ONCE upon a time, an old Servian legend tells us, there were two brothers, of whom one was industrious but unfortunate, and the other lazy but overwhelmingly prosperous. One day the unfortunate brother meets a beautiful girl who is tending sheep and weaving a golden thread. “To whom do these sheep belong?" he asks. “They belong to whom I belong.” “And to whom do you belong?” “To your brother: I am his luck.” “And where is my luck, then?” “Very far from here.” “Can I find it?” “Yes, if you look for it.”
So he wanders away in search of his luck. And one evening, in a great forest, he comes across a poor old woman asleep under a tree. He wakes her and asks who she is. “Don’t you know me?” she answers. “It is true you have never seen me: I am your luck.” “And who is it has given me so wretched a luck?" “Destiny.” “Can I find Destiny?" “Yes, if you look long enough.”
So he goes off in search of Destiny. He travels a very long time, and at last she is pointed out to him. She lives in an enormous and luxurious palace; but her wealth is dwindling day by day, and the doors and windows of her abode are shrinking. She explains to him that she passes thus, alternatively, from misery to opulence; and that her situation at a given moment determines the future of all the children who may come into the world at that moment. “You were born,” she says, “when my prosperity was on the wane; and that is the cause of your ill-luck.” The only way, she tells him, to hoodwink or get the better of fortune would be to substitute the luck of Militza, his niece, for his own, seeing that she was born at a propitious period. All he need do, she says, is to take this niece into his house, and to declare to anyone who may ask him that all he has belongs to Militza.
He follows her advice, and his affairs at once take a new turn. His herds multiply and grow fat, his trees are bowed down beneath the masses of fruit, unexpected inheritances fall in, his land returns prodigious crops. But one morning, as he stands there, his heart filled with happiness, eyeing a magnificent cornfield, a stranger asks him who the owner may be of those wonderful ears of wheat, which, as they sway to and fro beneath the dew, seem twice as heavy and twice as high as the ears in the adjoining field. He forgets himself, and answers, “They are mine.” At that very instant fire breaks out in the opposite end of the field, and commences its ravages. Then he remembers the advice that he has neglected to follow. He runs after the stranger shouting, “Stop, come back; I made a mistake; what I told you was not true! This field is not mine; it belongs to my niece Militza!” And the flames have no sooner heard than they suddenly fall away, and the corn shoots up afresh.
This naïve and very ancient image, which might almost serve to-day as an illustration of our actual ignorance, proves that the mysterious problem of chance has not changed from the time of man’s first questioning look. We have our thoughts, which build up our intimate happiness or sorrow; and upon this events from without have more or less influence. And in some men these thoughts have acquired such strength, such vigilance, that without their consent nothing can enter the structure of crystal and brass they have been able to raise on the hill that commands the wonted road of adventures. And we have our will, which our thoughts feed and sustain; and many useless or harmful events can be held in check by our will. But around these islets, within which is a certain degree of safety, of immunity from attack, extends a region as vast and uncontrollable as the ocean, swayed by chance as the waves are swayed by the wind. Neither will nor thought can keep one of these waves from suddenly breaking upon us; and we shall be caught unawares, and perhaps be wounded and stunned. Only when the wave has retreated can thought and will begin their beneficent action. Then they will raise us, and bind up our wounds, restore animation, and take careful heed that the mischief the shock has wrought shall not touch the profound sources of life. Their mission extends no further, and may, on the surface, appear very humble. In reality, however, unless chance assume the irresistible form of cruel disease or death, the workings of will and thought shall suffice to neutralise all its efforts, and to preserve what is best and most essential to man in human happiness.
Redoubtable, multitudinous chance is for ever threading its watchful way through the midst of the events we have foreseen, and round and about our most deliberate actions, wherewith we slowly trace the broad lines of our existence. The air we breathe, the time we traverse, the space through which we move, are all peopled by lurking circumstances, which pick us out from among the crowd. The least study of their habits will quickly convince us that these strange daughters of hazard, who should be blind and deaf as their father, by no means act in his irresponsible fashion. They are well aware of what they are doing, and rarely make a mistake. With inexplicable certainty do they move to the passer-by whom they have been sent to confront, and lightly touch his shoulder. Two men may be travelling upon the same road, and at the same hour; but there will be no hesitation or doubt in the ranks of the double invisible troop whom fortune has ambushed there. Towards one a band of white virgins will hasten, bearing palms and amphora, presenting the thousand unexpected delights of the journey; as the other approaches, the “Evil Women,” whom Æschylus tells of, hurl themselves from the hedges, as though they were charged to avenge, upon this unwitting victim, some inexplicable crime committed by him before he was born.
There is scarcely one of us who has not been able, in some measure, to see the workings of destiny in life; we have all known men who met with a prosperity or disaster entirely unconnected with any of their actions; men upon whom good or bad luck seemed suddenly, at a turn of the road, to spring from the ground or descend from the stars, undeserved, unprovoked, but complete and inevitable. One, we will say, who has scarcely given a thought to some appointment for which he knows his rival to be better equipped, will see this rival vanish at the decisive moment; another, who has counted upon the protection of a most influential friend, will see this friend die on the very day when his assistance could be of value. A third, who has neither talent nor beauty, will arrive each morning at the Palace of Fortune, Glory, or Love, at the brief instant when every door lies open; while another, a man of great merit, who long has pondered the legitimate step he is taking, presents himself at the hour when ill-luck shall close the gate for the next half-century. One man will risk his health twenty times, in imbecile feats, and never experience the least ill-effect; another will deliberately venture it in an honourable cause, and lose it without hope of return. To help the first, thousands of unknown people, who never have seen him, will be obscurely working; to hinder the second, thousands of unknown people labour, who are ignorant of his existence. And all, on the one side as well as the other, are totally unaware of what they are doing: they obey the same minute, widely distributed order; and at the prescribed moment the detached pieces of the mysterious machine join, dovetail, unite; and we have two complete and dissimilar destinies set into motion by Time.
In a curious book on Chance and Destiny, Dr. Foissac gives various strange examples of the persistent, inexplicable, fundamental, pre-ordained, irreducible iniquity, in which so many existences are steeped. As we go through page after page we feel almost as though we were being conducted through the disconcerting laboratories of another world, where, in the absence of every instrument that human justice and reason might hold indispensable, happiness and sorrow were being parcelled out and allotted. Take, for instance, the life of Vauvenargues, one of the most admirable of men, and certainly, of all the great sages, the most unfortunate. Whenever his fortune hangs in the balance he is attacked and prostrated by cruel disease; and notwithstanding the efforts of his genius, his bravery, his moral beauty, day after day he is wantonly betrayed or falls victim to gratuitous injustice; and at the age of thirty-two he dies, at the very moment when recognition is at last awaiting his work. So too there is a terrible story of Lesurques,1 in which we see a thousand coincidences, that might have been contrived in Hell, blending and joining together to work the ruin of an innocent man; while truth, chained down by fate, dumbly shrieking as we do when wrestling with nightmare, is unable to put forth a single gesture that shall rend the veil of night. And Aimar de Ransonnet, President of the Parliament of Paris, one of the most upright of men, who first of all is suddenly dismissed from his office, sees his daughter die on a dunghill before his eyes, his son perish at the hands of the executioner, and his wife struck by lightning; while he himself is accused of heresy and sent to the Bastille, where he dies of grief before he is brought to trial.
The calamities that befell Œdipus and the Atrides are regarded by us as improbable and fabulous; and yet we find in contemporary history that fatality clings with no less persistence to families such as the Stuarts, the Colignys,2 etc., and hounds to their death, with what almost seems personal vindictiveness, pitiable and innocent victims like Henrietta of England, daughter of Henri IV., Louise de Bourbon, Joseph II., and Marie Antoinette.
And again, in another category, what shall we say of the injustice — unintelligent but apparently almost conscious, almost systematic and premeditated — of games of chance, of duels, battles, storms, shipwrecks, and fires? Or of the inconceivable luck of a Chastenet de Puységur who, after forty years’ service, in the course of which he took part in thirty battles and a hundred and twenty sieges, always in the front rank and displaying the most romantic courage, was never once touched by shot or steel; while Marshal Oudinot was wounded thirty-five times, and General Trézel was struck by a bullet in every encounter? What shall we say of the extraordinary fortune of Lauzun, Chamillart, Casanova, Chesterfield, etc., or of the inconceivable, unvarying prosperity that attended the crimes of Sylla, Marius, or Dionysius the Elder, who, in his extreme old age, after an odious but fantastically successful life, died of joy on learning that the Athenians had just crowned one of his tragedies? Or, finally, of Herod, surnamed the Great or the Ascalonite, who swam in blood, murdered one of his wives and five of his children, put to death every upright man who might chance to offend him, and yet was fortunate in all his undertakings?
These famous examples, which might be indefinitely multiplied, are in truth no more than the abnormal and historic presentments of what is shown to us every day, in a humbler but not less emphatic fashion, by the thousand and one caprices of propitious or contrary fortune at work on the small and ill-lit stage of ordinary life.
Doubtless we must, first of all, when closely examining such insolent prosperity or unvarying disaster, attribute a royal share to the physical or moral causes which are capable of explaining them. Had we ourselves known Vauvenargues, we should probably have detected a certain timidity, irresolution, or misplaced pride in his character, whereby he was disabled from allowing the opportunity to mature or from seizing it with sufficient vigour. And Lesurques, it may be, was deficient in ability, in one knows not what, in that prodigious personal force that one expects to find in falsely accused innocence. Nor can it be denied that the Stuarts, no less than Joseph II. and Marie Antoinette, were guilty of enormous blunders that invited disaster; or that Lauzun, Casanova, and Lord Chesterfield had flung to the winds those essential scruples that hinder the honest man. So too is it certain that although the existence of Sylla, Marius, Dionysius the Elder, and Herod the Ascalonite, may have been externally almost incomparably fortunate, few men, I fancy, would care to have lurking within them the strange, restless, blood-stained phantom, possessed neither of thought nor of feeling, on which the happiness must depend (if the word happiness be indeed applicable here) that is founded upon unceasing crime. But this deduction being made, and on the most reasonable, most liberal scale (which will become the more generous as we see more of life and understand it better, and penetrate further into the secrets of little causes and great effects), we shall still be forced to admit that there remains in these obstinately recurring coincidences, in these indissoluble series of good or evil fortune, these persistent runs of good or bad luck, a considerable, often essential, and sometimes exclusive share that can be ascribed only to the impenetrable, incontrovertible will of a real but unknown power: which is known as Chance, Fatality, Destiny, Luck, Fortune, good or evil star, Angel with the White Wings, Angel with the Black Wings, and by many other names, that vary in accordance with the more or less imaginative, more or less poetic genius of centuries and peoples. And here we have one of the most serious, most perplexing problems of all those that have to be solved by man before he may legitimately regard himself as the principal, independent, and irrevocable inhabitant of this earth.
Let us reduce the problem to its simplest terms, and submit it to our reason. First, however, let us consider whether it affects man alone. We have with us, upon this curiously incomprehensible globe, silent and faithful companions of our existence; and we shall often find it helpful to let our eyes rest upon these when, having reached certain altitudes that perhaps are illusory, our brain turns giddy, and inclines us too readily to the idea that the stars, the gods, or the veiled representatives of the sublime laws of the universe, are concerned solely with us. These poor brothers of our animal life, that are so calmly, so confidently resigned, would appear to know many things that we have forgotten; they are the tranquil custodians of the secret that we seek so anxiously! It is evident that animals, and notably domestic animals, have also a kind of destiny. They too know what prolonged and gratuitous happiness means; they also have encountered the persistent misfortune for which no cause can be found. They have the same right as we to speak of their star, their good or bad luck, their prosperity or disaster. Compare the fate of the cab-horse, that ends its days at the knacker’s, after having passed through the hands of a hundred brutal and nameless masters, with that of the thoroughbred which dies of old age in the stable of a kindhearted master; and from the point of view of justice (unless we accept the Buddhist theory, that life in this world is the reward or punishment of an anterior existence) explanation is as completely lacking as in the case of the man whom chance has reduced to poverty or raised to wealth. There is in Flanders a breed of draught-dogs upon which destiny alternatively lavishes her favour and her spite. Some will be bought by a butcher, and lead a magnificent life. The work is trifling: in the morning, harnessed four abreast, they draw a light cart to the slaughter-house, and at night, galloping joyously, triumphantly, home through the narrow streets of the ancient towns with their tiny, lit-up gables, bring it back overflowing with meat. Between-times there is leisure, and marvellous leisure, among the rats and the waste of slaughter-house. They are copiously fed, they are fat, they shine like seals, and taste in its fulness the only happiness dreamed of by the naïve, ferreting instinct of the honest dog. But their unfortunate brethren of the same litter, that the lame sand-pedlar buys, or the old collector of household refuse, or the needy peasant with his great cruel clogs — these are chained to heavy carts or shapeless barrows; they are filthy, mangey, hairless, emaciated, starving; and follow till they die the circles of a hell into which they were thrust by a few coppers dropped into some horny palm. And, in a world less directly subject to man, there must evidently be partridges, pheasants, deer, hares, which have no luck, which never escape the gun; while others, one knows not how or why, emerge unscathed from every battue.
They, therefore, are exposed, like ourselves, to incontestable injustice. But it does not occur to us, when considering their hardships, to set all the gods in motion or seek explanation from the mysterious powers; and yet what happens to them may well be no more than the image, naively simplified, of what happens to us. It is true that we play the precise part, in their case, of the mysterious powers that we seek in our own. But what right have we to expect from these last more consciousness, more intelligent justice, than we ourselves show in our dealings with animals? And in any event, if this instance shall only have deprived chance of a little of its useless prestige and have proportionately augmented our spirit of initiative and struggle, there will be a gain the importance of which is by no means to be despised.
Still further allowance must therefore be made; but yet there undoubtedly remains — at least as far as the more complex life of man is concerned — a cause of good or evil fortune, as yet untouched by our explanations, in the often visible will of chance — which one might almost call the “small change" of fatality. We know — and this is one of those formless but fundamental ideas on the laws of life that the experience of thousands of years has turned into a kind of instinct — we know that men exist who, other things being equal, are “lucky" or “unlucky.” Circumstances permitted me to follow very closely the career of a friend of mine who was dogged by persistent ill-fortune. I do not mean to imply thereby that his life was unhappy. It is even remarkable that the malign influences always respected the broad lines of his veritable happiness; probably because these were well guarded. For he had in him a strong moral existence, profound thoughts and hopes, feelings and convictions. He was well aware that these were possessions that fortune could not touch; which indeed could not be destroyed without his consent. Destiny is not invincible; through life’s very centre runs a great inward canal, which we have the power to turn towards happiness or sorrow; although its ramifications, that extend over our days, and the thousand tributaries that flow in from external hazards, are all independent of our will.
It is thus that a beautiful river, streaming down from the heights, and ashine with magnificent glaciers, passes at length through plains and through cities, whence it receives only poisonous water. For an instant the river is troubled; and we fear lest it lose, and never recover again, the image of the pure blue sky that the crystal fountains had lent: the image that seemed its soul, and the deep and the limpid expression of its great strength. But if we rejoin it, down yonder, beneath those great trees, we find that it has already forgotten the foulness of the gutters. It has caught the azure again in its transparent waves; and flows on to the sea, as clear as it was on the days when it first smilingly leapt from its source on the mountains.
And so, as regards this friend of mine, although forced more than once to shed tears, they were at least not of the kind that memory never forgets, not of those that fall from our eyes as we mourn our own death. Every failure, the inevitable disappointment once over, served only to knit him the closer to his secret happiness, to affirm this within him, and draw round about it a more sombre outline, that it might thereby appear the more precious and ardent and certain. But no sooner had he quitted this charmed enclosure than hostile incidents vied with each other in their attacks upon him. As for instance — he was a very good fencer: he had three duels, and was wounded each time by a less skilful adversary. If he went on board ship, the voyage would rarely be prosperous. Whatever undertaking he put money into was sure to turn out badly. A judicial error, into which a whole series of curiously malevolent circumstances dragged him, was productive of long and serious trouble. Further, although his face was agreeable, and the expression of his eyes loyal and frank, he was not what one calls “sympathetic": he did not arouse at first sight that spontaneous affection that we often give, without knowing why, to the unknown who passes, to an enemy even. Nor was he more fortunate in his affections. Of a loving nature, and infinitely worthier of being loved than most of those to whom the chance-ridden heart of women sacrificed him — here again he met with nothing but treachery, deception, and sorrow. He went his way, extricating himself as best he could from the paltry snares that malicious fortune prepared at every step; nor was he discouraged or deeply saddened, only somewhat surprised at so strange a persistence; until at last there came the great, and solitary good-fortune of his life: a love that was the complement of the one that was eager within him, a love that was complete, passionate, exclusive, unalterable. And from that moment it was as though he had come under the influence of another star, the beneficent rays of which were blending with his own: vexatious events grew slowly remoter, fewer, warier of attacking him, tardier in their approach. They seemed reluctantly to abandon their habit of selecting him as their victim. He actually saw his luck turn. And now that he has gone back, as it were, into the indifferent and neutral atmosphere of chance common to most men, he smiles when he remembers the time when every gesture of his was watched by the invisible enemy, and aroused a danger.
Let us not look to the gods for an explanation of these phenomena. Until these gods shall have clearly explained themselves there is nothing that they can explain for us. And destiny, which is merely the god of which we know least, has less right than any of the others to intervene and cry to us, as it does from the depths of its inscrutable night, "It is I who so willed it!" Nor let us invoke the illimitable law of the universe, the intentions of history, the will of the worlds, the justice of the stars. These powers exist: we submit to them, as we submit to the might of the sun. But they act without knowing us; and within the wide circle of their influence there remains to us still a liberty that is probably immense. They have better work on hand than to be forever bending over us to lift a blade of grass or drop a leaf in the little paths of our ant-hill. Since we ourselves are here the parties concerned, it is, I imagine, within ourselves that the key of the mystery shall be found; for it is probable that every creature carries within him the best solution of the problem that he presents. Within us, underlying the conscious existence that our reason and will control, is a profounder existence, one side of which connects with a past beyond the record of history, the other with a future that thousands of years cannot exhaust. We may safely conceive that all the gods lie hidden within it, and that those wherewith we have peopled the earth and the planets will emerge, one by one, in order to give it a name and a form that our imagination may understand. And as man’s vision grows clearer, as he shows less desire for image and symbol, so will the number of these names, the number of these forms, tend to diminish. He will slowly arrive at the stage when there shall be one only that he will proclaim, or reserve; when it shall be revealed to him that this last form, this last name, is truly no more than the last image of a power whose throne was always within him. Then will the gods that had gone forth from us be found again in ourselves; and it is there that we will question them to-day.
I hold that it is in this unconscious life of ours, in this existence that is so vast, so divine, so inexhaustible and unfathomable, that we must seek for the explanation of fortunate or contrary chances. Within us is a being that is our veritable ego, our first-born: immemorial, illimitable, universal, and probably immortal. Our intellect, which is merely a kind of phosphorescence that plays on this inner sea, has as yet but faint knowledge of it. But our intellect is gradually learning that every secret of the human phenomena it has hitherto not understood must reside there, and there alone. This unconscious being lives on another plane than our intellect, in another world. It knows nothing of Time and Space, the two formidable but illusory walls between which our reason must flow or be hopelessly lost in the desert. It knows no proximity, it knows no distance; past and future concern it not, or the resistance of matter. It is familiar with all things; there is nothing it cannot do. To this force, this knowledge, we have indeed at all times accorded a certain varying recognition; we have given names to its manifestations, we have called them instinct, soul, unconsciousness, sub-consciousness, reflex action, presentiment, intuition, etc. We credit it more especially with the indeterminate and often prodigious force contained in those of our nerves that do not directly serve to produce our will and our reason: a force that would appear to be the very fluid of life. Its nature is probably more or less the same in all men; but it has very different methods of communicating with the intellect. In some men this unknown principle is enshrined at so great a depth that it concerns itself solely with physical functions and the permanence of the species; whereas in others it would seem to be forever on the alert, rising again and again to the surface of external and conscious life, which its fairy-like presence quickens; intervening at every instant, warning, deciding, counselling, blending with most of the essential facts of a career. Whence comes this faculty? There are no fixed or certain laws. We do not detect, for instance, any constant relation between the activity of the unconsciousness and the development of the intellect. This activity obeys rules of which we know nothing. So far as we at present can tell, it would seem to be purely accidental. We discover it in one man, and not in another; nor have we any clue that shall help us to guess at the reason of this difference.
The probable course pursued by fortunate or contrary chances may well be as follows. A happy or untoward event, that has sprung from the profound recesses of great and eternal laws, arises before us and completely blocks the way. It stands motionless there: immovable, inevitable, disproportionate. It pays no heed to us; it has not come on our account, but for itself, because of itself. It ignores us completely. It is we who approach the event: we who, having arrived within the sphere of its influence, will either fly from it or face it, try a circuitous route or fare boldly onwards. Let us assume that the event is disastrous: fire, death, disease, or a somewhat abnormal form of accident or distress. It waits there, invisible, indifferent, blind, but perfect and unalterable; and still as yet it is only potential. It exists entire, but only in the future; and for us, whose intellect and consciousness are served by senses unable to perceive things otherwise than through the succession of time, it is still as though it were not. Let us still be more precise; let us take the case of a shipwreck. The ship that must perish has not yet left the port; the rock or the shoal that shall rend it sleeps peacefully beneath the waves: the storm that shall burst forth at the end of the month slumbers far beyond our gaze, in the secret of the skies. Normally, were nothing written, had the catastrophe not already taken place in the future, fifty passengers would have arrived from five or six different countries, and have duly gone on board. But destiny has clearly marked the vessel for its own. She must most certainly perish. And for months past, perhaps for years, a mysterious selection has been at work among the passengers who were to have departed upon the same day. It is possible that out of fifty who had originally intended to sail, only twenty will cross the gangway at the moment of lifting the anchor.3 It is even of the circumstance that, but for the disaster ahead, would have rendered their departure imperative, and that their place will be taken by twenty or thirty others in whom the voice of Chance does not speak with a similar power. Here we touch the profoundest depths of the profoundest of human enigmas; and the hypothesis necessarily falters. But is it not more reasonable, in the fictitious case before us — wherein we merely thrust into prominence what is of constant occurrence in the more obscure conjunctures of daily life — to regard both decision and action as emanating from our unconsciousness, rather than from doubtful, and distant, gods? Our unconsciousness is aware of the catastrophe, — it must be; our unconsciousness sees it; for it knows neither time nor space, and the disaster is therefore happening as actually before its eyes as before the eyes of the eternal powers.
The mode of prescience matters but little. Out of the fifty travellers who have been warned, two or three will have had a real presentiment of the danger; these will be the ones in whom unconsciousness is free and untrammelled, and therefore more readily able to attain the first, and still obscure, layers of intellect. The others suspect nothing: they inveigh against the inexplicable obstacles and delays; they strain every nerve to arrive in time; but their departure becomes impossible. They fall ill, take a wrong road, change their plans, meet with some insignificant adventure, have a quarrel, a love-affair, a moment of idleness or forgetfulness, which detains them in spite of themselves. To the others it will never have even occurred to sail on the ill-starred boat, although this be the one they should logically, inevitably, have been compelled to choose. But the efforts that their unconsciousness has put forth to save them have their workings so deep down that most of these men will have no idea that they owe their life to a fortunate chance; and they will honestly believe that they never intended to sail by the ship that the powers of the sea had claimed.
As for those who punctually make their appearance at the fatal tryst, they belong to the tribe of the unlucky. They are the more unfortunate race of our race. When the rest all fly, they alone remain in their places. When others retreat, they advance boldly. They infallibly travel by the train that shall leave the rails, they pass underneath the tower at the exact moment of its collapse, they enter the house in which the fire is smouldering, cross the forest on which lightning shall fall, intrust all they have to the banker who means to abscond. They love the one woman on earth whom they should have avoided, they make the gesture they should not have made, they do the thing they should not have done. But when fortune beckons and the others are hastening, urged by the deep voice of benevolent powers, they pass by, not hearing; and, vouchsafed no advice or warning but that of their intellect, the very wise old guide whose purblind eyes see only the tiny paths at the foot of the mountain, they go astray in a world that human reason has not yet understood. These men have surely the right to exclaim against destiny; and yet not on the grounds that they would prefer. They have the right to ask why it has withheld from them the watchful guard who warns their brethren. But this reproach once made — and it is the cardinal reproach against irreducible injustice — they have no further cause of complaint. The universe is not hostile to them. Calamities do not pursue them; it is they who go towards calamity. Things from without wish them no ill; the mischief comes from themselves. The misfortune they meet has not been lying in wait for them; they selected it for their own. With them, as with all men, events are posted along the course of their years, like goods in a bazaar, that stand ready for the customer who shall buy them. No one deceives them; they merely deceive themselves. They are in no wise persecuted; but their unconscious soul fails to perform its duty. Is it less adroit than the others; is it less eager? Does it slumber hopelessly in the depths of its secular prison, and can no amount of will power arouse it from its fatal lethargy, and force the redoubtable doors that lead from the life that unconsciously is aware of all things to the intelligent life that knows nothing?
A friend in whose presence I was discussing these matters said to me yesterday: “Life, whose questions are more searching than those of the philosophers, will this very day compel me to add a somewhat curious problem to those you have stated. I am wondering what the result will be when two ‘lucks' — in other words, two unconsciousnesses, of which one is adroit and fortunate, the other inept and bungling — meet and in some measure blend in the same venture, the same undertaking? Which will triumph over the other? I soon shall know. This afternoon I propose to take a step that will be of supreme importance to the person I value above all others in this world. Her entire future may almost be said to depend upon it, her exterior happiness, the possibility of her living in accordance with her nature and her rights. Now to me chance has always been a faithful and far-seeing friend, and as I glance over my past and review the five or six decisive moments which, as with all men, were the golden pivots on which fortune turned, I am induced to believe in my star, and am morally certain that if I alone were concerned in the step I am taking to-day, it would be bound to succeed, because I am 'lucky.’ But the person in whose behalf I am acting has never been fortunate. Her intellect is remarkably subtle and profound, her will is a thousand times stronger and more balanced than my own; but, with all this, one can only believe that she possesses a foolish or malignant unconsciousness, which has persistently, ruthlessly, exposed her to act after act of injustice, dishonesty, and treachery, and has robbed her again and again of her due, and compelled her to travel the path of disastrous coincidence. Be sure that it would have forced her to embark on the ship that you speak of. I ask myself, therefore, what attitude will my vigilant, thoughtful unconsciousness adopt towards this indolent and sinning brother, in whose name it will have to act, whose place as it were it will take?
“How and where is the momentous decision being at this moment arrived at, in search of which I shall so soon set forth? What power is it that now, at this very moment, while I am speaking to you, balances the pros and cons, and decrees the happiness or sorrow of the woman I represent? From which sphere, or perhaps immemorial virtue, from what hidden spirit or invisible star, will the weight descend that shall incline the scale to light or to darkness? Outward appearances tell us that decision rests with the will, the reason, the interest of the parties engaged; in reality it often is otherwise. When one finds oneself thus face to face with the problem which directly affects a person we love, it no longer appears quite so simple; our eyes open wider, and we throw a startled, anxious, in a sense almost a virgin glance upon all this unknown that leads us, and that we are compelled to obey.
“I take this step therefore with more emotion, I put forth more zeal and vigour, than if it were my own life, my own happiness, that stood in peril. She for whom I am acting is indeed more I than I am myself, and for a long time past her happiness has been the source of mine. Of this both my heart and my reason are fully aware, but does my unconsciousness know? My reason and heart that form my consciousness, are barely thirty years old; my unconscious soul, that is still reminiscent of primitive secrets, may well date centuries back. Its evolution is very deliberate. It is as slow in its movements as a world that turns in time without end. It will probably therefore not yet have learned that a second existence has linked itself to mine, and completely absorbed it. How many years must elapse before the great news shall penetrate to its retreat? Here again we note its diversity, its inequality. In one man, perhaps, unconsciousness will immediately recognise what is taking place in his heart; in another, it will very tardily lend itself to the phenomena of reason. There is a love, again, such as that of the mother for her child, in which it moves in advance of both heart and reason. Only after a very long time does the unconscious soul of a mother separate itself from that of her children; it watches over these at first with far more zeal and solicitude than over the mother. But, in a love like mine, who shall say whether my unconsciousness has gathered that this love is more essential to me than my life? I myself believe that it is satisfied that the step I propose to take in no wise concerns me. It will not appear; it will not intervene. At the very moment when I shall be feverishly displaying all the energy I possess, when I shall be striving for victory more keenly than were my salvation at stake, it will be tending its own mysterious affairs deep down in its shadowy dwelling. Were I seeking justice for myself, it would already be on the alert. It would know, perhaps, that I had better do nothing to-day. I should probably not have the slightest idea of its intervention; but it would raise some unforeseen obstacle. I should fall ill; catch a bad cold, be prevented by some secondary event from arriving at the unpropitious hour. Then, when I was actually in the presence of the man who held my destiny in his hands, my vigilant friend would spread its wings over me, its breath would inspire me, its light would dispel my darkness. It would dictate to me the words that I must say; they would be the only words that could meet the secret objections of the master of my Fate. It would regulate my attitude, my silence, my gestures; it would endow me with confidence, the nameless influence, which often will govern the decisions of men far more than the reasons of reason or the eloquence of interest. But here I am solely afraid that my unconsciousness will do none of these things. It will remain perfectly passive. It will not appear on the familiar threshold. In its obtuseness, impervious to the fact that my life has ceased to be self-contained, it will act in accordance with its ancient traditions, with those that have ruled it these hundreds of years; it will persist in regarding this matter as one that does not concern me, and will believe that in helping my failure it will be doing me service; whereas in truth it will afflict me more grievously, cause me more sorrow, than if it were to betray me at the approach of death. I shall be importing therefore, into this affair, only the palest reflection, a kind of phantom, of my own luck; and I ask myself with dread whether this will suffice to counterbalance the contrary fortune which I have, as it were, assumed, and which I represent.”
Some days later my friend informed me that his action had been unsuccessful. It may be that this reverse was only due to chance or to his own want of confidence. For the confidence which sees success ahead pursues it with a pertinacity and resource of which hesitation and doubt are incapable: nor is it troubled by any of those involuntary weaknesses which give so great an advantage to the adversary’s instinct. And there may probably be much truth also in his manner of depicting unconsciousness. For truly there are depths in us at which unconsciousness and confidence would seem to blend; and it becomes difficult to say where the first begins, or the second leaves off.
We will not pursue this too subtle inquiry, but rather consider the other, and more direct, questions that life is ever putting to us concerning one of its greatest problems — chance. This possesses what may be called a daily interest. It asks us, for instance, what attitude we should adopt towards men who are incontestably unlucky; men whose evil star has such pernicious power that it infallibly brings disaster to whatever comes within the range — often a very wide one — of its baneful influence. Ought we unhesitatingly to fly from such men, as Dr. Foissac advises? Yes, doubtless, if their misfortunes arise from an imprudent and unduly hazardous spirit, a heedless, quarrelsome, mischief-making, Utopian, or clouded mind. Ill-luck is a contagious disease; and one unconsciousness will often infect another. But if the misfortunes be wholly unmerited or fall upon those who are dear to us, flight were unjust and shameful. In such a case the conscious side of our being — which though it know but little, is yet able to fashion truths of a different order, truths that might almost be the first flowers of a dawning world — is bound to resist the universal wisdom of unconsciousness, bound to brave its warnings and involve it in its own ruin, that may well be a victory upon an ideal plane which some day perhaps shall appeal to the unconsciousness also.
We ask ourselves, also, whether unconsciousness, which we regard as the source of our luck, is really incapable of change or improvement. Have we not all of us noticed how strange are the ways of chance? When we behold it active in a small town, or among a certain number of men within the range of our own observation, the goddess would seem to become as persistent as a gadfly, and no less fantastic. Her marked personality and character will vary in accordance with the event or the being whereon she may fasten. She has all kinds of eccentricities, but pursues each one logically to the finish. Her first gesture will tell us nothing; from her second we can predict all that she means to do. Protean divinity that no image could completely describe, here she leaps suddenly forth like a fountain in the midst of a desert, to disappear after having given birth to an ephemeral oasis; there she returns at regular intervals, collecting and scattering, like migratory birds that obey the rhythm of the seasons. On our right she fells a man and concerns herself with him no further; on our left she bears down another, and furiously worries her victim. But though she bring favour or ruin, she will almost always remain astoundingly faithful to the character she has once and for all assumed, in every particular case. This man, for instance, who has been unsuccessful in war, will continue to be unsuccessful; the other will invariably win or lose at the cards; a third will infallibly be deceived; a fourth will find water, fire, or the dangers of the street, especially hostile; a fifth will be constantly fortunate or unfortunate in love, money matters, etc., and so to the end. All this may prove nothing, but we may regard it at least as some indication that her realm is truly within us, and not without; and that a hidden force that emanates only from us provides her with form and with vestment.
Her habits at times will suddenly alter one eccentricity producing another; some brusque change of front will give the lie to her character, to confirm it the instant after in a new atmosphere. We say then that “luck turns.” May it not rather be our unconsciousness that is gradually developing, at last displaying some prudence, attention, and slowly becoming aware that important events are stirring in the world to which it is attached? Has it gained some experience? Has a ray of intelligence, a spark of will-power, filtered through to its lair and hinted at danger? Does it learn, after years have flown, and trial after trial has had to be borne, the wisdom of casting aside its confident apathy? Can external disaster arouse it from perilous slumber? Or, if it always has known what was happening over the roof of its prison, is it able, after long and painful effort, at last, at the critical moment, to contrive some kind of crevice in the great wall, built by the indifference of centuries, that separates it from its unknown sisters; and does it thus succeed in entering the ephemeral life on which a part of its own life depends?
But we must admit that this hypothesis of unconsciousness will not suffice to account for all the injustice of chance. Its three most iniquitous acts are the three disasters — the most terrible of all to which man is exposed — that habitually strike him before birth; I refer to absolute poverty, disease (especially in the shocking forms of physiological degradation and incurable infirmities, of repulsive ugliness and deformity), and intellectual weakness. These are the three great priestesses of unrighteousness that lie in wait for innocence and brand it on the threshold of life. And yet, mysterious as their method of choice may appear, the triple source whence they derive these three irremediable scourges is less mysterious than one is inclined to believe. We need not look for it in a pre-established will, in fatal, hostile, eternal, impenetrable laws. Poverty has its origin in man’s own province; and though we may marvel why one should be rich, and the other poor, we are well aware that the existence, side by side, of excessive wealth and excessive misery, is due to human injustice alone. In this wickedness neither gods nor stars have part. And as for disease and mental weakness, when we shall have eliminated from them what now is due to poverty, mother of most of our mortal and physical sorrows, as well as to the anterior, and by no means, inevitable, faults of the parents, then, though some measure of persistent, and unaccountable, injustice may still remain, this relic of mystery will very nigh go into the hollow of the philosopher’s hand, and there he shall, later, examine it at his leisure. But we of to-day shall be wise in refusing to allow our life to be unnecessarily darkened, or hedged round with imaginary maledictions and foes.
As far as ordinary luck is concerned, we shall do well to believe, for the moment that the history of our fortune (which is not necessarily the history of our real happiness, since this may be wholly independent of luck) is the history of our unconscious being. There are more elements of probability in such a creed than in the assumption that the stars, eternity, or the spirit of the universe, are taking part in our pretty adventures; and it gives more spur to our courage. And this idea, even though it may possibly be as difficult to alter the character of our unconsciousness as to modify the course of Mars or of Venus — still seems less distant and less chimerical than the other; and when we have to choose between two probabilities it is our imperative duty to select the one that presents the least obstacles to our hopes. Further, should misfortune be indeed inevitable, there would be I know not what proud consolation in being able to tell ourselves that it issues solely from us, and that we ,are not the victims of a malign will or the toys and playthings of useless chance; that in suffering more than our brothers we are perhaps only recording, in time and space, the necessary form of our own personality. And so long as calamity does not attack the intimate pride of man, he retains the force to continue the struggle and accomplish his essential mission; which is to live with all the ardour whereof he is capable, and as though his life were of greater consequence than any other to the destinies of mankind.
This idea is also more conformable to the vast law which restores to us, one by one, the gods wherewith we had filled the world. Of these gods the greater number were merely the effect of causes that reposed in ourselves. As we progress we shall discover that many a force that mastered us and aroused our wonder was only an ill-understood fragment of our own power; and this will probably become more apparent every day.
And though we shall not have conquered the unknown force by bringing it nearer or enclosing it within us, there yet shall be gain in knowing where it abides and where we may question it. Obscure forces surround us; but the one that concerns us most nearly lies at the very centre of our being. All the others pass through it: it is their trysting-place: they re-enter and congregate there: and only in the degree of their relation to it have they interest for us.
To distinguish this force from the host of others we have called it unconsciousness. And when we shall have succeeded in studying this unconsciousness more closely, when its mysterious adroitness, its antipathies and preferences, its helplessness, shall be better known to us, we shall have most strangely blunted the teeth and nails of the monster who persecutes us under the name of Fortune, Destiny, or Chance. At the present hour we are feeding it still as a blind man might feed the lion that at the last shall devour him. Soon perhaps the lion will be seen by us in its true height, and we shall then learn how to subdue him.
Let us therefore unweariedly follow each path that leads from our consciousness to our unconsciousness. We shall thus succeed in hewing some kind of track through the great and as yet impassable roads that lead from the seen to the unseen, from man to God, from the individual to the universe. At the end of these roads lies hidden the general secret of life. In the meanwhile let us adopt the hypothesis that offers the most encouragement to our existence in this life which has need of us for the solution of its own enigmas; for we are those in whom its secrets crystallise most limpidly and most rapidly.
1 His history is concisely summed up by Dr. Foissac as follows: "On the 8th Floréal of the year IV the courier and postilion who were taking the mail from Paris to Lyons were attacked and murdered, at nine in the evening, in the forest of Sénart. The assassins were Couriol, who had taken a seat in the cabriolet by the side Of the courier, Durechal, Rossi, Vidal, and Dubosq, who had come to meet him on hired horses, and lastly Bernard, who had procured the horses and took part in the subsequent distribution of plunder. For this crime, in which five assassins and one accomplice shared, seven individuals, within the space of four years, mounted the steps of the guillotine. Justice, therefore, killed one man too many; the sword fell upon one who was innocent; nor could he have been one of these six individuals, all of whom confessed their crime. The innocent man was Lesurques, who had never ceased to declare he was not guilty; and all his alleged accomplices disavowed any knowledge of him. How, then, came this unfortunate creature to be implicated in an affair that was to confer so sad an immortality upon his name? Fatality so contrived that, four days before the crime, Lesurques, who had left Douai with an income of eighteen thousand livres, and had come to Paris that he might give a better education to his children, happened to be lunching with a fellow-townsman named Guesno, when Couriol came in and was invited to join them. Suspicion having at once fallen upon Couriol, the fact of this lunch was sufficient to cause Guesno to be put under arrest for a moment; but as he was able to prove an alibi, the judge, Daubenton, immediately set him at liberty. Only, as it was late, Daubenton, told him to come the following day to fetch his paper.
“In the morning of the 11th Floréal Guesno, on his way for this purpose to the Prefecture of Police, met Lesurques, whom he invited to accompany him; an invitation which Lesurques, who had nothing special to do, accepted. While they were waiting in the antechamber for the magistrate to arrive, two women were shown in who had been asked to attend in connection with the affair; and they, deceived by Lesurques’ resemblance to Dubosq, who had fled, unhesitatingly denounced him as one of the assassins, and unfortunately persisted in this statement to the end. The antecedents of Lesurques pleaded in his favour; and among other facts that he cited to prove that he had not left Paris during the day of the 8th Floréal, he declared that he had been present at certain dealings that had taken place at a jeweller’s named Legrand, between this last and another jeweller named Aldenoff. These transactions had actually taken place on the 8th; but Legrand, on being requisitioned to produce his books, found that he had by a clerical blunder inscribed them under the date of the 9th. He thought the best thing he could do would be to scratch out the 9 and convert it into an 8; he did this in the idea that he would thereby save his fellow-townsman, Lesurques, whom he knew to be innocent, whereas he actually succeeded in ruining him. The alteration and substitution were easily detected; from that moment the prosecution and the jury declined to place the least confidence in the eighty witnesses for the defence called by the accused; he was convicted and his property confiscated. Eighty-seven days elapsed between his condemnation and execution, a delay that was altogether unusual at that period; but grave doubts had arisen as to his guilt.
The Directorate did not possess the right of reprieve; they felt it their duty to refer the case to the Council of Five Hundred, asking whether Lesurques was to die because of his resemblance to a criminal. The Council passed to the Order of the Day on the report of Simeon; and Lesurques was executed, forgiving his judges. And not only had he constantly protested his innocence, but at the moment the verdict was given Couriol had cried out, in firm tones, 'Lesurques is innocent!’ He repeated this statement both on the fatal hurdle and on the scaffold. All the other prisoners, while admitting their own guilt, also declared the innocence of Lesurques. It was only in the year IX that Dubosq, his double, was arrested and sentenced.
“The fatality that had attacked the head of the family spared none of its members. Lesurques’ mother died of grief; his wife went mad; his three children languished in insignificance and poverty. The government, however, moved by their great misfortune, restored to the family of Lesurques, in two instalments, the five or six hundred thousand francs which had been so iniquitously confiscated; but a swindler robbed them of the greater part of the money. Sixty years elapsed; of Lesurques’ three children two were dead; one alone survived, Virginie Lesurques. Public opinion had for a long time already proclaimed the innocence and the rehabilitation of her unfortunate father. She wanted more; and when the law of the 29th June, 1867, was passed, authorising the revision of criminal judgments, she hoped that the day had come at last when she might proclaim this rehabilitation in the sanctuary of justice; but, by a final fatality, the Court of Appeal, arguing on legal subtleties, declared by its decree of the 17th December, x868, that no cause had been shown for re-opening the case, and that Virginie Lesurques had not made good her claim to revision.”
It is as though one were enthralled by some horrible dream, in which a poor wretch is being delivered into the hands of the Furies. Ever since the fatal meal, no less tragic than that of Thyestes, which Lesurques took at Guesno’s house, events have been dragging him nearer and nearer the gulf that yawns at his feet; while his destiny, hovering above him like an enormous vulture, hides the light from those who approach him. And the circles from above press magically forward to meet those from below: they advance, they contract, and then, uniting at last, their eddies blend and fasten upon what is now a corpse.
Here, truly, the combination of murderous fatalities may well seem supernatural; and the case is typical, it is formidable, it is as symbolic as a myth. But there can be no doubt that analogous chains of circumstances reproduce themselves daily in the countless petty or ridiculous mortifications of merely ordinary lives, which are beneath the influence of an evil or malicious star.
2 The misfortunes of the Stuarts are well known; those of the Colignys are less familiar. Of these last the author we have already cited gives the following lucid account: “Gaspard de Coligny, Marshal of France under Francis 1st, was married to the sister of the Constable Anne de Montmorency. He was reproached with having delayed by half a day his attack on Charles the Fifth, at a time when such might have been most advantageously offered, and with having thereby let slip an almost certain opportunity of victory. One of his sons, who had been made Archbishop and Cardinal, embraced Protestantism, and was married in his red cassock. He fought against the King at the battle of St. Denis, and fled to England, where, in the year 1571, a servant of his attempted to poison him. He escaped, however, and seeking subsequently to return to France was captured at Rochelle, condemned to death, and executed. The Admiral de Coligny, brother of the Cardinal, was reputed one of the greatest captains of his time; he did marvels at the defence of Saint-Quentin. The place, however, was taken by storm, and he was made a prisoner of war. Having become the real leader of the Calvinists, under the Prince de Condé, he displayed the most undaunted courage and extraordinary fertility of resource; neither his merit nor his military skill was ever called in question; and yet he was uniformly unsuccessful in every one of his enterprises. In 1562 he lost the battle of Dreux to the Duc de Guise; that of St. Denis to the Constable de Montmorency; and finally that of Jarnac, which was no less fatal to his party. He endured yet another reverse at Montcontour in Poitou; but his courage remained unshaken; his skill was able to parry the attacks of fortune, and he appeared more redoubtable after his defeats than his enemies in the midst of their victories. Often wounded, but always impervious to fear, he remarked one day quietly to his friends, who wept as they saw his blood flow, ‘Should not the profession we follow cause us to regard death with the same indifference as life?' A few days before the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, Maurevert shot him with a carbine from a house in the cloister of St. Germain l’Auxerrois, and wounded him dangerously in the right hand and left arm. On the eve of that sanguinary day, Besme, at the head of a party of cut-throats, contrived to enter the admiral’s house, and ran him several times through the body, then flinging him out of the window into the courtyard, where he expired, it is said, at the feet of the Duc de Guise. His body was exposed for three days to the insults of the mob, and finally hung by the feet to the gibbet of Montfaucon.
“Thus, though the Admiral de Coligny passed for the greatest general of his time, he was always unfortunate and always defeated; while the Duc de Guise, his rival, who had less wisdom but more audacity, and above all more confidence in his destiny, was able to take his enemies by surprise and render himself master of events. ‘Coligny was an honest man,’ said the Abbé de Mably; ‘Guise wore the mask of a greater number of virtues. Coligny was detested by the people; Guise was their idol.’ It is stated that the Admiral left a diary, which Charles IX. read with interest, but the Marshal de Retz had it flung into the fire. Finally, a fatal destiny clinging to all who bore the name of Coligny, the last descendant of the family was killed in a duel by the Chevalier de Guise.”
3 It is a remarkable and constant fact that great catastrophes claim infinitely fewer victims than the most reasonable probabilities might have led one to suppose. At the last moment a fortuitous or exceptional circumstance is almost always found to have kept away half, and sometimes two-thirds, of the persons who were threatened by the still invisible danger. A steamer that goes to the bottom has generally fewer passengers on board than would have been the case had she not been destined to go down. Two trains that collide, an express that falls over a precipice, etc., carry less travellers than they would on a day when nothing is to happen. Should a bridge collapse, the accident will generally be found to occur, in defiance of all probability, at the moment the crowd has just left it. In the case of fires in theatres and other public places, things unfortunately happen otherwise. But there, as we know, the principal danger does not lie in the fire, but in the panic of the terror-stricken crowd. Again, a fire-damp explosion will usually occur at a time when the number of miners inside the mine is appreciably inferior to the number that would habitually be there. Similarly, when a powder-factory is blown up, the majority of the workmen, who would otherwise all have perished, will be found to have left the mill for some trifling, but providential, reason. So true is this, that the almost unvarying remark, that we read every day in the papers, has become familiar and hackneyed, as "A catastrophe which might have assumed terrible proportions was fortunately confined, thanks to such and such a circumstance, etc., etc.,” or “One shudders to think what might have happened had the accident occurred a moment sooner, when all the workmen, all the passengers, etc.” Is this the clemency of Chance? We are becoming ever less inclined to credit it with a personality, with design or intelligence. There is more reason in the supposition that something in man had divined the disaster; that an obscure but unfailing instinct had preserved a great number of people from a danger that was on the point of taking shape, of assuming the imminent and imperious form of the inevitable, and that their unconsciousness, taking alarm, was seized with hidden panic; which manifested itself outwardly in a caprice, a whim, some puerile and inconsistent incident, that was yet irresistible and became the means of salvation.