Svengali & Trilby: Mesmerism trope in PF

Submitted by MARYROSS on Wed, 06/30/2021 - 14:33

I happened to come across a reference to “Svengali and Trilby” the other day. I had long been aware of “Svengali” as a sort of mastermind mesmerist, but was not aware that he was fictional – from an 1894 novel by George du Maurier, Trilby. I had never heard the word “trilby” until reading Pale Fire, where I found out it referred to a type of hat  – worn in PF by “the man in brown,” Gradus (in Britain it is called a “brown trilby”).


What I just found out, is that the name comes from the type of hat with an indented crown and short brim worn by du Maurier’s character, “Trilby,” an Irish girl held under the sway of the evil mesmerist, Svengali (the style later became a hat for men). The book and the play based on it were immensely popular and influential in creating the image of the mad magician and the powers of hypnotism.


I like to think this supports the inclusion of Houdini in Pale Fire as “Hodinski/Hodyna,” as the trope of the artist as magus. It is also supported by reference to Rasputin in PF. It also supports my theory of archetypes, with Gradus as the “shadow” archetype of the unconscious, since mesmerism deals with unlocking the unconscious. Gradus is described as having “mesmeric organs of vision.” Mesmerism was also a subject of research by the SPR (Society for Psychical Research), of which many luminaries alluded to in PF were members. Freud and Jung (both members of the SPR) employed hypnotism in the early days of psychoanalysis.


This is also part of the larger themes of the occult and the Romantic fascination with the occult, including mesmerism. Franz Mesmer (1734-1815)


Typical of the web of allusions in PF, du Maurier connects to several themes. Another is detective mysteries; du Maurier was also the illustrator of the first detective book, The Nottingham Mystery, which featured the evils of mesmerism. As a side note. connecting more threads, Conan Doyle was a great friend of Houdini (both members of the SPR).


It is also supported by reference to Rasputin in PF.


Reference to Rasputin (also a member of the SPR)? Where?

No, I did not mean to imply that Rasputin was a member of the SPR, although Freud, Jung, Houdini, Conan Doyle and many others alluded to in PF were. I tried to find out if du Maurier was a member, particularly given his close friendship with Doyle, but could not (although I still suspect it).


Rasputin is alluded to in C62 (Everyman's p.74) “…strangled, poisoned, and drowned…” [all methods used to kill Rasputin]. I meant that Rasputin was also a magus who held others in his thrall, like Svengali, and this plays into Nabokov's frequent inferences of artists as magicians.

This is not a reference to Rasputin (who was shot, not strangled, before drowning in the Neva or, rather, before freezing to death on the ice). Your approach, Mary, strikes me not only as non-Nabokovian, but also as non-artistic.

[Personal attacks are an improper and un-collegial use of the Forum.]


As for the trope of magic/magicians in PF, I have previously posted quite a bit about the numerous allusions to alchemy. Alchemists were considered “magi.” Employing words that describe the alchemic process, Kinbote likens Shade to a conjuror,

perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, recombining its elements in the very process of storing the up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse.


The Magus Tarot card features a lemniscate infinity symbol. (I believe all the major arcana are hidden in PF)


The three Christian magi are hidden within PF:

>Balthasar the gardener

>Melchior: “Line 85: Who'd seen the Pope

Pius X, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, 1835-1914; Pope 1903-1914.”

>Jasper (aka Caspar): “Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp.”


Like the inference in The Vane Sisters, Sybil suggests “sibyl”


Hazel: the hazel tree is associated with magic, divination, and spirit contact.


The following words are found repeated in PF:


Magic/magician= 17

Conjure/conjuring = 6

Incantation/incantatory = 2

Enchant = 3

Mesmeric/mesmerized = 2

Hypnotist = 1

Trance = 3

Witch/bewitch= 3

Abracadabra = 2

Trick/trickery = 8

Séance = 2

Crystal = 11

Fortune/unfortunate/misforture = 18


Solus Rex, the apparent progenitor of Pale Fire has this interesting quote:


“For instance,” he said in the triumphant voice he reserved for public occasions, “take our entire history, and you will see, gentlemen, that the root of power has always been construed among us as having originated in magic, with obedience conceivable only when, in the mind of the obeyer, it could be identified with the infallible effect of a spell. In other words, the king was either a sorcerer or himself bewitched, sometimes by the people, sometimes by the Councilors, sometimes by a political foe who would whist the crown off his head like a hat from a hatrack.”


And this from Mr. Morn:


“…So listen then:

when I was – how shall I say? – an enchanter

a hypnotist…I read thoughts…I

predicted fate, twirling my crystal

beneath my fingers the oak-table rocked

like the deck of a ship, and the dead sighed,

a poke through my larynx, and the kings

of bygone ages inhabited me…”