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The Unknown Guest

by Maurice Maeterlinck

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Chapter I. Phantasms of the Living and the Dead

1

This brings us without any break to the consideration of veridical apparitions and hallucinations and finally to haunted houses. We all know that the phantasms of the living and the dead have now a whole literature of their own, a literature which owes its birth to the numerous and conscientious enquiries conducted in England, France, Belgium and the United States at the instance of the Society for Psychical Research. In the presence of the mass of evidence collected, it would be absurd to persist in denying the reality of the phenomena themselves. It is by this time incontestable that a violent or deep emotion can be transmitted instantaneously from one mind to another, however great the distance that separates the mind experiencing the emotion from the mind receiving the communication. It is most often manifested by a visual hallucination, more rarely by an auditory hallucination; and, as the most violent emotion which man can undergo is that which grips and overwhelms him at the approach or at the very moment of death, it is nearly always this supreme emotion which he sends forth and directs with incredible precision through space, if necessary across seas and continents, towards an invisible and moving goal. Again, though this occurs less frequently, a grave danger, a serious crisis can beget and transmit to a distance a similar hallucination. This is what the S. P. R. calls "phantasms of the living." When the hallucination takes place some time after the decease of the person whom it seems to evoke, be the interval long or short, it is classed among the "phantasms of the dead."

The latter, the so-called "phantasms of the dead," are the rarest. As F. W. H. Myers pointed out in his Human Personality, a consideration of the proportionate number of apparitions observed at various periods before and after death shows that they increase very rapidly for the few hours which precede death and decrease gradually during the hours and days which follow; while after about a year's time they become extremely rare and exceptional.

However exceptional they may be, these apparitions nevertheless exist and are proved, as far as anything can be proved, by abundant testimony of a very precise character. Instances will be found in the Proceedings, notably in vol. vi., pp. 13-65, etc.

Whether it be a case of the living, the dying, or the dead, we are familiar with the usual form which these hallucinations take. Indeed their main outlines hardly ever vary. Some one, in his bedroom, in the street, on a journey, no matter where, suddenly see plainly and clearly the phantom of a relation or a friend of whom he was not thinking at the time and whom he knows to be thousands of miles away, in America, Asia or Africa as the case may be, for distance does not count. As a rule, the phantom says nothing; its presence, which is always brief, is but a sort of silent warning. Sometimes it seems a prey to futile and trivial anxieties. More rarely, it speaks, though saying but little after all. More rarely still, it reveals something that has happened, a crime, a hidden treasure of which no one else could know. But we will return to these matters after completing this brief enumeration.

2

The phenomenon of haunted houses resembles that of the phantasms of the dead, except that here the ghost clings to the residence, the house, the building and in no way to the persons who inhabit it. By the second year of its existence, that is to say, 1884, the Committee on Haunted Houses of the S. P. R. had selected and made an analysis of some sixty-five cases out of hundreds submitted to it, twenty-eight of which rested upon first-hand and superior evidence.1 It is worthy of remark, in the first place, that these authentic narratives bear no relation whatever to the legendary and sensational ghost-stories that still linger in many English and American magazines, especially in the Christmas numbers. They mention no winding-sheets, coffins, skeletons, graveyards, no sulphurous flames, curses, blood-curdling groans, no clanking chains, nor any of the time-honoured trappings that characterize this rather feeble literature of the supernatural. On the contrary, the scenes enacted in houses that appear to be really haunted are generally very simple and insignificant, not to say dull and commonplace. The ghosts are quite unpretentious and go to no expense in the matter of staging or costume. They are clad as they were when, sometimes many years ago, they led their quiet, unadventurous life within their own home. We find in one case an old woman, with a thin grey shawl meekly folded over her breast, who bends at night over the sleeping occupants of her old home, or who is frequently encountered in the hall or on the stairs, silent, mysterious, a little grim. Or else it is the gentleman with a lacklustre eye and a figured dressing-gown who walks along a passage brilliantly illuminated with an inexplicable light. Or again we have another elderly lady, dressed in black, who is often found seated in the bay window of her drawing-room. When spoken to, she rises and seems on the point of replying, but says nothing. When pursued or met in a corner, she eludes all contact and vanishes. Strings are fastened across the staircase with glue; she passes and the strings remain as they were. The ghost--and this happens in the majority of cases--is seen by all the people staying in the house: relatives, friends, old servants and new. Can it be a matter of suggestion, of collective hallucination? At any rate, strangers, visitors who have had nothing said to them, see it as the others do and ask, innocently: "Who is the lady in mourning whom I met in the dining-room?"

1 Proceedings, vol. i., pp. 101-115; vol. ii., pp. 137-151; vol. viii., pp. 311, 332, etc.

If it is a case of collective suggestion, we should have to admit that it is a subconscious suggestion emitted without the knowledge of the participants, which indeed is quite possible.

Though they belong to the same order, I will not here mention the exploits of what the Germans call the Poltergeist, which take the form of flinging stones, ringing bells, turning mattresses, upsetting furniture and so forth. These matters are always open to suspicion and really appear to be nothing but quaint frolics of hysterical subjects or of mediums indulging their sense of humour. The manifestations of the Poltergeist are fairly numerous and the reader will find several instances in the Proceedings and especially in the Journal of the S. P. R.

As for communications with the dead, I devoted a whole chapter to these in my own essay entitled Our Eternity and will not return to them now. It will be enough to recall and recapitulate my general impression, that probably the dead did not enter into any of these conversations. We are here concerned with purely mediumistic phenomena, more curious and mere subtle than those of table-rapping, but of the same character; and these manifestations, however astonishing they may be, do not pierce the terrestrial sphere wherein we are imprisoned.

3

Setting aside the religious hypotheses, which we are not examining here, for they belong to a different order of ideas,1 we find, as an explanation of the Majority of these phenomena, or at least as a means of avoiding an absolute and depressing silence in regard to them, two hypotheses which reach the unknown by more or less divergent paths, to wit, the spiritualistic hypothesis and the mediumistic hypothesis. The spiritualists, or rather the neospiritualists or scientific spiritualists, who must not be confused with the somewhat over-credulous disciples of Allan Kardec, maintain that the dead do not die entirely, that their spiritual or animistic entity neither departs nor disperses into space after the dissolution of the body, but continues an active though invisible existence around us. The neospiritualistic theory, however, professes only very vague notions as to the life led by these discarnate spirits. Are they more intelligent than they were when they inhabited their flesh? Do they possess a wider understanding and mightier faculties than ours? Up to the present, we have not the unimpeachable facts that would permit us to say so. It would seem, on the contrary, if the discarnate spirits really continue to exist, that their life is circumscribed, frail, precarious, incoherent and, above all, not very long. To this the objection is raised that it only appears so to our feeble eyes. The dead among whom we move without knowing it struggle to make themselves understood, to manifest themselves, but dash themselves against the inpenetrable wall of our senses, which, created solely to perceive matter, remain hopelessly ignorant of all the rest, though this is doubtless the essential part of the universe. That which will survive in us, imprisoned in our body, is absolutely inaccessible to that which survives in them. The utmost that they can do is occasionally to cause a few glimmers of their existence to penetrate the fissures of those singular organisms known as mediums. But these vagrant, fleeting, venturous, stifled, deformed glimmers can but give us a ludicrous idea of a life which has no longer anything in common with the life--purely animal for the most part- which we lead on this earth. It is possible; and there is something to be said for the theory. It is at any rate remarkable that certain communications, certain manifestations have shaken the scepticism of the coldest and most dispassionate men of science, men utterly hostile to supernatural influences. In order to some extent to understand their uneasiness and their astonishment, we need only read--to quote but one instance among a thousand--a disquieting but unassailable article, entitled, Dans les regions inexplorees de la biologic humaine. Observations et experiences sur Eusapia Paladino, by Professor Bottazzi, Director of the Physiological Institute of the University of Naples.2 Seldom have experiments in the domain of mediums or spirits been conducted with more distrustful suspicion or with more implacable scientific strictness. Nevertheless, scattered limbs, pale, diaphanous but capable hands, suddenly appeared in the little physiological laboratory of Naples University, with its doors heavily padlocked and sealed, as it were, mathematically excluding any possibility of fraud; these same hands worked apparatus specially intended to register their touches; lastly, the outline of something black, of a head, uprose between the curtains of the mediumistic cabinet, remained visible for several seconds and did not retire until itself apparently frightened by the exclamations of surprise drawn from a group of scientists who, after all, were prepared for anything; and Professor Bottazzi confesses that it was then that, to quote his own words--measured words, as beseems a votary of science, but expressive--he felt "a shiver all through his body."

1 On the same grounds, we will also leave on one side the theosophical hypothesis, which, like the others, begins by calling for an act of adherence, of blind faith. Its explanations, though often ingenious, are no more than forcible but gratuitous asservations and, as I said in Our Eternity, do not give us the shadow of the commencement of a proof.

2 Annales des Sciences Psychiques: April November 1907.

It was one of those moments in which a doubt which one had thought for ever abolished grips the most unbelieving. For the first time, perhaps, he looked around him with uncertainty and wondered in what world he was. As for the faithful adherents of the unknown, who had long understood that we must resign ourselves to understanding nothing and he prepared for every sort of surprise there was here, all the same, even for them, a mystery of another character, a bewildering mystery, the only really strange mystery, more torturing than all the others together, because it verges upon ancestral fears and touches the most sensitive point of our destiny.

4

The spiritualistic argument most worthy of attention is that supplied by the apparitions of the dead and by haunted houses. We will take no account of the phantasms that precede, accompany or follow hard upon death: they are explained by the transmission of a violent motion from one subconsciousness to another; and, even when they are not manifested until several days after death, it may still he contended that they are delayed telepathic communications. But what are we to say of the ghosts that spring up more than a year, nay, more than ten years after the disappearance of the corpse? They are very rare, I know, but after all there are some that are extremely difficult to deny, for the accounts of their actions are attested and corroborated by numerous and trustworthy witnesses. It is true that here again, where it is in most cases a question of apparitions to relations or friends, we may be told that we are in the presence of telepathic incidents or of hallucinations of the memory. We thus deprive the spiritualists of a new and considerable province of their realm. Nevertheless, they retain certain private desmesnes into which our telepathic explanations do not penetrate so easily. There have in fact been ghosts that showed themselves to people who had never known or seen them in the flesh. They are more or less closely connected with the ghosts in haunted houses, to which we must revert for a moment.

As I said above, it is almost impossible honestly to deny the existence of these houses. Here again the telepathic interpretation enforces itself in the majority of cases. We may even allow it a strange but justifiable extension, for its limits are scarcely known. It has happened fairly often, for instance, that ghosts come to disturb a dwelling whose occupiers find, in response to their indications, bones hidden in the walls or under the floors. It is even possible, as in the case of William Moir,1 which was as strictly conducted and supervised as a judicial enquiry, that the skeleton is buried at some distance from the house and dates more than forty years back. When the remains are removed and decently interred, the apparitions cease.

1 Proceedings, vol. vi., pp. 35-41.

But even in the case of William Moir there is no sufficient reason for abandoning the telepathic theory. The medium, the "sensitive," as the English say, feels the presence or the proximity of the bones; some relation established between them and him--a relation which certainly is profoundly mysterious--makes him experience the last emotion of the deceased and sometimes allows him to conjure up the picture and the circumstances of the suicide or murder, even as, in telepathy between living persons, the contact of an inanimate object is able to bring him into direct relation with the subconsciousness of its owner. The slender chain connecting life and death is not yet entirely broken; and we might even go so far as to say that everything is still happening within our world.

But are there cases in which every link, however thin, however subtle we may deem it, is definitely shattered? Who would venture to maintain this? We are only beginning to suspect the elasticity, the flexibility, the complexity of those invisible threads which bind together objects, thoughts, lives, emotions, all that is on this earth and even that which does not yet exist to that which exists no longer. Let us take an instance in the first volume of the Proceedings: M, X. Z., who was known to most of the members of the Committee on Haunted Houses, and whose evidence was above suspicion, went to reside in a large old house, part of which was occupied by his friend Mr. G--. Mr. X. Z. knew nothing of the history of the place except that two servants of Mr. G--'s had given him notice on account of strange noises which they had heard. One night--it was the 22nd of September--Mr. X. Z., on his way up to his bedroom in the dark, saw the whole passage filled with a dazzling and uncanny light, and in this strange light he saw the figure of an old man in a flowered dressing-gown. As he looked, both figure and light vanished and he was left in pitch darkness. The next day, remembering the tales told by the two servants, he made enquiries in the village. At first he could find out nothing, but finally an old lawyer told him that he had heard that the grandfather of the present owner of the house had strangled his wife and then cut his own throat on the very spot where Mr. X. Z. had seen the apparition. He was unable to give the exact date of this double event; but Mr. X. Z. consulted the parish register and found that it had taken place on a 22nd of September.

On the 22nd of September of the following year, a friend of Mr. G--'s arrived to make a short stay. The morning after his arrival, he came down, pale and tired, and announced his intention of leaving immediately. On being questioned, he confessed that he was afraid, that he had been kept awake all night by the sound of groans, blasphemous oaths and cries of despair, that his bedroom door had been opened, and so forth.

Three years afterwards, Mr. X. Z. had occasion to call on the landlord of the house, who lived in London, and saw over the mantelpiece a picture which bore a striking resemblance to the figure which he had seen in the passage. He pointed it out to his friend Mr. G--, saying:

"That is the man whom I saw."

The landlord, in reply to their questions, said that the painting was a portrait of his grandfather, adding that he had been "no credit to the family."

Evidently, this does not in any way prove the existence of ghosts or the survival of man. It is quite possible that, in spite of Mr. X. Z.'s undoubted good faith, imagination played a subtle but powerful part in these marvels. Perhaps it was set going by the stories of the two servants, insignificant gossip to which no attention was paid at the time, but which probably found its way down into the weird and fertile depths of the subconsciousness. The image was next transmitted by suggestion to the visitor frightened by a sleepless night. As for the recognition of the portrait, this is either the weakest or the most impressive part of the story, according to the theory that is being defended.

It is none the less certain that there is some unfairness in suggesting this explanation for every incident of the kind. It means stretching to the uttermost and perhaps stretching too far the elastic powers of that amiable maid-of-all-work, telepathy. For that matter, there are cases in which the telepathic interpretation is even more uncertain, as in that described by Miss R. C. Morton in vol. viii. of the Proceedings.

The story is too long and complicated to be reproduced here. It is unnecessary to observe that, in view of the character of Miss Morton, a lady of scientific training, and of the quality of the corroborative testimony, the facts themselves seem incontestable.

The case is that of a house built in 1860, whose first occupier was an Anglo-Indian, the next tenant being an old man and the house then remaining unlet for four years. In 1882, when Captain Morton and big family moved in, there had never, so far as they knew, been any question of its being haunted. Three months afterwards, Miss Morton was in her room and on the point of getting into bed, when she heard some one at the door and went to it, thinking that it might be her mother. On opening the door, she found no one there, but, going a few steps along the passage, she saw a tall lady, dressed in black, standing at the head of the stair. She did not wish to make the others uneasy and mentioned the occurrence to no one except a friend, who did not live in the neighborhood.

But soon the same figure dressed in black was seen by the various members of the household, by a married sister on a visit to the house, by the father, by the other sister, by a little boy, by a neighbour, General A--, who saw a lady crying in the orchard and, thinking that one of the daughters of the house was ill, sent to enquire after her. Even the Mortons' two dogs on more than one occasion clearly showed that they saw the phantom.

It was, as a matter of fact very harmonious: it said nothing; it wanted nothing; it wandered from room to room, without any apparent object; and, when it was spoken to, it did not answer and only made its escape. The household became accustomed to the apparition; it troubled nobody and inspired no terror. It was immaterial, it could not be touched, but yet it intercepted the light. After making enquiries, they succeeded in identifying it as the second wife of the Anglo-Indian. The Morton family had never seen the lady, but, from the description which they gave of the phantom to those who had known her, it appeared that the likeness was unmistakable. For the rest, they did not know why she came back to haunt a house in which she had not died. After 1887, the appearances became less frequent, distinct, ceasing altogether in 1889.

5

Let us assume that the facts as reported in the Proceedings are certain and indisputable. We have very nearly the ideal case, free from previous or ambient suggestion. If we refuse to believe in the existence of ghosts, if we are absolutely positive that the dead do not survive their death, then we must admit that the hallucination took birth spontaneously in the imagination of Miss Morton, an unconscious medium, and was subsequently trained by telepathy to all those around her. In my opinion, this explanation, however arbitrary and severe it may be, is the one which it behooves us to accept, pending further proofs. But it must be confessed that, in thus extending our incredulity, we render it very difficult for the dead to make its existence known.

We possess a certain number of cases of kind, rigorously investigated, cases probably representing but an infinitesimal part of those which might be collected. Is it possible that they one and all elude the telepathic explanation? It would be necessary to make a study of them, conducted with the most scrupulous and unremitting attention; for the question is not devoid of interest. If the existence of ghosts were well-established, it would mean the entrance into this world, which we believe to be our world, of a new force that would explain more than one thing which we are still far from understanding. If the dead interfere at one point, there is a reason why they should not interfere at every other point. We should no longer be alone, among ourselves, in our hermetically-closed sphere, as we are perhaps only too ready to imagine it. We should have to alter more than one of our physical and moral laws, more than one of our ideas; and it would no doubt be the most important and the most extraordinary revelation that would be expected in the present state of our knowledge and since the disappearance of the old positive religions. But we are not there yet: the proof of all this is still in the nursery-stage; and I do not know if it will ever get beyond that. Nevertheless the fact remains that, in these impenetrable regions of mystery which we are now exploring, the one weak spot lies here, the one wall in which there seems to be a chink--a strange one enough--giving a glimpse into the other world. It is narrow and vague and behind it there is still darkness; but it is not without significance and we shall do well not to lose sight of it.

6

Let us observe that this survival of the dead, as the neospiritualists conceive it, seems much less improbable since we have been studying more closely the manifestations of the extraordinary and incontestable spiritual force that lies hidden within ourselves. It is not dependent in our thought, nor on our consciousness, nor on our will; and very possibly it is not dependent either on our life. While we are still breathing on this earth it is already surmounting most of the great obstacles that limit and paralyse our existence. It acts at a distance and so to speak without organs. It passes through matter, disaggregates it and reconstitutes it. It seems to possess, the gift of ubiquity. It is not subject to the laws of gravity and lifts weights out of all proportion with the real and measurable strength of the body whence it is believed to emanate. It releases and removes itself from that body; it comes and goes freely and takes to itself substances and shapes which it borrows all around it; and therefore it is no longer so strange to see it surviving for a time that body to which it does not appear to be as indissolubly bound as is our conscious existence. Is it necessary to add that this survival of a part of ourselves which we hardly know and which besides seems incomplete, incoherent and ephemeral is wholly without prejudice to nor fate in the eternity of the worlds? But this is a question which we are not called upon to study here.

I shall perhaps be asked:

"If it is becoming increasingly difficult for all these facts--and there are more of them accumulating every day--to be embraced in the telepathic or psychometric theory, why not frankly accept the spiritualistic explanation, which is the simplest, which has an answer for everything and which is gradually encroaching on all the others?"

That is true: it is the simplest theory, perhaps too simple; and, like the religious theory, it dispenses as from all effort or seeking. We have nothing to set against it but the mediumistic theory, which doubtless does not account exactly for a good many things, but which at least is on the same side of the hill of life as ourselves and remains among us, upon our earth, within reach of our eyes, our hands, our thoughts and our researches. There was a time when lightning, epidemics and earthquakes were attributed without distinction to the wrath of Heaven. Nowadays, when we are more or less familiar with the source of the great infectious diseases, the hand of Providence knows them no more; and, though we are still ignorant of the nature of electricity and the laws that regulate seismic shocks, we no longer dream, while waiting to learn more about them, of looking for their causes in the judgment or anger of an imaginary Being. Let us act likewise in the present case. It behooves us above all to avoid those rash explanations which, in their haste, leave by the roadside a host of things that appear to be unknown or unknowable only because the necessary effort has not yet been made to know them. After all, while we must not eliminate the spiritualistic theory, neither must we content ourselves with it. It is even preferable not to linger over it until it has supplied us with decisive arguments, for it is the duty of this theory which sweeps us roughly out of our sphere to furnish us with such arguments. For the present, it simply relegates to posthumous regions, phenomena that appear to occur within ourselves; it adds superfluous mystery and needless difficulty to the mediumistic mystery whence it springs. If we were concerned with facts that had no footing in this world, we should certainly have to turn our eyes in another direction; but we see a large number of actions performed which are of the same nature as those attributed to the spirits and equally inexplicable, actions with which, however, we know that they have nothing to do. When it is proved that the dead exercise some intervention, we will bow before the fact as willingly as we bow before the mediumistic mysteries: it is a question of order, of internal policy and of scientific method much more than of probability, preference or fear. The hour has not yet come to abandon the principle which I have formulated elsewhere with respect to our communications with the dead, namely, that it is natural that we should remain at home, in our own world, as long as we can, as long as we are not violently driven from it by a series of irresistible and incontrovertible proofs coming from the neighbouring abyss. The survival of a spirit is no more improbable than the prodigious faculties which we are obliged to attribute to the mediums if we deny them to the dead. But the existence of mediums is beyond dispute, whereas that of spirits is not; and it is therefore for the spirits or for those who make use of their name to begin by proving that they must. Before turning towards the mystery beyond the grave, let us first exhaust the possibilities of the mystery here on earth. New Thought News is news we can use

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