Derick K. Ariyam

Professor Carolyn Betensky

ENG 605

1 May 2013

ENG 605: Short Critical Paper

On Pamela Thurschwell’s Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920

In the introduction to her book, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, Pamela Thurschwell mentions an interesting anecdote of Sigmund Freud when he was asked to co-edit a few journals dedicated to the study of occultism (1). The story is that although Freud declined this invitation, he did so with genuine remorse. One of the editors remarks that Freud told him, "If I had my life to live over again I should devote myself to psychical research rather than psychoanalysis." What's interesting is that when Freud was later asked about those remarks, he denied—with irritation— ever having said it.

Whether the anecdote is true or not, one may still read in these opposing accounts that the psychical was a contentious space. It is a space that Freud is interested in and not interested in— a space that both allures and repulses him. The conflicted relationship demonstrated here by this anecdote is in keeping with how notions of the paranormal and the occult were generally viewed by the populace at the end of the nineteenth century. 

Additionally, Freud’s case is particular since he was also engaged at the time in a defense of psychoanalysis as a viable category of science. Any dealings with psychical research, occultism and the paranormal, had obvious connotations that could potentially besmirch his credibility.

Yet a question Thurschwell interrogates is whether the sciences and psychical research are really all that opposed to one another.  Looking at popular contemporary science fiction, notions of the paranormal and the sciences are seen routinely entwined. For example, in Star Trek, the race known as the Vulcans (Spock being its most famous representative) are capable of telepathy through an act known as Mind Melding. In Star Trek: The Next Generation we see another variety of telepathy with counselor Deanna Troy, who is empathic: capable of feeling the emotions of other people. In the film series Star Wars, the “force,” something produced by the reactions of microorganism called “midi-chlorians,” allows a Jedi knight to perform various paranormal feats: levitation, empathy, telekinesis, telepathy.

Thurschwell will go on to argue that the paranormal and occult have historically played a part in the emergence of innovations in the sciences. She asserts the main contribution of the psychical is seen in the realm of technologies of “transmission and communication” (2). At the fin de sičcle, technological innovations were disrupting the boundaries between the sciences and the paranormal. Devices, such as the telephone and telegraph, required new ways of thinking about spatial boundaries, sensory limitations and intimacy. The telephone, for instance, brought into reality the seemingly paranormal conception of the disembodied voice: it was a way to talk to another human being—to hear a voice—across a potentially vast expanse of space. Additionally, there is a disruption in the intimacy of private communication. Transmitting one’s voice to another required close proximity, yet with the telephone (and its various switchboards, hardwires and operators) the privacy of interpersonal relationships were opened up to a broader and more public space.

Next, the collapse of these borders became even more personal—and even more aligned with the psychical—with the popularity of the “sciences” of mesmerism and hypnosis.  The borders that defined one’s consciousness began to destabilize further. The notion of mind-control, a subject once relegated to shady notions of the occult and paranormal, seemed to be approaching reality. The autonomy of the self and its influence through hypnosis and mesmerism generated great anxiety during the fin de sičcle. These anxieties were later given a public stage in the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895. In the same book, Pamela Thurschwell will go on in a chapter called, “Wilde, Hypnotic Aesthetes and the 1890s” to analyze these trials: providing a new way to understand the fury around Wilde that goes beyond the fin de sičcle’s paranoia of homosexuality.

In chapter two of Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, Thurschwell suggests that the creation of the demonic influential aesthete (Oscar Wilde being its infamous and most public representative) developed out of the anxieties of the period over the porousness of consciousness now made visible by hypnotic effects. The personage of the influential aesthete was demonized and came to encapsulate fears that an individual’s will and personal agency were something that could be stolen, corrupted, and/or used in perverse (sexual) ways.

The prosecution would describe Wilde as a “monster of influence.” Thurschwell argues that the word “influence” encapsulates two distinct anxieties. It is a firstly a “coded expression for the rapidly opening secret of homosexuality,” but also “stood for the nexus of 1890’s fears for the porous constitution of the self and its desires” (38). However, both the sexual and the hypnotic tend to blend into each other and sometimes lose their differentiation. She points to examples of literary works during the period, such as Trilby and Master of his Fate, that were popular before Wilde’s trials and demonstrate these conflations. One can take, for example, the Svengali in Trilby, who had a sexual charge to his mesmeric power; or, the life-sucking vampiric aesthete, Charcot, in Master of His Fate, who takes sexual liberties with a young soldier while he lulls him into a hypnotic spell.

Additionally, among these anxieties concerning influence was a fear that one could be coerced against their will into doing something criminal. The influencer then was the criminal, not necessarily the perpetrator, although the crime of influence was not yet defined in law. Thurschwell points to a great example of this dilemma of the absence of legal precedence in Master of His Fate. In absence of law, Lord Rivercourt calls the crime “an outrage,” saying “if it is not criminal, it seems about time it was made so” (Thurschwell 45). Newspapers in the novel call to the public to look out for a criminal wanted for committing a “new form of outrage” (46).

It is this very “new form of outrage” that Oscar Wilde is being tried for. In a particularly unnerving form of evidence, the prosecution cites Wilde’s own novel, the Picture of Dorian Gray, as evidence of Wilde’s culpability for being a “monster of influence.” The courts allow the substitution of the persona of Lord Henry as the mouthpiece of Wilde; Lord Henry, a character in the novel whose ideas could be read as the cause for Dorian’s depraved demeanor, is now equally substitutable for Wilde’s own thoughts. But, as Thurschwell demonstrates, even the novel itself questions where the origin of influence actually resides. In the novel, Dorian remarks that he is “dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to him to have come really from himself” (Thurschwell  61).

Although Thurshwell does not pursue this too deeply, it is interesting to consider whether influence comes from within or without. Like the arguments made for hypnosis, is influence also merely a product of the subject’s own desires? Does the influencer merely loosen the bonds of disarticulation by granting the subject a means of expression?

If one were to consider the role of language in this argument, the influencer, like the hypnotist, may just provide the tools and modes of expression that enable deep-seated desires to take shape and emerge from within the self. To return to the novel, if one were to consider Lord Henry’s role in relation to Dorian Gray, he can be read as a toolbox of expression for Dorian. Dorian’s latent desires lacked only articulation—language—which Lord Henry freely supplied.

This idea provokes interesting questions, such as: can we know anything if we do not possess a language for it? For example, can we know frustration if we didn’t have a word for it? Would we merely slot the physiological sensations of frustration (raised blood pressure, irritability, and increased body temperature) as merely anger? The Greeks used different words for varying types of “love”: sexual, fraternal and romantic were all separate words. The same word in English, “love,” contains all these variations in one symbol. The question of loss on this narrowing of a multiplicity of signified to a single signifier, recalls the concerns of semiotics, but places them in an interesting conversation with this notion of “influence.”

Pamela Thurschwell’s analysis of the role that hypnotism played in Oscar Wilde’s trials provides an interesting layer to consider that goes beyond the surface-level paranoia of homosexuality in the fin de sičcle. Additionally, Thurschwell’s book, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920¸ provides fascinating perspectives on the relevance of the psychical in the various technologies and innovations that developed during the Victorian era. Her work demonstrates the fluidity of borders, and provides a way to appreciate how a thing may seem incredible and uncanny in one era, and commonplace and mundane in another.


Works Cited

Thurschwell, Pamela. Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920. Cambridge:

Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.