- Svengali’s Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture by Daniel Pick
Yale, 284 pp, £19.95, May 2000, ISBN 0 300 08204 5
First of all we have to imagine a world in which people suffer and have no hope that anything or anyone can make a difference. Then we have to imagine what it would be like to live in a world of people who have no wish to help each other or to feel better. If we don’t do this, the history of medicine, and of its country cousin psychiatry, not to mention the history of religion, will hardly seem different from a history of quacks and con-artists ingeniously exploiting the hopelessly vulnerable. The question has always been: what, if anything, can be done? Only when we acknowledge the very real drawbacks of living in a world in which everyone’s unhappiness renders everyone else clueless, can we review our contemporary options and their histories with some sense of relief. We may have very real doubts now about, say, aromatherapy, or ECT, or cognitive psychology – or even about people having personal trainers – but we quite literally have to do something when we begin to feel in some way troubled. It is fortunate that pain has made us so inventive.
As unhappiness shows no sign of disappearing – and its staying power makes us look more like fashion victims than truth-seekers in our quest for therapies – we would do better to think of our solutions as inevitably provisional and uncertain, instead of sneering at them. Our misgivings about the available treatments for our contemporary miseries too easily turns into a cover-story for an intolerance of, or impatience with, suffering itself. Scepticism about treatments becomes suspicion about patients (if the treatment is fraudulent, and it works, then the condition it was nominally treating must be fraudulent too: so everyone’s a fool). The contesting of cures, if it does nothing else, keeps the idea of cure alive; but it tends to make people in the so-called helping professions excessively judgmental of each other (i.e. rivalrous). On the other hand, the prestige involved in helping people has always been integral to the treatment, and it has been to the consumers and purveyors of charisma that historians and psychologists have increasingly turned their attention. As a psychoanalyst and a historian, Daniel Pick is unusually well-qualified to have written this often intriguing book.
The intricate complicity between symptoms and cures – and between what people are considered to be suffering from and what they claim to be suffering from – has made the history of medicine, in its broadest sense, of so much recent interest. Part of the fascination (so to speak) of mesmerism and hypnosis – and of the history that is so well told in Svengali’s Web – is that, as potential cures for a wide range of miseries, they were so quickly seen to be at once remarkable breakthroughs, and disreputable, if not criminal activities. It was not clear whether (like the psychoanalysis that was born of this tradition) they were solutions, or problems in themselves, or both. Indeed for some people, the fact that these forms of treatment helped the patient was itself the patient’s most serious and revealing symptom; and what it revealed was the patient’s pathological naivety. People were not being cured through hypnosis, the critics said, they were suffering from being hypnotisable: what they really needed to be cured of was their susceptibility to certain cures. These new treatments, in other words, had ironically disclosed what some feared might be the most terrible, perhaps the most constitutively human problem of all: that people could have considerable influence over each other. That bodies affected each other in daunting and undreamt of ways; that eyes and voices and hands – among other body-parts – were essentially rhetorical organs.
Both as a theatrical spectacle and as a medical treatment, hypnotism made it clear that bodies were persuasive, and that the appetite for persuasion and for being persuaded was exorbitant. It may seem odd, in retrospect, that this should have seemed so shocking. Christianity, after all, was an extravagant acknowledgment of the power of the body; and sexuality, through its various historical formations and deformations, has always been spoken of as a fascination (sex, too, has a reputation for being the problem and the solution). But what the hypnotist exposed, perhaps most devastatingly in such a progressive age as the 19th century, was just how lowbrow people really were. It wasn’t truth or goodness they were after: they wanted to be moved. And it wasn’t exactly the other person’s logic, or their argument, or the information they provided or even their education that was convincing, so much as the look in their eye or their smile. As many commentators – then as now – were quick to point out, this makes politics more volatile than some want it to be, and science much less influential than some think it should be.
The hypnotist and his subject were like a tableau, or a model, of something fundamental and disturbing about human nature. If we are sensual but not that sensible – if we only feel and are barely rational – then hypnotism is not much more than another word for human relations. The question was no longer, could hypnotism be disproved (and therefore discredited), but what was the alternative? What did people do together that wasn’t hypnotism, or horribly akin to it? If politics, religion and sexual relations couldn’t easily exempt themselves from such a dismaying comparison, why should medicine be able to? Hypnotism was like a terrible cartoon – a secular revelation – of the power people could have over each other, of the enthralled longing to be free from choice. Seeing the amazing things bodies could do to each other – witnessing just how manipulable people’s limbs and memories were – made hypnotism as a phenomenon endlessly fascinating, if not actually hypnotic. Since the turn of the last century it has been assumed, or hoped, that a combination of science and history might break its spell. In its sober speculation, and its wealth of often fascinating research, Svengali’s Web is in this honourable, but somehow forlorn tradition of lucid and intelligible enquiry into unfathomable craziness.
It is the contention of Pick’s book that Du Maurier’s once extremely famous novel, Trilby, with its evil, hypnotising Jew, Svengali, was a sensation waiting to happen; and that we have to go back to the beginnings of mesmerism in the 18th century, and forward to the advent of psychoanalysis at the turn of the last century, to understand why. The ground, as Pick shows in impressive detail, had been cleared – or rather, given the many theatrical adaptations of Trilby, the stage had been set – for this particular bestseller. Wittingly or unwittingly, Du Maurier had tuned into the spirit of the age, and turned up the volume. Trilby, as Pick says, ‘is generally thought to have been the bestselling novel of the last century’; and this alone makes it, for better and for worse, what used to be called a ‘symptomatic text’: a way into the multiple overlapping histories of race and gender and science and pseudo-science in the 19th century. Svengali’s Web, in other words, is topical by academic standards; and is, in its turn, something of a symptomatic text itself.
What Pick uses cultural history to do is integral to his subject. And one of the things he uses it for is to promote a not unfamiliar progress myth – it was more or less Freud’s own myth and so became, more or less, the official line – in which the follies of mesmerism and hypnosis are displaced by the stronger rationality of psychoanalysis. When Freud abrogates hypnosis as a therapeutic technique, psychoanalysis is born, and the 19th century begins to see sense where previously there had only been the hocus-pocus of suggestion. In Freud’s writing, Pick intimates, meaning is finally derived from all the bewildering psychopathology of everyday life. ‘Freud,’ he writes, ‘was soon to conceptualise much of the psychic terrain and unspeakable desires to which other writers of the period seemed to be vaguely alluding ... Such a vocabulary remained out of reach for Du Maurier.’ But because Pick insists that Trilby is a very poor novel, and that psychoanalysis was (and is) a great clarification, because he is curiously snobbish about ‘popular culture’, and needlessly defensive of psychoanalysis, nuances are lost in what is otherwise a very engaging book.
‘Psychoanalysis,’ Pick writes, ‘is painted by its critics as a historical monolith, entirely unreconstructed since its inception, as though Freud was Svengali and the entire movement his helpless Trilby.’ But this is to take a monolithic view of the critics. Proving that Freud was not Svengali is less promising than wondering why (and whether) this needs to be disproved. And the best critics of psychoanalysis are rather more interesting than Pick suggests, pointing out, as some of them do, that there are many ways of hypnotising people – saying very little and sitting out of sight is one – and that Freud’s so-called movement has been rather more of a cult than his followers have been prepared to admit. The interesting question is what is it about psychoanalysis that stops it being a form of hypnosis? Pick uses Trilby to answer this question, or at least to go some way towards doing so, making the whole issue into a kind of contest between the vulgar and the more refined, between the entertainers and the better educated. ‘All of Du Maurier’s novels,’ Pick writes, ‘to say nothing of the spoofs and speculations which followed, epitomised a maudlin and melodramatic style of the day that many grander critics and philosophers despised. Yet in the figure of the exploitative, beguiling conductor and his touching victim, Du Maurier had hit on a curiously resonant symbol.’ Svengali’s Web is about how such a thing could have happened.
‘Trilby’ first published in 1894, is the story of Trilby O’Ferrall, whom we first meet as an artist’s model, and friend of three bohemian British artists living and working in Paris. She has her own terrible history as the orphaned daughter of alcoholic parents. In flight from horrible memories she is – it soon becomes obvious – in desperate need of something; she has, the narrator tells us, ‘a singularly impressionable nature, as was shown by her quick and ready susceptibility to Svengali’s hypnotic influence’. Svengali, the archetypal alien enchanter of Pick’s title, eases her pain, as well as facilitating a seemingly astonishing talent. In Henry James’s well chosen words, Trilby is ‘mesmerised and made to sing by a little foreign Jew who has mesmeric power, infinite feeling, and no organ (save as an accompanist) of his own’. It is a story about exploitation, possession and artistry, and very self-consciously of its time. It is a strange and artful book; and Du Maurier seems to me more archly attentive to what he is up to than Pick gives him credit for. When, for example, the narrator describes the talk of these young bohemian artists as not ‘redolent of the very highest culture (which, by the way, can mar as well as make)’, Du Maurier is clearly drawing attention to the relationship between marring and making, and how this might figure in the art of his own book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Du Maurier was a friend of James’s and discussed the plot of Trilby with him, the novel is riddled with questions about high and low art. Pick’s ‘aim’, he says, ‘has been to set out the available intellectual, cultural and political ingredients’ from which Du Maurier ‘concocted so idiosyncratic and influential a recipe’. And although he achieves this, it is almost at the cost of any kind of close reading of the novel itself. In fact, one of the curious things about Svengali’s Web is that Pick seems determined to persuade us that Trilby is not worth reading – except, that is, for the cultural history that a sufficiently informed reader can unpack from it.
What makes Trilby such a bad book in Pick’s eyes is its ‘mawkishness as well as the insistent “anti-high culture tone” ’ – quite apart from the fact that ‘Du Maurier was no Proust.’ For ‘anti-high culture tone’, I think we should read ‘questions about high culture’, and ‘questions about what it might be to be anti-high culture’; if Trilby is alert to anything it is alert to what is done in the name of art and culture. And if we are still in any doubt about the novel’s real worth, Pick assures us that ‘Du Maurier certainly has some eminent detractors. The highly distinguished literary critic, Professor Frank Kermode, for example, finds precious little to admire in Du Maurier’s writing.’ Perhaps Pick wants to protect us (and himself) from the blandishments of the book. One can’t be fastidious enough with this novel. ‘If the laboured pathos of the story now causes us to flinch,’ Pick writes – again underestimating Du Maurier’s shrewd sense of genre – ‘it should be remembered that many of Du Maurier’s contemporaries were as deeply absorbed and affected by the novel’s themes as they were keen to buy Trilby accessories.’ Using so-called popular culture as a pretext for highbrow commentary has its dangers, of course, the most obvious of which being that it makes the people who enjoy popular culture seem somehow deficient. By dividing the world into the informed and the uninformed – and especially when doing so with historical hindsight – cultural historians easily make themselves sound merely ahead of the game. Even though, as Pick himself points out, Svengali is finally exposed as a fraud, ‘the enigma remained: how was one to explain Svengali and company’s massive cultural appeal?’ Does that mean that fraudulence only exists in so far as it can be exposed? ‘The tale had something extraordinary about it,’ Pick continues, ‘a passion had been unleashed in excess of any evident logic, and for reasons that had little to do with literary merit.’ The idea of literary merit, like the idea of fraudulence, depends on surenesses of judgment that the author of Trilby, among others – and Freud was among those others – knew to be under pressure. At the height of his success with Trilby, Svengali showed just how precarious personal judgment is. Hypnotism makes a mockery of good taste. Which is another thing it might share with psychoanalysis.
How can so many people – even ‘intelligent’ people – think bad things are good? the old fashioned intellectual cries. Or even worse, not care whether they are good or bad, but just want them? Pick seems keener to fight a rearguard action for literary merit than to want to rethink it. And this is strange because Svengali’s Web is everywhere interested in, and interesting about, the threats to social cohesion posed by alien enchanters of various kinds, and about the implications of this for ideas about the making of a political or aesthetic consensus. If, as he says, ‘the alien hypnotist also became a kind of conduit for a much wider contemporary unease concerning the nature of irrational social influences and psychological transmissions,’ then any kind of social rule, or standard, any attempt to set limits or draw boundaries, is under threat. And there could be no more vivid evidence of these irrational influences and transmissions than cultural fads and crazes and fashions, like Trilby itself. Then as now, the anguish aroused by hypnotism was that it revealed all too starkly the ways in which people could be enthused and impressed and persuaded – and even deranged and virtually (or literally) kidnapped – in spite of themselves. Our conscious choices, it suggested, may be as nothing compared with our unconscious (unknown beforehand) powers of discrimination. The problem for the newly emerging 19th-century democrat was that to disdain popularity was to disdain people. If culture wasn’t popular, why should it be called culture? And yet the art of capturing the public imagination, as Pick makes abundantly clear, could seem like a very dark art indeed.
It is not, of course, obvious why it would have been better – or indeed what the consequences might have been – if the passions unleashed by Trilby had been due to its literary merit rather than its supposed demerit. When Pick writes that ‘those tempted to become involved in seances and to succumb to trances were in very good company indeed. Numerous writers, artists and scientists had plunged in at the deep end, not only as patients but as would-be practitioners,’ it is not evident who is being reassured about what. Did the presence of these writers and artists and scientists in some way legitimate these practices, or just show that these distinguished people were as seducible, as impressionable, as everyone else? After all, the thing about hypnotism and its paranormal spin-offs – indeed part of their fascination – was that they played havoc with apparently established hierarchies of class, gender and profession. Everyone, it seemed, was suggestible. Man, as he was then called, was the animal who wanted to seduce and be seduced.
Science – in the form of psychology, anthropology, biology – was mobilised, as Pick shows, by mesmerism and hypnosis to explain what we now call seduction. But with the background fear – that has turned out to be largely justified – that explaining seduction might not make a difference to its prevalence or its power; that it may in fact just be another form that seduction can take (people could be usefully said to have been hypnotised by science, and so none the wiser). It’s just possible that hypnotism is the best description we have so far come up with for what goes on between people, whether we are talking about parents and children, doctors and patients, or nations and their leaders. This, Pick implies, is what made Trilby take: not that Svengali was a fraud (the existence – and exposure – of fraudulence is itself taken to be proof that somewhere there is a genuine, trustworthy, reliable person), but that such essential distinctions may no longer hold, or that we are no longer interested in making them. The alien enchanter may be longed for as much as he is feared. And it is in writing about the Jew as alien enchanter – with Svengali as the modern prototype – that Pick’s book is at its best.
There were – and Pick quotes them well – many Victorian writers, of varying professions, who were keen to argue that ‘the “virtues and vices” of ... the Jews included special powers of psychic manipulation’; and that they were ‘especially prone to the sort of volatile emotional and hypnotic states in which deadly impulses are acted upon’. A Jew like Svengali, ‘well-featured but sinister’, as Du Maurier describes him, a brilliant musician and a versatile linguist, at once redeeming and ruining a vulnerable gentile girl, couldn’t avoid being a dramatic contribution to a topical debate. In both the popular press and the specialist medical journals, what Pick calls ‘the figurative bond between mesmerism and the Jews’ became increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century. In such widely read magazines as Punch, ‘later Victorian Jews were often represented as “Svengalian” – ingratiating, seductive, dangerously alluring ... not only as repulsive, but also as psychologically penetrating.’ What Pick demonstrates above all is the astonishing confusion that Jews evoked in the English. ‘In the wider culture,’ he writes, ‘they were often said to confound the gentile, to produce an intolerable bafflement.’ The bafflement, it seems, was largely about themselves. ‘The repeated perception of the Jews as effective healers but also as potentially lethal magicians’ vied with what Pick calls ‘the fear of the Jew’s capacity to transform weakness into strength’. Whether they were regarded as ‘highly equivocal figures, the bearers of poisons and remedies’, or whether the English couldn’t tolerate their own deep-seated (if not actually enthroned) ambivalence, all Pick’s documentation suggests that the Jews in England in the 19th century created a conflict in their hosts but not, fortunately, the dire intolerance found later and elsewhere. If Disraeli and Fagin and Svengali shared a certain caricature in England, as Pick suggests, it was chaotically uncertain of its own values.
It has been the project of most anti-semites, and some of their critics, to make the Jews into a special case: chosen again either as uniquely fascinating or exceptionally depraved; unusually talented or uniquely scurrilous. What Pick manages to do in Svengali’s Web is to place a great deal of primary source material on mostly British 19th-century anti-semitism alongside a lucid overview of the more convincing theoretical attempts to make sense of what is, by any standards, bizarre and equivocal material. ‘Loaded’, in Pick’s words, ‘with particularly paradoxical meanings’, the Jew seems in modern times to have been trailed by three legends about himself: that he wanders because he does – or doesn’t – have a homeland; that he didn’t accept Jesus, who went on to be the idol of the West, as a redeemer; and that compared with his contemporaries in the Bible, he has lasted a very long time (you don’t meet many Hittites in European cities). In other words, it is the adaptiveness, the judgment, and the endurance of the Jews that has made them fascinating and suspect. Using Slavoj Zizek’s work to ground his own conclusions, Pick suggests, along psychoanalytic lines, that ‘Jews serve as a kind of “lightning conductor” for unwanted parts of the self and for uncontainable social forces. But they also present a category problem ... they do not have a clear place and their homelessness itself is their defining feature. Jews become the emblem of the unrealisable nature of the idealised, unified human group, of the unachievable idyll of a fully harmonious social order.’ From this point of view, it seems that the Jews remind people of what Zizek calls, rather grandly, ‘the structural impossibility of “society” ’.
In the projection theory of anti-semitism that Pick endorses, the Jews are at once a repository and a mirror, a disturbing cartoon of what Victorian and Fin de Siècle England feared about itself. ‘The internal negativity of society itself,’ Pick writes, ‘is channelled into the Jew.’ The implication is that the projectors are catastrophically unclear about their own values – is it good or bad to have a homeland, to be interested in money, to seek power and influence and sexual satisfaction – and want to foreclose on their own questions and conflicts by producing a scapegoat as an answer. But the drawback of all projection theories – apart from their claim that the unacceptable in ourselves is both representable and potentially knowable – is that they can underestimate the role or agency of the recipients of the projection. It may be glib to say that the Jew and the anti-semite are complicit, but there is no doubt that they are doing something to each other. In other words, if we want to avoid falling into the language of victims and victimisers, it may be more productive to acknowledge, as many psychoanalysts do now, that projection is often a relationship of considerable subtlety. From this point of view, people can be usefully described as being in some sense chosen to be projected into, and as more available to be the recipients of certain projections, by virtue of their own histories and temperaments. People, and groups of people, call up different things in each other – as hypnosis itself disclosed, the range of what is evoked can be bewildering – and this changes over time. Svenpali’s Web suggests that the image of the Jew as ambivalent subject and object has been unusually durable.
The hypnotist removes inhibition, and releases talent, but in doing this he enslaves a person to his will – an extreme description of what every parent, teacher, doctor and political leader does (and knows he does). Svengali’s Web inevitably leads us to wonder whether hypnosis makes a mockery of our ideas of freedom, or whether seducing and being seduced is actually all we are free to do.