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The Unknown Guest Maurice Maeterlinck

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The Unknown Guest

by Maurice Maeterlinck

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My Essay on Death1 led me to make a conscientious enquiry into the present position of the great mystery, an enquiry which I have endeavoured to render as complete as possible. I had hoped that a single volume would be able to contain the result of these investigations, which, I may say at once, will teach nothing to those who have been over the same ground and which have nothing to recommend them except their sincerity, their impartiality and a certain scrupulous accuracy. But, as I proceeded, I saw the field widening under my feet, so much so that I have been obliged to divide my work into two almost equal parts. The first is now published and is a brief study of veridical apparitions and hallucinations and haunted houses, or, if you will, the phantasms of the living and the dead; of those manifestations which have been oddly and not very appropriately described as "psychometric"; of the knowledge of the future: presentiments, omens, premonitions, precognitions and the rest; and lastly of the Elberfeld horses. In the second, which will be published later, I shall treat of the miracles of Lourdes and other places, the phenomena of so called materialization, of the divining-rod and of fluidic asepsis, not unmindful withal of a diamond dust of the miraculous that hangs over the greater marvels in that strange atmosphere into which we are about to pass.

1 Published in English, in an enlarged form, under the title of Our Eternity (London and New York, 1913)--Translator's Note.


When I speak of the present position of the mystery, I of course do not mean the mystery of life, its end and its beginnings, nor yet the great riddle of the universe which lies about us. In this sense, all is mystery, and, as I have said elsewhere, is likely always to remain so; nor is it probable that we shall ever touch any point of even the utmost borders of knowledge or certainty. It is here a question of that which, in the midst of this recognized and usual mystery, the familiar mystery of which we are almost oblivious, suddenly disturbs the regular course of our general ignorance. In themselves, these facts which strike us as supernatural are no more so than the others; possibly they are rarer, or, to be more accurate, less frequently or less easily observed. In any case, their deep-seated cause, while being probably neither more remote nor more difficult access, seem to lie hidden in an unknown region less often visited by our science, which after all is but a reassuring and conciliatory espression of our ignorance. Today, thanks to the labours of the Society for Psychical Research and a host of other seekers, we are able to approach these phenomena as a whole with a certain confidence. Leaving the realm of legend, of after-dinner stories, old wives' tales, illusions and exaggerations, we find ourselves at last on circumscribed but fairly safe ground. This does not mean that there are no other supernatural phenomena besides those collected in the publications of the society in question and in a few of the more weighty reviews which have adopted the same methods. Notwithstanding all their diligence, which for over thirty years has been ransacking the obscure corners of our planet, it is inevitable that a good many things escape their notice, besides which the rigour of their investigations makes them reject three fourths of those which are brought before them. But we may say that the twenty-six volumes of the society is Proceedings and the fifteen or sixteen volumes of its Journal, together with the twenty-three annuals of the Annales des Sciences Psychiques, to mention only this one periodical of signal excellence, embrace for the moment the whole field of the extraordinary and offer some instances of all the abnormal manifestations of the inexplicable. We are henceforth able to classify them, to divide and subdivide them into general, species and varieties. This is not much, you may say; but it is thus that every science begins and furthermore that many a one ends. We have therefore sufficient evidence, facts that can scarcely be disputed, to enable us to consult them profitably, to recognize whither they lead, to form some idea of their general character and perhaps to trace their sole source by gradually removing the weeds and rubbish which for so many hundreds and thousands of years have hidden it from our eyes.


Truth to tell, these supernatural manifestations seem less marvelous and less fantastic than they did some centuries ago; and we are at first a little disappointed. One would think that even the mysterious has its ups and downs and remains subject to the caprices of some strange extra mundane fashion; or perhaps, to be more exact, it is evident that the majority of those legendary miracles could not withstand the rigorous scrutiny of our day. Those which emerge triumphant from the test and defy our less credulous and more penetrating vision are all the more worthy of holding our attention. They are not the last survivals of the riddle, for this continues to exist in its entirety and grows greater in proportion as we throw light upon it; but we can perhaps see in them the supreme or else the first efforts of a force which does not appear to reside wholly in our sphere. They suggest blows struck from without by an Unknown even more unknown than that which we think we know, an Unknown which is not that of the universe, not that which we have gradually made into an inoffensive and amiable Unknown, even as we have made the universe a son of province of the earth, but a stranger arriving from another world, an unexpected visitor who comes in a rather sinister way to trouble the comfortable quiet in which we were slumbering, rocked by the firm and watchful hand of orthodox science.


Let us first be content to enumerate them. We shall find that we have table-turning, with its raps; the movements and transportations of inanimate objects without contact; luminous phenomena; lucidite, or clairvoyance; veridical apparitions or hallucinations; haunted houses; bilocations and so forth; communications with the dead; the divining-rod; the miraculous cures of Lourdes and elsewhere; fluidic asepsis; and lastly the famous thinking animals of Elberfeld and Mannheim. These, if I be not mistaken, after eliminating all that is in, sufficiently attested, constitute the residue or caput mortuum of this latter-day miracle.

Everybody has heard of table-turning, which may be called the A B C of occult science. It is so common and so easily produced that the Society for Psychical Research has not thought it necessary to devote special attention to the subject. I need hardly add that we must take count only of movements or "raps" obtained without the hands touching the table, so as to remove every possibility of fraud or unconscious complicity. To obtain these movements it is enough, but it is also indispensable that those who form the "chain" should include a person endowed with mediumistic faculties. I repeat, the experiment is within the reach of any one who cares to try it under the requisite conditions; and it is as incontestable as the polarization of light or as crystallization by means of electric currents.

In the same group may be placed the movement and transportation of objects without contact, the touches of spirit hands, the luminous phenomena and materialization. Like table-turning, they demand the presence of a medium. I need not observe that we here find ourselves in the happy hunting-ground of the impostor and that even the most powerful mediums, those possessing the most genuine and undeniable gifts, such as the celebrated Eusapia Paladino, are upon occasion--and the occasion occurs but too often--incorrigible cheats. But, when we have made every allowance for fraud, there nevertheless remains a considerable number of incidents so rigorously attested that we most needs accept them or else abandon all human certainty.

The case is not quite the same with levitation and the wonders performed, so travelers tell us, by certain Indian jugglers. Though the prolonged burial of a living being is very nearly proved and can doubtless be physiologically explained, there are many other tricks on which we have so far no authoritative pronouncement. I will not speak of the "mango-tree" and the "basket-trick," which are mere conjuring; but the "fire-walk" and the famous "rope-climbing trick" remain more of a mystery.

The fire-walk, or walk on red-hot bricks or glowing coals, is a sort of religious ceremony practiced in the Indies, in some of the Polynesian islands, in Mauritius and elsewhere. As the result of incantations uttered by the high priest, the bare feet of the faithful who follow him upon the bed of burning pebbles or brands seem to become almost insensible to the touch of fire. Travelers are anything but agreed whether the heat of the surface traversed is really intolerable, whether the extraordinary power of endurance is explained by the thickness of the horny substance which protects the soles of the natives' feet, whether the feet are burnt or whether the skin remains untouched; and, under present conditions, the question is too uncertain to make it worth while to linger over it.

"Rope-climbing" is more extraordinary. The juggler takes his stand in an open space, far from any tree or house. He is accompanied by a child; and his only impedimenta are a bundle of ropes and an old canvas sack. The juggler throws one end of the rope up in the air; and the rope, as though drawn by an invisible hook, uncoils and rises straight into the sky until the end disappears; and, soon after, there come tumbling from the blue two arms, two legs, a head and so on, all of which the wizard picks up and crams into the sack. He next utters a few magic words over it and opens it; and the child steps out, bowing and smiling to the spectators.

This is the usual form taken by this particular sorcery. It is pretty rare and seems to be practised only by one sect which originated in the North-West Provinces. It has not yet perhaps been sufficiently investigated to take its place among the evidence mentioned show. If it were really as I have described, it could hardly be explained save by some strange hallucinatory power emanating from the juggler or illusionist, who influences the audience by suggestion and makes it see what he wishes. In that case the suggestion or hallucination covers a very extensive area. In point of fact, onlookers, Europeans, on the balconies of houses at some distance from the crowd of natives, have been known to experience the same influence. This would be one of the most curious manifestations of that "unknown guest" of which we shall speak again later when, after enumerating its acts and deeds, we try to investigate and note down the eccentricities of its character.

Levitation in the proper sense of the word, that is to say, the raising, without contact, and floating of an inanimate object or even of a person, might possibly be due to the same hallucinatory power; but hitherto the instances have not been sufficiently numerous or authentic to allow us to draw any conclusions. Also we shall meet with it again when we come to the chapter treating of the materializations of which it forms part. New Thought Days are days of joy

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