Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/July 1880/Hysteria and Demonism III

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THE mysterious problem of somnambulism is closely connected with the study of the demoniac affection. It is necessary to enter into some details on this subject, for we should not be able to comprehend the nature of certain epidemics of the middle ages if we were not acquainted with the different symptoms of the sleep called magnetic. Moreover, the effrontery of charlatans has mixed up so many absurdities with the real facts appertaining to this malady that it is hard for persons who have not made a special study of it to preserve a just mean between the credulity that admits everything, however absurd, and the skepticism that admits nothing, not even that which is true. A German physician named Mesmer arrived in Paris in 1778. Marvelous stories were told of him. He had, several years before, published a curious, somewhat mystic book, in which he affirmed the existence of a universal fluid, diffused in all nature, and competent to pass into the body of man. He had not yet become celebrated, but Paris, then as now a center and focus of opinion, speedily gave him a brilliant renown. He established himself in quarters in the Place Vendôme, proceeded to teach his theory of the magnetic fluid, and soon gained some pupils, among whom was a doctor named Deslon, who became associated with him. Disputes arose in course of time between the two magnetizers. Deslon was reprimanded by the faculty and excluded from its association as a charlatan.

Throngs of clients came to Mesmer. Everybody wanted to be magnetized. Mesmer could not attend to all the applicants, and employed an assistant who made the passes in his place. This was not enough, and Mesmer then invented the famous baquet, or magnetizing chest, by means of which thirty or forty persons could be magnetized at once. The subjects were introduced together into a large room, in the middle of which was an oaken chest, containing jars, connected with each other by metallic rods. This apparatus was inclosed in another chest, from which projected handles of iron. These were taken hold of by the persons desiring to be put under the magnetic influence. A complete silence is prevailing, when suddenly sounds of melody are heard proceeding from an adjoining room. Then, under the influence of a sympathetic emotion or of irritation, a kind of nervous excitation is communicated from one to another among all those who are assisting; curious symptoms appear among the magnetized persons. First, there is languor, then drowsiness; shortly afterward, a frantic agitation, which is succeeded by contortions and convulsions. The silence is broken only by the muffled tones of the organ and the groans of the patients as they fall seized with the convulsive attack. It is easy to conceive how well-suited are such scenes to develop nervous crises* in persons who are predisposed to them. The infatuation became general in Paris, and there were showers of apologies, pamphlets, songs, and caricatures on Mesmerism. It was all the fashion; the house in the Place Vendôme became too small, and Mesmer bought the Hôtel de la Bullion, Place de la Bourse. In the course of five years, from 1779 to 1784, he magnetized eight thousand persons. But the Tarpeian Rock is near the Capitol; discredit rapidly followed the general favor. Mesmer was ridiculed at the opera, was abandoned by his disciples whom he had lived upon, was insulted in the streets of Paris, and had at last, in 1785, to take refuge in Switzerland.

The learned societies were not indifferent to the pretensions of animal magnetism. The Academy of Sciences appointed a committee, of whom Bailly (that unfortunate Bailly who was to perish on the scaffold some years later) was the reporter, to investigate them. Its conclusion was that the pretended magnetic fluid did not exist, and that the experiments and observations of Mesmer were based on nothing real. One of the members of the committee, the celebrated Laurent de Jussieu, declined to sign this report, and in a memorial, which had a considerable support of public opinion, admitted that there was a portion of truth in Mesmerism, which ought to be discovered and extracted from the juggleries, unworthy the attention of scientific men, in which it was buried.

Mesmer was not, in fact, the creator of the theory of animal magnetism. If the Marquis Armand de Puységur had not repeated his experiments, the art would not have existed, and the subjects of the baquet of Mesmer would have been put in the same class with the convulsionists of St. Médard. Puységur cured several sick at Poissons by touching them; then others, and still others. He gathered disciples, be wrote numerous papers, he indicated the processes that should be employed to put a subject to sleep, he described the phases of induced somnambulism, between 1785 and 1825. Experimentists, whose good faith, if not their good sense, could not be suspected, everywhere repeated his experiments; physicians and men of science occupied themselves with them and confirmed them in part. Petetin, Deleuze, Dupotet, Husson, Braid, and many other persons whose names are less familiar, developed and interpreted his ideas. Through their confused work the fact has been brought up into clear evidence, from among the absurd errors and hardly imaginable follies in which it was buried, that a nervous affection of a peculiar nature may be induced among subjects who are more or less predisposed to it. At present, all enlightened physicians recognize that somnambulism exists with symptoms which are always identical, and that it has a right to be recognized as a special form of disease. We shall try to tell in a few words what must be believed about it, remarking that we do not speak of it from hearsay, but according to facts which we have ourselves observed.

The processes by the aid of which somnambulism is induced are irregular and empirical. If the subjects are predisposed and habituated, by having had previous attacks, to be affected by that neurotic disorder, a slight disturbance of the nervous system, sometimes the most insignificant in the world, is enough. A subject who has been frequently put to sleep may be magnetized in less than half a minute. But, in dealing with a person who has never before been put under magnetic influence, the rules of the magnetizers must be followed, however ridiculous they may seem. The operator must set himself opposite the face of the subject, make a few passes with his hands before his forehead, and look at him fixedly. Very often no result will be obtained at the first sitting; but the operator will learn by experience not to be discouraged by an apparent want of success. He should make another trial on the next day, and again on the next; but, if after about the third sitting no result is obtained, it will be time to give up the subject as intractable. Such cases are, however, rare, and generally sleep is brought on at the third sitting, if not before.

The first sign observed is a kind of torpor. The countenance loses its mobility, and becomes dull and inexpressive. The subject feels a heaviness in the limbs, and a singular torpidity which prevents him from making the least exertion. He has vague sensations of heat, cold, pricklings, and, while his hands continue motionless, he suffers jerkings of the tendons and fibrillar contractions in the muscles. His eyelids become heavy and close. With many efforts he vainly opens them, only to shut them again; the time comes at last when it is impossible to make them move. A curious spectacle is then presented of a struggle between sleepiness and the will to resist it. The will has to yield at last; the head falls stupidly on the chair; the arms become motionless, keeping the attitude they had; the face is fixed as a lifeless mask, expressing no internal feeling; the closed eyelids are moved by a few convulsive tremors; the breathing is quiet; the heart beats slowly and regularly. We might at first believe that this induced sleep is identical with ordinary sleep, but it is nothing like it, and is characterized by very different symptoms.

The fact that insensibility exists in both permits us to liken induced somnambulism in a certain degree with the demoniac attack. We may prick the skin of magnetized persons with a needle, tickle their nostrils and lips with a feather, without provoking any sign from them. Unfortunately, while anæsthesia is complete in some subjects, it is wholly wanting in others, so that we can not perceive in it a single essential characteristic symptom which will permit us to judge whether the sleep of the subject is real or assumed. For this reason, some of the physicians who have employed this criterion have been led to deny the reality of somnambulism; for, instead of finding insensibility, as they had expected, they have perceived that each pricking excited a painful feeling. In certain cases even, sensibility, instead of being diminished, is exaggerated to such a point that the slightest contact excites pain. In a word, individual differences forbid us to adduce an absolute law, and there are so many exceptions that we can not speak of a rule.

The person who is put to sleep is conscious of his condition, and we may be sure that he is really asleep if he says that he is when we ask him about it. If we then inquire as to the sensations he experiences, we will generally be assured that this sleep is quite pleasant. Many of the patients whom I have put to sleep at the Hospital B—— assured me that their pains had disappeared. They also wished to remain asleep for a long time, knowing that the wakening to their normal life would be at the same time a wakening to pain. I add that, if the condition of somnambulism is not disagreeable, it is also without danger. I do not know that any accidents, either grave or light, have been noticed as consequences of it; and it is even possible that in certain cases it appeases the over-excited nervous system; but on this matter it is necessary to speak with much reserve, for decisive facts bearing on it have not yet been collected.

Let us now analyze the psychological phenomena of somnambulism. We all know what a dream is: when, tired with the labors of the day, we give up to sleep, our thoughts become confused and floating; the attention can no longer be held fixed upon any definite object; we gradually lose consciousness of the exterior world, and strange forms, the reality of which is in our conception only, impose themselves upon us. They pass and repass with marvelous facility, changing at every instant, and bewildering us with a moving and fantastic train. There are human faces with the forms of beasts, wonderful monsters, gardens, palaces, persons who had disappeared long ago, and who we thought had passed from memory. All this is in motion and passes before us, and the mind assists as a powerless spectator at a representation of which it has itself formed all the pieces. The imagination luxuriates in full license, for it is freed from the liability of being interrupted as in real scenes. by the intrusion of foreign objects, forcing themselves upon attention at every instant to excite precise sensations and recall us to reality. A fact which marks the difference between somnambulism and ordinary sleep is that the dream, which is only spontaneous in ordinary sleep, may be provoked in somnambulism. It would be very hard, for example, to make a man who is sleeping quietly in his bed dream of a lion. If we should say to him aloud, "Look at the lion!" one of two things would happen: he would not hear us, or he would wake up; but in either case he would not dream of a lion. On the other hand, I once said to one of my friends whom I had put into the condition of somnambulism, "Look at that lion!" He started at once, and his face expressed fright; "He is coming," he said, "he is coming nearer, let us run away—quick, quick!" and he almost had a nervous crisis under the influence of his terror.

It is well known that the magnetizers by profession pretend to cause their subjects to travel (in mind) through space, and to make them spectators at distant scenes. This is true. But it is not true, it is rather absolutely false, that these dreams partake of the reality, that the visions bear any relation to the truth. They are pure imaginations, and are neither more nor less fanciful than all the vague conceptions which are forged by every person during sleep. By way of example, I will relate a story of one of the somnambulist patients in the Hospital B——. I said to her: "Come with me; we will go away and travel." She then described in succession the places we had to pass; the corridors of the hospital, the streets we had to go through to get to the railroad station; she arrived at the station, and, as she was acquainted with all of these places, she pointed out with sufficient exactness the details of the spots which her imagination and memory, equally over-excited, represented to her under a real form. She could be instantaneously transported to a distant place she was not acquainted with, the Lake of Como, for example, or the frozen regions of the north pole. Her imagination, left to itself, indulged in descriptions which were not wanting in attractiveness, and were always interesting by their apparent precision; but no greater mistake could be made than to accord to these chimerical conceptions the honor of being truths. Having one day put a friend to sleep, I undertook to send him on a voyage by balloon to the moon. I felt a real surprise when he said to me delightedly, "Oh! oh! what is that great white ball below us?" His imagination represented the earth to him. He saw animals of fantastic shapes, and, when I told him we must take some of them to the earth, he objected: "Why," said he, "you do not know how we are going to get down, and you want to charge yourself with those great animals? I thank you, I will let you do it, and shall certainly not trouble myself with them." He was, nevertheless, aware of the strange character of his visions, and said: "What a fine story we could tell about them; but, unfortunately, they would not believe us!"

The reason of somnambulists is perhaps perverted, but their intelligence is certainly not diminished. It is over-excited and exceedingly active. Varied and engaging conversations may be held with a subject who has been put to sleep. The language of uneducated women, for example, becomes almost elegant, with ingenious turnings of phraseology, and ideas that do not lack in elevation. Without assuming in the slightest degree that they can divine the thought of their interlocutors, it may be remarked that they seem to have acquired a faculty of penetration which enables them to comprehend what has been only half said. The most striking characteristic they present is the wonderful vivacity of their feelings. Thus, nothing is more easy than to make them cry; it is enough only to mention a sad subject to them, when, even if the story which is told them interests them only a little, they will sigh, shed plenty of tears, and sob. In many cases a nervous excitement will be provoked by such narrations, which must be calmed as quickly as possible by causing the subjects to imagine agreeable pictures. This sensitiveness to the troubles of another, these exaggerated compassions, may perhaps be compared to what persons in the first stages of intoxication feel. Sometimes, also, feelings of joy and admiration are pushed to an excess; poetry and music especially will produce a real ecstasy; and it is impossible to forget the spectacle after having once witnessed the power of mimicry which the subjects display. The manifestations of admiration are frequently crossed by childish angers, inexplicable antipathies, and sympathies still more strange than the others. Sometimes the subjects jest, and not without wit; they laugh at the pleasantries they say or commit; and their laughter, like their weeping, often ends in a remarkable excess of excitement.

One of the most interesting phenomena of somnambulism was described thirty years ago by the Englishman Braid. If we put the limbs of a magnetized person into a particular position or the body into a particular attitude, the feelings which correspond with the position or attitude will be called up by it. Thus, if we thrust out the fists of a subject, his features will immediately take on the expression of rage or menace. If we join his hands in the attitude of prayer, he will fall upon his knees, and his features will give the appearance of one who is engaged in supplication. His face thus assumes the true expression of the passions; and no painter, no sculptor, has succeeded in representing terror, disgust, contempt, wrath, amorous tenderness, religious ecstasy, with as much likeness to the life as do somnambulists, even the least intelligent ones, when we excite those feelings in them. This is because the mind, concentrated upon itself, is not disturbed by any of the external causes of excitement which continually and generally without our knowledge impose a restraint upon our internal feelings. The anger of a somnambulist is a typical anger, ideal, and his countenance will wear the expression of it in a high degree according as the feeling that animates him is strong and unmixed.

The magnetizers make wonderful pretensions. They declare that all these facts are of the earth earthy, and, assuming to rise away above their plane, they have imagined that the intelligence of the somnambulists is capable of pulling aside the curtains from the future, of penetrating the mystery of things that are and will be. They have talked of clairvoyance as a power of seeing without the aid of the eyes, as for example of reading a shut book, of hearing without the aid of the ears, of being present at a conversation which is taking place at the same moment at the other end of the world. Justice must be done to these fables; there is nothing supernatural in somnambulism, any more than in the demoniac attack, and no well-demonstrated fact has ever permitted us to conclude that such a thing as double sight or clairvoyance exists. The somnambulists who are exhibited in the theatres and at fairs, as, for example, the celebrated Lucille who was shown several years ago, are really put to sleep, but the condition of genuine somnambulism into which they have fallen does not exclude them from the power of simulating clairvoyance. They are aware of what they are doing, and they know very well that it is their business to divine the future. They are anæsthetic, and we may pinch them, prick them, burn them, without exciting a painful sensation. The phenomena of catalepsy may also be very easily produced upon them. Their intelligence, over-excited by their nervous affections, enables them to find ingenious answers. In a word, the clairvoyants of the theatres and fairs are really asleep, but they are not diviners, only sick persons, and their true place would be in a hospital for the insane.

The moment of awakening presents curious features; most frequently, somnambulists on waking are in a deep stupefaction; they look at the persons around them without being able to believe the truth of what they are told; they have preserved no recollection of what has passed while they were in sleep; and, since, in a psychological point of view, time is measured only by the remembrance of ideas, they have wholly lost the notion of time. The moment when they were put to sleep is confounded with the moment of waking. It also happens that what took place during sleep returns to their memory when they are newly put to sleep; and this probably furnishes an explanation of the doubling of the personality of which some of the magnetizers speak. It is what we may call the collection of our memories that constitutes the I; and, when we find that certain memories are reserved for a special physical condition, we almost have a right to say that the personality is doubled, because it recalls a whole series of acts in sleep of which it is absolutely ignorant in the waking state.

The hysterical patients of the Salpêtrière can be put to sleep with the greatest ease. Anything that will powerfully excite the senses is sufficient to induce the somnambulic paroxysm—as, for instance, the flash of the electric light, or the metallic, harsh noise produced by suddenly striking the tomtom or the Chinese gong. Sleep comes right on, with such rapidity that the subjects do not even preserve the memory of the shock which has for a time destroyed the consciousness of their existence. If the gong is sounded while the patients are together in one of the courts of the hospital, the greater part of them will stop short with their eyes open and their limbs fixed in an attitude indicating stupefaction mingled with fright. This condition of sleep provoked by a violent shock to the nerves is not at all identical with the somnambulism which is induced by passes. The sleep is deeper, more animal, and, we might say, more pathological; the functions of the nervous system and the muscular system are more gravely disturbed. Insensibility is complete, and the patient, if some one does not wake her up, will remain for hours as if she were annihilated in a sleep without a dream. If the eyes are open, there is catalepsy—that is, the muscles will retain indefinitely the position that has been given them. If, for example, the arm has been lifted into the air and put into an unnatural position, it will continue raised in the attitude that has been imposed upon it. If, on the contrary, the eyes are closed, other phenomena will be brought out. The nerves will have become extremely excitable, so that any muscle may be made to contract by merely placing the finger across the nerve which produces that action. The muscles themselves are also extremely excitable, so that we may make them contract and even draw up by simply touching them. If we insist, we can cause them to draw up closely, and make the fingers double up upon the hand, and the forearm upon the arm. If we waken the patient without having taken the pains to relax the muscular contraction, it will persist for a long time, and it will be almost impossible to put an end to it until a new paroxysm of somnambulism has been brought on.

The symptoms of this curious malady do not appear only among women and persons afflicted with hysteria; they are also observed, though more rarely, among young persons and with aged men. Not only do they arise when they are provoked; they frequently appear spontaneously, without any effort to induce them. Natural somnambulism, which in former times greatly excited the curiosity of medical men, is now a well-described affection. New examples of it are of daily occurrence. Persons subject to it will get up in the middle of the night, dress themselves, start to go out and attend to their business. Their eyes are sometimes shut, sometimes wide open, but they have no real sight. Their vision is all interior, but serves them so good a purpose that they are able to find their way through the furniture scattered around the room without a light. Memory is the unerring guide of their movements. They can read mentally the book which they open, and perform similar actions to those they would be engaged in if they were awake—as, for example, those of swimming, running, writing, and handling arms. If they are suddenly wakened, they will be stupefied at finding themselves up and dressed when they had supposed that were reposing quietly in their beds. Instead of seeking for something marvelous in these phenomena, would it not be better to satisfy ourselves that they resemble those that we may observe in ordinary sleep? The mother, bending over the pillow of her sick child, is able by means of her caresses and soft words to calm the spirit which is distressed by the terrific visions of the nightmare, and make the child sleep more sweetly without waking it. Sometimes, when we are half awake, half-asleep, as in the evening, for instance, when sleep weighs upon us, or in the morning, when it has not quite left us, we act and speak without being quite aware of what we are doing or saying. This is a light degree of somnambulism; and, if we will study ourselves with a little care, we will recognize that, at the beginning or at the end of sleep, the complete, exact consciousness of our actions and our thoughts escapes us. There is, then, a series of insensible transitions between the common general sleep of the world and the singular sleep, more wonderful in appearance than in reality, of the somnambulists and hysterical persons.

Notwithstanding a whole class of positive facts exist, proved and easy to verify, there are still some medical men who do not admit the reality of them, and are ready to smile at the mention of somnambulism as if a colossal deception were spoken of. In their view, all the cases of this condition of sleep are nothing but comedies skillfully played before too simple spectators by nervous women who have been made fanatical by delirium. They believe this because they have been satisfied with witnessing the acrobatic scenes which the magnetizers and the professional somnambulists offer as a spectacle to the credulity of the public. If they had observed for themselves, if they had handled with their own hands and seen with their own eyes the phenomena of which they deny the existence, I do not doubt that they would have had an entirely different opinion. Is it possible to suppose that all the somnambulists that have appeared during the last hundred years would have feigned the same symptoms just to conform themselves to the fancies of the little peasant Victor, the first case of the Marquis de Puységur? How, by what strange divination, can they all exhibit the same signs of the same nervous affection? Would it not be a really marvelous fact if a deception carried on for a hundred years through all Europe should everywhere and always present the same features, and if all the physicians, all the men of science who had devoted themselves to the study of it, should have become victims to the same unexplainable imposture?

Somnambulism must, then, be regarded as a veritable disease, the symptoms of which are as well described as those of hysteria and epilepsy. The only remarkable and obscure side of the study of it is that the nervous affection can be induced by exterior manœuvres, the method of the action of which escapes us. Our ignorance of the cause of the phenomenon furnishes us no reason for denying its existence. Hereafter, possibly in the course of a few years, we may arrive at an exact acquaintance, not with the symptoms, which are quite well known now, but with the physiological causes of somnambulism. We have reason to hope that the empirical processes which are at present employed will be replaced by scientific methods, the trustworthiness of which no one will be able to put in doubt, and the efficacy of which will endure every test.

We have seen, in the course of these investigations, that there are diseases which, without producing insanity properly so called, deeply disturb the functions of the understanding. The disturbances they occasion are certainly wonderful, and calculated to excite surprise; but we are justified in affirming that they are subject to natural laws, and not to the fancy of the seven million four hundred and five thousand nine hundred and twenty-six devils of hell. This was not the opinion of the judges of the seventeenth century; and it is not one of the least of the benefits that science has conferred upon us, that it has affirmed and proved the innocence of the miserable sufferers from these diseases who were formerly consigned to the stake.

  1. Translated from the "Revue des Deux Mondes" by W. H. Larrabee.