This review of Daniel Pick, Svengali’s Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000) was broadcast as Radio 3’s Book of the Month, 9 March 2000.
In 1894, the year that Coco-Cola first went on sale in bottles, a book was published which ignited what would become familiar in the next century as a media sensation George du Maurier, an artist who had had modest success as an illustrator in popular magazines, had turned in his middle years to the writing of fiction, with a book which evoked the alluring bohemian world of Paris in the middle of the century. At its centre was the story of an itinerant conductor, the sinister, repulsive Svengali, who uses his powers of hypnotism to enslave the heroine, a young, raw-boned Irish girl called Trilby. Trilby has a voice remarkable for its power and quality but also, unfortunately, for its ear-murdering tunelessness. Svengali’s purpose is not only to force Trilby’s sexual compliance, but also to steal and perfect her voice, blending with its power his musical genius. Under his mesmeric ministrations, Trilby begins to sing like an angel, and becomes a concert-hall sensation, travelling around Europe singing transcendently in a condition of amnesic trance.
Du Maurier’s novel, too, rapidly became the same kind of phenomenon as it describes. The story of the fortunes of Trilby is told with enormous enjoyment and insight by Daniel Pick in his new book, Svengali’s Web. Du Maurier’s friend Henry James grandiosely lamented the ‘hugeness of vulgarity’ on show in the Trilby craze, but it marked the irreversible entanglement of literature with the age of the mass media. Though the success of the book took the unassuming Du Maurier by surprise, the descriptions in it of the mass hysteria surrounding Trilby in her new career as star soprano oddly anticipate the book’s own reception. Like Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, another book with the question of infiltration and alien influence at its heart, Trilby seems to have a sort of uncanny second sight regarding its own publishing afterlife.The book sold in avalanches. The librarian of the Chicago Public Library found its initial purchase of 26 copies of the book miserably insufficient to feed the hunger of its subscribers: ‘I believe we could use 260 and never find a copy on the shelves. Every one of our 54,000 card-holders seems determined to read the book’. There were dramatisations, piratings, parodies and spin-offs of every imaginable kind. Perhaps the first novel of the nascent advertising age, Trilby lent its name to a host of commodities, the manufacturers of which hoped to surf the wave of popular delirium; soaps, cosmetics, shoes, sweetmeats, hams and of course, the hat, to which Trilby’s name has become permanently attached.
The name Svengali has entered into comon parlance as well, to embody the idea of the mysterious but irresistible manipulator, who subdues his victims to his will and works them puppet-like behind the scenes to accomplish his purposes. Modern Svengalis include the managers of rock stars, the ruthless parents of sporting prodigies, the faceless impresarios who control the careers of politicians and, most recently, diabolical male murderers who bend their helpless female accomplices to their wills. The name Svengali is one of Du Maurier’s happiest inspirations; suggesting some Nordic-Oriental cross-breeding, it also has wisps of the words ‘English’, ‘angel’ ‘sanguinary’ and ‘vengeance’ in it. Crossword addicts will spot straight away that it can almost be unzipped into the word ‘enslaving’, as well as, disconcertingly, forming a perfect anagram of the the modern phrase ‘sang live’.
But Daniel Pick’s remarkable book is much more than the story of a now-forgotten publishing sensation, for Svengali’s Web, puts Du Maurier’s novel in the middle of a complex and ramifying network of ideas and passions and suspicions about what Pick calls the ‘alien enchanter’. The fact that the Trilby craze was in its zenith during the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895, for example, must surely have helped in the characterization of Wilde – himself an early manipulator of the media – as a particular kind of enemy within, with powers to fascinate and corrupt. The Dreyfus affair which rumbled through the 1890s, centring on a Jewish officer in the French army convicted on trumped-up charges of treachery, generated its own variations on the Svengali myth, Dreyfus being represented as the conspiratorial alien.
Svengali’s web – a web in which the figure of Svengali is perhaps himself stickily ensnared rather than exuding it from his own person – also extends backwards and forwards in time; into medieval ideas about witchcraft and the power of the evil eye, into the passion for mesmerism, spiritualism and other forms of automatism which gripped Britain and Europe in the nineteenth century, the grisly-ridiculous theories of racial types and relations dreamed up by imperial science, the growth of Freudian psychoanalysis, and distinctly modern ideas and perplexities about the powers of media and the volatility of the self. Indeed, we may begin to wonder whether our own contemporary curiosity about such things does not weave us into the web. Perhaps our growing satisafction in seeing the burly worldliness of the Victorians shot through by obsessions with mesmerism, séances, hysteria and other forms of irrationality – and all the other ‘other sides’ which Victorianism keeps turning up – is a way of getting a fix on our own mingled sense of power and powerlessness in a world of renewed technological turbulence.
Daniel Pick shows how fascinated the nineteenth century was with the idea of fascination. Foreigners of various kinds, but especially Jews, were believed to be possessed of these ocular powers in considerable degree. With that magpie eye for the bizarre and the miscellaneous that is so much part of a cultural historian’s equipment these days, Pick tells the stories of the many powerful charismatic mesmerisers and captivators of the will who flourished from the late eighteenth century onwards. There was, for example, Anton Mesmer, with his theories of the magnetic fluid flowing between individuals. With his magnetic bath around which his patients would join hands to croon and swoon, Mesmer in fact more or less invented the spiritualist séance. Mesmer was succeeded by a series of charismatics and charlatans in other areas, music, medicine, religion and politics. There were the charismatic demagogues and politicians who were suspected of exercising hypnotic powers through the century, notably the Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. When an inventor called Professor Faber exhibited a speaking automaton named Euphonia in which an operator used a keyboard to produce weird vocal sounds from an artificial figure, Punch was quick to pull out a cartoon of Disraeli pressing the keys in place of the lugubrious Professor. Even serious physicians like the influential investigator of hysteria Jean-Martin Charcot, whose thrilling lectures and demonstrations attracted large audiences (including the young Sigmund Freud), were tinged with the powers of the fascinator. All of these charismatic persons were likely to be suspected of using their powers of ‘soul-capture’ for malign or sexual intent.
In his remote-control appropriation of Trilby’s voice, Svengali is a kind of ventriloquist. But this conception of the ventriloquist was itself part of Svengali’s web. Writers in the eighteenth century, like the mathematician Johannes de la Chapelle in France, who wrote a compendious history ofventriloquism, or the normally level-headed Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid had suspected, improbably enough, that ventriloquists represented a danger to the State. But at this stage ventriloquism was not practised primarily through dummies, and therefore seems not to have become associated with the reduction of human beings to will-less objects. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century, when ventriloquists started using dummies and automata, perhaps under the influence of the contemporary fascination with mesmerism and associated practices, that the art became associated with the stealing of voices and capturing of lives.
Clearly mesmerism, hypnotism and other sorts of quasi-magical enchantment drew on the language of possession and witchcraft of previous eras and was often understood in terms of it. But the medieval and early modern victims of possession and other kinds of enchantment were unwilling victims; the demon who took up residence in your body might take over your voice, cause hysterical convulsions, but he would not have compounded himself with your being. In demonic possession, the soul of the victim would remain intact, if uncomfortably squashed by the shared tenancy of their bodies. But, from the late eighteenth century onwards, the victims of mesmeric and other kinds of enchantment began to undergo or enact riskier and altogether more delicious experiences of surrendered or infiltrated will. From now on, the danger was not just of being shouldered aside by an alien influence, but of becoming commingled with it. It is this which makes for a distinctively modern inflection of the idea of fascination. And, oddly, all of this coexists with growing assumptions about the autonomy of the individual self. It is as though, the more strongly autonomous and self-captaining the modern self became in its official picturings, the more exposed it was to hosts of influences, contaminations and corruptions.
There is not much that Daniel Pick can be accused of neglecting in his roaming, restlessly inquisitive book. But it is hard not to feel that the highlighting in all these stories of fascination of certain powers of the body – or, rather, of erotically-invested parts of the body like the eye, the hand and the voice – may have qite a lot to do with something that Pick does not really mention, the development in the late nineteenth century of new, softer, but more intimately invasive sensory technologies. The telegraph, the telephone and the phonograph were characterised by the hum of electricity rather than the crude, locomotive snortings of coal and steam; rewiring the senses, these technologies offered new ways of feeling things rather than ways of kinetically shoving them about. These technologies were literalising the idea that human beings were not impermeable physical entities bouncing about in a world of sharply concussive solids, like the stone which Dr. Johnson was able to reassure himself by kicking, but were themselves pervaded by and made up of more invisible and intangible waves and influences and ethers. Indeed, many of our ideas about the nature of ideas, about the radiations of influence and analogy, are themselves a product of the new, scientifically-validated magical thinking of this period.
One of the reasons that the idea of fascination was so powerful in the Victorian imagination that it could not be reliably distributed between its masters and its victims. Mary S—‘, the author of an 1890 pamphlet entitled Soul-Subtlety: or, How to Fascinate, wrote that `fascination possesses a power within itself, over which it may truly be said “it has no control.” ‘ What fascinates most of all, she admits at one point, is the power of fascination itself:
If the fascination with the idea of fascination, the power of the idea of powerlessness, is one side of the Svengali myth, the other side is the idea of the specifically alien enchanter. The later chapters in Daniel Pick’s book chart the growth of the figure of the malign, manipulating interloper, relating it in particular to the development of nineteenth-century attitudes towards the figure of the Jew. It would be easy, given the virulence of some of the antisemitic sentiments reproduced here, to picture this as a hysterically uniform hatred, born of paranoid fear (always remembering, of course, that it was the Jews who were supposed to be the ones susceptible to hysteria and paranoia). But the strength and subtlety of Pick’s book lie in its sensitivity to the peculiarly intimate anxiety represented by the Jews for Christian (and other) societies, and the intertwining of love, desire and disgust in feelings towards them. For every bit of rabid rant against Jewish filthiness, degeneracy and untrustworthiness, there is a corresponding passage to be found extolling the sanctity of their home life, their courage and resilience, or the unspeakable beauty of a Jewish woman. Pick astutely reminds us of the marked philosemitism of the Victorian period, in some ways intensified by reactions to the scandal of the antisemitic plot against the officer Dreyfus in France during the 1890s (if there was one thing worse than a Jew for the English, it was a vulgarly antisemitic Frenchman). We might start to wonder whether having to bear the burden of the gentile’s love and desire may be even harder for the Jew to put up with than hatred and vilification. Immoderate, demanding love, such as is sometimes concentrated on the Jew, cannot help spilling over into violent, vengeful disappointment. The broken angel Svengali, filthy and bestial, yet replete with the power and allure poured into him, is the carrier of these twin burdens of love and hate.
It is easy to see how the Svengali myth functions as a focus for hostility and negative feelings: with Svengali personifying all the dreads and anxieties attaching to the idea of the alien enchanter, and justifying any amount of revulsion and retaliation. But the myth also preserves and allows to prosper the deep and not-so-unacknowledged desire to fall under the spell, the desire for a flight from freedom and a bondage and surrender of the will that has presented the most puzzling problem for psychopolitical understanding of the last century. What people desire most deeply of all, beyond any kind of gratification or advantage, is to be relieved of the enigma and pressure of their own desire. They want there to be an Other whose wants can be enacted upon them, an Other who will supply the law of their being. They – we – invest this Other with all the power we can have or imagine, in order that it may be exercised upon us. We demand that there should be a ventriloquist, in order that we can play the dummy; under these circumstances, the ventriloquist is the dummy. When the alien is always within, when the alien is such a necessity of our being, it is hard to know what it means to speak of the alien at all. In the contemporary world, the Svengali myth signifies and continues to make possible that most alarming thing of all: the terrified refusal of freedom.
Modern society had scooped out a hitherto unprecedented distinction between the private life and the public life, a distinction in one sense confirmed by the alleged discoveries of the unconscious; if the private life of the individual subject is what is hidden from public view, then the unconscious is what is hidden even from this hidden life. But media society explodes this historically new distinction between the inner and the outer life of feeling, just as it seemed to be being secured. From now on, the most violent and inchoate passions – of love, envy, shame, disgust and grief – take place in public, in newspapers and onscreen confessionfests, as though the individual life were too fragile to sustain their force. If we wanted a name for this aptness to pour private passions into public form, it might be ‘extimacy’; the ecstatic exteriorization of intimate feelings.
Seen in this light, the Svengali story starts to look like more like an antidote than a malady. For the Svengali story reassures us that what we are at risk from are clearly-visible sources of corruption and malign intention. The eyes of Svengali objectify his prey, but also make him an identifiable object of sight, ensuring that he can be kept in securely in the field of vision. Svengali is full of Satanic will and purpose; and like Satan is an image of subjectivity itself: but he actually has no inner life. He wears his inner life like an overcoat. This means that, though he reduces Trilby to the condition of a zombie, but he is himself also a kind of dummy, or stand-in. He must be there in order to assure audiences that the power of fascination is somewhere outside us. The explosion of conspiracy myths in our time – though amid such regressions and resurgences it’s hard to be sure any more exactly what ‘our time’ really is – perhaps represents a desire for the certainty of some agency or designing force, the next-best-thing to divine providence for a media age. The most intolerable thought for the conspiracy theorist is that there may be nobody and nothing behind it all: no Moriarty, no master-intelligence, no plot or secret pattern. No spider in the web, just the web; or, as Joseph Conrad described it in 1899, just a kind of knitting machine, that knits itself in and knits itself out, just the epidemic drift and proliferation of things.