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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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steepholm steepholm
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Old-fashioned Enchantment
Academia.edu is a strange beast. For some reason, this article on mind control and enchantment in children's literature, which was published ten years ago from a conference paper given three years before that, has been getting a lot of hits recently, and not just from one country. I'm at a loss to know why. Perhaps I'm simply destined to be 13 years ahead of the Zeitgeist?

Anyway, I reread it the other day, and I was struck by this passage:

The idea that one person can gain unnatural power over another is not a new one. Enchantment in particular is a very ancient and widespread concept, if rather diffusely defined, its effects ranging from the wholly physical to the predominantly mental. These include bodily transformations, such as those imposed by Homer’s Circe; loss of physical control, as when Prospero uses the power of suggestion to disarm Ferdinand in The Tempest; deception of the senses, for example the glamour cast by fairy magic; manipulation of the affections, as with the love potions that throng romance and folk tale; and suppression of mental faculties such as memory. It is however rare to find pre-modern works that conceive of enchantment in terms of the absolute and involuntary enslavement of a person’s will. During the nineteenth century, however, this kind of mind control became widely associated with mesmeric (later, hypnotic) power, culminating in popular literature in the appearance of such sinister hypnotists as Svengali, Dominick Medina and Fu Manchu.

The fact is that I couldn't find any pre-Mesmer examples of that kind of enslavement, but of course I didn't want to give a hostage to fortune by saying that there weren't any. And it does seem implausible that none exists - but where?

willpower itself is a mid-19th century term - it's easier to lose something you have an identifier for. But that doesn't preclude, of course, early instances.

But 'will' is older, of course.

Wasn't that part of the accusations leveled at suspected witches, and those accused of demonic possession? (Mark 1:23 "Suddenly, a man in the synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit began shouting...")

And I'd count the song of the Siren as well.

Yes, both those are good examples. Especially the Sirens, though (like a love potion) their song was pretty specific in its effect. With demonic possession it's often quite unclear whether the victim's will has been bent or whether the demon is simply squatting in their head and talking on its own account.

While I have no comment on the question, thanks for posting a link to the article! I really enjoyed it and loved the connections you drew as well as the categorization of the different techniques for depicting mind control.

Why thank you! It's one of those articles that sat in my head a long time before I had a chance to write it, so I'd accumulated examples.

Perhaps...just thinking as I type here, so not thought-out... perhaps the mesmerist/hypnotist is what the Devil transforms into when the Enlightenment hits? I'm thinking vaguely of some old ballad(s?) where the Lady is courted by the Devil in disguise,and follows him helplessly,not especially wanting to (ie not the sexually alluring variant).
So when Romantic poets rework the old notion, you get the Ancient Mariner, who is next thing to a mesmerist. Or might actually be:

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

Edited at 2015-01-28 03:28 pm (UTC)

There's definitely a degree to which the scientific discourse of mesmerism/hypnotism co-opts the existing magical discourse of enchantment, yes. In the essay I briefly discuss Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables as having a foot in both camps.

The Ancient Mariner is an interesting example. Partly I want to distinguish between enchantment/hypnotism proper and what we might call charisma or force of personality, but perhaps these distinctions only hold so far...

Hercules was punished by the gods, who first made him temporarily deranged, then made him kill his family, and let him return to sanity. Does deitic possession count as a form of demonic possession?

With possession (whether by god or demon) it tends to be a moot point as to whether the will is altered or simply bypassed by a more powerful being, but yes, madness certainly relates to the victim's own mind. I suppose then the question is whether madness is a form of mind control comparable to hypnosis.