A Jewish musician - a brilliant pianist and music teacher -
gets into his power an orphaned Irish girl, a painters' model,
who has a magnificent voice but happens to be tone deaf.
Having hypnotized her one day to cure an attack of neuralgia,
he discovers that when she is in the hypnotic trance
she can be taught to sing in tune.
AS I PLEASE, by George Orwell
Tribune, December 6, 1946
With great enjoyment I have just been rereading "Trilby", George du Maurier's justly popular novel, one of the finest specimens of that 'good bad' literature which the English-speaking peoples seem to have lost the secret of producing. Trilby is an imitation of Thackeray, a very good imitation and immensely readable — Bernard Shaw, if I remember rightly, considered it to be better than Thackeray in many ways — but to me the most interesting thing about it is the different impressions one derives from reading it first before and then after the career of Hitler.
The thing that now hits one in the eye in reading Trilby is its antisemitism. I suppose, although few people actually read the book now, its central story is fairly widely known, the name of Svengali having become a by-word, like that of Sherlock Holmes. A Jewish musician — not a composer, but a brilliant pianist and music-teacher — gets into his power an orphaned Irish girl, a painters' model, who has a magnificent voice but happens to be tone deaf. Having hypnotized her one day to cure an attack of neuralgia, he discovers that when she is in the hypnotic trance she can be taught to sing in tune.
Thereafter, for about two years, the pair of them travel from one European capital to another, the girl singing every night to enormous and ecstatic audiences, and never even knowing, in her waking life, that she is a singer. The end comes when Svengali dies suddenly in the middle of a concert and Trilby breaks down and is booed off the stage. That is the main story, though of course there is much else, including an unhappy love affair and three clean-living English painters who make a foil for Svengali's villainy.
There is no question that the book is antisemitic. Apart from the fact that Svengali's vanity, treacherousness, selfishness, personal uncleanliness and so forth are constantly connected with the fact that he is a Jew, there are the illustrations. Du Maurier, better known for his drawings in Punch than for his writings, illustrated his own book, and he made Svengali into a sinister caricature of the traditional type. But what is most interesting is the divergence of the antisemitism of that date — 1895, the period of the Dreyfus Case — and that of today.
To begin with, du Maurier evidently holds that there are two kinds of Jew, good ones and bad ones, and that there is a racial difference between them. There enters briefly into the story another Jew, Glorioli, who possesses all the virtues and qualities that Svengali lacks. Glorioli is 'one of the Sephardim' — of Spanish extraction, that is — whereas Svengali, who comes from German Poland, is 'an oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew'. Secondly du Maurier considers that to have a dash of Jewish blood is an advantage. We are told that the hero, Little Billee, may have had some Jewish blood, of which there was a suggestion in his features, and 'fortunately for the world, and especially for ourselves, most of us have in our veins at least a minimum of this precious fluid'. Clearly, this is not the Nazi form of antisemitism.
And yet the tone of all the references to Svengali is almost unconsciously contemptuous, and the fact that du Maurier chose a Jew to play such a part is significant. Svengali, who cannot sing himself and has to sing, as it were, through Trilby’s lungs, represents that well-known type, the clever underling who acts as the brains of some more impressive person.
It is queer how freely du Maurier admits that Svengali is more gifted than the three Englishmen, even than Little Billee, who is represented, unconvincingly, as a brilliant painter. Svengali has 'genius', but the others have 'character', and 'character' is what matters. It is the attitude of the rugger-playing prefect towards the spectacled 'swot', and it was probably the normal attitude towards Jews at that time. They were natural inferiors, but of course they were cleverer, more sensitive and more artistic than ourselves, because such qualities are of secondary importance. Nowadays the English are less sure of themselves, less confident that stupidity always wins in the end, and the prevailing form of antisemitism has changed, not altogether for the better...
Trilby, by George du Maurier (published serially in Harper's Monthly in 1894)
TRILBY, by George Du Maurier (Trilby O'Ferrall, a delicious artist's model with 'all the virtues except one'...Yet her chance of happiness with Little Billee is poisoned by family prejudice and the dread hypnotic powers of the sinister Svengali. Totally tone-deaf, she becomes a world-famous singer. But what if the toast of European royalty is just a superb singing machine, while her soul is shrinking insider her?...)
SVENGALI: Unethical Stage Hypnosis in Literature and Life
An Englishman with a French name, George Du Maurier (1834-1896), wrote his last and most famous novel, Trilby, about hypnocontrol. It was the first "best seller". Du Maurier got the idea for his tale of Svengali's cruel domination of his hapless hypnotic subject from viewing a demonstration of a subject’s complete, amnesic dissociation in a hypnotist's office. In the late 19th century, both natural split personalities and artificial personality splitting (by suggested amnesia under hypnosis) were hot new items in psychological research....
HYPNOTIZING STUDENTS TO DEATH
SLEEP-TEACHING IN BRAVE NEW WORLD and 40.Electric Shock Brainwashing
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