Abbé Faria: The Hypnotic Story of A Goan Son

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In the late 18th century, a young Goan priest was about to deliver a sermon before the Queen of Portugal and the Portuguese nobility in a chapel in Lisbon. He had prepared his sermon carefully but was impossibly tongue-tied. Seated in the front row was his father, who said to him softly in his native Konkani: “Puta, hi sogli baji; kator re baji (“They are all vegetables, cut the vegetables.” In other words, ‘It’s no big deal, just get to it!’)” It worked like a charm.

The incident left a profound impact on the young priest, who later came to be known as ‘Abbé Faria’, and it would influence the course of his life. He was struck by the power of suggestion and how it could alter one’s state of mind. Decades later, Abbé Faria would become famous as a pioneer of modern hypnotism and its healing powers.

Alexandre Dumas | Wikimedia Commons

But that wasn’t his only claim to fame. Faria’s life story reads like a work of fiction filled with unbelievable twists and turns – only, they were all real. Why, celebrated French writer Alexandre Dumas used Faria as the inspiration for one of his characters in his classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844).

A Boy From Candolim

Born José Custódio de Faria in Candolim, in Portuguese-Goa, in 1756 CE, drama followed him ever since he was a boy. His parents separated early, his father to become a priest and mother a nun! Faria was only 15 when his father took him to Lisbon, so that he could build a good life. From here, they travelled to Rome, where they both acquired doctorates in theology and were ordained as priests. Faria was still only in his 20s.

Next, father and son returned to Lisbon. Faria Jr was already making waves, having been invited by the Pope, no less, to deliver a sermon while in Rome. On hearing this, the Queen of Portugal asked him to preach to an august gathering presided over by Her Majesty herself. That’s when his father uttered those fateful words.

The Move To Paris

When Faria Sr was implicated in the Pinto Conspiracy of 1787, a rebellion led by the Catholic clergy in Goa against Portuguese rule, Faria Jr fled to Paris, where his already colourful life took an even more adventurous turn. It was here that he acquired the name ‘Abbé Faria’, which in French means ‘Abbot Faria’ (for priest or monk) or ‘Abade Faria’ in Portuguese.

Faria spent around 30 years in France. He took part in the French Revolution and then, in 1797 CE, was arrested in Marseille and thrown in jail. But this was no ordinary prison. At age 41, Faria was incarcerated in Chateau d’If, an island fortress and prison off the coast of Marseille.

Chateau d’If, the island fortress in France, where Abbé Faria was imprisoned | Marian78ro via Wikimedia Commons

While in solitary confinement here, Faria’s father’s words returned to haunt him – “Puta, hi sogli baji; kator re baji.” They reminded him of the power of suggestion and, in his jail cell, he built the foundation of the work he is remembered by. Solitary confinement can play terrible tricks on the mind and Faria’s experiments with hypnotism kept him sane during these dark days.

Faria was a flamboyant personality, and famous French writer Alexandre Dumas modelled one of the principal characters in his book, The Count of Monte Cristo, on the charismatic Goan monk. Dumas’s fictional Abbé Faria – he retained the name – is an Italian priest who becomes a mentor for Edmond Dantès, who too is thrown in jail along with him. In prison, Faria becomes Dantès’s mentor and grooms him to become the Count, in this literary work.

Meanwhile, in the real world, after Faria was released from Chateau d’If, he landed a job as a university professor of Philosophy in Marseille and then in Nimes. But after teaching for a couple of years, he returned to Paris, in 1811. He would live another 8 years only but he did his most memorable work during this time.

Developing His Theory of Hypnotism

Faria refuted Franz Mesmer’s theory of ‘mesmerism’. Mesmer believed that hypnosis rested on ‘animal magnetism’, an invisible natural force possessed by all living things. Faria, on the other hand, believed that hypnosis was the result of auto-suggestion or self-suggestion and was linked to the power of the ‘imagination’ or the mind. The term ‘hypnosis hadn’t been coined yet and while Mesmer called it ‘mesmerism’, Faria named it ‘somnambulism’ or ‘lucid sleep’.

To drum up interest in his work, Faria worked up some drama. He held public sessions in Paris, where he lectured and demonstrated his technique. As you can imagine, these sessions were the talk of the town and were all sold out! People flocked to see the tall, lean, dark-skinned figure in flowing robes ‘casting a spell’, as it were, on his subjects. But the Catholic Church wasn’t impressed. Faria was accused of dabbling in the occult and in witchcraft, and he was discredited.

Forsaken & Forgotten

Sadly, Faria was forced to live the rest of his days in obscurity and served as a chaplain in a convent, in return for board and lodging. But he didn’t forsake his work. It was then that he wrote his seminal work titled De la Cause du Sommeil Lucide, ou Etude de la Nature de l’homme (On The Cause of Lucid Sleep in the Study of the Nature of Man), which was published just before he died of a stroke in 1819. Although derided as the work of a charlatan in the early 19th century, the text is a valuable resource in the study of the hypnotic sciences today.

Abbé Faria’s statue | Joegoauk Goa via Flickr

However, in his native Goa, Abbé Faria’s name sadly draws a blank. There's a road named after him in Margao – Rua Abade Faria – and a rather dramatic bronze statue erected in his honour near the Old Secretariat building, on the Panjim waterfront. It depicts a monk in flowing robes and with flowing hair, arms outstretched, bending over a woman, who is falling backwards as she is hypnotized by him. Inscribed on the pedestal are the words: ‘Jose Custodio, Abbé Faria, fundador do metodo de hipnose pela sugestao (founder of the method of hypnotism by suggestion).’

Dissolving into the swirl of passersby, traffic, the statue has done little to keep the memory of this Goan son alive.