“On September 15,1883, Dr. Hippolyte Bernheim (1840–1919), professor on the faculty of medicine at Nancy, France, reported the following experiment in post-hypnotic suggestion:

I instructed S that he would come back and see me after thirteen days at ten in the morning. Awake, he remembered nothing. On the thirteenth day, at ten in the morning, he was present . . . He told me that he had not had this idea during the preceding days. He did not know that he was supposed to come. The idea presented itself to his mind only at the moment at which he was required to execute it. (Bernheim,1883–1884, pp. 555–556)”

So begins a fascinating article in this Spring’s Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences with the Hollywood friendly title “THIRTEEN DAYS: JOSEPH DELBOEUF VERSUS PIERRE JANET ON THE NATURE OF HYPNOTIC SUGGESTION by Andre Leblanc.

Hypnotism – that unspeakable seduction of all the guardians of the subject’s boundaries – was very much in the air in the 1880s. The proletariat in Western Europe was becoming restless. A small detachment of the intelligentsia – journalists, autodidacts, the like – were dreaming of bombings and assassinations. The abolition of slavery was, according to the positivists as well as the Blakean prophets, all about breaking the mind forged manacles of mankind, and that image of slavery as a stage of history that had been positively negated seemed to prove that the political economy of capitalism was the expression of freedom – even if the more advanced avatars of inequality were adducing Darwinian reasons for the inferiority of one class and the material superiority of another. Still, how about the coal miners in Germinal?

The very existence of such a thing as a post-hypnotic suggestion implied that the mind’s struggle with its manacles had an unexpectedly tentacular and shadowy side. If the political economy had substituted self-interest for the libido, and if Victorians wove that substitution into its manners, the repressed was returning, oh so faintly, all along the line in the 1880s. Those who had eyes to see wrote novels. Nana was afoot in France, and George Du Maurier’s Trilby was about to be unleashed in England.

Leblanc’s article is about a controversy that occurred when Paul Janet questioned the whole notion of a post hypnotic suggestion. Where, Janet wanted to know, would such a thing be stored in the consciousness? Janet’s nephew, Pierre, who is better known to the intellectual historian, came up with one answer:

“Pierre Janet (1886) proposed the existence of a dissociated consciousness that remembered the suggestion and kept track of time without the main consciousness being aware of it. This was the origin of his concept of dissociation, which has become so prominent in recent years with the epidemic of multiple personality disorder, renamed dissociative identity disorder in 1994.”

Bernheim and Delboeuf had a different idea. They believed that the consciousness lapsed, periodically, falling into a dream-like state (perhaps for nano-seconds) in which the post-hypnotic suggestion was revived. As Leblanc puts it, while Bernheim suggested that there were alternations between consciousness and unconsciousness, Janet held that they ran concurrently.

What was this dream-like state? For Bernheim it was synonymous with the highest state of conscious concentration: “… we do precisely the same thing whenever we concentrate on recalling something or on creating a deep impression. The sensation disappears when we scatter our attention onto several objects at a time but immediately
reappears when we refocus our concentration. “The hypnotic state is not an abnormal state,” Bernheim added. “It does not create new functions or extraordinary phenomena . . . it exaggerates in favor of a new psychic modality the normal suggestibility that we all possess
to a certain degree. . .” (1886a, p. 103).”

All of these Proustian doctor types hung around Salpêtrière. like characters in one of De Sade’s less sexually charged contes, experimenting on hysterics. Delboeuf’s theory of altenration depended on the amnesia experienced during hypnosis being available to the waking state. His theory was that hypnosis was no different, in this regard, than sleep – just as we forget dreams due to the phase shift form one set of circumstances to a radically different one, so, too, the hypnotic subject forgets the hypnosis. To prove it, he found, inevitably, a subject to work on:

“Delboeuf first demonstrated his theory with Blanche Wittman, the star subject of the Salpêtrière. He and Charles Féré (1852–1907), one of Charcot’s pupils, abruptly woke Wittman in the middle of a hypnotic hallucination in which she was frantically attempting to extinguish her scarf that had caught fire. “On seeing her scarf intact,” Delboeuf wrote, “she wore the physiognomy of a person emerging from a distant dream and cried (the moment was solemn for me, and her words engraved themselves indelibly in my mind): “My God! It was a dream that I had! It’s strange. That is the first time that I remember what I did while a somnambule. It’s strange. I remember absolutely everything”

This, by the way, is a method we would urge on the Pentagon, which seems to be crowded with this century’s equivalent of Salpêtrière’s hysterics – namely, the neocons.

Janet disagreed with B & D He redid the experiment with poor Blanche, and proved to his own satisfaction that “…it was a priori impossible to remember one’s somnambulic state while awake. As far as he was concerned, amnesia upon waking is a characteristic trait of somnambulism and if this trait is lacking, it is because the somnambulism never occurred:”

As the debate between Janet and B & D went on, Delboef began to change his mind about the reality of hypnosis. Gradually, he began to think that hypnosis was a game enacted between the doctor and the patient. The patient’s apparent obedience to suggestion was rooted, in actuality, in a deep desire to please the doctor.

Post hypnotic suggestion, of course, suggests a refined version of the ring of Gyges. Instead of ring with the power to make one invisible, the ability to implant a suggestion in someone else’s head seems to make it possible for a person to do things without being a bodily actor. Since Gyges used his ring to rob, rape, and usurp, couldn’t hypnosis lead to criminal activity?

“When Paul Janet first raised the problem of post-hypnotic suggestion in August 1884, he severely criticized Bernheim, the country physician Ambroise A. Liébeault (1823–1904) and the law professor Jules Liégeois (1833–1908)—all from Nancy—for failing to show that their hypnotic subjects were either hysterics or afflicted with some other nervous condition. This was the first round in the famous war between Nancy and the Salpêtrière. Paul Janet’s paper was based on an earlier critique of a paper by Liégeois in the Séances et Travaux de l’Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in the spring of 1884.11 Liégeois’ paper presented hypnotic experiments in which subjects had obeyed criminal suggestions and urged that existing laws be revised to protect hypnotic subjects from being blamed for crimes engineered by unscrupulous hypnotists. This paper launched another well-known debate over whether or not subjects could be made to obey criminal suggestions (Gauld, 1992, pp. 494–503; Laurence & Perry, 1992; Plas, 1989). It so happens that Liégeois’ most formidable opponent was none other than Delboeuf. The problem of post-hypnotic suggestion is therefore intimately related to the problem of criminal suggestion, and as we shall see, Delboeuf went on to develop an extremely subtle analysis of the problem of simulation that plagued them both.”

For how that argument turns out, LI’s readers will have to read the article.


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