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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/May 1897/Strange Personifications


WHILE cases of colored audition and visual schemes are quite frequent, we have fewer instances of that special kind of synopsy which I call personification, because it consists, in its typical form, in the concrete representation of a personage—sometimes of an animal or a thing—being regularly awakened by a word that has no comprehensible relation with its curious associate. This sort of personification in its marked degrees is rare, and in the few instances that have come under my knowledge has been applied to the days of the week.

In M. E. F——,student in letters, nineteen years old, the figures of persons of very definite pose and occupation are provoked by various suggestions; among others, by those of the days of the week. Monday and Tuesday are to him a young man of serious aspect, with his forefinger on his eye—dark weather. Wednesday is a young man in the act of stealing something behind him, stooping down and putting his arms between his legs to take it. M. F——does not see what this man takes, and does not know what it is; dark weather. Thursday is a man turning the knob of the kitchen door to go through that room to the next one. Friday is a man selling something on a wagon, which he holds with his hands. The object is indistinct, and M. F——does not know what it is, but in his mind the man is the Wednesday man, and is selling the thing he stole on that day. The weather is clear. Saturday is a man falling against a door and putting both hands forward to push himself back, falling again, and so on several times. He is doing this for amusement. Sunday is a man buttoning his cuffs, and the weather is fine.

It will be seen that in respect to their psychological nature these personifications are a triple mixture of visual representations, of interpretative ideas (the idea of Wednesday's man stealing an object which is the same unknown thing that he sells on Friday, etc.), and of general impressions corresponding with the weather that is prevailing—except Thursday and Saturday, which have no weather assigned to them. The visual representatives of mental images do not take on the character of hallucinations, but remain simple mental images. These personages have no color, and their dress is extremely indefinite, but their figures are very sharply defined. M. F——distinguishes all these details, and perceives clearly the expression, which is always serious (with the exception of Wednesday, who laughs while he is stealing his object). The localization of these visual images is not less precise. The man of Monday, for example, appears to M. F—— always outside of him, but very near—hardly a yard away; he is and always has been of the same size as he, from which he concludes that they have grown up together. The man of Wednesday and Friday, on the other hand, is always seen at a considerable distance more than fifty yards.

M. F—— does not personify any figure or number, except 14, which represents itself to him as an accountant sitting at his desk, writing. Of the months and seasons, only autumn is personified, as the same sad-looking man with his finger on his eye who represents Monday and Tuesday.

Most of the common nouns are associated with personifications, or rather were; for the phenomena were formerly much more numerous and persistent than now. M. F—— does not recollect having ever had such visions for isolated syllables, articles, pronouns, and other words without special significance; yet, at an age when he knew nothing of the gender of words or of sex, the letters of the alphabet called up—some (A, B, C, D, etc.) the image of a pair of trousers, and others (as H, M, N, R, etc.) of a robe. Words of a positive significance invoked representations largely independent of their real sense. Bottle, for instance, invoked and still invokes the image of a large woman, laughing, sitting on a little backed bench, with a table in front of her, but no other suggestion of a bottle in the vision. Shark (requin) is personified in a large horse stationed near the subject and by the side of a load of hay.

These parasitical representations, grafted on the word and always accompanying it, were often considerable impediments to conversation and reading. Now, with a few exceptions—such as the days of the week, the figures of which are still very intense—the images do not rise in the course of conversation or of an interesting reading, but they appear readily enough on reflection or when the book is a dull one. The relations of the personification and of the real idea are reversed in this way: Formerly the induced representation preceded the thought of the proper meaning; now it comes after it or remains latent, except in a few instances—as, for example, shark, where the image of the load of hay and the horse appears before the idea of the fish. M. F—— believes that his personifications reached their greatest intensity in his childhood, when he was seven or eight years old, and that they have progressively diminished since he was twelve. He formerly thought that as a rule everybody had similar impressions, but he was met with surprise and ridicule when he spoke of them to others.

M. F—— can say nothing of the cause of these curious phenomena; he finds them as far back as his recollection can reach, almost unvarying in intensity and inexplicable. A very small number permit glimpses into their origin; it is, for example, probable that habitual or verbal associations have had a part in suggesting the likeness of Sunday to a person buttoning his cuffs, and of Friday (vendredi) to a man selling (qui vend) something placed upon a van. The masculine or feminine character of the dress attributed to the letters seems to be suggested by the pronunciation (b, masculine; m, feminine, etc.). In like manner, the personification of the word college may be explained as a youth wearing a large white collar (col) turned back on his jacket as children's collars are. So the word cat (chat) brings up the image of a cat with a twist in its mouth, as if it were laughing, because, perhaps, M. F—— had an impediment in his speech in childhood which caused him to make a face when he tried to pronounce the letters ch. But, while M. F—— regards these explanations as very plausible, they are still only hypotheses to him; for he has no precise conviction, no sure recollection that such were indeed the causes of his inductions in these cases. The special incidents to which these speculations apply are relatively very few, and his speculations as a whole are entirely enigmatical.

Perhaps their origin will become a little less obscure if we make account of the exaggeration which follows a process in M. F—— that is familiar to us all in a lower degree. When we hear somebody we do not know spoken of, or when the author in a romance introduces a new character, we spontaneously form an idea of his appearance and moral qualities which is not exclusively based on what we are told of him, but in which our fancy involuntarily participates to a considerable extent. Yet this idea usually remains vague and indecisive till more ample information comes to it, susceptible of being modified and enriched according to the course of events. With M. F—— this fanciful anticipation of the facts operates with exceptional promptness, while the images it engenders are distinguished by a rare persistence. A proper name is enough to call up in him, without any known reason, a complete and precisely defined figure, which thenceforth continues so fast attached to the name that meeting with the person himself does not dissociate it. Thus, M. F—— conceived the two Coquelins, before he had seen them, by virtue of their identity of name, in exactly the same form and with identical heads. He was much surprised not to see me wearing the full black beard he had immediately given me the first time I was spoken of to him. I supposed the beard belonged to another person of his acquaintance whose name had some similarity in sound with mine; but he did not think this was the case, and could not give any explanation of the fact. He can not even tell whether it is the auditive perception of the name, or its appearance when written, or its articulation, or a mixture of all these that induces his personifications. This shows how unknown and mysterious are those associations with, which the creative activity of the imagination is fed, which a single word suffices to bring into play, and of which a notorious consequence is the well-known importance attached by novelists to the choice of names for their heroes.

The rapidity of the evocation of the images and their tenacity when they are once formed appear especially marked in the ideas M. F—— conceives of the characters in a book. From the first two or three lines relative to a character he sees him rise in his mental vision, often very different from the description given by the author. A person described as blond, for example, appears brown to him. The representation, however, persists firmly, and the reading of the story does not modify it. No matter if the little girl of the first pages does grow and change her character in the course of the volume—she always continues to him the little girl of the beginning. When he reads the book a second time, after the lapse of a few months, the identical personifications appear again unchanged. It is not so with the pictures of places, likewise arbitrary and inexplicable, which M. F—— associates spontaneously with every scene he reads about, and also, in a smaller degree, with stories told him. These pictures, which are usually recollections of childhood without connection with the subject of the reading—a description of a mountain, for instance, suggests the recollection of a plain—have some degree of permanence in that they do not vary from one day to another during the time he is occupied with the book; but when he takes up the volume again some time afterward he finds that they have changed. He remembers very well on every occasion the image of the place which he had before, and finds that the story now calls out another. This variability of local images, in opposition to the fixedness of personations proper, points to their greater immediate dependence upon the subjective dispositions of the movement.[1]

These details seem to me, if not to exptain the inexhaustible phantasmagoria of M. F—— 's personifications, at least to illustrate the special kind of imagination under the dominance of which they spring forth. This imagination is characterized by the union of two properties akin to those of sealing wax: great docility in receiving an impression at the right moment, and—that moment once past—an equal rigidity which opposes itself to any further modification of the impression. Novelty, emotional excitement, or a happy concourse of circumstances, accomplishes here what heat does for sealing wax, and permits the fixation of the group of images, disordered as they may be, that burst out at the opportune moment. But while we can expose the wax again to the fire, these curious products of fancy do not bear remelting, and the ideas or the cerebral cells continue fixed in the fortuitous relations that were contracted at that privileged instant. How else can we account for associations so absurd and at the same time so persistent as that of a day of the week with a person stealing or selling some indefinite thing? We can not reconstitute the striking incident or the collection of unforeseen relations and subtle analogies which accomplished the soldering of two such heterogeneous things in M. F——'s mind; but it is supposable that the operation is effectuated at once, and that the initial plasticity was immediately spent; for the thing stolen and sold continues always indistinct, in spite of the natural curiosity which would ultimately have precisely identified it, if the activity of the imagination had retained the slightest hold upon it.

The same remark may be applied to the other incomprehensible details abundant in M. F——'s personifications. We might speak of fragments of dreams suddenly registered and riveted forever to the words which the caprices of the nocturnal imagination had momentarily brought into relations with them. The dissociation of words from their usual sense and their application to other images by virtue of a connection which the dreamer clearly feels and finds quite natural, but which vanishes on awakening to give place to the opposite feeling of complete incoherence, are in fact a frequent feature of dreams. In the personifications the images attached to the words independently and outside of their proper sense are nearly always as arbitrary as the dream, but permanent, and the connection is felt by the subject, although he himself knows that it is irrational and inexplicable.

The physiological conditions of this singular process are still unknown to us. No evidence of heredity has been brought to light in the particular case. Still, the fact that M. F—— has never met an echo in his family when he speaks of his impressions does not prove that his parents have not in their infancy experienced similar phenomena, which have disappeared and been forgotten in older life.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from L'Année Psychologique.


An amusing story is told in his Notes from a Diary by Sir E. Grant Duff of the London Metaphysical Society, now defunct. It is to the effect that Sir John Simeon, after one of the society's early meetings, rushed up to one of the members and asked, with the appearance of great anxiety, "Well, is there a God?" "Oh, yes,"was the reply," we had a very good majority."
  1. For analogous examples of curious evocations, but apparently inconstant, induced by reading or thought, see M. Pilo's Contributo allo studio dei fenomeni sinestesici. Belluno, 1894, pp. 7, 8.