Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


From "Marginal Notes"

(October 1, 1898)*


At first glance one would not say that "The Psychology of Suggestion" was a very alluring subject for the average reader. But when one reads further on the title page, "A Research Into the Subconscious Nature of Man and Society," one's curiousity is aroused. Evidently here is a book in which any one of us ought to be interested. Dr. Boris Lidis comes to us introduced by Prof. William James of Harvard, whose researches in psychology, especially the psychology of abnormal states of mind, have beeen carried on with so much zeal and devotion. Prof. James seems to have imparted to his disciple, too, some of his own delightful capacity for simplicity and clarity of expression, a faculty for bringing the results of investigation home to the layman, connecting them with everyday affairs. This is particularly true of that part of Dr. Lidis's book which treats of the wholly novel subject "crowd psychology," giving us the gravest considerations in regard to public affairs.

The existence of the hypnotic state, mediumistic phenomena, etc., have long been recognized as pathological conditions, but it is only recently that science has accorded any recognition to hypnotism, and its varied manifestations. The whole question of personality was left to the metaphysicians to settle, but experimental psychology with its patient sifting of evidence has come to our aid and greatly assisted in the fascinating problem.

Who am I? Who is me? What is the difference between us? Readers of Browning will recall that the striking passage in "A Death in the Desert", embodying the thought of a diverse personality:

This is the doctrine he was wont to teach,
How divers persons witness in each man.
Three souls which make up one soul: first, to wit:
A soul of each and all the bodily parts,
Seated therein, which works, and is what does,
And has the use of earth, and ends the man
Downward; but, tending upward for advice,
Grows into, and again is grown into
By the next soul, which, seated in the brain,
Useth the first with its collected use,
And feeleth, thinketh, willeth, is what Knows:
Which, duly tending upward in its turn,
Grows into, and again is grown into
By the last soul, that uses both the first,
Subsisting whether they assist or no.
And, constituting man's self, is what Is -
And leans upon the former, makes it play,
As that played off the first: and, tending up,
Holds, is upheld by, God, and ends the man
Upward in that dread point of intercourse,
Nor needs a place, for it returns to Him.
What Does, what Knows, what Is; three souls one man.

And, again, students of Oriental philosophy must be reminded of the suggestive idea of a multiplicity of selves-as if each self were by no means individual, but were compounded of a thronging multitude of scarcely reconcilable selves, inherited from the ages, warring together for the inward mastery. And it seems, indeed, as if such a doctrine might have at least an equal validity with our own usual orthodox postulate, the doctrine of spiritual individuality. It scarcely seems extravagant to imagine the violently opposing forces in our personality are more or less distinct selves; it is not the least logical way to account for our inconsistencies, surely. Our study of heredity speaks of differing strains in our nature, one strain from this ancestor, another strain from that. And considering the unlimited number of ancestors each man has, you see that any one of them could scarcely hope for a complete occupation of the new person. They must still be content to struggle for momentary control of the machinery which goes by the name of John or Henry.

Prof. James in his Psychology, in dealing with the self, treats of the different "Mes" present in a personality, their conflict, scope and rivalry-the material me, the social me, the spiritual me, a threefold division like Browning's. But Dr. Lidis has pursued the subject to its utmost limits, hunting the self from every nook and cranny of its human tenement, with a searching analysis Hawthorne might have envied. And his method of procedure has been by means of suggestion. Beginning with established fact that there exists, in abnormal cases, a secondary self, a sort of rudimentary personality, unknown to the higher conscious personality, which can be elicited and developed by hypnotic means, he proceeded to establish the further fact that just such a sub-conscious personality exists in the normal person as well. The normal man is continually exposed to thousands of impressions from the outside world; many he must forget entirely, some make a vivid mark on his superior consciousness and live in his memory. But the sub-conscious personality is awake, too, to these same multitudinous impressions from the outside world, and apparently stores them away for future reproduction at some unexpected juncture, to the surprise, perhaps, of the conscious intelligence. We store away our impressions at unawares, as if the master spirit were somehow served by diligent, capable gnomes, faithful, but irresponsible, and often unruly.

The series of experiments, quite apart from anything like hypnotism, in which Dr. Lidis established the suggestibility of normal persons, is ingenious and instructive, and leads him to the conclusion, "Man is a suggestible animal." The most striking law he enunciates, as a result of his investigations, is this:

"Normal suggestibility varies as indirect suggestion, and inversely as direct suggestion;" to this is also added the converse law, "Abnormal suggestibility varies as direct suggestion, and inversely as indirect suggestion."

It is common to fancy that our senses alone are responsible for the furtive acquisition of knowledge, and that they work independently to that end. We should be likely therefore to attribute no sort of real personality to the subconscious perception; but we should be wrong, it seems. "The subconsciousness is not an unconscious physiological automatism; it is a secondary consciousness, a secondary self."

Several cases are quoted, well authenticated, in which the secondary self has appeared in a person, grown and developed, and alternated with the original self in possession of the senses and faculties of the person. And, strangely enough, this secondary self is usually aware of the existence of the primary self, and even knows it thoroughly, sometimes disliking it, sometimes being fond of it. The primary self, on the contrary, has no knowledge of the second personality, and remembers nothing whatever of those periods when it was ousted from its own home to give place to the uncanny intruder. The subwaking self is an ever-present, unseen, sleepless servitor, always subsisting on the normal state, noting things which the conscious self knows nothing of, ready the assume control the moment the dominant self resigns.

There is something awesome and terrifying in the knowledge that we have this inescapable companion at our side every minute, who knows our every act, and yet whom we do not know. And the solemnity of the fact is all the greater when we realize the primitive character of that self. "The subwaking self," says Dr. Lidis, "is extremely credulous, it lacks all sense of the true and rational. 'Two and two make five?' 'Yes.' Anything is accepted if sufficiently emphasized by the hypnotizer..I should like to point out the extreme servility and cowardliness of that self. Show hesitation, and it will show fight; command authoritatively, and it will obey slavishly." And again: "The subwaking self is devoid of all morality; it will steal without the least scruple; it will poison, it will stab; it will assassinate its best friends. When completely cut off from the waking person it is precluded from conscience. The subwaking self lacks all personality and individuality; it is absolutely servile; it works according to no maxims; it has no moral law, no law at all. To be a law unto one's self, the chief and essential characteristic of personality, is just the very trait the subwaking self lacks. The subwaking self has no will; it is blown hither and thither by all sorts of incoming suggestions. It is essentially a brutal self."

But there is a further aspect of these investigations of Dr. Lidis's which everyone must recognize as being of the profoundest practical importance. I mean his exposition of social suggestibility. If man is a suggestible animal, individually open to arbitrary influences and the will of another, what must he be in a mass? The fickleness of mobs is proverbial, and the mob is only the subconscious crowd. To deal with a crowd of orderly persons, one must use the same rational means as in dealing with an individual. But once let the slumbering mob, which is latent in every crowd, be aroused, and reason avails no longer; one may make the most vicious and irrational suggestion to it, and so long as the suggestion be direct and graceful enough it will be obeyed. To hypnotize the crowd, that is the sole object of the demagogue. Once converted into a mob by the fatuous trick of his oratory, they can be molded to his will. In a crowd the voluntary movements of an individual are restricted; he loses his independence; he is merged in the mass; he is no longer master of himself; only his lower, more rudimentary nature has play and scope.

And in this connection there are the gravest considerations for us in this country, calculated to make the most sanguine reflect somewhat forebodingly on the future. The irrational fevers and mental epidemics which sweep over the country from time to time are only so many instances of mob suggestibility. Sometimes they are comparatively harmless fads, but oftener they are full of harm. We even speak of them as "crazes"-the Trilby craze, the Klondike craze, the silver craze. The ordinary revival in religion is an instance of the pernicious evil of playing upon the subconscious mob element existing in crowds. While in our political conventions one sees that same unhappy subconscious social self unleashed and raving.

The student of politics can ill afford to skip Dr. Lidis's Psychology of Suggestions as the student of human nature.

Untitled "Marginal Notes" column, Commercial Advertiser, Oct. 1, 1898 [back]