point of view, but it clothes a vulgar error with the glamour of genius, and it possibly may renew for a time the vogue of the follies and frauds of the sham 'hypnotism, mesmerism, and new magic,' which I had hoped almost to have driven from the notice of reasonable men. Meantime all London will be drawn to see a most remarkable presentment of the platform 'mesmerist' outwardly at his best, or at his worst. Miss Baird's beautiful personality and well-conceived presentation of the hypnotised pupil and victim of Svengali is most attractive and remarkable for some fine touches of intuition and observation.

The pivot on which Mr. Du Maurier's extremely able and popular book depends is a hypnotic phenomenon of which the publicity is adversely criticised in many well-informed quarters. Mr. Ernest Hart, however, the author of 'Hypnotism, Mesmerism, and the New Witchcraft,' of which no small part is devoted to exposing many of the shams and impostures exhibited and described under that title, is of opinion that while Mr. Du Maurier has with dramatic and artistic instincts somewhat stretched the working probabilities of hypnotic condition beyond the ordinary limits, and has artistically concealed the difficulties and mechanism by which his striking effects are produced, he has, nevertheless, not outstepped the bounds of possibility. Of course, to the uninformed critic and observer, the mere fact of the apparent endowment of Trilby, under the influence of suggestion, with powers and capacities which she does not possess otherwise or at other times than when placed under this influence, appears either miraculous or false, or suggestive of some new force, some transference of nerve power, or some so called magnetic influence, to use the ordinary jargon. Those who have followed Charcot, or who agree with Mr. Hart in his analysis of the phenomena known as suggestion or hypnotism, hold that no such agencies exist, and the phenomena such as those which the hypnotic state presents are due to the transformation effected in a perfectly natural and physiological manner in the subject under the influence of external or auto-mental suggestion. It is by no means uncommon—and of this many instances have been widely observed, and are recorded in Mr. Hart's book—to find persons who, under the influence of suggestion, and when in the deep hypnotic state, are capable of feats of strength and of agility, of intense dramatic expression and matchless emotional effects, as may be seen in the photographs which have appeared in our columns when these articles were running through them, or in their collected form in the book itself. Superficially and at first sight it might appear that some new quality has been added, and some mental endowment, as it were, freshly injected into the subject; on more careful study, this is found not to be so. The ordinary individual is impeded in such dangerous efforts as leaping on narrow ledges, climbing the walls of a room, or in adopting the rapidly changing and intensely emotional attitudes and expressions by the inhibitory influence of fear or shyness and interfering mental emotion, and of other jarring and inhibitory influences. In the hypnotic state and under the influence of suggestion inhibition ceases, the individual is unconscious of danger, and pro tanto insusceptible of fear. The shyness, the awkwardness, the want of muscular exactness and intensity of effort produced by these interfering agencies are removed, and the subject becomes a machine wholly under the control of the expressed will from without with which there is nothing to interfere. The elaborate lessons of Svengali in vocalisation and dramatic passion might quite conceivably transform Trilby, who possesses a magnificent vocal organ, into a dramatic singer of the highest order. Under the conditions, which Mr. Du Maurier carefully and accurately indicates, of perfect hypnotic subjection, of complete abstraction from interfering external or internal influences, Trilby, when she sings, is in a perfect hypnotic sleep; she is unconscious of her audience and unaware of her surroundings. She is, like all thorough hypnotics, reduced to the state of a marvellous machine, capable of receiving the most perfect training and in complete subjection to the will and the suggestion of the operator. The state is one of exaltation of certain muscular and mental functions, due to the removal of all inhibitory influences. It is quite characteristic that while in this condition she performs the marvellous feat ascribed to her in the book, but she has no recollection of anything she has done while in this condition. When, however, the presence and the suggestive influence of her teacher are removed, she relapses into complete and bewildered incompetency, for no new faculty has been added, no new mental power has been given; the influence is only that of training in the hypnotic state and under the suggestion, and when these motor conditions are removed, she is no better, but rather worse, in her last state than in her first. Mr. Du Maurier may be congratulated on having produced, for the first time, a literary masterpiece in which the conditions of hypnotism are used with the power of genius, and in which their limitations and nature are correctly indicated if not fully analysed or described.

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