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The Unknown Guest by Maurice Maeterlinck


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I will first sum up as briefly as possible, for who so may still be ignorant of them, the facts which it is necessary to know if one would fully understand the marvelous story of the Elberfeld horses. For a detailed account, I can refer him to Herr Karl Krall's remarkable work, Denkende Tiere (Leipsig, 1912), which is the first and principal source of information amid a bibliography that is already assuming considerable dimensions.

Some twenty years ago there lived in Berlin an old misanthrope named Wilhelm von Osten. He was a man with a small private income, a little eccentric in his ways and obsessed by one idea, the intelligence of animals. He began by undertaking the education of a horse that gave him no very definite results. But, in 1900, he became the owner of a Russian stallion who, under the name of Hans, to which was soon added the Homeric and well-earned prefix of Kluge, or Clever, was destined to upset all our notions of animal psychology and to raise questions that rank among the most unexpected and the most absorbing problems which man has yet encountered.

Thanks to Von Osten, whose patience, contrary to what one might think, was in no wise angelic but resembled rather a frenzied obstinacy, the horse made rapid and extraordinary progress. This progress is very aptly described by Professor E. Clarapede, of the university of Geneva, who says, in his excellent monograph on the Elberfeld horses:

"After making him familiar with various common ideas, such as right, left, top, bottom and so on, his master began to teach him arithmetic by the intuitive method. Hans was brought to a table on which were placed first one, then two, then several small skittles. Von Osten, kneeling beside Hans, uttered the corresponding numbers, at the same time making him strike as many blows with his hoof as there were skittles on the table. Before long, the skittles were replaced by figures written on a blackboard. The results were astonishing. The horse was capable not only of counting (that is to say, of striking as many blows as he was asked), but also of himself making real calculations, of solving little problems. . . .

"But Hans could do more than mere sums: he knew how to read; he was a musician, distinguishing between harmonious and dissonant chords. He also had an extraordinary memory: he could tell the date of each day of the current week. In short, he got through all the tasks which an intelligent schoolboy of fourteen is able to perform."

The rumour of these curious experiments soon spread; and visitors flocked to the little stable-yard in which Von Osten kept his singular pupil at work. The newspapers took the matter up; and a fierce controversy broke forth between those who believed in the genuineness of the phenomenon and those who saw no more in it than a barefaced fraud. A scientific committee was appointed in 1904, consisting of professors of psychology and physiology, of the director of a zoological garden, of a circus manager and of veterinary surgeons and cavalry-officers. The committee discovered nothing suspicious, but ventured upon no explanation. A second committee was then appointed, numbering among its members Herr Oskar Pfungst, of the Berlin psychological laboratory. Herr Pfungst, after a long series of experiments, drew up a voluminous and crushing report, in which he maintained that the horse was gifted with no intelligence, that it did not recognize either letters or figures, that it really knew neither how to calculate nor how to count, but merely obeyed the imperceptible, infinitesimal and unconscious signs which escaped from its master.