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Imaginations and Antipathies

I HAVE collected several uncommon instances of the force of the imagination, which are taken from good authorities; at the same time the reader will recollect, that I am only a reporter in the present article.

Louis Vives tells us of a person who passed safely over a plank that lay across a great flood of water in the dark; the next day, when he perceived the danger in which he had been, he fell down dead at the sight of the peril he had escaped.

Fuller mentions, that several children, lost in a forest, being fatigued with wandering, the person with them cut pieces of wood, which he called horses, to ride home; the success answered the design, for being mounted on these wooden steeds (says our author) the strength of fancy, added new mettle to their legs, and they trudged with great spirit home.

A Portuguese, overwhelmed with the melancholy imagination that God would not forgive him his sins, lived in the most dismal despair; at length he was cured of his religious malady by the contrivance of his friends. One who personified an angel was admitted through the roof into his chamber; this angelic being having persuaded him that all his sins were pardoned, the unhappy religionist quickly recovered.

An old writer has given a curious story relative to the force of imagination. A man in a burning fever, leaning over his bed side, pointed with his finger to the chamber floor, desiring those who were present to let him swim in that lake, and that he then should be cool. His physician humoured the conceit; the patient walked carefully about the room, seemed to feel the water gradually ascending to his neck, and at length having said he felt himself cool and well, was found in reality to be so.

The following instances of the effects of the imagination on births merit attention:

Mallebranche, in his Recherche de la Verité, liv. II. c. 7. relates a curious instance of the force of the imagination. “About seven years since (he says) in the hospital for incurables, there was a young man born an idiot, whose body was dislocated in the same places in which those of criminals are broken. He lived twenty years in this condition. The cause of this melancholy accident was a desire his mother indulged of seeing a criminal broken on the wheel.”

I give the fact without the visionary principles which the ingenious father has deduced from it. This subject is examined with acute observation in a treatise, entitled, “A Physical Dissertation concerning the Strength of the Imagination in Women with Child upon the Fœtus, by James Blundel, M. D.”

What follows I add as a counterpart. The case is given by Bourdelot, who himself examined the little curious monster.

A woman, four months gone with child, would see, in spite of her husband’s remonstrances, an ape dressed like a merry andrew. The ape, thus dressed, so forcibly impressed her mind, that she attempted in vain to banish it from her thoughts. At the usual time she laid in of a perfect ape, with the cap and waistcoat of a merry andrew. They were very distinctly marked; the waistcoat was red, and went over the arms. It had the folds and the figure of a short coat without skirts; it covered the flesh, and clung to it. The face of the child resembled perfectly that of an ape; his arms, legs, and body were also like those of this animal. In a word, he looked exactly like the ape dressed in the habit of a merry andrew, except that he had no hair.

Many have in imagined their limbs to be made of glass, of wax, &c. of enormous sizes, and .of fantastical shapes; and others have even fancied themselves dead.

In the memoirs of Count De Maurepas, published last year, we find an account of a most singular hypochondriac in the person of the Prince of Bourbon; he once imagined himself to be a hare, and would suffer no bell to be rung in his palace, lest the noise should drive him to the woods; at another time he fancied himself to be a plant, and as he stood in the garden insisted on being watered. He sometime afterwards thought he was dead, and refused nourishment, for which he said he had no further occasion. This whim would have proved fatal, if his friends had not contrived to disguise two persons, who were introduced to him as his grandfather and marshal Luxembourg; and who, after some conversation concerning the shades, invited him to dine with marshal Turenne. Our hypochondriac followed them into a cellar prepared for the purpose, where he made a hearty meal. While this turn of his disorder prevailed, he always dined in the cellar with some noble ghost. We are also informed, that this strange malady did not incapacitate him for business, especially when his interest was concerned. This account is drawn from the Appendix to the Monthly Review for December 1792.

Montaigne has a copious essay on “The Force of Imagination,” He adduces a variety of singular instances; but it will not be deemed commendable to detail them here; for most of them are of a nature which are best recommended by his own agreeable and free manner. A modern writer is not permitted to

“Pour himself as plain,
  As downright Shippen or as old Montaigne.”

Perhaps Cervantes intended to ridicule such almost incredible propensities of this faculty, when he represents Don Quixote after his rueful encounter with the Yanguesian carriers, in which his squire, him, and Rosinante, were all most unmercifully beaten, reposing on an uneasy pallet in a miserable inn. While the hostess is plaistering him over, she observes, that “the bumps look more like a dry beating than a fall.” Sancho, jealous of his master’s honour, assures her of the contrary; and tells her, that the rock on which he fell had many cragged ends and knobs, every one of which gave his master a token of its kindness; and by the bye (continues our squire) I beseech you to save a little of that same tow and ointment for me, for I do not know what is the matter with my back, but I fancy I stand greatly in want of a little greasing too.”—“What I suppose you fell too” (said the landlady); “not I” (replied Sancho) “but the very fright that I took to see my master tumble down the rock, has so wrought upon my body, that I am as sore as if I had been sadly mauled.”

Perhaps ANTIPATHIES, may not unaptly be placed amongst the effects of the imagination. Chevreau observes, there are certain natural antipathies which appear very extraordinary, of which he gives several instances. There have been persons who have fainted at the odour of roses; others, with greater reason, quit the table at the smell of cheese; and I have seen more than one person tremble before a lap dog. A man was fo frightened at the sight of a hedge-hog, that he thought, for more than two years afterwards, that his bowels were gnawed by this animal. The great Erasmus had such an aversion to fish that he could not suffer the smell without growing feverish. If apples were offered to Duchesne, secretary of Francis the First, blood gushed from his nose; and a gentleman belonging to the emperor Ferdinand was convulsed whenever he heard the mewing of a cat. Henry III. of France could sit in a room where a cat was. The Duke of Schomberg had the same aversion. Vanghneim, the elector’s huntsman at Hanover, fainted or run away at the sight of a roasted pig: The Turkish Spy, who tells us that he would rather encounter a lion in the deserts of Arabia, provided he had but a sword in his hand; than feel a spider crawling on him in the dark, judiciously observes, that there is no reason to be given for these secret antipathies, which are discovered in many men. He humorously attributes them to the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul; and supposes himself to have been once a fly; before he came into his body, and that having been frequently persecuted with spiders in that state, he still retained the dread of his old enemy, and which all the circumstances of his present metamorphoses were not able to efface. In a word, these antipathies are so far from being uncommon, that, I doubt not, but everyone can recollect persons who are susceptible of such affections.

Scaliger tells us of a person who so much dreaded the sound of the cymbal, that he could never hear it without an extraordinary propensity of making water. They made the experiment by a cymbal player, who was concealed under the table, and he had hardly begun to play on his instrument when the gentleman discovered his infirmity. This person was amongst those whom Shakespeare, that great master of human nature, describes,

“Some men are mad if they behold a cat;
  And others, when the bagpipe sings i’th’ nose,
  Cannot contain their urine: for affection,
  Master of passion, sways it to the mood
  Of what it likes or loaths. Now for your answer.”

But Chevreau has given instances of antipathies still more extraordinary; these consist of an aversion to certain innocent actions and words. He says, that Chrysippus was terribly affected by bows; and a Spanish Don swooned away when he heard pronounced the word Lana (wool) although his cloaths were woollen. It will be sufficient to observe, that Chevreau was very learned, but dull and credulous.

Editor’s Notes

This article, and the eleven pieces that follow, all formed part of the Miscellanea section of the second edition of the second volume of the Curiosities.