Supernatural Communications In War-Time by Maurice Maeterlinck

Story type: Essay

In a volume entitled The Unknown Guest, published not long ago, among other essays I devoted one in particular[1] to certain phenomena of intuition, clairvoyance or clairaudience, vision at great distance and even vision of the future. These phenomena were grouped together under the somewhat unsuitable and none too well-constructed title of “psychometry,” which, to borrow Dr. Maxwell’s excellent definition, is “the faculty possessed by certain persons of placing themselves in relation, either spontaneously or, for the most part, through the intermediary of some object, with unknown and often very distant things and people.”

The existence of this faculty is no longer seriously denied by any one who has given some little attention to metapsychics; and it is easily verified by those who will take the necessary trouble, for its possessors, though few in number, are not inaccessible. It has been the subject of many experiments and of a few treatises, among which I will name one by M. Duchatel, Enquete sur des cas de psychometrie, and Dr. Osty’s recent book, Lucidite et intuition, which is the most complete and searching work that we have had upon this question until now.

Psychometry is one of the most curious faculties of our subconsciousness and doubtless contains the clue to many of those manifestations which appear to proceed from another world. Let us see, with the aid of a living example, how it is employed.

One of the best mediums of this class is a lady to whom I referred in The Unknown Guest as Mme. M. Her visitor gives her an object of some kind that has belonged to or been touched or handled by the person about whom he proposes to question her. Mme. M. operates in a state of trance; but there are other celebrated psychometers who retain all their normal consciousness, so that the hypnotic or somnambulistic state is not, generally speaking, by any means indispensable when we wish to arouse this extraordinary clairvoyance.

After placing the object, usually a letter, in the medium’s hands, you say to her:

“I wish you to put yourself in communication with the writer of this letter,” or “the owner of this article,” as the case may be.

Forthwith the medium not only perceives the person in question, his physical appearance, his character, his habits, his interests, his state of health, but also, in a series of swift and changing visions that follow one another like the pictures of a cinematograph, sees and describes exactly that person’s environment, the surrounding country, the rooms in which he lives, the people who live with him and who wish him well or ill, the mentality and the most secret and unexpected intentions of all the various characters that figure in his existence. If by means of your questions you direct her towards the past, she traces the whole course of the subject’s history. If you turn her towards the future, she seems often to discover it as clearly as the past.

But here we must make certain reservations. We are entering upon forbidden tracts; errors are almost the rule and proper supervision is all but impossible. It is better therefore not to venture into those dangerous regions. Pending fuller investigation of the question, we may say that the foretelling of the future, when it claims to cover a definite space of time, is nearly always illusory. There is scarcely any accuracy of vision, except when the events concerned are very near at hand, already developing or actually being consummated; and it then becomes difficult to distinguish it from presentiments, which in their turn are rarely true except where the immediate future is concerned. To sum up, in the present state of our experience, we observe that what the psychometers and clairvoyants foretell us possesses a certain value and some chance of proving correct only in so far as they put into words our own forebodings, forebodings which again may be quite unknown to us and which they discover deep down in our subconsciousness. They confine themselves–I speak of the genuine mediums–to bringing to light and revealing to us our unconscious and personal intuition of an event that is hanging over us. But, when they venture to predict a general event, such as the result of a war, an epidemic, an earthquake, which does not interest ourselves exclusively or which is too remote to come within the somewhat limited scope of our intuition, they almost invariably deceive themselves and us.

It is very difficult to fathom the nature of this intuition. Does it relate to events partly or wholly realized, but still in a latent state and perceived before the knowledge of them reaches us through the normal channels of the mind or brain? Does our ever-watchful instinct of self-preservation notice causes or traces which escape our ever-inattentive and slumbering reason? Are we to believe in a sort of autosuggestion that induces us to realize things which we have been foretold or of which we have had presentiments? This is not the place to examine so complex a problem, which brings us into contact with all the mysteries of subconsciousness and the preexistence of the future.

There remains another point to which it is well to draw attention in order to avoid misunderstanding and disappointment. Experience shows us that the medium perceives the person in question quite clearly, in his present and usual state, but not necessarily in the exact accidental state of the moment. She will tell you, for instance, that she sees him ailing slightly, lying in a deck-chair in a garden of such and such a kind, surrounded by certain flowers and petting a dog of a certain size and breed. On enquiring, you will find that all these details are strictly correct, with one exception, that at that precise moment this person, who ordinarily spends his time in the garden, was inside his house or calling on a neighbour. Mistakes in time therefore are comparatively frequent and simultaneity between action and vision comparatively rare. In short, the habitual often masks the accidental action. This, I insist, is a point of which we must not lose sight, lest we ask of psychometry more than it is obviously able to give us.

Having said so much, is it open to us, amid all the mental anguish and suffering which this terrible war has engendered, without profaning the sorrow of our fellow-men and women, to give to those who are in mortal fear as to the fate of some one whom they love the hope of finding, among those extrahuman phenomena which have been unjustly and falsely disparaged, a consoling gleam of light that shall not be a mere mockery or delusion? I venture to declare–and I am doing so not thoughtlessly, but after studying the problem with the conscientious attention which it demands and after personally making a number of experiments or causing them to be made under my supervision–I venture to declare, without for a moment losing sight of the respect due to grief, that we possess here, in these indisputable cases where no normal mode of communication is possible, a strange but real and serious source of information and comfort. I could mention a large number of tests that have been made, so to speak, before my eyes by absolutely trustworthy relatives or friends.

As my space is limited, I will relate only one, which typifies and summarizes all the others very fairly. A mother had three sons at the front. She was hearing pretty regularly from the eldest and the second; but for some weeks the youngest, who was in the Belgian trenches, where the fighting was very fierce, had given no sign of life. Wild with anxiety, she was already mourning him as dead when her friends advised her to consult Mme. M. The medium consoled her with the first words that she spoke and told her that she saw her son wounded, but in no danger whatever, that he was in a sort of shed fitted up as a hospital, that he was being very well looked after by people who spoke a different language, that for the time being he was unable to write, which was a great worry to him, but that she would receive a letter from him in a few days. The mother did, in fact, receive a card from this son a few days later, worded a little stiffly and curtly and written in an unnatural hand, telling her that all was well and that he was in good health. Greatly relieved, she dismissed the matter from her mind, merely said to herself that of course the medium, like all mediums, had been wrong and thought no more of it. But two or three messages following on the first, all couched in short, stilted phrases that seemed to be hiding something, ended by alarming her so much that she was unable to bear the strain any longer and entreated her son to tell her the whole truth, whatever it might be. He then admitted that he had been wounded, though not seriously, adding that he was in a sort of shed fitted up as a hospital, where he was being capitally looked after by English doctors and nurses, in short, just as the medium had seen him.

I repeat, mediumistic experience can show other instances of this kind. If it stood alone, it would be valueless, for it might well be explained by mere coincidence. But it forms part of a very normal series; and I could easily enumerate many others within my own knowledge. This, however, would merely mean repeating, with uninteresting variations, the essential features of the present case, a proceeding for which there would be no excuse save in a technical work.

Is success then practically certain? Yes, rash and surprising though the statement may seem, mistakes upon the whole are very rare, provided that the medium be carefully chosen and that the object serving as an intermediary have not passed through too many hands, for it will contain and reveal as many distinct personalities as it has undergone contacts. It will be necessary, therefore, first to eliminate all these accessory personalities, so as to fix the medium’s attention solely on the subject of the consultation. On the other hand, we must beware of calling for details which the nature of the medium’s vision does not allow her to give us. If asked, for instance, about a soldier who is a prisoner in Germany, she will see the soldier in question very plainly, will perceive his state of health and mind, the manner in which he is treated, his companions, the fortress or group of huts in which he is interned, the appearance of the camp, of the town, of the surrounding district; but she will very seldom indeed be able to mention the name of the camp, town or district. In fact, she can describe only what she sees; and, unless the town or camp have a board bearing its name, there will be nothing to enable her to identify it with sufficient accuracy. Let us add, lastly, that, with mediums in a state of trance, who are not conscious of what they are saying, we are exposed to terrible shocks. If they see death, they announce the fact bluntly, without suspecting that they are in the presence of a horror-stricken mother, wife or sister, so much so that, in the case of Mme. M. particularly, it has been found necessary to take certain precautions to obviate any such shock.

Now what is the nature of this strange and incredible faculty? In the book which I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I tried to examine the different theories that suggested themselves. The argument, unfortunately, is infinitely too long to be republished here, even if I were to compress it ruthlessly. I will give merely a brief summary of the conclusions, or rather of the attempted conclusions, for the mystery, like most of the world’s mysteries, is probably unfathomable. After dismissing the spiritualistic theory, which implies the intervention of the dead or of discarnate entities and is not as ridiculous as the profane would think, but which nothing hitherto has adequately confirmed, we may reasonably ask ourselves first of all whether this faculty exists in us or in the medium. Does it simply decipher, as is probably the case where the future is concerned, the latent ideas, knowledge and certainties which we bear within us, or does it alone, of its own initiative and independently of us, perceive what it reveals to us? Experience seems to show that we must adopt the latter hypothesis, for the vision appears just as distinctly when the illuminating object is brought by a third person who knows nothing and has never heard of the individual to whom the object once belonged. It seems therefore almost certain that the strange virtue is contained solely in the object itself, which is somehow galvanized by a complementary virtue in the medium. This being so, we must presume that the object, having absorbed like a sponge a portion of the spirit of the person who touched it, remains in constant communication with him, or, more probably, that it serves to track out, among the prodigious throng of human beings, the one who impregnated it with his fluid, even as the dogs employed by the police–at least so we are told–when given an article of clothing to smell, are able to distinguish, among innumerable cross-trails, that of the man who used to wear the garment in question. It seems more and more certain that, as cells of one vast organism, we are connected with everything that exists by an infinitely intricate network of waves, vibrations, influences, currents and fluids, all nameless, numberless and unbroken. Nearly always, in nearly all men, everything transmitted by these invisible threads falls into the depths of the subconsciousness and passes unperceived, which is not the same as saying that it remains inactive. But sometimes an exceptional circumstance, such as, in the present case, the marvellous sensibility of a first-rate medium, suddenly reveals to us the existence of the infinite living network by the vibrations and the undeniable operation of one of its threads.

All this, I agree, sounds incredible, but really it is hardly any more so than the wonders of radioactivity, of the Hertzian waves, of photography, electricity or hypnotism, or of generation, which condenses into a single particle all the physical, moral and intellectual past and future of thousands of creatures. Our life would be reduced to something very small indeed if we deliberately dismissed from it all that our understanding is unable to embrace.


[Footnote 1: Chap. ii.: “Psychometry.”]

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