Sunday, 15 December 2013

Bram Stoker's Critique of Scientific Positivism: Part Two

The following was to be part of the postscript for That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I instead decided to conclude with a Coda which examined the  appeal of the Gothic in our times. In retrospect, I think the right decision was made. The original postscript works best as a series of blogs. Some of the material on Mina and hypnosis is close to what emerged from the published book.


The introduction of Jean–Martin Charcot (1825–1893) into Dracula enables Stoker to connect the science of Seward with eclectic Van Helsing and validate the hypnosis that is incorporated into the novel. Charcot from the late 1870s to his death in 1893 was a celebrated psychiatrist, renowned for his neurological work, which in turn gave cachet to his explorations in hypnosis. He believed that only hysterics, whose condition was in part a result of hereditary degeneration, were susceptible to hypnosis and that the painful symptoms (as real as any organic condition) of traumatic hysteria could be reproduced under hypnosis.

Charcot at La Saltpetrière performing a demonstration
His clinic in Paris at La Saltpetrière became a pilgrimage for many doctors to attend his public performances on Tuesday. There he publicly diagnosed men and women, albeit mostly the latter, patients he had not seen before. On Friday morning he gave a prepared lecture–demonstration often involving hysterical patients. Whether as a medical treatment or a theatrical spectacle, his ability to hypnotize patients, often with dramatic results, did much to restore hypnosis as a sanctioned and persuasive scientific tool. Perhaps most significantly, he did not attach any moral stigma to the patients’ condition as the origin of their symptoms resided in their unconscious psyche.

A one-time student of Charcot, the Swedish doctor Axel Munthe (The Story of San Michele, New York: E P Dutton &Co., 1930), recalled that one woman “would crawl on all fours on the floor, barking furiously when told she was a dog. Another would walk with a top hat in her arms rocking to and fro and kissing it tenderly when she was told it was her baby. But Munthe also discloses that the spectacles were “a hopeless muddle of truth and cheating.” One disturbing incident that lead to his expulsion from Charcot’s clinic involved his unsuccessful attempt to assist two elderly peasants in removing their daughter from the clinic. She had once worked in the kitchen but now was on public display as the “prima donna of the Tuesday stage performance.” Munthe tried to hypnotize her to indicate her desire to return home to her family in Normandy. It appeared to have succeeded when a nurse took her back, but later she appeared outside the clinic and nurses forced her in the building. Her resistance was overcome by Charcot when she confessed Munthe’s role. He was then informed he must leave. Munthe angrily informed Charcot that he and his staff had ruined a young girl “who had entered the hospital as a strong girl and would leave it as a lunatic if she remained much longer.”

Unsurprisingly, Charcot provoked other critics. A Dr. Bernheim challenged Charcot’s premise that only hysterics could be hypnotized arguing that anyone could be vulnerable to hypnosis because it relied on the power of suggestion, and he stressed the therapeutic applications of hypnosis. Other contemporaries were unsparing in their criticism castigating Charcot’s circus-like atmosphere “as a ‘true witches Sabbath’ that rendered victims helpless against the will of the hypnotist.’’

The dark side of hypnotism circulated in the popular culture. In 1895 Conan Doyle published his novella, The Parasite that demonstrates how an eminent professor who succumbs to being mesmerized by a sexually rapacious woman from the West Indies becomes an instrument of her will. When he rebuffs her advances, her influence over him causes him to completely lose control over his life. After a series of bizarre incidents, he finds himself in his fiancée’s room threatening her by holding a vial of vitriol when he suddenly comes out of the trance. Stoker was cognizant of this shadow side of hypnosis; when he depicts the captivity of Jonathan Harker, he shows him “struggling to awake to some call of his instincts; nay my very soul was struggling…I was becoming hypnotized.” More recently, the demonic power of hypnotism is conveyed in actor Frank Langella's interpretation of Dracula from the 1979 film when he is cast as a Byronic hero intent on rescuing women from overbearing, incompetent and corrupt vampire hunters.

Seward could accept hypnosis, he could not accept telepathy or what Van Helsing calls thought reading. That put him at a distinct disadvantage as an effective participant in the hunt because Dracula’s initial contacts with Lucy and Renfield were telepathic. Yet the Society for Psychical Research that had been founded in 1882 contained a number of reputable scientists who took psychic research seriously. For example, F. W. M. Myers, (who was also a spellbinding speaker on the rostrum as a purity advocate,) was at the time working to legitimatize telepathy, and would have found that kind of psychic exchange between Mina and Dracula plausible. In his writings, he strongly linked hypnosis with telepathic receptivity, and suggested that telepathy might be considered as the next stage in evolution. It is Mina’s revelations under hypnosis that provide Van Helsing’s  vampire hunters with the knowledge that Dracula has left England by water, and it is telepathy that enables Dracula to psychically communicate with her. At one point, she consciously boycotts a meeting so that she will not be able to pass on valuable knowledge to him. At the same time, Seward has learned something about the need to be open from Van Helsing because he is able to correctly intuit that Mina’s “tongue is tied.” Even though “she forms conclusions of her own,” she “will not or cannot give the utterance” because of Dracula’s telepathic control over her. 

Frederic Myers
Van Helsing incorporates an eclectic blend of traditional folklore: staking, garlic and sacred circles, as well as the Catholic symbolsthe crucifix and communion wafersalong with the latest scientific research in the struggle to hunt down and destroy Dracula. What Stoker is conveying here is that the power of evil, and Dracula is its potent avatar, requires every tool in one’s panoply, and that traditional medical science has its limitations. Van Helsing’s willingness to use Catholic paraphernalia presents a contrast with Jonathan Harker’s initial reaction early in the novel when given a crucifix before arriving at the Count’s castle, “as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard as in some measure idolatrous.” Possibly Stoker is poking a little fun at the rigidity of English Protestants discomfort around Catholic rituals and symbols. Seward, its representative, becomes increasingly marginalized by the time the group arrives in Transylvania, itself awash in the primitive.
Stoker not only derides psychiatric positivism but also glimpses the possibility of a new exploration of the unconscious. He did attend F.W. H. Myers talk on Freud’s experiments at a London meeting of the Society for Psychical Research. Stoker may have anticipated both Freud’s concept of the id , that cauldron of seething sexuality and aggression personified by Dracula, and the father of psychoanalysis’ ability to cut through the web of self-deception and rationalization that Victorians encouraged by their belief in self-control. If a man puts his mind to it, he could by sheer determination accomplish what he set out to do. He may be subject to deplorable spells of irrationality, but a man could control those impulses through his conscious willpower. But Freud wrote: “The deeply rooted belief in psychic freedom and choice…is quite unscientific and must give ground before a determinism which governs mental life.” In other words, unconscious, irrational powers govern our mental life, and until we have access to those primitive feelings, terror, rage and guilt, they will either disable or diminish the possibilities in life.

But Stoker’s Van Helsing expends his energy more upon a return to earlier knowledge and its pagan and Catholic symbols. Notwithstanding the attention given to the medieval trappings, Stoker astutely recognizes the power of the unconscious. Sleep, hypnosis, dreams (or what may be dreams because at times the boundary between them and external reality are fuzzy) and trance propel the novel. The somnambulistic seductions of both Lucy and Mina while asleep or in a trance-like state, Lucy’s blood transfusions, Mina’s hypnosis and telepathy, and Jonathan’s nightmares provide a sharp counterpoint to the quotidian expressionsjournals, letters, memorandums, newspaper clippings, shipping logs, telegramsthat provide the structure of the novel.
Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dracula (Gary Oldman)
What could not be verbalized, the act of writing, for both Jonathan and Mina, was an essential vehicle for struggling against unconscious desires that invade their consciousness threatening not only their sanity but also their lives. Stoker may be suggesting that the powerful fears and urges in the unconscious require conscious accessing if their verbal expression is too overwhelming and violates what Stoker calls in his expository essays restraint then writing may be the means to manly self-control. When he is in Dracula’s ancestral castle, Jonathan recognizes that he must record his prosaic thoughts to prevent his imagination from careening out of control. Unlike Lucy whose silence dooms her, Jonathan and Mina write in order to gain control over and tame their primitive fears. Unlike Seward, Van Helsing really wants to hear Renfield speak when the latter has been brutally attacked by Dracula, “tell us your dream.”

Even Van Helsing, with his intuitions and insight becomes almost paralyzed as if he were in a trance when he observes the three female vampires sleeping in their lair. One of them has such a seductive hold over him that he almost falters in his gruesome task to cut off their heads. Like Jonathan earlier, he is enraptured by the Anglo-Saxon ideal of beauty: “She was so fair to look upon, so radiantly beautiful, so exquisitely voluptuous, that the very instincts of man in me, which calls some of my sex to love and protect one of hers, made my head whirl with new emotion.” It is only the banshee “the soul–wail,” from the unconscious of Mina that arouses him from his reverie so that he can complete his grisly ordeal. Stoker seems to be suggesting that powerful unconscious seductive forces have the potential to undermine the best of conscious intentions and erode our will power. Yet he is also suggesting that the unconscious voice from another can assist one in executing difficult tasks. 

Jonathan Harker (Keenu Reeves) and Dracula (Gary Oldman) in Bram Stoker's Dracula
The transformation of Jonathan Harker is indicative, however, of Stoker’s ambivalence. For all Jonathan’s conscious hatred of Dracula, he has unconsciously merged with him. (Director Werner Herzog understood this interpretation in his 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre when Klaus Kinsky as Harker rides into the realm of the undead at the conclusion of the film.) Moreover, in the scene when Jonathan looks in the mirror and does not see the reflection of Dracula, his fright comes from the absence of Dracula not from seeing his own image. Finding himself face to face with the possibility that there is within him an unconscious that is embodied in the Count is something from which he, the reader, and his creator recoil in horror. It is not surprising he cannot see his mirror image. Stoker, therefore, was divided about how far he could explore this alternative to psychiatric positivism. His intellectual curiosity was intrigued by the possibilities, but his need for professional and personal restraint prevented him from pursuing the implications of this new science.

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