Sept. 14, 1895. Hypnotic Fiction.
A number of people–and I am one–cannot “abide” hypnotism in fiction. In my own case the dislike has been merely instinctive, and I have never yet found time to examine the instinct and discover whether or not it is just and reasonable. The appearance of a one-volume edition of Trilby–undoubtedly the most successful tale that has ever dealt with hypnotism–and the success of the dramatic version of Trilby presented a few days ago by Mr. Tree, invite one to apply the test. Clearly there are large numbers of people who enjoy hypnotic fiction, or whose prejudices have been effectively subdued by Mr. du Maurier’s tact and talent. Must we then confess that our instinct has been unjust and unreasonable, and give it up? Or–since we must like Trilby, and there is no help for it–shall we enjoy the tale under protest and in spite of its hypnotism?
Analysis of an Aversion.
I think my first objection to these hypnotic tales is the terror they inspire. I am not talking of ordinary human terror, which, of course, is the basis of much of the best tragedy. We are terrified by the story of Macbeth; but it is with a rational and a salutary terror. We are aware all the while that the moral laws are at work. We see a hideous calamity looming, approaching, imminent: but we can see that it is the effect of causes which have been duly exhibited to us. We can reason it out: we know where we stand: our conscience approves the punishment even while our pity calls out against it. And when the blow falls, it shakes away none of our belief in the advantages of virtuous conduct. It leaves the good old impregnable position, “Be virtuous and you will be happy,” stronger than ever. But the terror of these hypnotic stories resembles that of a child in a dark room. For artistic reasons too obvious to need pointing out, the hypnotizer in these stories is always the villain of the piece. For the same or similar reasons, the “subject” is always a person worthy of our sympathy, and is usually a woman. Let us suppose it to be a good and beautiful woman–for that is the commonest case. The gives us to understand that by hypnotism this good and beautiful woman is for a while completely in the power of a man who is ex hypothesi a beast, and who ex hypothesi can make her commit any excesses that his beastliness may suggest. Obviously we are removed outside the moral order altogether; and in its place we are presented with a state of things in which innocence, honesty, love, and the rest are entirely at the disposal and under the rule of malevolent brutality; the result, as presented to us, being qualified only by such tact as the author may choose to display. That Mr. du Maurier has displayed great tact is extremely creditable to Mr. du Maurier, and might have been predicted of him. But it does not alter the fact that a form of fiction which leaves us at the mercy of an author’s tact is a very dangerous form in a world which contains so few Du Mauriers. It is lamentable enough to have to exclaim–as we must over so much of human history–
“Ah! what avails the sceptred race
And what the form divine?…”
But it must be quite intolerable when a story leaves us demanding, “What avail native innocence, truthfulness, chastity, when all these can be changed into guile and uncleanliness at the mere suggestion of a dirty mesmerist?”
The answer to this, I suppose, will be, “But hypnotism is a scientific fact. People can be hypnotized, and are hypnotized. Are you one of those who would exclude the novelist from this and that field of human experience?” And then I am quite prepared to hear the old tag, “Homo sum,” etc., once more misapplied.