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Svengali

Svengali a person who exercises a controlling or mesmeric influence on another, especially for a sinister purpose, from the name of a musician in George du Maurier's novel Trilby (1894) who trains Trilby's voice and controls her stage singing hypnotically; his influence over her is such that when he dies her voice collapses and she loses her eminence.

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Svengali

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Svengali

Svengali

The term Svengali refers to a person who attempts to control another person using hypnosis, suggestion, or personal charm, often with evil intent. A Svengali is usually a male who influences a female to do his bidding, which often consists of performances, such as singing, and deeds, which may be everything from murder to sexual favors, that profit the Svengali and are not remembered by his victim. The term is archaic in contemporary culture, hypnosis and other such mind-control techniques having lost their mysterious appeal.

The term comes from the name of the evil villain in the English author George Du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby. In the novel a cruel, brutal, unsuccessful middle-aged musician named Svengali, who is described as an "Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew," uses his hypnotic powers to control a beautiful young woman named Trilby. Through hypnotic suggestion, Svengali commands that Trilby sing, which she does so successfully that Svengali is able to live off her concert fees in luxury. When not under a posthypnotic command to perform, Trilby is tone-deaf; Svengali's bullying and control of her behavior dominates her life and exploits her being. Through the course of the novel Trilby remains completely unaware that she has been hypnotized. Immediately before what will be her last performance, Svengali has a heart attack and is unable to command that Trilby sing. She tries to fulfill her concert demands but is unable to carry a tune. As a result of the abuse she receives for her failed performance, Trilby has a nervous breakdown and dies the next day.

The character Svengali is singularly unattractive and unsavory. He represents not only nineteenth-century anxieties about mind-control techniques, which were a subject of interest, but also connections made between the occult and orientalism that exist today. Curiosity about mind-control techniques began in the eighteenth century with the work of Franz (or Friedrich) Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a German doctor who developed a technique that came to be called "mesmerism," which put his patients into a trancelike state. Mesmer believed that the technique depended on his ability to align the magnetic elements of the body, but he never understood the extent to which his technique was really a form of hypnosis.

Hypnosis is a state of consciousness in which the hypnotized person focuses attention on sensory experiences and ignores the outside world. Hypnosis was practiced by ancient Egyptians and Greeks who understood how to produce trances through a subject's fascination with a moving point. A hypnotist can also induce hypnotic trances by hypnotizing a patient through the repetition of monotonous words and phrases. While in a hypnotic trance, subjects may remember details they have forgotten in conscious life, or overcome chronic pain, anxieties, depression, eating disorders, and addictions to nicotine. As no one can be hypnotized against his or her will, the kind of situation represented in Trilby is highly unlikely; the exploitative and gendered power relation between a cruel hypnotist and his suggestible subject is more an allegory of gender exploitation than a feature of actual psychoanalytic treatment.

In the nineteenth century, techniques such as Mesmer's were employed to help cure women of hysteria, believed to be caused by a wandering womb and to produce symptoms such as nervous tics, loss of speech, coughs, and anxiety disorders. Psychoanalysis, which was only beginning to develop ways to cure women afflicted with hysterical symptoms, eventually adapted some of Mesmer's techniques, especially his way of touching patients, or laying on hands. The renowned French doctors Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) and Pierre Janet (1859–1947) sometimes deployed hypnotism on hysterical patients, while surgeons began performing operations with patients under hypnosis. Charcot's charisma and control over his patients as well as the general sway of hypnosis used as a mode of treatment became the topic of several contemporaneous fictional works, including Léon Daudet's 1894 novel Les Morticoles, several novels by Alexandre Dumas père in the "Marie Antoinette" series, and Guy de Maupassant's 1887 short story "Horla." Both E. T. A. Hoffmann and Thomas Mann also wrote stories about the powerful interpersonal forces of hypnotism.

The hypnotic treatments performed by Charcot and other medical doctors stimulated a genre of stage hypnoses performed by nonmedical hypnotists and charlatans. Subjects, usually attractive young females who were conditioned to hypnotic suggestion, were commanded to perform various feats on stage at the behest of their controllers. Famous stage hypnotists included Charles Lafontaine, Auguste Lassaigne, and the more disreputable Ceslav Lubicz-Czynski and Franz Neukomm, who reputedly hypnotically suggested his subject's death.

The Svengali form of abusive hypnosis also became the subject of cinema, most famously in the 1931 film Svengali, an adaptation of Du Maurier's book, starring John Barrymore as Svengali and Marian Marsh as his hapless singing subject. Many versions of Du Maurier's novel were made into films, beginning with Trilby and Svengali in 1911, and appearing again in 1914, 1927, 1955, 1978, 1983 (starring Peter O'Toole and Jodie Foster), and 2004. In 1946 there was even an animated film titled Svengali's Cat. Other films about mind control include the innovative German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), which features a somnambulist, Cesare, who is made to murder victims under the control of a magician, Dr. Caligari.

The idea of controlling innocent, often delicately balanced women was a fascination of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that seems to have faded. The mystical quality of hypnotism gave way to the sense of deception and trickery fostered by stage charlatans. Hypnosis itself, though used as a treatment for eating disorders and nicotine addiction as well as some memory recovery, is no longer taken seriously as a mode of exploitation and interpersonal control. Hypnosis is more often referred to jokingly, while the character type represented by Svengali and linked with such other evil controlling figures as vampires has disappeared or been transformed into the emblems of other cultural anxieties, such as greedy self-help gurus who milk their victims for money while promising self-improvement.

see also Seduction.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Du Maurier, George. 2005 (1894). Trilby: A Novel. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.

Gauld, Alan. 1992. A History of Hypnotism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Pick, Daniel. 2000. Svengali's Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

                                                   Judith Roof

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