Lecture recap: “Silencing the Body: Hypnosis, Music, and Pain in the 19th Century”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With Joelle M. Abi-Rached, Céline Frigau Manning, Carmel Raz

Sharing from her current book project on music and hypnosis, Professor Céline Frigau Manning (Associate Professor of Performance Studies and Italian at Université Paris 8 – Institut Universitaire de France) takes pain as the arena where the two subjects overlap. Hypnosis, she argues, encompasses at once a state, process, and mechanism; in its resistance to description and its radically subjective nature, it bears similarity to pain. Both hypnosis and pain defy easy classificatory analysis, and neither are experienced in precisely the same way by different subjects. The nineteenth century’s interest in hypnosis stemmed from its capacity to reduce pain to silence, and literature of the period proliferates with narratives of suffering treated and cured by hypnosis, although more often than not such narratives came from a recourse to hypnosis as only a last resort, justified after the fact with successful outcomes.

Indeed, James Braid, whom Frigau Manning identifies as the father of modern hypnosis, consciously linked hypnotism to pain relief as he distinguished it as a practice apart from the reputation of mesmerism and ideas of animal magnetism. For Braid, the crucial aspect of hypnosis could be found in its particular concentration of the nervous system, producing a shift in subjective state. Amidst the epistemological difficulties of defining what hypnosis actually consisted of, in light of its extreme subjectivism, Braid stressed hypnotism’s social usefulness as its ability to change humans’ relationship to pain itself, reaching beyond the binary between the physical and mental.

Music often featured in the inducement of hypnotic states, for its exceptional ability to engender transcendent experiences. Providing a point of distraction, music does not annihilate pain but diverts attention from it. Among the effects people attributed to music in the nineteenth century, its anesthetic and hypnotic powers occupied central place. In her exploration of narratives of pain that bring together hypnotic states and music, Frigau Manning alights upon two accounts that take pain not as a phenomenon to be eliminated but one to be manipulated and even transcended: George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, and an account of a mastectomy from The Life and Times of Mrs. Lucy G. Thurston as written by herself, the wife of a reverend and pioneer missionary to the Sandwich Islands. In the case of Trilby, we see the potentially disturbing power of music in nineteenth-century literature as Svengali takes mastery of Trilby’s neuralgia through hypnosis and musical triggers, so that Trilby herself becomes like a musical instrument under Svengali’s influence. In the narrative of Mrs. Lucy Thurston, she effectively induces her own hypnotic state by extreme concentration in the midst of pain, until she accedes to an ecstatic state and bursts into song in a moment of intimate, spiritual self-affirmation. If music may produce silence, as with Trilby, it can also generate speech, as with Mrs. Thurston; and in both cases, hypnosis, in its association with music, surfaces the human subject’s relationship to pain without utter debilitation by it.

Professor Joelle Abi-Rached (Lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University), responding, broached the continuous tension between the metaphorical and analytical nature of music, hypnosis, and pain that recur in nineteenth-century narratives, and questions of sexuality and gender dynamics that arise from accounts which foreground feminine vulnerability and subjectivity. Questions from the audience also probed the culture surrounding hypnosis—its scope and its narrativization, not only in Anglophone contexts but across global and temporal lines. Interestingly, hypnosis has been returning in our contemporary medical contexts, in hospitals and in application to palliative care and prenatal treatments, as we place emphasis on giving greater symbolic value to the patient and rethink the experience and value of pain.


Ami Yoon is a graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: