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Diacritics 33.1 (2003) 60-79

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The Secret Power of Suggestion

Scipio Sighele and the Postliberal Subject

He experiments one by one with about thirty young men. [. . .] Almost all of them respond immediately to his power of fascination by turning stiff throughout their bodies; their faces become contracted, terrified, sometimes cadaverous; they are at the mercy of the fascinator and follow his movements like a magnet. [. . .] There is something pitiful, spasmodic in their features, something macabre in their gestures. [. . .] Donato has them all in his power, he attracts them in threes, in sixes, ten at a time, simply by rapidly staring into their eyes, even against their firm will and their obstinate efforts to resist his suggestion. [. . .] Donato, in the process, never speaks: he thinks, he wants and points. [. . .]
—an eyewitness account, L'Italia (1886)

Young male bodies that turn stiff despite their efforts to do otherwise—such were the events to be seen on the stage of the Teatro Scribe in Turin in 1886, events performed under the direction of "Donato" (the Belgian-born Alfred d'Hont), the new theatrical magnetizer of crowds. Enrico Morselli, one of Italy's leading psychiatrists of the period,1 assisted and himself succumbed to the fascination of Donato. In his important 1886 study on animal magnetism and hypnotic states, Morelli provided a rather positive portrait of the man. Donato, in his opinion, was not a vulgar man. First soldier, then state employee, journalist, novelist, poet, and finally student and apostle of animal magnetism, Donato had revolutionized hypnotic practice through his discovery of a phenomenon called "fascination." Donato was blessed with uncommon physical strength, quick and insistent eyes, a great agility of movement and much spirit. He had exchanged the magician's cap for the more sober tuxedo—quite appropriately, for he [End Page 60]

rejects fluids, rejects the power and transmission of will; nor does he trade in somnambulist lucidity, in sight without eyes, in divination. He does not claim to have special secrets or gifts. Instead he claims that it is his quick and insistent "gaze" that produces a rapid and sudden shock to the nervous system of sensitive individuals. Where there is no "orgasm," he told me—but more accurately he should have said "predisposition"—his method does not work.
[Morselli, Il magnetismo animale 281]

What was then so revolutionary about Donato's method? Why were the spectacles at the Teatro Scribe perceived to be so radically new? And above all, why, as Morselli claims, did these shows come close to producing a political crisis right at the center of Europe [Magnetismo 271]?James Braid's discovery in 1842 that hypnotic sleep could be induced by the simple fixation on a luminous object had revolutionized magnetic theory and practice. Braid's was to prove an important discovery, for it made possible the shift from the putative supernatural powers of the hypnotist—based on the theory of the transmission of magnetic fluids or electric currents—to an analysis of characteristics thought to inhere in the hypnotized subject him- or herself. The real cause of hypnosis, its very effectivity, was to be found, as Morselli remarks, not in the magnetizer but in his subject [Magnetismo 32]. A rethinking, within the late-nineteenth-century literature on hypnotism, of what drives the subject, of what makes him act appears predicated then on a very peculiar form of interiority, of self-causation within the subject himself. At the end of its historical trajectory this rethinking would first result in the idea of auto-hypnosis or auto-suggestion, and then, by the beginning of the new century, it would found the psychoanalytic subject, traversed as he is by conflicting desires and topographically split between ego and superego. In both instances, however, obedience is exacted as a result of an internalized command and—and here lies the peculiarity and utter novelty of this subject—for that reason the subject ceases to be master of his own house.

In the remarks that follow, I will leave aside Freud's own contributions...