At The Hospital "La Charité"
(A hypnotic seance at Dr. Luys's, member of the Academy of Medicine)
by Sofya Niron [a.k.a Sofya Kovalevskaya]

translated from the Russian by Joan Spicci with Ivana Cerna.
©2002 Joan Spicci Saberhagen

Under the leadership of Dr. Berillon, we were brought into the ward for the mentally ill. Two rows of white, very neat and even comfortable looking beds go the length of the ward. Most of the patients are young women, and although by outward appearance they belong, of course, to varying types, still all present one common characteristic: a remarkable nervous energy and a dull-palled complexion like wax. In contrast to them, soeurs du service laque [two secular sisters of mercy] bustle about from one bed to another, in white, stiffly starched caps and aprons, distinguishing themselves by their rosey cheeks and blooming appearance. At some beds a small group of externs and students already have assembled, getting ready for the examination, and from there merry jokes and laughter ring out. In the doorway of the ward Doctor Luys appears. This is some kind of a giant bov enfant [good spirited child]. Here is a huge figure wrapped in a linen smock, a belted apron, and on his head he has a velvet calotte [skull-cap], from under which yellowish curls streaked with gray are sticking out confusedly. He is, at least, half a head taller than all of the young doctors and students present. The diminutive Dr. Berillon, positively doesn't even reach his shoulder. Surrounded by all these tiny dark Frenchmen, Dr. Luys appears to be a creature of another breed. He has such a paternal appearance that it's possible to take him for a good papa among his children. Or rather, no, I would compare him to a great cook in the kitchen of a large household or to an Italian sorcerer at a fair. This last comparison especially indicates to me that his appearance, as a whole despite his corpulence, involuntarily arouses a notion of great dexterity and strength. He has a springy gait, like a big, fat tom-cat, but lo and behold he has white, agile hands. It appears he is now rolling up his sleeves and will do some tricks. He treats the patients with the uttermost familiarity. He grips them under the chin, and calls them ma petite, mon enfant, mon petit chat [my little one, my child, my kitten]. And all forty women's faces decidedly bloom with his entrance into the ward. Those patients who are able to get up, surround him on all sides. Those who are in their beds, perforce must restrict themselves to fastening their gaze on him; and on these faces is clearly noted, with what importance they await the time when Dr. Luys will approach their beds. He examines the patients very deftly, in some special style. The speed and elegance with which he accomplishes his business doesn't impede his incessant chattering. At times he tells jokes and is even very unrestrained; then the students laugh loudly in a rich bass, the patients and nurses echo them in a respectable soprano.

Dr. Berillon leads us to Luys, and I hand him my card. Then Jaclard, from the newspaper 'Justice' is presented to him. Luys is delighted.

"We are very pleased when distinguished foreigners visit us in order to satisfy themselves that we are not charlatans," he says to me. "As to the press, oh, the press is powerful," he turns towards Jaclard.

Today, it turns out, there is much of interest to show us.

"Well, Ester, today we will have to work a little, my child." Luys says, turning to one of the patients.

Ester approaches, grimacing a little. This is quite a pretty girl, 25 years old, with remarkably mobile features. Reddish-gold locks of hair give her face a particular playful charm, the picturesquely soaring little strands standing out sharply amidst the dark-chestnut background of the rest. I do not pretend to know whether to nature or artistry she was indebted for causing this adornment.

"This is my best subject," Dr. Luys whispers in my ear.

However Ester grimaces. "Oh, I can't today. I'm not in the mood, and besides this tires me."

Luys speaks to her like a child.

"Try, my child. You are a good, grateful little creature. Do this favor for me."

But the coaxing doesn't help. Ester is completely against it. Then Dr. Luys decides on a final remedy. He takes Ester by the shoulders and shoves her towards me.

"See this woman, Ester. Right here. This is a very learned professor from Stockholm University. If you do some good work, she will mention you in her lectures. So! You don't know what Stockholm is! Well, it is a great city far from here. You could be proud of yourself, if they talk about you in Stockholm."

It's not surprising that this approach is effective. Ester can't resist the alluring prospect of being spoken about in Stockholm, and modestly lowering her eyes announces. "If you like, I'll try, dear doctor."

We went downstairs to Dr. Luys's receiving office. This room was decorated very peculiarly, all the walls had been covered with photographs depicting men and women in various stages of hypnotic ecstasy and catalepsy, their faces distorted by the most impossible grimaces. For example, one half of a face is smiling, the other half crying. Small tables in the corners have been covered with little bells, little colored spheres, shields and other very strange looking apparatus which, apparently, all play a very important role in hypnosis. Waiting for Ester, who still had not appeared, Luys occupies himself with two other 'subjects', who were waiting for him in the receiving room and in his word, presented a very remarkable case de la fascination hypnotique [of hypnotic submission]. One of them was a middle-aged man, apparently, he had been a salesman in some kind of shop. Now he was afflicted with a progressive paralysis, and his face bore the stamp of almost idiot indifference. Luys placed two fingers on the man's forehead.

"Sleep!" He says with authority. The face of the patient quickly transforms, his eyes become totally glassy and fastened on the doctor. Luys raises the patient's arm, the arm appears frozen in position, as if it were wax.

"Laugh," says Luys. And the patient immediately begins to laugh exuberantly but completely soundlessly, and his face simply hardens in this horrible smile.

Another 'subject' -- still quite a young lad, about nineteen, a cleaned-up model of a Parisian voyou [vagrant]. He is very thin, with lanky limbs and merry, brazen eyes.

"That one has been in our hospital for three years," Luys explains to me. "And while he is with us, he does pretty well, as if he were perfectly healthy. But it seems he is unmanageable. He always pesters women. No matter how much you watch him, he somehow manages to slip away and flits to the women's ward. The authorities have already intervened three times and demanded his removal, on the pretext that he is completely healthy. But what can you do? As soon as he is discharged from the hospital, he immediately begins to have epileptic fits. After two or three days the police run into him somewhere on the street and again bring him to us. He definitely doesn't want to work. Perhaps with hypnotic suggestions we can succeed in reforming him! I have decided to apply hypnotic techniques for his moral training. But this will take time, and the stupid authorities always interfere. It's very difficult to do good in France, madame.

While Luys relates these details to me, an interesting 'subject' stands in front of him with closed eyes, immersed in a hypnotic trance.

"He can hear nothing, absolutely nothing of what is going on around him," Luys assures me. "Speak to him, he will not answer, touch him -- he will not feel it. I alone am with him in hypnotic communion."

Really, the youth stands completely motionless, like a statue. Not one line on his face quivers, as if he doesn't realize we are talking about him. Only it still seems to me that his eyes, although closed, keep their cunning expression and in them is written the resolution not to voluntarily leave the hospitality of the hospital with its freedom from expense and exchange it for hard work in a factory somewhere. Therefore, I hope, that in spite of all the hindrances of the unreasonable authorities, the good Dr. Luys still succeeds in his spare time to study the application of hypnotic teachings to the moral training of his promising charge.

After the doctor is convinced that the patient can not or will not respond to appeals and he remains completely apathetic when any of the externs present touch his coat or gently, very gently pinch his hand, Dr. Luys says triumphantly: "You see, he notices nothing and he hears nothing. You will see in him a very interesting example of how a criminal might act under the influence of hypnosis and how the law is powerless in cases like this.

"Look here, kind sir. Do you see the little man over there?" Luys points to his assistant.

"Yes, Doctor, I see him," immediately he answers. Up to this point the subject had seen and heard nothing.

"That man is a swindler, a scoundrel," continues Luys. "He must die. I want him to die! As soon as you awake, grab him by the throat and strangle him. You are to tell no one, that you did this at my command. Do you understand me?"

"Perfectly, Doctor . . ."

"So, you want to kill this man?"

"Yes, Doctor!"

"Why do you want to kill him?"

"Because he offended my doctor!" answers the young man in the same tone as an actor in some-kind-of second rate theater, playing the role of a devoted servant in a melodrama. He exclaims, "I will kill anyone who offends my master."

Luys blows in his face. The 'subject' instantly wakes up and begins to rub his eyes in an extremely confused manner.

"Do you know where you are and what was done to you?" They ask him.

"I am in the hospital, same as always, nothing much happened to me." The 'subject' answers with childlike frankness. However his gaze falls on the man whom he has been ordered to kill. His face instantly distorts with rage and in a fit of supposedly irrepressible anger, he rushes at him with clenched fists. Of course, they stop him in time, and thus begins a farcical interrogation. Someone from those present takes on the role of investigator.

"Defendant!" He says severely. "They seized you at the very moment when you were about to commit murder. Do you know what you are responsible for?"

The defendant is crying (a lot, convincingly, very naturally) and begs for mercy.

"Isn't it possible there are some extenuating circumstances in your favor?" asks the investigator.

No, the defendant can not justify his behavior.

"Perhaps, someone instructed you, incited you to do this murder?" -- suggests the investigator.

"Oh, no!" The accused even goes on with indignation at such an assumption and energetically denies any incitement. Everyone present gasps in astonishment. Luys grins and smugly rubs his hands.

"Well, good, my dear," he says finally, and again places two fingers to the patient's forehead. At this he falls into a hypnotic state, during which time Luys orders him to forget about everything that has happened and again he wakes him completely. The experiment succeeded beautifully. The lack of responsibility of the accused before the law has been completely proven by taking into account the possibility that he acted under the influence of hypnosis.

Now it is Ester's turn. Some minutes have passed since she entered the room and with a displeased, sarcastic air watched the whole procedure in which her colleague changed so under hypnosis.

"It's already late, maybe, you will leave me until tomorrow," she finally says in a capricious voice. Obviously, she is seized with an envy, such as a prima donna must feel when the audience begins to applaud the lead tenor during the first act, before she even has appeared on the stage.

Luys pulls out of his pocket a small, little sphere of ivory with some holes bored into it, he brings it to his mouth and it emits a harsh, piercing whistle. Ester sinks into the chair, instantly she begins to spasm, her eyes roll and her limbs twist unnaturally.

"This is my invention -- this magical sleep inducing, instrument," says Luys in an inventor's solemn tone. "And I am confident, that in time my little sphere will prove to be of no small service to hypnotism.

The magical sphere passes from hand to hand, and Luys forces us to examine his apparatus in detail. What about this sphere is unusual and in what lie its advantages over a tin whistle, I can not assume to say. For a long time it has been known, that any shrill, sudden sound may easily cause convulsions in very nervous people. However Luys, evidently, attributes some kind of special significance precisely to his sphere and is very proud that he invented this 'magical instrument'.

"As a mathematician, this should especially interest you." He says to me. "You ought to make a serious study of it, madame."

I modestly plead that my work is limited, regretfully only to pure mathematics and the amazing sphere more closely relates to realm of physics.

Luys again takes his invention into his mouth, again a shrill whistle rings out, but this time its effect on the patient is completely different. Her limbs stiffen, her body becomes extended, her eyes are half open and on her face there appears an expression of ecstatic bliss.

"Now, she has fallen into a period of somnambulism," Luys whispers to us. "Ester, my child, do you recognize me?"

"Of course, I recognize you." (In somnambulance, the patient uses the familiar form of 'you' with their hypnotist.)

"How do you feel?" Luys goes on to ask.

"Very well. And you, how do you feel, fat boy?" The sudden, unexpected answer follows.

The students titter. Luys frowns.

"If only she doesn't start to talk nonsense, like last time." He says anxiously. "No, no, that isn't necessary, my dear," he continues severely, turning to the patient. "Today be sensible. Don't forget, there is a lady present. I will try to give you pleasing visions."

He gives her one after another several little glass spheres and persuades her that they are diamond earrings, a gold necklace, and a mirror.

Ester expresses too great a rapture on receiving these spheres. She gives the appearance of putting on the imaginary diamond earrings; admiring herself in the fictitious mirror. Her pretty lively little features really very amusingly and very gracefully reproduce all the shades of pleasure and self-praise.

Finally, Luys gives her an empty glass and asks her to drink champaign. Ester at first hesitates, then suddenly empties the glass in one swallow and smacking her lips exclaims: "This, really, is very delicious!"

"Now I can force her to believe everything, that I want." Dr. Luys confidently tells us and assures us, "During somnambulant sleep the hypnotist enjoys the full confidence of the 'subject'. It is difficult to believe how great the trust of each subject is."

"Yes, really, difficult to believe," I agree with full conviction.

After that, Luys convinces his patient that she is walking in a beautiful garden. There she assumes a string of vividly descriptive poses. She begins to tear imaginary roses and becomes intoxicated by their magical aroma. But an unexpected diversion occurs. The first young actor, who all this time had remained here, but to whom no one had paid any attention, became bored, obviously, with his passiveness and decided to remind us again about himself.

"She lies, that isn't a rose; that's a pink carnation." Suddenly an angry exclamation is heard, and he throws these words at Ester and tries to pull the imaginary flower from her hand. We're completely at a loss as to what this occurrence means; but Luys quickly leads us out of our confusion.

"You see!" He exclaims happily. "Right before our eyes there has occurred an unforeseen, but highly interesting incident I will put it in my next report to the Academy."

It turned out, in the interpretation of Luys, that our youth also had fallen into a somnambulant trance. Not by the will of the hypnotist, but under the influence of the hypnotized Ester. Now he participates in her psyche; each of her hallucinations becomes for him a reality, only a little altered in his own brain. A most amusing controversy between the 'subjects' ensued.

"This is a Margarita, a daisy." Announces Ester, pointing at nothing.

"Certainly not! This is a John-and-Mary, a wild flower." Contends the youth.

"It is the size of my hand," Ester goes on.

"Well, perhaps, you could say it's so gigantic, you could use it as a parasol," the youth corrected her.

Each of them tries to out-do the other, the invented nonsense grows larger and larger. All the more amusing because neither of the rivals for hypnosis becomes angry at the joke. In both voices more and more irritation can be heard. Finally, evidently having decided not to let go of her exclusive right to the attention of the public, Ester throws herself into a chair and announces that she will be silent while the other one is in the room. He had to be taken away, and then the presentation continued.

Now the most interesting part of the experiments begin, that which Dr. Luys indicates has great importance These experiments should show the effect of drugs on hypnotic subjects by a simple touch (action par contact). Luys takes out of a cupboard a test tube, filled with brandy and holds it up to the patient's neck. Nothing happens for several minutes (I should say -- several seconds) as already the fumes of the wine are beginning to have an effect. Ester becomes drunk. How she does this, God knows. But I must confess, she reproduces artistically through shocking realistic actions a complete picture of gradual intoxication. Her pretty little face becomes flushed and ugly, her eyes become drowsy, her lower lip hangs down, her speech is muddled. An idiotic smile appears on her face. Finally the severe spasms which precede vomiting begin. At this Luys decides it is necessary to stop the experiment. In the blink of an eye, before they managed to take the test tube with brandy from her neck, she appears to have never been intoxicated. Ester rubs her eyes and again looks at us with her sly grimace.

But the experiment still isn't finished. On the contrary, a very miraculous thing begins. Luys again applies a test tube to Ester's neck, but this time it is filled not with brandy, but with distilled water -- really, nothing but distilled water. And what do you think? What effect is produced by one touch of this dangerous liquid, which we so frivolously drank in the course of our lives? Before the test tube with water even touches the Mademoiselle Ester's sensitive little neck, all the characteristics of hydrophobia become apparent in a very uncommon and frightening manner. There is no doubt. This is exactly what Pasteur observed in his clinic. The fit of hydrophobia Ester has is clearly a very typical kind. It is terrible to look at her. The veins on her neck swell, her lips contract in a spasm, her fists are clenched, her eyes are bloodshot, exactly as if they are ready to jump out of their sockets. One more minute and she rushes towards someone among us -- perhaps this is good, towards the great Dr. Luys -- and bites. And what comes out of this -- my God! But, of course, this doesn't happen. The test tube with the miraculous water is taken away from her neck, and Ester again changes into a dear, inoffensive little grisette.

Luys blows in her face,in order to completely awaken her.

"What did you feel, mademoiselle?" He asks her with concern.

"Nothing, I remember absolutely nothing!" She answers artlessly.

But this is what is really strange: Although Ester certainly affirms that she remembers absolutely nothing of what happened to her, she apparently isn't at all astonished when we present her with gasps and discuss all that we saw. And what is even stranger: She doesn't express the smallest interest in knowing, what exactly she did during the period of this gap in her awareness. Indeed, it seems, this interest would be entirely normal on her part. If I were her friend, i would certainly advise her to become more interested in what happened to her.

"Well then! Does what you have seen satisfy you?" Dr. Luys asks me.

I decide to remark to him, that in my opinion, these experiments should be performed under much stricter controls. That is, to arrange them in a manner so that the patient isn't able to know what exactly is contained in the test tubes.

"Well how can she know, when she is asleep? She sees nothing and understands nothing of what is going on around her." Luys answers impatiently.

Of course, there is nothing to say. All that remains is to thank him and to take my leave.

"Come tomorrow. I will introduce you to your compatriot -- a Russian woman. she is also an excellent 'subject'. At present I am carrying out a number of interesting experiments on her." Luys tells me as we say goodbye.


Sofya Niron

[Paris, July 1888]