Svengali:Unethical Stage Hypnosis in Literature and Life

The hypnotist can be erotically fascinated by the sight of his inanimate, plastic, unresisting subject. In this, hypnotists share a dream world with undertakers. - Robert Marks, p. 119

An Englishman with a French name, George Du Maurier (1834-1896), wrote his last and most famous novel, Trilby, about hypnocontrol. It was the first “best seller.”

Du Maurier got the idea for his tale of Svengali’s cruel domination of his hapless hypnotic subject from viewing a demonstration of a subject’s complete, amnesic dissociation in a hypnotist’s office. In the late 19th century, both natural split personalities and artificial personality splitting (by suggested amnesia under hypnosis) were hot new items in psychological research.1 The young female whose hypnotic submission was demonstrated to Du Maurier was an unknowing, chronic, hypnotic subject, an artificially-split personality.

The novelist watched her be hypnotized, made to obey commands under trance, then awakened. He saw her obedience to posthypnotic commands and her rationalization of them as being freely willed choices. He observed her total unawareness of the previous trance state. He realized the tragic potential for abuse of such a long-term, unknowing, hypnotic subject.

Svengali and Trilby.   The novel, Trilby, published in 1894, contained some minor technical errors. Nevertheless, it introduced the basic, sordid facts of hypnotic exploitation to a mass readership.  By the vehicle of fiction, it presented important facts about abusive hypnosis. DuMaurier’s tale of poor Trilby stimulated a much needed public awareness, and discussion, of unethical hypnosis. What Svengali did to Trilby has never quite been forgotten, despite ceaseless efforts by the hypnosis lobby to discredit the basic facts.

In the novel, Svengali, a middle-aged, unsuccessful musician, captured Trilby by a disguised induction, then hypno-trained her into a split personality (and a brilliant singer). Thereafter, she kept her puppetmaster, Svengali, living in luxury, supported by her concert performances. She always sang in an amnesic trance.

He began Trilby’s conditioning by persuading her to agree to a Mesmer-style induction by passes:

Svengali told her to sit down on the divan, and sat opposite to her, and bade her look him well in the white of the eyes.

“Recartez-moi pien tans le planc tes yeaux.”

Then he made little passes and counterpasses on her forehead and temples and down her cheek and neck. Soon her eyes closed and her face grew placid. (Du Maurier, p. 69)

In the novel, as with real-life subjects, Trilby did not understand how a seemingly harmless first submission to hypnosis can develop into a terrible longterm mind slavery. Svengali gradually transformed her from a proud, independent person into an obedient hypno-tool. Now she lived a cruel, secret life in addition to the “real” life that she consciously lived.

Conceited, derisive, and malicious, he alternately bullies and fawns in a harsh, croaking voice...Though Trilby is repelled at first by his greasy, dirty appearance and regards him as a spidery demon or incubus, she becomes completely his creature under his hypnosis....Gecko...[is] a young fiddler, small, swarthy, shabby, brown-eyed, and pock-marked; a nail-biter. Though he loves Trilby he helps Svengali train that Svengali may exploit her.(Magill, Masterplots, p. 1158)

At the story’s end, foul Svengali dies. Trilby dies a few hours after. (DuMaurier’s presumption that a mind-controlled victim cannot survive without the puppet master is false.) The novel concludes with Gecko, Svengali’s assistant, trying to explain to Trilby’s grieving former friends what happened to her--and how a hypnotic split personality functions:

Gecko sat and smoked and pondered for a while, and looked from one to the other. Then he pulled himself together with an effort, so to speak, and said, “Monsieur, she never went mad—not for one moment!...She had forgotten—voila tout!”

“But hang it all, my friend, one doesn’t forget such a...”

“...I will tell you a secret. There were two Trilbys. There was the Trilby you knew...But all at once—pr-r-r-out! presto! augenblick!...with one wave of his hand over her—with one look of his eye—with a word—Svengali could turn her into the other Trilby, his Trilby, and make her do whatever he might have run a red-hot needle into her and she would not have felt it...

“He had but to say ‘Dors!’ and she suddenly became an unconscious Trilby of marble, who could...think his thoughts and wish his wishes—and love him at his bidding with a strange unreal factitious love...When Svengali’s Trilby was singing—or seemed to you as if she were singing—our Trilby was fast fact, our Trilby was dead...and then, suddenly, our Trilby woke up and wondered what it was all about...” (Du Maurier, pp. 456-459)

Trilby is now back in print (Everyman, 1994), an old fable that refuses to be forgotten. Svengali, the name that DuMaurier gave to Trilby’s evil hypnotist, is the author’s best known character. The mere word is resonant with sinister implications. A Svengali is “one who attempts, usually with evil intentions, to persuade or force another to do his bidding.” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)

Exploitation of Female Stage Mediums
The publication of DuMaurier’s novel wound up a century of European hypno-abuse of genetically susceptible persons, especially young women. Trilby spotlighted the specific problem of hypnotic exploitation of women (and men) in the theater world.

The use of somnambulist (highly-conditioned) mediums on stage, or in séances serving smaller audiences, was common in that era. The medium tended to be young, female, and attractive. She was a highly susceptible hypnotic subject, of course—and not protected by strong and prosperous family connections.

The use of hypnotized women on stage for entertainment emerged from eighteenth century scientific demonstrations of trance and medical hypnosis. Scientific researchers regarded their subjects as means to an end, as useful objects whom they manipulated like laboratory rats to prove, or disprove, their competing hypotheses. Medical hypnotists who were followers of Charcot viewed their patients being treated by hypnosis as disgusting neurotics. Their mechanistic mind manipulations respected only the knowledge and will of the operator. Unethical hypnotists viewed subjects as possessions destined by inborn genetic susceptibility to be ruled by the power of any master who made the effort to acquire and manipulate them. Most hypnotists scorned their subjects for the very quality they worked hardest to develop in them: mindless obedience.

Du Maurier may also have read the autobiography of Charles Lafontaine before he wrote Trilby. Lafontaine failed as an actor, but then became wealthy as a stage hypnotist. The secret of his success on stage was not his own talent, but that of his female hypnotic subject. Lafontaine

...taught her a theatrical role that she then performed beautifully on the stage before a large audience and of which she could remember nothing in her waking state. (Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious, p. 157)

He might have read Auguste Lassaigne’s autobiography. Lassaigne was French, born in 1819. He was just a touring solo juggler the day he watched an 18-year-old girl named Prudence receive treatment from a magnetizer. Observing her somnambulist behavior, he became fascinated with the possibilities of hypnosis. Perhaps, he also suddenly envisioned a more prosperous professional future for himself. He courted and married Prudence. Thereafter, she traveled with Auguste, and his act became a stage show in which he hypnotized her.

Offstage, Auguste used hypnotic suggestions to sexually arouse Prudence, which produced “heavenly voluptuousness.” His control, however, was imperfect; an angry Prudence could resist induction! (Ibid.)

In 1894, the same year that Trilby was published, a legal case involving a disreputable psychic healer, Ceslav Lubicz-Czynski, was reported. He had a chronically abused medium:

He made use above all of a method which nowadays is hardly ever applied and which was called “Psychic Transfer.” He hypnotized a female employee who served him as a medium (and at the same time as a lover) and suggested to the patient sitting nearby that his pains and sufferings would be transferred to the medium. (Hammerschlag, p. 35)

In deep trance, the young woman was caused to experience other people’s ailments, daily acquiring her mental version of their pains and suffering. How cruel! The sexual exploitation was also objectionable, for Czynski was at that time pursuing a rich aristocratic client, the Baroness Hedwig von Zedlitz, with the hope of marriage to her. He conducted his “courtship” during his hypnotic services to her. That is what caused the legal case (not his psychological and sexual abuse of the medium), for the Baroness said “Yes” under hypnosis--and her relatives reported the matter to the police.

“Voodoo Death” on Stage
In 1894, another hypnotist, Franz Neukomm, also made European news. Ella first was hypnotized by two doctors who were hired by a “relative” to treat her for a “nervous ailment.” Their power of suggestion temporarily suppressed the symptoms, but then she got even worse. Neukomm happened to be passing through, and her relative took Ella to be mesmerized by him. He also achieved an effective cure of her problem. Neukomm then saw opportunity knocking. He convinced Ella’s relative that the somnambulist girl might again relapse in the absence of his hypnotic influence and therefore should remain in his care. He would look after her without charge. Her relative then abandoned Ella to Neukomm. Thereafter, she traveled with the hypnotist as his medium. Neukomm was “effective,” to say the least. One day, he suggested to Ella that a cold needle, which he placed on her hand, was red-hot. Its touch then produced a real burn on her hand (a known somnambulist phenomenon).

During each show, Neukomm invited an ailing volunteer from the audience up on stage. Then he would hypnotize Ella and give her a suggestion to place herself in the mind of the patient and provide information about his or her state of health. The night that Ella died, Neukomm, to increase the audience’s sense of drama, had changed his hypnotic instructions in a small, but significant way. He told Ella, “Your soul will leave your body in order to enter that of the patient.”

Ella showed an uncharacteristic, strong resistance to that hypnotic suggestion. She tried to deny it.

Imperious master Neukomm deepened her trance,and firmly repeated the “leave your body” command. Once more, she resisted. He further deepened the trance and repeated the command again.

Ella Salamon died. The postmortem stated that heart failure, caused by Neukomm’s hypnotic suggestion, was the probable cause of her death. Neukomm was charged with manslaughter and found guilty. (Schrenck-Notzing, 1902) Ella’s death was similar to what anthropologists call “voodoo” death, death by suggestion.

Hypnotic Subject Killed on Stage
In another case of that era, a stage hypnotist named Flint was performing in Switzerland, when his program went terribly wrong:

One of his acts was to lead on to the stage his wife, who was his partner in the show, and bring her to a state of rigidity. He would then place a heavy piece of rock on her stomach and invite volunteers from the audience to come and smash the rock with a hammer. One night a member of the audience misjudged his blow with the hammer and, instead of smashing the rock, he hit the performer’s wife and caused internal injuries from which she died shortly afterwards. (Magonet, pp. 19-20)

Abusive Hypnosis in Literature

When novelists write about unethical hypnosis, they deal with issues of dominance versus submission, the predator’s technical expertise versus the subject’s ignorance, and betrayal versus trustworthiness. In storyland, however, the mind-controlling villain never enjoys a final victory.

In the late 1800s, the subject of hypnosis dominated in French nonfiction publishing. Some years, every book published in France was about hypnosis. French fiction writers also wrote about it. Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, wrote six novels which involved mesmerism, “The Marie Antoinette Series.” De Maupassant’s last short story, “Le Horla,” featured a man who realizes he is a victim of predatory hypnosis. E.T.A. Hoffman was another European writer who was fascinated by hypnosis. His fiction is saturated with every aspect of it. He viewed deep trance as true penetration of the hypnotist’s mind into the subject’s mind. Hoffman said that hypnotism

...can be either good or evil. The evil magnetizer is a kind of moral vampire who destroys his subject...Therefore, the magnetic relationship can be either good (friendly, fatherly), or evil (demoniacal). (quoted in Ellenberger, p. 160)

Thomas Mann’s 1931 story, “Mario and the Magician,” sees hypnotism as an overthrowing of a person’s normal duality and balance of surrender and control tendencies:

...the capacity for self-surrender,...for becoming a tool, for the most...utter self-abnegation, was but the reverse side of that other power to will and to command. Commanding and obeying formed together one single principle, one indissoluble unity.

Mann ended that story by letting the hypnotist’s insulted subject hit back. Dr. George Estabrooks observed a similar incident in real life. He...

...attended a stage exhibition and arrived late. He was horrified to see a respectable acquaintance stripped to his underwear with a broom handle for a flute gamboling around the stage under the delusion that he was a Greek faun. Highly gratified also to see the faun knock the hypnotist flat the moment the trance was removed. (Young, in LeCron, p. 385)