Here to return to
THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE FUTURE
WHAT is known as premonition or precognition leads us to mysterious regions, where stands, half-emerging 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 published by M. Ernest Bozzano under the title Des Phénomènes prémonitoires. 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.
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 before hand of the arrival of a person or a letter), or lastly by clairvoyance (when a man dreams of the spot where he will find something which he has mislaid, or an uncommon plant, or an insect sought for in vain, or 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 wherein 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 that chiefly interest us. 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, must 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 as 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.
On the 8th of May, Dr. Teste magnetises Mme. Hortense — in the presence of her husband. She is no sooner asleep than she announces that she has been pregnant for a fortnight, that she will not go her full time, that “she will take fright at something,” that she will have a fall and that the result will be a miscarriage. She adds that, on the 12th of May, after having had a fright, she will have a fainting-fit which will last for eight minutes; and she then describes, hour by hour, the course of her malady, which will end in three days’ loss of reason, from which she will recover.
On awaking, she retains no recollection of anything that has passed; it is kept from her; and Dr. Teste communicates his notes to Dr. Amédée Latour. On the 12th of May, he calls on M. and Mme.—, finds them at table and puts Mme.— to sleep again, whereupon she repeats word for word what she told him four days before. They wake her up. The dangerous hour is drawing near. They take every imaginable precaution and even close the shutters. Mme.—, made uneasy by these extraordinary measures which she is quite unable to understand, asks what they are going to do to her. Half-past three o’clock strikes. Mme.— rises from the sofa on which they have made her sit and wants to leave the room. The doctor and her husband try to prevent her.
“But what is the matter with you?” she asks. “I simply must go out.”
“No, madame, you shall not: I speak in the interest of your health.”
“Well, then, doctor,” she replies, with a smile, “if it is in the interest of my health, that is all the more reason why you should let me go out.”
The excuse is a plausible one and even irresistible; but the husband, wishing to carry the struggle against destiny to the last, declares that he will accompany his wife. The doctor remains alone, feeling somewhat anxious, in spite of the rather farcical turn which the incident has taken. Suddenly, a piercing shriek is heard and the noise of a body falling. He runs out and finds Mme.— wild with fright and apparently dying in her husband’s arms. At the moment when, leaving him for an instant, she opened the door of the place where she was going, a rat, the first seen there for twenty years, rushed at her and gave her so great a start that she fell flat on her back. And all the rest of the prediction was fulfilled to the letter, hour by hour and detail by detail.
To make it quite clear in what spirit I am undertaking this study and to remove at the beginning any suspicion of blind or systematic credulity, I am anxious, before going any further, to say that I fully realise that cases of this kind by no means carry conviction. It is quite possible that everything happened in the subconscious imagination of the subject and that she herself created, by self-suggestion her illness, her fright, her fall and her miscarriage and adapted herself to most of the circumstances which she had foretold in her secondary state. The appearance of the rat at the fatal moment is the only thing that would suggest a precise and disquieting vision of an inevitable future event. Unfortunately, we are not told that the rat was perceived by other witnesses than the patient, so that there is nothing to prove that it also was not imaginary. I have therefore quoted this inadequate instance only because it represents fairly well the general aspect and the indecisive value of many similar cases and enables us to note once and for all the objections which can be raised and the precautions which we should take before entering these suspicious and obscure regions.
We now come to an infinitely more significant and less questionable case related by Dr Joseph Maxwell, the learned and very scrupulous author of Les Phénomènes psychiques, a work which has been translated into English under the title of Metapsychical Phenomena. It concerns a vision which was described to him eight days before the event and which he told to many people before it was accomplished. A sensitive perceived in a crystal the following scene: a large steamer, flying a flag of three horizontal bars, black, white and red, and bearing the name Leutschland, was sailing in mid-ocean; the boat was suddenly enveloped in smoke; a great number of sailors, passengers and men in uniform rushed to the upper deck; and the boat went down.
Eight days afterwards, the newspapers announced the accident to the Deutschland, whose boiler had burst, obliging the steamboat to stand to.
The evidence of a man like Dr. Maxwell, especially when we have to do with a so-to-speak personal incident, possesses an importance on which it is needless to insist. We have here, therefore, several days beforehand, the very clear prevision of an event which, moreover, in no way concerns the percipient: a curious detail, but one which is not uncommon in these cases. The mistake in reading Leutschland for Deutschland, which would have been quite natural in real life, adds a note of probability and authenticity to the phenomenon. As for the final act, the foundering of the vessel in the place of a simple heaving to, we must see in this, as Dr. J. W. Pickering and W. A. Sadgrove suggest, “the subconscious dramatisation of a subliminal inference of the percipient.” Such dramatisations, moreover, are instinctive and almost general in this class of visions.
If this were an isolated case, it would certainly not be right to attach decisive importance to it; “but,” Dr. Maxwell observes, “the same sensitive has given me other curious instances; and these cases, compared with others which I myself have observed or with those of which I have received firsthand accounts, render the hypothesis of coincidence very improbable, though they do not absolutely exclude it.” 2
Another and perhaps more convincing case, more strictly investigated and established, a case which clearly does not admit of explanation by the theory of coincidence, worthy of all respect though this theory be, is that related by M. Théodore Flournoy, professor of science at the university of Geneva, in his remarkable work, Esprits et médiums. Professor Flournoy is known to be one of the most learned and critical exponents of the new science of metapsychics. He even carries his fondness for natural explanations and his repugnance to admit the intervention of superhuman powers to a point whither it is often difficult to follow him. I will give the narrative as briefly as possible. It will be found in full on pp. 348 to 362 of his masterly book.
In August, 1883, a certain Mme. Buscarlet, whom he knew personally, returned to Geneva after spending three years with the Moratief family at Kazan as governess to two girls. She continued to correspond with the family and also with a Mme. Nitchinof, who kept a school at Kazan to which Mlles. Moratief, Mme. Buscarlet’s former pupils, went after her departure.
On the night of the 9th of December (O. S.) of the same year, Mme. Buscarlet had a dream which she described the following morning in a letter to Mme. Moratief, dated 10 December. She wrote, to quote her own words:
“You and I were on a country-road when a carriage passed in front of us and a voice from inside called to us. When we came up to the carriage, we saw Mlle. Olga Popoi lying across it, clothed in white, wearing a bonnet trimmed with yellow ribbons. She said to you:
“ ‘I called you to tell you that Mme. Nitchinof will leave the school on the 17th.’
“The carriage then drove on.”
A week later and three days before the letter reached Kazan, the event foreseen in the dream was fulfilled in a tragic fashion. Mme. Nitchinof died on the 16th of an infectious disease; and on the 17th her body was carried out of the school for fear of infection.
It is well to add that both Mme. Buscharlet’s letter and the replies which came from Russia were communicated to Professor Flournoy and bear the postmark dates.
Such premonitory dreams are frequent; but it does not often happen that circumstances and especially the existence of a document dated previous to their fulfilment give them such incontestable authenticity.
We may remark in passing the odd character of this premonition. The date is fixed precisely; but only a veiled and mysterious allusion (the woman lying across the carriage and cloaked in white) is made to the essential part of the prediction, the illness and death. Was there a coincidence, a vision of the future pure and simple, or a vision of the future suggested by telepathic influence? The theory of coincidence can be defended, if need be, here as every elsewhere, but would be very extraordinary in this case. As for telepathic influence, we should have to suppose that, on the 9th of December, a week before her death, Mme. Nitchinof had in her subconsciousness a presentiment of her end and that she transmitted this presentment across some thousands of miles, from Kazan to Geneva, to a person with whom she had never been intimate. It is very complex but possible, for telepathy often has these disconcerting ways. If this were so, the case would be one of latent illness or even of self-suggestion; and the pre-existence of the future, without being entirely disproved, would be less clearly established.
Let us pass to other examples. I quote from an excellent article on the importance of precognitions, by Messrs. Pickering and Sadgrove, which appeared in the Annales des sciences psychiques for 1 February 1908, the summary of an experiment by Mrs. A. W. Verrall told in full detail in Vol. XX. of the Proceedings. Mrs. Verrall is a celebrated “automatist;” and her “cross-correspondences” occupy a whole volume of the Proceedings. Her good faith, her sincerity, her fairness and her scientific precision are above suspicion; and she is one of the most active and respected members of the Society for Psychical Research.
On the 11th of May 1901, at 11.10 P.M., Mrs. Verrall wrote as follows:
“Do not hurry date this hoc est quod volui — tandem. δζκαζοσύνη και χαρά συμΦωνεί συνετοίσιν A. W. V. και άλλψ τινί ϊσως. calx pedibus inhaerens difficultatem superavit. magnopere adiuvas persectando semper. Nomen inscribere iam possum — sic, en tibi!” 3
After the writing comes a humorous drawing representing a bird walking.
That same night, as there were said to be “uncanny happenings” in some rooms near the London Law Courts, the watchers arranged to sit through the night in the empty chambers. Precautions were taken to prevent intrusion and powdered chalk was spread on the floor of the two smaller rooms, “to trace anybody or anything that might come or go.” Mrs. Verrall knew nothing of the matter. The phenomena began at 12.43 A.M. and ended at 2.9 A.M. The watchers noticed marks on the powdered chalk. On examination it was seen that the marks were “clearly defined bird’s footprints in the middle of the floor, three in the left-hand room and five in the right-hand room.” The marks were identical and exactly 2 3/4 inches in width; they might be compared to the foot-prints of a bird about the size of a turkey. The foot-prints were observed at 2.30 A.M.; the unexplained phenomena had begun at 12.43 that same morning. The words about “chalk sticking to the feet” are a singularly appropriate comment on the events; but the remarkable point is that Mrs. Verrall wrote what we have said one hour and thirty-three minutes before the events took place.
The persons who watched in the two rooms were questioned by Mr. J. G. Piddington, a member of the council of the S. P. R., and declared that they had not any expectation of what they discovered. I need hardly add that Mrs. Verrall had never heard anything about the happenings in the haunted house and that the watchers were completely ignorant of Mrs. Verrall’s existence.
Here then is a very curious prediction of an event, insignificant in itself, which is to happen, in .a house unknown to the one who foretells it, to people whom she does not know either. The spiritualists, who score in this case, not without some reason, will have it that a spirit, in order to prove its existence and its intelligence, organised this little scene in which the future, the present and the past are all mixed up together. Are they right? Or is Mrs. Verrall’s subconsciousness roaming like this, at random, in the future? It is certain that the problem has seldom appeared under a more baffling aspect.
We will now take another premonitory dream, strictly controlled by the committee of the S. P. R. 4 Early in September 1893, Annette, wife of Walter Jones, tobacconist, of Old Gravel Lane, East London, had her little boy ill. One night she dreamt that she saw a cart drive up and stop near where she was. It contained three coffins, “two white and one blue. One white coffin was bigger than the other; and the blue was the biggest of the three.” The driver took out the bigger white coffin and left it at the mother’s feet, driving off with the others. Mrs. Jones told her dream to her husband and to a neighbour, laying particular stress on the curious circumstance that one of the coffins was blue.
On the 10th of September, a friend of Mr. and Mrs. Jones was confined of a boy, who died on the 20th of the same month. Their own little boy died on the following Monday, the 2nd of October, being then sixteen months old. It was decided to bury the two children on the same day. On the morning of the day chosen, the parish priest informed Mr. and Mrs. Jones that another child had died in the neighbourhood and that its body would be brought into church along with the two others. Mrs. Jones remarked to her husband:
“If the coffin is blue, then my dream will come true. For the two other coffins were white.”
The third coffin was brought; it was blue. It remains to be observed that the dimensions of the coffins corresponded exactly with the dream premonitions, the smallest being that of the child who died first, the next that of the little Jones boy, who was sixteen months old, and the largest, the blue one, that of a boy six years of age.
Let us take, more or less at random, another case from the inexhaustible Proceedings. 5 The report is written by Mr. Alfred Cooper and attested by the Duchess of Hamilton, the Duke of Manchester and another gentleman to whom the duchess related the incident before the fulfilment of the prophetic vision:
“A fortnight before the death of the late Earl of L—,” says Mr. Cooper, “in 1882, I called upon the Duke of Hamilton, in Hill Street, to see him professionally. After I had finished seeing him, we went into the drawing-room, where the duchess was, and the duke said to me:
“ ‘Oh, Cooper, how is the earl?’
“The duchess said, ‘What earl?’ and, on my answering, ‘Lord L—,’ she replied:
“ ‘That is very odd. I have had a most extraordinary vision. I went to bed, but, after being in bed a short time, I was not exactly asleep, but thought I saw a scene as if from a play before me. The actors in it were Lord L—, in a chair, as if in a fit, with a man standing over him with a red beard. He was by the side of a bath, over which bath a red lamp was distinctly shown.’
“I then said:
“ ‘I am attending Lord L— at present; there is very little the matter with him; he is not going to die; he will be all right very soon.’
“Well, he got better for a week and was nearly well, but, at the end of six or seven days after this, I was called to see him suddenly. He had inflammation of both lungs.
“I called in Sir William Jenner, but in six days he was a dead man. There were two male nurses attending on him; one had been taken ill. But, when I saw the other, the dream of the duchess was exactly represented. He was standing near a bath over the earl and, strange to say, his beard was red. There was the bath with the red lamp over it; and this brought the story to my mind.
“The vision seen by the duchess was told two weeks before the death of Lord L—. It is a most remarkable thing.”
But it is impossible to find space for the many instances related. As I have said, there are hundreds of them, making their tracks in every direction across the plains of the future. Those which I have quoted give a sufficient idea of the predominating tone and the general aspect of this sort of story. It is nevertheless right to add that many of them are not at all tragic and that premonition opens its mysterious and capricious vistas of the future in connection with the most diverse and insignificant events. It cares but little for the human value of the occurrence and puts the vision of a number in a lottery on the same plane as the most dramatic death. The roads by which it reaches us are also unexpected and varied. Often, as in the examples quoted, it comes to us in a dream. Sometimes, it is an auditory or visual hallucination which seizes upon us while awake; sometimes, an indefinable but clear and irresistible presentiment, a shapeless but powerful obsession, an absurd but imperative certainty which rises from the depths of our inner darkness, where perhaps lies hidden the final answer to every riddle.
One might illustrate each of these manifestations with numerous examples. I will mention only a few, selected not among the most striking or the most attractive, but among those which have been most strictly tested and investigated. 6 A young peasant from the neighbourhood of Ghent, two months before the drawing for the conscription, announces to all and sundry that he will draw number 90 from the urn. On entering the presence of the district-commissioner in charge, he asks if number 90 is still in. The answer is yes.
“Well, then, I shall have it!”
And to the general amazement, he does draw number 90.
Questioned as to the manner in which he acquired this strange certainty, he declares that, two months ago, just after he had gone to bed, he saw a huge, indescribable form appear in a corner of his room with the number 90 standing out plainly in the middle, in figures the size of a man’s hand. He sat up in bed and shut and opened his eyes to persuade himself that he was not dreaming. The apparition remained in the same place, distinctly and undeniably.
Professor Georges Hulin, of the university of Ghent, and M. Jules van Dooren, the district-commissioner, who report the incident, mention three other similar and equally striking cases witnessed by M. van Dooren during his term of office. I am the less inclined to doubt their declaration inasmuch as I am personally acquainted with them and know that their statements, as regards the objective reality of the facts, are so to speak equivalent to a legal deposition. M. Gozzano mentions some previsions which are quite as remarkable in connection with the gaming-tables at Monte Carlo.
I repeat, I am aware that, in the case of these occurrences and those which resemble them, it is possible once again to invoke the theory of coincidence. It will be contended that there are probably a thousand predictions of this kind which are never talked about, because they were not fulfilled, whereas, if one of them is accomplished, which is bound by the law of probabilities to happen some day or other, the astonishment is general and free rein is given to the imagination. This is true; nevertheless, it is well to enquire whether these predictions are as frequent as is loosely stated. In the matter of those which concern the conscription-drawings, for instance, I have had the opportunity of interrogating more than one constant witness of these little dramas of fate; and all admitted that, on the whole, they are much rarer than one would believe. Next, we must not forget that there can be no question here of scientific proofs. We are in the midst of a slippery and nebulous region, where we would not dare to risk a step if we were not allowing ourselves to be guided by our feelings rather than by certainties which we are not forbidden to hope for, but which are not yet in sight.
We will abridge our subject still further, referring readers who wish to know the details to the originals, lest we should never have done; or rather, instead of attempting an abridgment, which would still be too long, so plentiful are the materials, we will content ourselves with enumerating a few instances, all taken from Bozzano’s Des Phénomènes prémonitoires. We read there of a funeral procession seen on a high-road several days before it actually passed that way; or, again, of a young mechanic who, in the beginning of November, dreamt that he came home at half-past five in the afternoon and saw his sister’s little girl run over by a tram-car while crossing the street in front of the house. He told his dream, in great distress; and, on the 13th of the same month, in spite of all the precautions that had been taken, the child was run over by the tram-car and killed at the hour named. We find the ghost, the phantom animal or the mysterious noise which, in certain families, is the traditional herald of a death or of an imminent catastrophe. We find the celebrated vision which the painter Segantini had thirteen days before his decease, every detail of which remained in his mind and was represented in his last picture, Death. We find the Messina disaster clearly foreseen, twice over, by a little girl who perished under the ruins of the ill-fated city; and we read of a dream which, three months before the French invasion of Russia, foretold to Countess Toutschkoff that her husband would fall at Borodino, a village so little known at the time that those interested in the dream looked in vain for its name on the maps.
Until now we have spoken only of the spontaneous manifestations of the future. It would seem as though coming events, gathered in front of our lives, bear with crushing weight upon the uncertain and deceptive dike of the present, which is no longer able to contain them. They ooze through, they seek a crevice by which to reach us. But side by side with these passive, independent and intractable premonitions, which are but so many vagrant and furtive emanations of the unknown, are others which do yield to entreaty, allow themselves to be directed into channels, are more or less obedient to our orders and will sometimes reply to the questions which we put to them. They come from the same inaccessible reservoir, are no less mysterious, but yet appear a little more human than the others; and, without drugging ourselves with puerile or dangerous illusions, we may be permitted to hope that, if we follow them and study them attentively, they will one day open to us the hidden paths joining that which is no more to that which is not yet.
It is true that here, where we must needs mix with the somewhat lawless world of professional mystery-mongers, we have to increase our caution and walk with measured steps on very suspicious ground. But even in this region of pitfalls we glean a certain number of facts that cannot reasonably be contested. It will be enough to recall, for instance, the symbolic premonitions of the famous “seeress of Prevorst,” Frau Hauffe, whose prophetic spirit was awakened by soap-bubbles, crystals and mirrors; 7 the clairvoyant who, eighteen years before the event, foretold the death of a girl by the hand of her rival in 1907, in a written prophecy which was presented to the court by the mother of the murdered girl; 8 the gipsy who, also in writing, foretold all the events in Miss Isabel Arundel’s life, including the name of her husband, Burton the famous explorer; 9 the sealed letter addressed to M. Morin, vice-president of the Société du mesmerisme, describing the most unexpected circumstances of a death that occurred a month later; 10 the famous “Marmontel prediction,” obtained by Mrs. Verrall’s cross-correspondences, which gives a vision, two months and a half before their accomplishment, of the most insignificant actions of a traveller in an hotel bedroom; 11 and many others.
I will not review the various and very often grotesque methods of interrogating the future that are most frequently practised to-day: cards, palmistry, crystal-gazing, fortune-telling by means of coffee-grounds, tea-leaves, magnetic needles and white of egg, graphology, astrology and the rest. These methods are worth exactly what the medium who employs them is worth. They have no other object than to arouse the medium’s subconsciousness and to bring it into relation with that of the person questioning him. As a matter of fact, all these purely empirical processes are but so many, often puerile forms of self-manifestation adopted by the undeniable gift which is known as intuition, clairvoyance or, in certain cases, psychometry. I have written at length, in my volume entitled The Unknown Guest, of this last faculty and need not linger over it now. All that we have still to do is to consider it for a moment in its relations with the foretelling of the future.
A large number of investigations, notably those conducted by M. Duchatel and Dr. Osty, show that, in psychometry, the notion of time, as Dr. Joseph Maxwell observes, is very loose, that is to say, the past, present and future nearly always overlap. Most of the clairvoyant or psychometric subjects, when they are honest, do not know, “do not feel,” as M. Duchatel very ably remarks, “what the future is. They do not distinguish it from the other tenses; and consequently they succeed in being prophets, but unconscious prophets.” In a word — and this is a very important indication from the point of view of the probable coexistence of the three tenses — it appears that they see that which is not yet with the same clearness and on the same plane as that which is no more, but are incapable of separating the two visions and picking out the future which alone interests us. For a still stronger reason, it is impossible for them to state dates with precision. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, when we take the trouble to sift their evidence and have the patience to await the realisation of certain events which are sometimes not due for a long time to come, the future is fairly often perceived by some of these strange soothsayers.
There are psychometers, however, and notably Mme. M—, Dr. Osty’s favourite medium, who never confuse the future and the past. Mme. M— places her visions in time according to the position which they occupy in space. Thus she sees the future in front of her, the past behind her and the present beside her. But, notwithstanding, these distinctly-graded visions, she also is incapable of naming her dates exactly; in fact, her mistakes in this respect are so general that Dr. Osty looks upon it as a pure chronological coincidence when a prediction is realised at the moment foretold.
We should also observe that, in psychometry, only those events can be perceived which relate directly to the individual communicating with the percipient, for it is not so much the percipient that sees into us as we that read in our own subconsciousness, which is momentarily lighted by his presence.
We must not therefore ask him for predictions of a general character, whether, for instance, there will be a war in the spring, an epidemic in the summer or an earthquake in the autumn. The moment the question concerns events, however important, with which we are not intimately connected, he is bound to answer, as do all the genuine mediums, that he sees nothing.
The area of his vision being thus limited, does he really discover the future in it? After three years of numerous, cautious and systematic experiments with some twenty mediums, Dr. Osty categorically declares that he does:
“All the incidents,” he says, “which filled these three years of my life, whether wished for by me or not, or even, absolutely contrary to the ordinary routine of my life, had always been foretold to me, not all by each of the clairvoyant subjects, but all by one or other of them. As I have been practising these tests continually, it seems to me that the experience of three years wholly devoted to this object should give some weight to my opinion on the subject of predictions.”
This is incontestable; and the sincerity, scientific conscientiousness and high intellectual value of Dr. Osty’s fine work inspire one with the utmost confidence. Unfortunately, he contents himself with quoting too summarily a few facts and does not, as he ought, give us in extenso the details of his experiments, controls and tests. I am well aware that this would be a thankless and wearisome task, necessitating a large volume which a mass of puerile incidents and inevitable repetitions would make almost unreadable. Moreover, it could scarcely help taking the form of an intimate and indiscreet autobiography; and it is not easy to bring one’s self to make this sort of public confession. But it has to be done. In a science which is only in its early stages, it is not enough to show the object attained and to state one’s conviction; it is necessary above all to describe every path that has been taken and, by an incessant and infinite accumulation of investigated and attested facts, to enable every one to draw his own conclusions. This has been the cumbrous and laborious method of the Proceedings for over thirty years; and it is the only right one. Discussion is possible and fruitful only at that price. In all these extra-conscious matters, we have not yet reached the stage of definite deductions, we are still bringing up materials to the scene of operations.
Once more, I know that, in these cases, as I have seen for myself, the really convincing facts are necessarily very rare; indeed, no elsewhere do we meet with the same difficulty. If the medium tells you, for instance, as Mme. M— seems easily to do, how you will employ your day from the morning onwards, if she sees you in a certain house in a certain street meeting this or that person, it is impossible to say that, on the one hand, she is not already reading your as yet unconscious plans or intentions, or that, on the other hand, by doing what she has foreseen, you are not obeying a suggestion against which you could not fight except by violently doing the opposite to what it demands of you, which again would be a case of inverted suggestion. None therefore would have any value save predictions of unlikely happenings, clearly defined and outside the sphere of the person interested. As Dr. Osty says:
“The ideal prognostication would obviously be that of an event so rare, so sudden and unexpected, implying such a change in one’s mode of life that the theory of coincidence could not decently be put forward. But, as everybody is not, in the peaceful course of his existence, threatened by such an absolutely convincing event, the clairvoyant cannot always reveal to the person experimenting — and reveal for a more or less approximate date — one of those incidents whose accomplishment would carry irresistible conviction.”
In any case, the question of psychometric prognostications calls for further enquiry, though it is easy even at the present day to foresee the results.
Let us now return to our spontaneous premonitions, in which the future comes to seek us of its own accord and, so to speak, to challenge us at home. I know from personal experience that when we embark upon these disconcerting matters the first impression is scarcely favourable. We are very much inclined to laugh, to treat as wearisome tales, as hysterical hallucinations, as ingenious or interested fictions most of the incidents that give too violent a shock to the narrow and limited idea which we have of our human life. To smile, to reject everything beforehand and to pass by with averted head, as was done, remember, in the time of Galvani and in the early days of hypnotism, is much more easy and seems more respectable and prudent than to stop, admit and examine. Nevertheless we must not forget that it is to some who did not smile so lightly that we owe the best part of the marvels from whose heights we are preparing to smile in our turn. For the rest, I grant that, thus presented, hastily and summarily, without the details that throw light upon them and the proofs that support them, the incidents in question do not show to advantage and, inasmuch as they are isolated and sparingly chosen, lose all the weight and authority derived from the compact and imposing mass whence they are arbitrarily detached. As I said above, nearly a thousand cases have been collected, representing probably not the tenth part of those which a more active and general search might bring together. The number is evidently of importance and denotes the enormous pressure of the mystery; but, if there were only half a dozen genuine cases — and Dr. Maxwell’s, Professor Flournoy’s, Mrs. Verrall’s, the Marmontel, Jones and Hamilton cases and some others are undoubtedly genuine — they would be enough to show that, under the erroneous idea which we form of the past and the present, a new verity is living and moving, eager to come to light.
The efforts of that verity, I need hardly say, display a very different sort of force after we have actually and attentively read those hundreds of extraordinary stories which, without appearing to do so; strike to the very roots of history. We soon lose all inclination to doubt. We penetrate into another world and come to a stop all out of countenance. We no longer know where we stand; before and after overlap and mingle. We no longer distinguish the insidious and factitious but indispensable line which separates the years that have gone by from the years that are to come. We clutch at the hours and days of the past and present to reassure ourselves, to fasten on to some certainty, to convince ourselves that we are still in our right place in this life where that which is not yet seems as substantial, as real, as positive, as powerful as that which is no more. We discover with uneasiness that time, on which we based our whole existence, itself no longer exists. It is no longer the swiftest of our gods, known to us only by its flight across all things; it alters its position no more than space, of which it is doubtless but the incomprehensible reflex. It reigns in the centre of every event; and every event is fixed in its centre; and all that comes and all that goes passes from end to end of our little life without moving by a hair’s breadth around its motionless pivot. It is entitled to but one of the thousand names which we have been wont to lavish upon its power, a power that seemed to us manifold and innumerable: “yesterday,” “recently,” “formerly,” “erewhile,” “after,” “before,” “to-morrow,” “soon,” “never,” “later” fall like childish masks, whereas “to-day” and “always” completely cover with their united shadows the idea which we form in the end of a duration which has no subdivisions, no breaks and no stages, but is pulseless, motionless and boundless.
Many are the theories which men have imagined in their attempts to explain the working of the strange phenomenon; and many others might be imagined.
As we have seen, self-suggestion and telepathy explain certain cases which concern events already in existence but still latent and perceived before the knowledge of them can reach us by the normal process of the senses or the intelligence. But, even by extending these two theories to their uttermost point and positively abusing their accommodating elasticity, we do not succeed in illumining by their aid more than a rather restricted portion of the vast undiscovered land. We must therefore look for something else.
The first theory which suggests itself and which on the surface seems rather attractive is that of theory and other religious suppositions. It is scarcely distinguishable from the theosophical theory and other religious suppositions. It assumes the survival of spirits, the existence of discarnate or other superior and more mysterious entities which surround us, interest themselves in our fate, guide our thoughts and our actions and, above all, know the future. It is, as we recognise when we speak of ghosts and haunted houses, a very acceptable theory; and any one to whom it appeals can adopt it without doing violence to his intelligence. But we must confess that it seems less necessary and perhaps even less clearly proved in this region than in that. It starts by begging the question: without the intervention of discarnate beings, the spiritualists tell us, it is impossible to explain the majority of the premonitory phenomena; therefore we must admit the existence of these discarnate beings. Let us grant it for the moment, for to beg the question, which is merely an indefensible trick of the superficial logic of our brain, does not necessarily condemn a theory and neither takes away from nor adds to the reality of things. Besides, as we shall insist later, the intervention or non-intervention of the spirits is not the point at issue; and the crux of the mystery does not lie there. What must interest us is far less the paths or intermediaries by which prophetic warnings reach us than the actual existence of the future in the present. It is true — to do complete justice to neospiritualism — that its position offers certain advantages from the point of view of the almost inconceivable problem of the pre-existence of the future. It can evade or divert some of the consequences of that problem. The spirits, it declares, do not necessarily see the future as a whole, as a total past or present, motionless and immovable, but they know infinitely better than we do the numberless causes that determine any agent, so, finding themselves at the luminous source of those causes, they have no difficulty in foreseeing their effects. They are, with respect to the incidents still in process of formation, in the position of an astronomer who foretells, within a second, all the phases of an eclipse in which a savage sees nothing but an unprecedented catastrophe which he attributes to the anger of his idols of straw or clay. It is indeed possible that this acquaintance with a greater number of causes explains certain predictions; but there are plenty of others which presume a knowledge of so many causes, causes so remote and so profound, that this knowledge is hardly to be distinguished from a knowledge of the future pure and simple. In any case, beyond certain limits, the pre-existence of causes seems no clearer than that of effects. Nevertheless it must be admitted that the spiritualists gain a slight advantage here.
They believe that they gain another when they say or might say that it is still possible that the spirits stimulate us to realise the events which they foretell without themselves clearly perceiving them in the future. After announcing, for instance, that on a certain day we shall go to a certain place and do a certain thing, they urge us irresistibly to proceed to the spot named and there to perform the act prophesied. But this theory, like those of self-suggestion and telepathy, would explain only a few phenomena and would leave in obscurity all those cases, infinitely more numerous because they make up almost the whole of our future, in which either chance intervenes or some event in no way dependent upon our will or the spirit’s, unless indeed we suppose that the latter possesses an omniscience and an omnipotence which takes us back to the original mysteries of the problem.
Besides, in the gloomy regions of precognition, it is almost always a matter of anticipating a misfortune, and very rarely, if ever, of meeting with a pleasure or a joy. We should therefore have to admit that the spirits which drag me to the fatal place and compel me to do the act that will have tragic consequences are deliberately hostile ‘to me and find diversion only in the spectacle of my suffering. What could those spirits be, from what evil world would they arise and how should we explain why our brothers and friends of yesterday, after passing through the august and peace-bestowing gates of death, suddenly become transformed into crafty and malevolent demons? Can the great spiritual kingdom, in which all passions born of the flesh should be stilled, be but a dismal abode of hatred, spite and envy? It will perhaps be said that they lead us into misfortune in order to purify us; but this brings us to religious theories which it is not our intention to examine.
The only attempt at an explanation that can hold its own with spiritualism has recourse once again to the mysterious powers of our subconsciousness. We must needs recognise that, if the future exists today, already such as it will be when it becomes for us the present and the past, the intervention of discarnate minds or of any other spiritual entity adrift from another sphere is of little avail. We can picture an infinite spirit indifferently contemplating the past and future in their co-existence; we can imagine a whole hierarchy of intermediate intelligences taking a more or less extensive part in the contemplation and transmitting it to our subconsciousness. But all this is practically nothing more than inconsistent speculation and ingenious dreaming in the dark; in any case, it is adventitious, secondary and provisional. Let us keep to the facts as we see them: an unknown faculty, buried deep in our being and generally inactive, perceives, on rare occasions, events that have not yet taken place. We possess but one certainty on this subject, namely, that the phenomenon actually occurs within ourselves; it is therefore within ourselves that we must first study it, without burdening ourselves with suppositions which remove it from its centre and simply shift the mystery. The incomprehensible mystery is the pre-existence of the future; once we admit this — and it seems very difficult to deny — there is no reason to attribute to imaginary intermediaries rather than to ourselves the faculty of descrying certain fragments of that future. We see, in regard to most of the mediumistic manifestations, that we possess within ourselves all the unusual forces with which the spiritualists endow discarnate spirits; and why should it be otherwise as concerns the powers of divination? The explanation taken from the subconsciousness is the most direct, the simplest, and the nearest, whereas the other is endlessly circuitous, complicated and distant. Until the spirits testify to their existence in an unanswerable fashion, there is no advantage in seeking in the grave for the solution of a riddle that appears indeed to lie at the roots of our own life.
It is true that this explanation does not explain much; but the others are just as ineffectual and are open to the same objections. These objections are many and various; and it is easier to raise them than to reply to them. For instance, we can ask ourselves why the subconsciousness or the spirits, seeing that they read the future and are able to announce an impending calamity, hardly ever give us the one useful and definite indication that would allow us to avoid it. What can be the childish or mysterious reason of this strange reticence? In many cases it is almost criminal; for instance, in a case related by Professor Hyslop 12 we see the foreboding of the greatest misfortune that can befall a mother germinating, growing, sending out shoots, developing, like some gluttonous and deadly plant, to stop short on the verge of the last warning, the one detail, insignificant in itself but indispensable, which would have saved the child. It is the case of a woman who begins by experiencing a vague but powerful impression that a grievous “burden” is going to fall upon her family. Next month, this premonitory feeling repeats itself very frequently, becomes more intense and ends by concentrating itself upon the poor woman’s little daughter. Each time that she is planning something for the child’s future, she hears a voice saying:
“She’ll never need it.”
A week before the catastrophe, a violent smell of fire fills the house. From that time the mother begins to be careful about matches, seeing that they are in safe places and out of reach. She looks all over the house for them and feels a strong impulse to burn all matches of the kind easily lighted. About an hour before the fatal disaster, she reaches for a box to destroy it; but she says to herself that her eldest boy is gone out, thinks that she may need the matches to light the gas-stove and decides to destroy them as soon as he comes back. She takes the child up to its crib for its morning sleep and, as she is putting it into the cradle, she hears the usual mysterious voice whisper in her ear:
“Turn the mattress.”
But, being in a great hurry, she simply says that she will turn the mattress after the child has taken its nap. She then goes downstairs to work. After a while, she hears the child cry and, hurrying up to the room, finds the crib and its bedding on fire and the child so badly burnt that it dies in three hours.
Before going further and theorising about this case, let us once more state the matter precisely. I know that the reader may straightway and quite legitimately deny the value of anecdotes of this kind. He will say that we have to do with a neurotic who has drawn upon her imagination for all the elements that give a dramatic setting to the story and surround with a halo of mystery a sad but commonplace domestic accident. This is quite possible; and it is perfectly allowable to dismiss the case. But it is none the less true that, by thus deliberately rejecting everything that does not bear the stamp of mathematical or judicial certainty, we risk losing, as we go along, most of the opportunities or clues which the great riddle of this world offers us in its moments of inattention or graciousness. At the beginning of an enquiry we must know how to content ourselves with little. For the incident in question to be convincing, previous evidence in writing, more or less official statements, would be required, whereas we have only the declarations of the husband, a neighbour and a sister.
This is insufficient, I agree; but we must at the same time confess that the circumstances are hardly favourable to obtaining the proofs which we demand. Those who receive warnings of this kind either believe in them or do not believe in them. If they believe in them, it is quite natural that they should not think first of all of the scientific interest of their trouble, or of putting down in writing and thus authenticating its premonitory symptoms and gradual evolution. If they do not believe in them, it is no less natural that they should not proceed to speak or take notice of inanities of which they do not recognise the value until after they have lost the opportunity of supplying convincing proofs of them. Also, do not forget that the little story in question is selected from among a hundred others, which in their turn are equally indecisive, but which, repeating the same facts and the same tendencies with a strange persistency, end by weakening the most inveterate distrust.
Having said this much, in order to conciliate or part company with those who have no intention of leaving the terra firma of science, let us return to the case before us, which is all the more disquieting inasmuch as we may consider it a sort of prototype of the tragic and almost diabolical reticence which we find in most premonitions. It is probable that under the mattress there was a stray match which the child discovered and struck; this is the only possible explanation of the catastrophe, for there was no fire burning on that floor of the house. If the mother had turned the mattress, she would have seen the match; and, on the other hand, she would certainly have turned the mattress if she had been told that there was a match underneath it. Why did the voice that urged her to perform the necessary action not add the one word that was capable of ensuring that action? The problem moreover is equally perturbing and perhaps equally insoluble whether it concern our own subconscious faculties, or spirits, or strange intelligences. Those who give these warnings must know that they will be useless, because they manifestly foresee the event as a whole; but they must also know that one last word, which they do not pronounce, would be enough to prevent the misfortune that is already consummated in their prevision. They know it so well that they bring this word to the very edge of the abyss, hold it suspended there, almost let it fall and re‑capture it suddenly at the moment when its weight would have caused happiness and life to rise once more to the surface of the mighty gulf. What then is this mystery? Is it incapacity or hostility? If they are incapable, what is the unexpected and sovran force that interposes between them and us? And, if they are hostile, on what, on whom are they revenging themselves? What can be the secret of those inhuman games, of those uncanny and cruel diversions on the most slippery and dangerous peaks of fate? Why warn, if they know that the warning will be in vain? Of whom are they making sport? Is there really an inflexible fatality by virtue of which that which has to be accomplished is accomplished from all eternity? But then why not respect silence, since all speech is useless? Or do they, in spite of all, perceive a gleam, a crevice in the inexorable wall? What hope do they find in it? Have they not seen more clearly than ourselves that no deliverance can come through that crevice? One could understand this fluttering and wavering, all these efforts of theirs, if they did not know; but here it is proved that they know everything, since they foretell exactly that which they might prevent. If we press them with questions, they answer that there is nothing to be done, that no human power could avert or thwart the issue. Are they mad, bored, irritable or accessory to a hideous pleasantry? Does our fate depend on the happy solution of some petty enigma or childish conundrum, even as our salvation, in most of the so-called revealed religions, is settled by a blind and stupid cast of the die? Is all the liberty that we are granted reduced to the reading of a more or less ingenious riddle? Can the great soul of the universe be the soul of a great baby?
But, rather than pursue this subject, let us be just and admit that there is perhaps no way out of the maze and that our reproaches are as incomprehensible as the conduct of the spirits. Indeed, what would you have them do in the circle in which our logic imprisons them? Either they foretell us a calamity which their predictions cannot avert, in which case there is no use in foretelling it, or, if they announce it to us and at the same time give us the means to prevent it, they do not really see the future and are foretelling nothing, since the calamity is not to take place, with the result that their action seems equally absurd in both cases.
It is obvious: to whichever side we turn, we find nothing but the incomprehensible. On the one hand, the pre-established, unshakable, unalterable future which we have called destiny, fatality or what you will, which suppresses man’s entire independence and liberty of action and which is the most inconceivable and the dreariest of mysteries; on the other, intelligence apparently superior to our own, since they know what we do not, which, while aware that their intervention is always useless and very often cruel, nevertheless come harassing us with their sinister and ridiculous predictions. Must we resign ourselves once more to living with our eyes shut and our reason drowned in the boundless ocean of darkness; and is there no outlet?
For the moment, we will not linger in the dark regions of fatality, which is the supreme mystery, the desolation of every effort and every thought of man. What is clearest amid this incomprehensibility is that the spiritualistic theory, at first sight the most seductive, declares itself, on examination, the most difficult to justify. We will also once more put aside the theosophical theory, or any other which assumes a divine intention and which might, to a certain extent, explain the hesitations and anguish of the prophetic warning, at the cost, however, of other puzzles, a thousand times as hard to solve, which nothing authorises us to substitute for the actual puzzle, formless and infinite, presented to our uninitiated vision.
When all is said, it is perhaps only in the theory which attributes those premonitions to our subconsciousness that we are able to find, if not a justification, at least a sort of explanation of that formidable reticence. They accord fairly well with the strange, inconsistent, whimsical and disconcerting character of the unknown entity within us that seems to live on nothing but nondescript fare borrowed from worlds to which our intelligence as yet has no access. It lives under our reason, in a sort of invisible and perhaps eternal palace, like a casual, unknown guest, dropped from another planet, whose interests, ideas, habits, passions have naught in common with ours. If it seems to have notions on the hereafter that are infinitely wider and more precise than those which we possess, it has only very vague notions on the practical needs of our existence. It ignores us for years, absorbed no doubt with the numberless relations which it maintains with all the mysteries of the universe; and, when suddenly it remembers us, thinking apparently to please us, it makes an enormous, miraculous, but at the same time clumsy and superfluous movement, which upsets all that we believed we knew, without teaching us anything. Is it making fun of us, is it jesting, is it amusing itself, is it facetious, teasing, arch, or simply sleepy, bewildered, inconsistent, absentminded? In any case, it is rather remarkable that it evidently dislikes to make itself useful. It readily performs the most glamorous feats of sleight-of- hand, provided that we can derive no profit from them. It lifts tables, moves the heaviest articles, produces flowers and hair, sets strings vibrating, gives life to inanimate objects and passes through solid matter, conjures up ghosts, subjugates time and space, creates light; but all, it seems, on one condition, that its performances should be without rhyme or reason and keep to the province of supernaturally vain and puerile recreations. The case of the divining-rod is almost the only one in which it lends us any regular assistance, this being a sort of game, of no great importance, in which it appears to take pleasure. Sometimes, to say all that can be said, it consents to cure certain ailments, cleanses an ulcer, closes a wound, heals a lung, strengthens or unstiffens an arm or leg, or even sets bones, but always as it were by accident, without reason, method or object, in a deceitful, illogical and preposterous fashion. One would set it down as a spoilt child that has been allowed to lay hands on the most tremendous secrets of heaven and earth; it has no suspicion of their power, jumbles them all up — and turns them — into paltry, inoffensive toys. It knows everything, perhaps, but is ignorant of the uses of its knowledge. It has its arms laden with treasures which it scatters in the wrong manner and at the wrong time, giving bread to the thirsty and water to the hungry, overloading those who refuse and stripping the suppliant bare, pursuing those who flee from it and fleeing from those who pursue it. Lastly, even at its best moments, it behaves as though the fate of the being in whose depths it dwells interested it hardly at all, as though it had but an insignificant share in his misfortunes, feeling assured, one might almost think, of an independent and endless existence.
It is not surprising therefore, when we know its habits, that its communications on the subject of the future should be as fantastic as the other manifestations of its knowledge or its power. Let us add, to be quite fair, that, in those warnings which we would wish to see efficacious, it stumbles against the same difficulties as the spirits or other alien intelligences uselessly foretelling the event which they cannot prevent, or annihilating the event by the very fact of foretelling it.
And now, to end the question, is this unknown guest of ours alone responsible? Does it explain itself badly or do we not understand it? When we look into the matter closely, there is, under those anomalous and confused manifestations, in spite of efforts which we feel to be enormous and persevering, a sort of incapacity for self-expression and action which is bound to attract our attention. Is our conscious and individual life separated by impenetrable worlds from our subconscious and probably universal life? Does our unknown guest speak an unknown language and do the words which it speaks and which we think that we understand disclose its thought? Is every direct road pitilessly barred and is there nothing left to it but narrow, closed paths, in which the best of what it had to reveal to us is lost? Is this the reason why it seeks those odd, childish, roundabout ways of automatic writing, cross-correspondence, symbolic premonition and all the rest? Yet, in the typical case which we have quoted, it seems to speak quite easily and plainly when it says to the mother:
“Turn the mattress.”
If it can utter this sentence, why should it find it difficult or impossible to add:
“You will there find the matches that will set fire to the curtains.”
What forbids it to do so and closes its mouth at the decisive moment? We relapse into the everlasting question: if it cannot complete the second sentence because it would be destroying in the womb the very event which it is foretelling, why does it utter the first?
But it is well, in spite of everything, to seek an explanation of the inexplicable; it is by attacking it on every side, at all hazards, that we cherish the hope of overcoming it; and we may therefore say to ourselves that our subconsciousness, when it warns us of a calamity that is about to befall us, knowing all the future as it does, necessarily knows that the calamity is already accomplished. As our conscious and unconscious lives blend in it, it distresses itself and flutters around our overconfident ignorance. It tries to inform us, through nervousness, through pity, so as to mitigate the lightning cruelty of the blow. It speaks all the words that can prepare us for its coming, define it and identify it; but it is unable to say those which would prevent it from coming, seeing that it has come, that it is already present and perhaps past, manifest, ineffaceable, on another plane than that on which we live, the only plane which we are capable of perceiving. It finds itself, in a word, in the position of the man who, in the midst of peaceful, happy and unsuspecting folk, alone knows some bad news. He is neither able nor willing to announce it nor yet to hide it completely. He hesitates, delays, makes more or less transparent allusions, but refrains from saying the last word that would, so to speak, let loose the catastrophe in the hearts of the people around him, for to those who do not know of it the catastrophe is still as though it were not there. Our subconsciousness, in that instance, would act towards the future as we act towards the past, the two conditions being identical, so much so that it often confuses them. It is of course impossible for us, at the stage which we have reached, to understand this confusion or this co-existence of the past, the present and the future; but that is no reason for denying it; on the contrary, what man understands least is probably that which most nearly approaches the truth.
Lastly, to complicate the question, it may be very justly objected that, though premonitions in general are useless and appear systematically to withhold the only indispensable and decisive words, there are, nevertheless, some that often seem to save those who obey them. These, it is true, are rarer than the first, but still they include a certain number that are well-authenticated. It remains to be seen how far they imply a. knowledge of the future.
Here, for instance, is a traveller who, arriving at night in a small unknown town and walking along the ill-lighted dock in the direction of an hotel of which he roughly knows the position, at a given moment feels an irresistible impulse to turn and go the other way. He instantly obeys, though his reason protests and “berates him for a fool” in taking a roundabout way to his destination. The next day he discovers that, if he had gone a few feet farther, he would certainly have slipped into the river; and, as he was but a feeble swimmer, he would just as certainly, being alone and unaided in the extreme darkness, have been drowned. 13
But is this a prevision of an event? No, for no event is to take place. There is simply an abnormal perception of the proximity of some unknown water and consequently of an imminent danger, an unexplained but fairly frequent subliminal sensitiveness. In a word, the problem of the future is not raised in this case, nor in any of the numerous cases that resemble it.
Here is another which evidently belongs to the same class, though at first sight it seems to postulate the pre-existence of a fatal event and a vision of the future corresponding exactly with a vision of the past. A traveller in South America is descending a river in a canoe; the party are just about to run close to a promontory when a sort of mysterious voice, which he has already heard at different momentous times of his life, imperiously orders him immediately to cross the river and gain the other shore as quickly as possible. This appears so absurd that he is obliged to threaten the Indians with death to force them to take this course. They have scarcely crossed more than half the river when the promontory falls at the very place where they meant to round it. 14
The perception of imminent danger is here, I admit, even more abnormal than in the previous example, but it comes under the same heading. It is a phenomenon of subliminal hypersensitiveness observed more than once, a sort of premonition induced by subconscious perceptions, which has been christened by the barbarous name of “cryptaesthesia.” But the interval between the moment when the peril is signalled and that at which it is consummated is too short for those questions which relate to a knowledge or a pre-existence of the future to arise in this instance.
The case is almost the same with the adventure of an American dentist, very carefully investigated by Dr. Hodgson. The dentist was bending over a bench on which was a little copper in which he was vulcanising some rubber, when he heard a voice calling, in a quick and imperative manner, these words:
“Run to the window, quick! Run to the window, quick!”
He at once ran to the window and looked out to the street below, when suddenly he heard a tremendous report and, looking round, saw that the copper had exploded, destroying a great part of the workroom. 15
Here again, a subconscious cautiousness was probably aroused by certain indications imperceptible to our ordinary senses. It is even possible that there exists between things and ourselves a sort of sympathy or subliminal communion which makes us experience the trials and emotions of matter that has reached the limits of its existence, unless, as is more likely, there is merely a simple coincidence between the chance idea of a possible explosion and its realisation.
A last and rather more complicated case is that of Jean Dupré, the sculptor, who was driving alone with his wife along a mountain road, skirting a perpendicular cliff. Suddenly they both heard a voice that seemed to come from the mountain crying:
They turned round, and saw nobody and continued their road. But the cries were repeated again and again, without anything to reveal the presence of a human being amid the solitude. At last the sculptor alighted and saw that the left wheel of the carriage, which was grazing the edge of the precipice, had lose its linch-pin and was on the point of leaving the axle-tree, which would almost inevitably have hurled the carriage into the abyss.
Need we, even here, relinquish the theory of subconscious perceptions? Do we know and can the author of the anecdote, whose good faith is not in question, tell us that certain unperceived circumstances, such as the grating of the wheel or the swaying of the carriage, did not give him the first alarm? After all, we know how easily stories of this kind involuntarily take a dramatic turn even at the actual moment and especially afterwards.
These examples — and there are many more of a similar kind — are enough, I think, to illustrate this class of premonitions. The problem in these cases is simpler than when it relates to fruitless warnings; at least it is simpler so long as we do not bring into discussion the question of spirits, of unknown intelligences, or of an actual knowledge of the future; otherwise the same difficulty reappears and the warning, which this time seems efficacious, is in reality just as vain. In fact, the mysterious entity which knows that the traveller will go to the water’s edge, that the wheel will be on the point of leaving the axle, that the copper will explode, or that the promontory will fall at a precise moment, must at the same time know that the traveller will not take the last fatal step, that the carriage will not be overturned, that the copper will not hurt anybody and that the canoe will pull away from the promontory. It is inadmissible that, seeing one thing, it will not see the other, since everything happens at the same point, in the course of the same second. Can we say that, if it had not given warning, the little saving movement would not have been executed? How can we imagine a future which, at one and the same time, has parts that are steadfast and others that are not? If it is foreseen that the promontory will fall and that the traveller will escape, thanks to the supernatural warning, it is necessarily foreseen that the warning will be given; and, if so, what is the point of this futile comedy? I see no reasonable explanation of it in the spiritist or spiritualistic theory, which postulates a complete knowledge of the future, at least at a settled point and moment. On the other hand, if we adhere to the theory of a subliminal consciousness, we find there an explanation which is quite worthy of acceptation. This subliminal consciousness, though, in the majority of cases, it has no clear and comprehensive vision of the immediate future, can nevertheless possess an intuition of imminent danger, thanks to indications that escape our ordinary perception. It can also have a partial, intermittent and so to speak flickering vision of the future event and, if doubtful, can risk giving an incoherent warning, which, for that matter, will change nothing in that which already is.
In conclusion, let us state once more that fruitful premonitions necessarily annihilate events in the bud and consequently work their own destruction, so that any control becomes impossible. They would have an existence only if they prophesied a general event which the subject would not escape but for the warning. If they had said to any one intending to go to Messina two or three months before the catastrophe, “Don’t go, for the town will be destroyed before the month is out,” we should have an excellent example. But it is a remarkable thing that genuine premonitions of this kind are very rare and nearly always rather indefinite in regard to events of a general order. In M. Bozzano’s excellent collection, which is a sort of compendium of premonitory phenomena, the only pretty clear cases are nos. clv. and clviii., both of which are taken from the Journal of the S.P.R. In the first, 16 a mother sent a servant to bring home her little daughter, who had already left the house with the intention of going through the “railway garden,” a strip of ground between the sea-wall and the railway-embankment, in order to sit on the great stones by the seaside and see the trains pass by. A few minutes after the little girl’s departure, the mother had distinctly and repeatedly heard a voice within her say:
“Send for her back, or something dreadful will happen to her.”
Now, soon after, a train ran off the line and the engine and tender fell, breaking through the protecting wall and crashing down on the very stones where the child was accustomed to sit.
In the other case, 17 into which Professor W. F. Barrett made a special enquiry, Captain MacGowan was in Brooklyn with his two boys, then on their holidays. He promised the boys that he would take them to the theatre and booked seats on the previous day; but on the day of the proposed visit he heard a voice within him constantly saying:
“Do not go to the theatre; take the boys back to school.”
He hesitated, gave up his plan and resumed it again. But the words kept repeating themselves and impressing themselves upon him; and, in the end, he definitely decided not to go, much to the two boys’ disgust. That night, the theatre was destroyed by fire, with a loss of three hundred lives.
We may add to this the prevision of the Battle of Borodino, to which I have already alluded. I will give the story in fuller detail, as told in the journal of Stephen Grellet the Quaker.
About three months before the French army entered Russia, the wife of General Toutschkoff dreamt that she was at an inn in a town unknown to her and that her father came into her room, holding her only son by the hand, and said to her, in a pitiful tone:
“Your happiness is at an end. He” — meaning Countess Toutschkoff’s husband — “has fallen. He has fallen at Borodino.”
The dream was repeated a second and a third time. Her anguish of mind was such that she awoke her husband and asked him:
“Where is Borodino?”
They looked for the name on the map and did not find it.
Before the French armies reached Moscow, Count Toutschkoff was placed at the head of the army of reserve; and one morning her father, holding her son by the hand, entered her room at the inn where she was staying. In great distress, as she had beheld him in her dream, he cried out:
“He has fallen. He has fallen at Borodino.”
Then she saw herself in the very same room and through the windows beheld the very same objects that she had seen in her dreams. Her husband was one of the many who perished in the battle fought near the River Borodino, from which an obscure village takes its name. 18
This is evidently a very rare and perhaps solitary example of a long-dated prediction of a great historic event which nobody could foresee. It stirs more deeply than any other the enormous problems of fatality, free-will and responsibility. But has it been attested with sufficient rigour for us to rely upon it? That I cannot say. In any case, it has not been sifted by the S.P.R. Next, from the special point of view that interests us for the moment, we are unable to declare that this premonition had any chance of being of avail and preventing the general from going to Borodino. It is highly probable that he did not know where he was going or where he was; besides, the irresistible machinery of war held him fast and it was not his part to disengage his destiny. The premonition therefore could only have been given because it was certain not to be obeyed.
As for the two previous cases, nos. clv. and clviii., we must here again remark the usual strange reservations and observe how difficult it is to explain these premonitions save by attributing them to our subconsciousness. The main, unavoidable event is not precisely stated; but a subordinate consequence seems to be averted, as though to make us believe in some definite power of free-will. Nevertheless, the mysterious entity that foresaw the catastrophe must also have foreseen that nothing would happen to the person whom it was warning; and this brings us back to the useless farce of which we spoke above. Whereas, with the theory of a subconscious self, the latter may have — as in the case of the traveller, the promontory, the copper or the carriage — not this time by inferences or indications that escape our perception, but by other unknown means, a vague presentment of an impending peril, or, as I have already said, a partial, intermittent and unsettled vision of the future event, and, in its doubt, may utter its cry of alarm.
Whereupon let us recognise that it is almost forbidden to human reason to stray in these regions; and that the part of a prophet is, next to that of a commentator of prophecies, one of the most difficult and thankless that a man can attempt to sustain on the world’s stage.
I am not sure if it is really necessary, before closing this chapter, to follow in the wake of many others and broach the problem of the pre-existence of the future, which includes those of fatality, of free-will, of time and of space, that is to say, all the points that touch the essential sources of the great mystery of the universe. The theologians and the metaphysicians have tackled these problems from every side without giving us the least hope of solving them. Among those which life sets us, there is none to which our brain seems more definitely and strictly closed; and they remain, if not as unimaginable, at least as incomprehensible as on the day when they were first perceived. What corresponds, outside us, with what we call time and space? We know nothing about it; and Kant, speaking in the name of the “apriorists,” who hold that the idea of time is innate in us, does not teach us much when he tells us that time, like space, is an a priori form of our sensibility, that is to say, an intuition preceding experience, even as Guyau, among the “empiricists,” who consider that this idea is acquired only by experience, does not enlighten us any more by declaring that this same time is the abstract formula of the changes in the universe. Whether space, as Leibnitz maintains, be an order of coexistence and time an order of sequences, whether it be by space that we succeed in representing time or whether time be an essential form of any representation, whether time be the father of space or space the father of time, one thing is certain, which is that the efforts of the Kantian or neo-Kantian apriorists and of the pure empiricists and the idealistic empiricists all end in the same darkness; that all the philosophers who have grappled with the formidable dual problem, among whom one may mention indiscriminately the names of the greatest thinkers of yesterday and to-day — Herbert Spencer, Helmholtz, Renouvier, James Sully, Stumpf, James Ward, William James, Stuart Mill, Ribot, Fouillée, Guyau, Bain, Lechalas, Balmès, Dunan and endless others — have been unable to tame it; and that, however much their theories may contradict one another, they are all equally defensible and alike struggle vainly in the darkness against shadows that are not of our world.
To catch a glimpse of this strange problem of the pre-existence of the future, as it shows itself to each of us, let us essay more humbly to translate it into tangible images, to place it as it were upon the stage. I am writing these lines sitting on a stone, in the shade of some tall beeches that overlook a little Norman village. It is one of those lovely summer days when the sweetness of life is almost visible in the azure vase of earth and sky. In the distance stretches the immense, fertile valley of the Seine, with its green meadows planted with restful trees, between which the river flows like a long path of gladness leading to the misty hills of the estuary. I am looking down on the village-square, with its ring of young lime-trees. A procession leaves the church and, amid prayers and chanting, they carry the statute of the Virgin around the sacred pile. I am conscious of all the details of the ceremony: the sly old curé perfunctorily bearing a small reliquary; four choirmen opening their mouths to bawl forth vacantly the Latin words which convey nothing to them; two mischievous serving-boys in frayed cassocks; a score of little girls, young girls and old maids in white, all starched and flounced, followed by six or seven village notables in baggy frockcoats. The pageant disappears behind the trees, comes into sight again at the bend of the road and hurries back into the church. The clock in the steeple strikes five, as though to ring down the curtain and mark in the infinite history of events which none will recollect the conclusion of a spectacle which never again, until the end of the world and of the universe of worlds, will be just what it was during those seconds when it beguiled my wandering eyes.
For in vain will they repeat the procession next year and every year after: never again will it be the same. Not only will several of the actors probably have disappeared, but all those who resume their old places in the ranks will have undergone the thousand little visible and invisible changes wrought by the passing days and weeks. In a ‘ word, this insignificant moment is unique, irrecoverable, inimitable, as are all the moments in the existence of all things; and this little picture, enduring for a few seconds suspended in boundless duration, has lapsed into eternity, where henceforth it will remain in its entirety to the end of time, so much so that, if a man could one day recapture in the past, among what some one has called the “astral negatives,” the image of what it was, he would find it intact, unchanged, ineffaceable and undeniable.
It is not difficult for us to conceive that one can thus go back and see again the astral negative of an event that is no more; and retrospective clairvoyance appears to us a wonderful but not an impossible thing. It astonishes but does not stagger our reason. But, when it becomes a question of discovering the same picture in the future, the boldest imagination flounders at the first step. How are we to admit that there exists somewhere a representation or reproduction of that which has not yet existed? Nevertheless, some of the incidents which we have just been considering seem to prove in an almost conclusive manner not only that such representations are possible, but that we may arrive at them more frequently, not to say more conveniently, than at those of the past. Now, once this representation pre-exists, as we are obliged to admit in the case of a certain number of premonitions, the riddle remains the same whether the pre-existence be one of a few hours, a few years or several centuries.
It is therefore possible — for, in these matters, we must go straight to extremes or else leave them alone — it is therefore possible that a seer mightier than any of to-day, some god, demigod or demon, some unknown, universal or vagrant intelligence, saw that procession a million years ago, at a time when nothing existed of that which composes and surrounds it and when the very earth on which it moves had not yet risen from the ocean depths. And other seers, as mighty as the first, who from age to age contemplated the same spot and the same moment, would always have perceived, through the vicissitudes and upheavals of seas, shores and forests, the same procession going round the same little church that still lay slumbering in the oceanic ooze and made up of the same persons sprung from a race that was perhaps not yet represented on the earth.
It is obviously difficult for us to understand that the future can thus precede chaos, that the present is at the same time the future and the past, or that that which is not yet exists already at the same time at which it is no more. But, on the other hand, it is just as hard to conceive that the future does not pre-exist, that there is nothing before the present and that everything is only present or past. It is very probable that, to a more universal intelligence than ours, everything is but an eternal present, an immense punctum stanes, as the metaphysicians say, in which all the events are on one plane; but it is no less probable that we ourselves, so long as we are men, in order to understand anything of this eternal present, will always be obliged to divide it into three parts. Thus caught between two mysteries equally baffling to our intelligence, whether we deny or admit the pre-existence of the future, we are really only wrangling over words: in the one case, we give the name of “present,” from the point of view of a perfect intelligence, to that which to us is the future; in the other, we give the name of “future” to that which, from the point of view of a perfect intelligence, is the present. But, after all, it is incontestable in both cases that, at least from our point of view, the future pre-exists, since pre-existence is the only name by which we can describe and the only form under which we can conceive that which we do not yet see in the present.
Attempts have been made to shed light on the riddle by transferring it to space. It is true that it there loses the greater part of its obscurity; but this apparently is because, in changing its environment, it has completely changed its nature and no longer bears any relation to what it was when it was placed in time. We are told, for instance, that innumerable cities distributed over the surface of the earth are to us as if they were not, so long as we have not seen them, and only begin to exist on the day when we visit them. That is true; but space, outside all metaphysical speculations, has realities for us which time does not possess. Space, although very mysterious and incomprehensible once we pass certain limits, is nevertheless not, like time, incomprehensible and illusory in all its parts. We are certainly quite able to conceive that those towns which we have never seen and doubtless never will see indubitably exist, whereas we find it much more difficult to imagine that the catastrophe which, fifty years hence, will annihilate one of them already exists as really as the town itself. We are capable of picturing a spot whence, with keener eyes than those which we boast to-day, we should see in one glance all the cities of the earth and even those of other worlds, but it is much less easy for us to imagine a point in the ages whence we should simultaneously discover the past, the present and the future, because the past, the present and the future are three orders of duration which cannot find room at the same time in our intelligence and which inevitably devour one another. How can we picture to ourselves, for instance, a point in eternity at which our little procession already exists, while it is not yet and although it is no more? Add to this the thought that it is necessary and inevitable, from the millenaries which had no beginning, that, at a given moment, at a given place, the little procession should leave the little church in a given manner and that no known or imaginable will can change anything in it, in the future any more than in the past; and we begin to understand that there is no hope of understanding.
We find among the cases collected by M. Bozzano a singular premonition wherein the unknown factors of space and time are continued in a very curious fashion. In August, 1910, Cavaliere Giovanni de Figueroa, one of the most famous fencing masters at Palermo, dreamt that he was in the country, going along a road white with dust, which brought him to a broad ploughed field. In the middle of the field stood a rustic building, with a ground-floor used for store-rooms and cow-sheds and on the right a rough hut made of branches and a cart with some harness lying in it.
A peasant wearing dark trousers with a black felt hat on his head, came forward to meet him, asked him to follow him and took him around behind the house. Through a low, narrow door they entered a little stable with a short, winding stone staircase leading to a loft over the entrance to the house. A mule fastened to a swinging manger was blocking the bottom step; and the chevalier had to push it aside before climbing the staircase. On reaching the loft, he noticed that from the ceiling were suspended strings of melons, tomatoes, onions and Indian corn. In this room were two women and a little girl; and through a door leading to another room he caught sight of an extremely high bed, unlike any that he had ever seen before.
Here the dream broke off. It seemed to him so strange that he spoke of it to several of his friends, whom he mentions by name and who are ready to confirm his statements.
On the 12th of October in the same year, in order to support a fellow-townsman in a duel, he accompanied the seconds, by motor-car, from Naples to Marano, a place which he had never visited nor even heard of. As soon as they were some way in the country, he was curiously impressed by the white and rusty road. The car pulled up at the side of a field which he at once recognised. They alighted; and he remarked to one of the seconds:
“This is not the first time that I have been here. There should be a house at the end of this path and on the right a hut and a cart with some harness in it.”
As a matter of fact, everything was as he described it. An instant later, at the exact moment foreseen by the dream, the peasant in the dark trousers and the black felt hat came up and asked him to follow him. But, instead of walking behind him, the chevalier went in front, for he already knew the way. He found the stable and, exactly at the place which it occupied two months before, near its swinging manger, the mule blocking the way to the staircase. The fencing-master went up the steps and once more saw the loft, with the ceiling hung with melons, onions and tomatoes, and, in a corner on the right, the two silent women and the child, identical with the figures in his dream, while in the next room he recognised the bed whose uncommon height had so much impressed him.
It really looks as if the facts themselves, the extramundane realities, the eternal verities, or whatever we may be pleased to call them, have tried to show us here that time and space are one and the same illusion, one and the same convention and have no existence outside our little day-spanned understanding; that “everywhere” and “always” are exactly synonymous terms and reign alone as soon as we cross the narrow boundaries of the obscure consciousness in which we live. We are quite ready to admit that Cavaliere de Figueroa may have had by clairvoyance an exact and detailed vision of places which he was not to visit until later: this is a pretty frequent and almost classical phenomenon, which, as it affects the realities of space, does not astonish us beyond measure and, in any case, does not take us out of the world which our senses perceive. The field, the house, the hut, the loft do not move; and it is no miracle that they should be found in the same place. But, suddenly, quitting this domain where all is stationary, the phenomenon is transferred to time and, in those unknown places, at the foretold second, brings together all the moving actors of that little drama in two acts, of which the first was performed some two and a half months before, in the depths of some mysterious other life where it seemed to be motionlessly and irrevocably awaiting its terrestrial realisation. Any explanation would but condense this vapour of petty mysteries into a few drops in the ocean of mysteries.
Let us note again, in passing, the strange freakishness of these premonitions. They accumulate the most precise and circumstantial details as long as the scene insignificant, but come to a sudden stop before the one tragic and interesting scene of the drama: the duel and its issue. We here once more recognise the inconsistent, impotent, ironical or humorous habits of our unknown guest.
But we will not prolong these somewhat vain speculations concerning space and time. We are merely playing with words that represent very badly ideas which we do not put into form at all. To sum up, while it is difficult for us to conceive that the future pre-exists, perhaps it is even more difficult for us to understand that it does not exist; moreover, a certain number of facts tend to prove that it is as real and definite and has, both in time and in eternity, the same permanence and the same vividness as the past. Now, from the moment that it pre-exists, it is not surprising that we should be able to know it; it is even astonishing, granted
1 Proceedings, Vols. V. and XI. 129
2 Maxwell, Metapsychical Phenomena, p. 202.
3 Xenoglossy is well known not to be unusual in automatic writing; sometimes even the “automatist” speaks or writes languages of which he is completely ignorant. The Latin and Greek passages are translated as follows:
“This is what I have wanted, at last. Justice and joy speak a word to the wise. A. W. V. and perhaps some one else. Chalk sticking to the feet has got over the difficulty. You help greatly by always persevering. Now I can write a name — thus, here it is!”
4 Proceedings, Vol. XI., p. 493.
5 Proceedings, Vol. XI., p. 505.
6 Proceedings, Vol. XI., p. 545.
7 A. J. C. KERNER, Die Seherin von Prevorst.
8 Light, 1907, p. 219. The crime was committed in Paris and made a great stir at the time.
9 LADY BURTON, The Life of Captain Sir Richd. F. Burton, K.C.M.G., Vol. I., p. 253.
10 Journal of the Society for the Psychical Research, Vol. IX., p. 15.
11 Proceedings. Vol. XX., p. 331.
12 Proceedings, Vol. XIV., p. 266.
13 Proceedings, Vol. XI., p. 422.
14 Flournoy, Esprits et médiums, p. 316.
15Proceedings, Vol. XI., p. 424.
16 Journal, Vol. VIII., p. 45.
17 Journal, Vol. L, p. 283.
18 Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Stephen Grellet, Vol. I., p. 434.