Svengali's Web

Daniel Pick. Svengali's Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture, Yale University, 2000.

A very fine commentary on the legend of Svengali. People still use the word as an all-purpose synonym for people who have artful control over the minds of others. Most of us no longer know the story, for there has been no good dramatisation in decades. It is thus eye-opening to be reminded just how incredibly popular the story was and how much a mass cultural sensation it came to be. Myriad numbers of products emerged to cash in on the names of the characters. The story spawned many imitations and parodies.

Much of Pick's book is devoted to the back story of the themes of hypnotic or mesmeric mind control in the centuries leading up to the story. There is a surprising bit of material devoted to the powers of foreigners to cloud people's judgements, notably people of Jewish descent, though also others like Orientals. Pick notes the name Svengali may have been partly chosen to suggest an allusion to the Bengali. There is also much about the evil eye discussed here, including reminders of how routinely we speak of the penetrating eyes of foreign leaders, like we did of Hitler and Mussolini.

Pick notes that in the story Svengali himself was an ambiguous villain. The musical starlet herself was in need of someone who could draw the music from her. Without him, she was talentless. He, in turn, was in need of her. This tale was in part based on prior history. People of questionable nature in the music trade often made it possible for people to refine their talent and become stars. This theme has been replayed numerous times in contemporary culture - Elvis and Colonel Parker perhaps most famously. How much the legend is imposed and how much the actual relationship lends itself naturally to the formula are matters inevitably unresolvable to the average audience member.

Oh, despite the alien in the subtitle, there is nothing about extraterrestrials in this book. Alien here equals foreigner. Certain aspects of UFO mythology could be illuminated by material in it, however. -- Martin Kottmeyer

No comments: