Saturday, 11 December 2010

When did déjà vu begin?


Eadweard Muybridge 1
[More about Eadweard Muybridge here.]

Nicholas Royle in The Uncanny (2003) answers:
It is usually traced back to 1876, to a man called Boirac who wrote: 'It has happened that, seeing for the first time a monument, a landscape, a person, I have suddenly and despite myself arrived at this conviction: I have already seen [déjà vu] that which I am seeing.' (308)
But there might be an earlier example:
It is Nathaniel Hawthorne, reminiscing in 1856 about a visit to Stanton Harcourt, in Oxfordshire, that had taken place three years earlier: 'I had never before had so pertinacious an attack, as I could not but suppose it, of that odd state of mind wherein we fitfully and teazingly remember some previous scene or incident, of which the one now passing appears to be but the echo and reduplication.' (308)
And an even earlier example, from Dickens's David Copperfield (1849-50):
'If you had not assured us, my dear Copperfield, on the occasion of that agreeable afternoon we had the happiness of passing with you, that D was your favourite letter,' said Mr Micawber, 'I should unquestionably have supposed A had been so.' 
We have all some experience of of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time -- of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances -- of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remembered it! I never had this mysterious impression more strongly in my life, than before he had uttered those words.' (313)
The verdict:
Dickens's novel offers perhaps the earliest definitive appearance in print of what, by prolepsis or anachrony, we now call déjà vu.
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Royle's sources:
  • E. Boirac, 'Correspondance', Revue philosophique, vol. 1 (1876), 430-i; quoted in W. H. Burnham, 'Memory, Historically and Experimentally Considered', American Journal of Psychology, vol. 2 (1889), 441-2.
  • Hawthorne, Our Old Home, p. 184.
  • Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1849-50), ed. Jeremy Tambling (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996), p. 523.-
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