Dragged Around by the Great Maurice – John-Ivan Palmer [Essay]

Pop stars are paid huge sums to appear in Las Vegas, but casino hypnotists like Dr. Naughty, Blaze, Frank Santos and the Great Maurice are paid nothing. They rent their own performance rooms in an arrangement known as “four-walling,” and cover all their own promotion. Even if they fill the place, which they seldom do, they’ll likely lose money, but they can say they “appeared in Las Vegas,” and that helps secure engagements in more profitable but less prestigious venues.

As has always been the case with theatrical mesmerists, they compete with each other on the level of who can be the most outrageous. It’s what draws in the crowds. In the 19th century the incredible de Tory threw a hypnotized woman into a cage of lions. To be on the safe side he made sure the lions were fed in advance. Edwin Boone buried a hypnotic subject alive for several days as a way to draw attention to himself, and the mesmerist known as Santanelli earned big applause by sewing the lips and ears of hypnotized people together with carpet thread. Today, consistent with our own culture and times, the shock value has settled in the area of the X-rated.

Foremost among the risqué Svengalis is the Great Maurice, a grizzled, heavy-set alcoholic and compulsive gambler with a half-dozen ex-wives who radiates the ultimate in big-cigar triumphalism. My reason for paying fifty dollars to sit in his audience at the Stardust was the same as everyone else’s. I wanted to see how far human beings would allow themselves to be degraded under someone else’s influence and what it might be in the name of.

Holding a wireless microphone with a ludicrous gold-plated head, and with an attitude of indomitable superiority, he proclaimed, using numerous obscenities for emphasis, that hypnosis could cure just about anything, like drinking and gambling, laugh, laugh. If you let him put you under you could walk away a better person. Volunteers wasted no time rushing up on the stage.

In the late 1700s it was discovered that certain susceptible people could be manipulated into a trance-like state and made to do stupid stuff before an audience: scream, howl, bark, cluck, etc. At the Stardust everyone wanted to see the modern version, people manipulated into such a mental frame that by mere suggestion they will pull down their pants or lift up their skirt and expose themselves before spectators pointing and laughing in uncontrollable, gut-bursting mirth, and afterward claim no recollection of doing it.

Maurice’s method was to have everyone concentrate on him (which they were actually doing before they walked in the casino) then go into a long incantation involving suggestions of sleep in a tone reminiscent of religious ritual. A few who didn’t respond were eliminated from the group and thereafter he concentrated on the rest.

He approached a middle-aged tourist in a Hawaiian shirt, clasped him by the back of the neck and literally hurled the hapless sap to the floor, yelling the word “Sleep!” In the profession this is known as a “shock technique.” Everyone gasped when they heard tourist bones hit the stage and knew the Great Maurice meant business. The next victim was a woman in her forties wearing a short party dress. He shoved her head down between her knees and shouted “Sleep!” She dropped like a dead person, dress hiking up so everyone could see her underpants. People in the back of the room stood for a better look. Soon enough they would see a whole lot more. Maurice continued pulling people out their seats until he had them dragged into a pile like a Boston lobster harvest, at which point he came forward for a bow and overwhelming applause.

For ninety minutes this tuxed monster, with the trimmed grey beard and gold-plated mic held like a war club, degraded his hypnotic volunteers in a triumph of pure will. He made them furnish the sound track for a porno movie, leap in the air when imaginary dildos shot up through the seats of their chairs, and conduct a simulated orgy with inflatable male and female dolls. For his big finale he planted the hypnotic command that they were striptease dancers taking off their clothes, a command they eagerly obeyed, exposing breasts, pubes and testicles while a recording of “The Stripper” by the David Rose Orchestra played in the background. The audience found it unbearably hysterical.

I tried to determine whether these people were faking or really under some kind of mesmeric influence. Hypnotists have frequently made use of fake subjects. In the nineteenth century they were known as “horses,” and paid not very much to undergo all manner of public tortures, skewered, smothered, set on fire, sometimes resulting in death. In Maurice’s case I concluded his volunteers, knowing more or less what they were getting into, were taking the opportunity to act out some kind of exhibitionistic need. But then I had my doubts. When it came to the nudity part I wasn’t sure if it was hypnosis, or even entertainment at all, but a throwback to something ancient and primal, a satyr play or Corybantic procession tricked out as a stage show.

Afterward Maurice made himself available at the bar, slipping the detached gold-plated microphone into the front pocket of his tuxedo pants with practiced ease, where it stuck out the side like the butt of a pistol. This was Vegas, after all, and he wasn’t going to trust anyone not to steal it from the mic stand when he wasn’t looking. He pulled the knot from his bow tie and let the ends hang down each side of a ruffled shirt soaked in sweat. This dissipated, aging tyrant, with the pale, pudgy face of someone who’s lived for years on rail drinks and bar food, had no lack of women admirers half his age. With a napkin he rubbed some of the stage make-up from around his thinning hairline, leaving a few bits of tissue clinging to his wet temple. One of his female minions devotedly picked them off. After downing a shot of tequila he set the glass gently on the bar and gestured for another. His motions were all highly controlled and occurred at about three fourths normal speed, which had the effect of making me focus on him even more, something I’m sure he was aware of because he broke my gaze with, “You wanna ask me something, don’t you?”

I did. I asked what his insights might be on William James’s theory of the mind functioning for the sake of ends that may not exist in the world of sensory impressions.

He stared at me and said nothing. He made a remark to an admirer, downed another shot of tequila, then turned back to me. I tried to keep my momentum by citing the monographs of Morton Prince on multiple personality and how consciousness can be divided into partitions separated by walls of amnesia. Could this be why a hypnotized person would not remember throwing their underwear into a heckling crowd?

I waited for an answer but all he did was look me up and down and say, “That’s what I thought.” Then he added, “When you walk out on that stage everything you just said doesn’t mean shit.” He took the gold-plated mic from his pocket and held it in front of my face. “You know what this is?”

“A microphone?”

He let out a long sigh and wrinkled his gray brows darkened with pencil.

“I’ll give you a hint.” He lowered it down to crotch level.

“OK, a penis.”

“A penis! What are you, a fucking nurse? It’s your cock, pinhead, your goddamn prick! You walk out there with your prick in your hand and wave it around like you know what to do with it. Then you fuck em through every hole in their head!”

“Yes, sir, I understand.”

He slumped his shoulders in an exaggerated gesture of deflation. “No you don’t.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe I didn’t understand. Why should he answer questions requiring reflection, asked by someone standing before him for purposes other than adulation? Would he, or even could he, really tell me why people so willingly pay the price to be shammed by a Great Something like himself, or a Supreme This, or an Anointed That? Why they allow their bones to hit the floor, why they let themselves be stripped of all dignity then lavish attention on the one who did it. In Modern Dictatorship (1939) Diana Spearman wrote, “the concept of a man untrammelled by any restraints is curiously comforting to the human heart.” History past and present has no lack of examples.

Would that be the case with every divine voice, with or without a gold-plated mic? Was there not a similar “untrammeled” omnipotence in Jeremiah seizing the soul of Jerusalem, or Constantine forcing a New Rome into the mind of Byzantium, or Mohammad persevering at Medina so only his commands prevailed? To achieve that kind of power, terminal controllers can’t worry about rubbing people the wrong way. Most will admire what they do and willingly pay with their flesh and bones.

 

 By John-Ivan Palmer

 

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