OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fourth Series (1887-92)
by Henry Steel Olcott
A DISQUISITION ON HYPNOTISM
THE intelligent reader who ponders upon the experiments recorded in the last chapter, and especially upon the footnote about the power of a mesmeric or hypnotic sensitive to pick out a given object by her ability to detect the aura of a person impregnating it, will see how the whole of the Salpêtrière house-of-cards theory about the selection being due to the subject’s exquisite perception of trifling physical peculiarities in the texture of the suggestion-impregnated paper crumbles when one realises that the detection is made by auric perception, and not by physical sight or hearing. In fact, the recognition of the existence of auras gives the key to a large group of apparent hypnotic mysteries. The most that can be said in excuse for the prejudiced misconceptions of many scientists is that they are ignorant. On the second morning of my researches with Dr. Guinon, “the first experiments were to suggest by gestures and facial expression, but silently, the presence of birds, rats, and puppies: a wavy motion of the hand in the air made the girl
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see a bird; the attitude of listening suggested its singing and caused her delight; proper manipulation of the fingers along the floor made her see a rat and jump upon a chair to escape it; and an imaginary puppy was placed in her lap and she caressed it. These are, of course, examples of suggestion without words, I got Dr. Guinon to try again to visualise and transfer to the sensitive a thought-picture. Selecting a spot on the table easily recognisable by a small dent in the wood, I laid down a bright coin and asked the Doctor to gaze at it until he felt sure he could retain the image at the spot, removed the coin, and got him to call in one of his quickest sensitives, and tell her that she might take the coin she saw lying there. But she saw nothing; and though it was tried in various ways, the experiment was a failure.
“Another day we repeated the experiment of transfer of a paralysis from one subject to the other, by laying a magnet on the table, back of the second girl’s shoulder, but no further explanation was arrived at. The subject of metallotherapy (healing diseases by employing the metal or metals that are sympathetic to the patient) was discussed. Dr. Guinon called in a woman who could wear no gold about her person because she found it strongly antipathetic of her temperament. She had silver bangles, and, I believe, other ornaments of the same metal. We tested this by applying to her wrist a golden coin, concealed from her sight by being held in the Doctor’s hand. Immediately contraction of the muscles of the arm occurred.”
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Now this again is a subject of active dispute, not only between the rival hypnotic schools of France, but also between distinguished members of the same school, some maintaining that the effect of different metals upon patients is real, others that it has no foundation, and is simply the result of suggestion. Dr. Albert Moll, of Berlin, author of the standard work, Hypnotism, without inclining to either side, fairly holds the balance between the two. “Certain persons,” he says, “were supposed to be influenced by particular metals—copper, for example—which even caused symptoms of disease to disappear. The later investigations on the action of drugs at a distance apparently proved that certain drugs in hermetically closed tubes would, when brought close to human beings, act in the same way as if they were swallowed. Thus, strychnine was supposed to cause convulsions, ipecacuanha vomiting, opium sleep, alcohol drunkenness, etc. The experiments were first made by Grocco in Italy, and Bourru and Burot in Rochefort. They experimented with hypnotised subjects and confirmed them; he even found distinctions, according as the ipecacuanha was applied to the right or left side.
“It is known that these experiments have been repeated in other quarters, e.g., by Jules Voisin, Forel, Seguin, and Laufenauer, without result; Luys brought the subject before the French Academy of Medicine, which appointed a commission (Brouardel, Dujardin-Beaumetz, and several others) to test the question in the presence of Luys; they came to a
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conclusion opposed to his. Seeligmüller has confuted the experiments in a much better and more scientific way, which appears to me the only proper one for coming to a decision. It consists of examining the conditions of the experiments; the reports of commissions have no particular value.” He makes the sage reflection that “when we consider the history of animal magnetism we see that commissions always find what they wish to find; the result is always what they expect. Commissions, in fact, are much influenced by auto-suggestion”. It was the realisation of this fact that made me refuse to accept the decision of the Committee of the Paris Academy of Medicine that the action of drugs at a distance was an illusion. As a rule, one should never take the report of any committee, composed, even in part, of sceptical or prejudiced members, as final.
Professor Perty, of Geneva, an extremely well-known scientific observer, says
about this action of metals: “The same metals act differently upon different somnambulists. Many cannot bear iron, others gold or silver, but generally gold acts beneficially upon them, but in many cases its action is exciting. Bochard, in Heilbronn, could not put a girl, 8 years old, affected with chorea, into the magnetic sleep when he forgot to remove the two gold rings he wore from his fingers. Silver placed on the region of the heart of Dr. Haddock’s somnambulist, Emma, demagnetised her; Dr. Haddock could not mesmerise her as long as she had a piece of silver on her head. A looking-glass held before the
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somnambulist Petersen gave rise to muscular contractions, which terminated in spasmodic actions; spasms were also induced by her holding zinc or iron in her hand. Silver had a calming effect; copper produced no result.
“The somnambulist Käehler magnetised by ‘passes’ a piece of steel, which attracted large needles, whereas before it only attracted iron-filings. This subject was so sensitive to the influence of mineral magnetism that she felt the presence of a magnetic needle from afar, and could act upon it with the finger, and even by her mere look and will, according to the statement of Bähr and Kohlschülter. From a distance of half a yard, she made, by a look, the magnetic needle decline 4° to the west, and a like result recurred three times by the influence of her mere will—on one occasion the needle turned to 7°, always westward. A similar fact is confirmed by the Countess R., who, approximating her breast to the needle, set it in a trembling motion. Prudence Bernard, in Paris, by moving her head to and fro, made the needle follow these movements (Galignani’s Messenger, 31st October, 1851). Count Szapary records a similar phenomenon as occurring in a somnambulist.”
Another day Dr. Guinon attempted to show me the transfer of mental hallucinations from one subject to a second. It was done in this way. Girl No.1 was hypnotised and put into the stage of “somnambulism,” in which, it will be recollected, suggestions are easily made. The Doctor then made
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her think she saw on the table a white bust of Professor Charcot, not with his usual clean-shaven face, but with a heavy military moustache. She saw it clearly, and laughed at the astonishing change in le Maître’s appearance, and was then plunged into a. deeper state of unconsciousness. Girl No. 2 was called in, made to sit with her back to the back of the other, their heads touching, and she was also hypnotised. The magnet was laid upon the table between them. We waited quite long enough for results, but the experiment failed, the illusion was not transferred, and one of the patients fell into convulsions (crise de nerfs), from which she was speedily rescued by the Doctor’s compressing the region of the ovaries. We repeated the attraction experiment, this time covering the subject’s head and neck completely with a bag of thick linen to prevent any current of air or animal warmth from the hand from affecting her skin. Dr. Guinon again operated. It succeeded with the two girls employed; and while it was nothing in comparison with results I have often obtained, there was at least enough to show Dr. Guinon that the subject was worth considering for its bearing upon the problem of the existence of a magnetic fluid.
“These were all the experiments I was able to make under the circumstances of the dead season, Professor Charcot’s absence from town, and the cessation of lectures and clinics. It was not much, yet it was something—a beginning of a work which will need
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time and patience, and which is well worth the taking of any amount of trouble.
“The office or consulting-room of Professor Charcot at the hospital is a small one, between the public waiting-room and the chemical laboratory. The walls are painted a dark color, and completely covered with engravings and sketches illustrative of hypnotic crises and illusions. The latter are mainly copies of world-famous pictures by the Italian masters, representing incidents in the lives of saints, such as the casting out of devils, all of which effects, it hardly need be said, are regarded by both schools of hypnotism as phenomena of pure suggestion. Placed in the same category are engravings representing the neuroses provoked by Mesmer around his famous baquet, the miraculous cures effected upon pilgrims to the tomb of the Abbé Paris, and the wonderful phenomena in levitation and wall-climbing of the convulsionaries of St. Medard. The clinics of Charcot and Bernheim daily produce hypnotic marvels as ‘miraculous’ as anything in the annals of any of the churches or sects.”
This brings us up to the 12th of August. Before starting for Nancy to continue my studies, I spent several days in receiving and making visits. Among the matters attended to was the arrangement with Baron Harden-Hickey, since deceased—a descendant of one of those chivalric Irish refugees who took service in the French army, and established new branches of their old Celtic families—for the bringing out of a new French translation of the Buddhist Catechism.
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The first edition had been translated from the 14th English edition, but since that time seventeen more editions had appeared, with extensive additions to the text; and as the Baron was equally familiar, with both languages, and kindly offered to be at the trouble of a new translation and publication, I was glad to avail myself of the chance. I passed a night at his suburban residence at Chantilly, and made the acquaintance of his lovely young wife, formerly a Miss Flagler, of New York. I was the more inclined to accept the Baron’s obliging proposal because my friend Commandant Courmes, of the French Navy, was then in command of the naval forces on the coast of Africa. In this new edition there were twenty-eight new questions and answers, covering the Buddhistic ideas upon the transcendental powers of the Arhat, or Adept; the fact of their relations with individual temperaments; the condemnation by the Buddha of indiscriminate exhibition of psychical phenomena; the difference in the degree of occult powers possessed by his two principal disciples; a definition of the successive stages of psychical evolution, etc. At the Baron’s request, I wrote an introduction to this edition adapted to the French temperament. In the course of this I said: “The remarkable success of the lecture courses of M. Léon de Rosny, the learned Professor of the Sorbonne, and the constant and increasing demand for Buddhistic literature, prove, I venture to think, that the enlightened minds in France are sympathetically drawn, amidst this crisis of the ancient religions,
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towards a philosophy which vaunts no master, which encourages the perpetual exercise of good sense, which repudiates the supernatural, which counsels tolerance, which solves the most complex problems of life, which appeals to the instinct of justice, which teaches the purest morality, which is absolutely in accord with the teachings of modern science, and which shows to man a superb ideal.
“In the seventeen years in which I have been in contact with Buddhism, I have never found it revolting to the brave thinker, to the religious spirit, to the humanitarian, nor antipathetic to the man of science. It is a diamond buried in a swamp of superstitions. If Eugène Burnouf, that brilliant luminary of contemporary French literature, had not been prematurely snatched from science, France would certainly have taken the lead in the movement of the Buddhistic renaissance.” As I was then on my way to Japan to consult the chief priests, I could not include in this edition the platform of the Fourteen Principles.
I was not fortunate enough to make the personal acquaintance of Burnouf’s erudite daughter, Mme. Delisle, whose husband was the Director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, as she was in the country, but she very generously sent me, as a souvenir, a most excellent plaster medallion portrait of her great father, which suitably mounted, now hangs in the Adyar Library.
I reached Nancy, the ancient capital of Lorraine—the country where that saintly girl, Joan of Arc, was
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born, and where her memory is cherished and adored by the whole population—on the 14th of the month. Before describing the results of my observations at this place, it will be well if I define as clearly and succinctly as possible the radical difference between the theories propounded by the two schools of Salpêtrière and Nancy. I may remark, by way of preface, that within the past ten years the opinion of the medical profession as a whole has been inclining towards the view taken by Dr. Liébault and his colleagues. I find this to be perfectly natural, because it is in the nature of things that the exhaustive study of the theory of evolution should lead us from the observation of physical phenomena to an inquiry into their origin, and this means a transfer of our studies to the plane of spirit, whence come the impulses which provoke manifestation on the lower plane of existence. Briefly, then, the theories of the rival schools may be stated as follows: While Charcot’s school regards the phenomena as of purely physiological character, Nancy maintains that they are psychological—the effects, in short, of mental suggestion, whether consciously or unconsciously made. Let me make this plain. If I say to an impressible subject, “It is a hot day,” the feeling of atmospheric heat is created, and the subject shows signs of it in his actions: this is one of the most elementary experiments of the travelling mesmeric exhibitor. But audible words are not indispensable; I need only look hot, remove my coat, wipe my forehead, or otherwise act as persons do on a warm summer day, and the
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subject will interpret to himself the meaning of my acts, and sympathetically respond by similar ones of his own. A physician visits a patient seriously ill, say of typhoid fever; he finds the symptoms discouraging; his anxiety shows itself in his expression (unless he is very experienced in schooling his face, voice, and bodily movements), and if the patient is looking at him he reads his danger and grows worse, perhaps dies. The doctor may speak encouragingly, but “his looks belie his words,” as the wise folk-lore proverb expresses it, and the scientific verdict in his face is read by the invalid as though it were writing on white paper. This is unconscious suggestion. Both Paris and Nancy will admit that; but we Oriental psychologists detect in it the subtle action of the mysterious, all-potent factor of thought-transference. So, then, while Nancy observes the Paris phenomena upon which Charcot rests his theory of three stages of hypnotic action, the “somnambulic,” Nancy says they are imaginary, not really normal stages, and are due to conscious or unconscious suggestion from the experimenting physician, whom they regard as the pupil of a master theorist, who first deceived himself, and then implanted his illusive hypothesis in the brains of his followers. It is a monstrously broad question, this; far-reaching, deep-descending, almost all-embracing. By this key, the Nancy people say, one may understand ninety nine-hundredths of all collective social movements—the evolution of religions, arts, politics, national impulses, social customs, tastes, and habits. A great man,
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differentiating from his species under the law of evolution, and the type and forerunner of a later stage of average human development, thinks out, let us suppose, a system of government, finance, religion, or morals; he imbues with his thought one or more disciples; they found a party, a policy, or a school, which gradually, by speech, writing, or action, captivates the national mind; one generation transmits it to the next, and so on until (by suggestion becoming hereditary) the original man’s idea moulds the destinies of races and changes the aspect of human society. A child born of the fifth or sixth or twentieth generation who have inherited this—hypnotically suggested—theory or predilection is certain to take it up spontaneously because it is “in his blood,” he is heir to an expectancy (scientifically speaking), and “does what his forefathers did” without question. The exceptions—the Protestants among Conservatives, the heterodox among orthodox—are found in the cases of children who have been, as we Eastern psychologists say, drawn by a purely physical Karma to take their bodies from a family of this or that race, while their mental and spiritual affinities are with another human family. History teems with examples of this differentiation of a child from its family environment. Without the help of the above theory, the phenomenon is veiled in mystery; with it, all becomes clear. I am thoroughly convinced that Western science will be compelled in the near future to accept the ancient Eastern explanation of the natural order of things. We have had more than
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enough of talk about “mysterious providences” and extra cosmic interferences; we have outgrown superstitions because we have conquered some of our ignorance; and since we see the daybreak glimmering beyond the encompassing hills of our ignorance, we will never be satisfied until we have climbed to where the light can shine upon us. It requires courage still to profess oneself an uncompromising seeker after truth, but the whole race is moving in its direction, and those who first arrive will be those who, by keeping alert through a long and complicated course of evolution, have gained the knowledge and the strength to outstrip their contemporaries. I am of those who believe that great profit is to be gained by the student of Karmic evolution, by the reading and digesting of the Jataka Tales, or Buddhist Birth Stories (Jatakatthavannana), of which Professor Rhys Davids has given us an admirable translation. At the same time it is the oldest collection of folk-stories in existence so far as at present known, and depicts, with minute accuracy, the social life and customs and popular beliefs of the common people of Aryan tribes.
Our discussion having led us so far afield, the account of my experiments and observations must be deferred to the next chapter.