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The Unknown Guest by Maurice Maeterlinck


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Premonition or precognition leads us to still more mysterious regions, where stands, half merging from an intolerable darkness, the gravest problem that can thrill mankind, the knowledge of the future. The latest, the best and the most complete study devoted to it is, I believe, that recently published by M. Ernest Bozzano, under the title Des Phenomenes Premonitoires. Availing himself of excellent earlier work, notably that of Mrs. Sidgwick and Myers[1] and adding the result of his own researches, the author collects some thousand cases of precognition, of which he discusses one hundred and sixty, leaving the great majority of the others on one side. Not because they are negligible, but because he does not wish to exceed too flagrantly the normal limits of a monograph.

[1] Proceedings, Vols. V. and XI.

He begins by carefully eliminating all the episodes which, though apparently premonitory, may be explained by self-suggestion (as in the case, for instance, where some one smitten with a disease still latent seems to foresee this disease and the death which will be its conclusion), by telepathy (when a sensitive is aware beforehand of the arrival of a person or a letter), or lastly by clairvoyance (when a man dreams of a spot where he will find something which he has mislaid, or an uncommon plant, or an insect sought for in vain, or of the unknown place which he will visit at some later date).

In all these cases, we have not, properly speaking, to do with a pure future, but rather with a present that is not yet known. Thus reduced and stripped of all foreign influences and intrusions the number of instances in which there is a really clear and incontestable perception of a fragment of the future remains large enough, contrary to what is generally believed, to make it impossible for us to speak of extraordinary accidents or wonderful coincidences. There must be a limit to everything, even to distrust, even to the most extensive incredulity, otherwise all historical research and a good deal of scientific research would become decidedly impracticable. And this remark applies as much to the nature of the incidents related as to the actual authenticity of the narratives. We can contest or suspect any story whatever, any written proof, any evidence; but thenceforward we must abandon all certainty or knowledge that is not acquired by means of mathematical operations or laboratory experiments, that is to say, three-fourths of the human phenomena which interest us most. Observe that the records collected by the investigators of the S. P. R., like those discussed by M. Bozzano, are all told at first hand and that those stories of which the narrators were not the protagonists or the direct witnesses have been ruthlessly rejected. Furthermore, some of these narratives are necessarily of the nature of medical observations; as for the others, if we attentively examine the character of those who have related them and the circumstances which corroborate them, we shall agree that it is more just and more reasonable to believe in them than to look upon every man who has an extraordinary experience as being a priori a liar, the victim of an hallucination, or a wag.

There could be no question of giving here even a brief analysis of the most striking cases. It would require a hundred pages and would alter the whole nature of this essay, which, to keep within its proper dimensions, most take it for granted that most of the materials which it examines are familiar. I therefore refer the reader who may wish to form an opinion for himself to the easily-accessible sources which I have mentioned above. It will suffice, to give an accurate idea of the gravity of the problem to any one who has not time or opportunity to consult the original documents if I sum up in a few words some of these pioneer adventures, selected among those which seem least open to dispute; for it goes without saying that all have not the same value, otherwise the question would be settled. There are some which, while exceedingly striking at first sight and offering every guarantee that could be desired to authenticity, nevertheless do not imply a real knowledge of the future and can be interpreted in another manner. I give one, to serve as an instance; it is reported by Dr. Alphonse Teste in his Manuel pratique du magnetisme animal.