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THE FORETELLING OF THE FUTURE

I

     IT is, in certain respects, quite inexplicable that we should not know the Future. Probably a mere nothing, the displacement of a cerebral lobe, the resetting of Broca's convolution in a different manner, the addition of a slender network of nerves to those which form our consciousness: any one of these would be enough to make the future unfold itself before us with the same clearness, the same majestic amplitude as that with which the past is displayed on the horizon not only of our individual life, but also of the life of the species to which we belong. A singular infirmity, a curious limitation of our intellect causes us not to know what is going to happen to us, when we are fully aware of all that has befallen us. From the absolute point of view to which our imagination succeeds in rising, although it cannot live there, there is no reason why we should not see that which does not yet exist, considering that that which does not yet exist in its relation to us must needs already have its being and manifest itself somewhere. If not, it would have to be said that, where Time is concerned, we form the centre of the world, that we are the only witnesses for whom events wait so that they may have the right to appear and to count in the eternal history of causes and effects. It would be as absurd to assert this for Time as it would be for Space, that other not quite so incomprehensible form of the twofold infinite mystery in which our whole llfe floats.

     Space is more familiar to us, because the accidents of our organism place us more directly in relation with it and make it more concrete. We can move in it pretty freely, in a certain number of directions before and behind us. That is why no traveller would take it into his head to maintain that the towns which he has not yet visited will become real only at the moment when he sets his foot within their walls. Yet this is very nearly what we do when we persuade ourselves that an event which has not yet happened does not yet exist.

II

     But I do not intend, in the wake of so many others, to lose myself in the most insoluble of enigmas. Let us say no more about it, except this alone, that Time is a mystery which we have arbitrarily divided into a Past and a Future, in order to try to understand something of it. In itself we may be almost certain that it is but an immense eternal, motionless Present, in which all that takes place and all that will take place takes place immutably, in which To-Morrow, save in the ephemeral mind of man, is indistinguishable from Yesterday or To-Day.

     One would say that man had always the feeling that a mere infirmity of his mind separates him from the Future. He knows it to be there, living, actual, perfect, behind a kind of wall around which he has never ceased to turn since the first days of his coming on this earth. Or rather, he feels it within himself and known to a part of himself: only, that importunate and disquieting knowledge is unable to travel, through the too narrow channels of his senses, to his consciousness, which is the only place where knowledge acquires a name, a useful strength and, so to speak, the freedom of the human city. It is only by glimmers, by casual and passing infiltrations that future years of which he is full, of which the imperious realities surround him on every hand, penetrate to his brain. He marvels that an extraordinary accident should have closed almost hermetically to the Future that brain which plunges into it entirely, even as a sealed vessel plunges, without mixing with it, into the depths of a monstrous sea that overwhelms it, entreats it, teases it and caresses it with a thousand billows.

     At all times, man has tried to find crannies in that wall, to provoke infiltrations into that vessel, to pierce the partitions that separate his reason, which knows scarcely anything, from his instinct, which knows all, but cannot make use of its knowledge. It seems as though he must have succeeded more than once. There have been visionaries, prophets, sibyls, pythonesses, in whom a distemper, a spontaneously or artificially hypertrophied nervous system permitted unwonted communications to be established between consciousness and unconsciousness, between the life of the individual and that of the species, between man and his hidden god. They have left evidences of this capacity which are as irrefutable as any other historical evidence. On the other hand, as those strange interpreters, those great mysterious hysterics, along whose nerves thus circulated and mingled the Present and the Past, were rare, men discovered, or thought that they discovered, empirical processes to enable them almost mechanically to read the ever-present and irritating riddle of the Future. They flattered themselves that, in this manner, they could consult the unconscious knowledge of things and beasts. Thence came the interpretation of the flight of birds, of the entrails of victims, of the course of the stars, of fire, water, dreams and all the methods of divination that have been handed down to us by the authors of antiquity.

III

     I thought it curious to inquire where this science of the Future stands to-day. It no longer has the splendour nor the hardihood of old. It no longer forms part of the public and religious life of nations. The Present and the Past reveal so many prodi. gies to us that these suffice to amuse our thirst for marvels. Absorbed as we are in what is or was, we have almost given up asking what might be or will be. However, the old and venerable science, so deeply rooted in man's infallible instinct, is not abandoned. It is no longer practised in broad daylight. It has taken shelter in the darkest corners, in the most vulgar, credulous, ignorant and despised environments. It employs innocent or childish methods; nevertheless, it, too, has in a certain measure evolved, like other things. It neglects the majority of the processes of primitive divination; it has found others, often eccentric, sometimes ludicrous, and has been able to profit by some few discoveries that were by no means intended for it.

     I have followed it into its dark retreats. I wished to see it, not in books, but at work, in real life, and among the humble faithful who have confidence in it and who daily apply to it for advice and encouragement. I went to it in good faith: unbelieving, but ready to believe; without prejudice and without a predetermined smile: for, if we must admit no miracle blindly, it is worse blindly to laugh at it; and in every obstinate error there lurks, usually, an excellent truth that awaits the hour of birth.



IV

     Few towns would have offered me a wider or more fruitful field of experiment than Paris. I therefore made my investigations there. I began by selecting a moment at which a certain project, whose realization (which did not depend upon myself alone) was to be of great importance to me, was hanging in suspense. I will not enter into the details of the business, which has very little interest in itself. It is enough to know that around this project were a crowd of intrigues and many powerful and hostile wills, fighting against my own. The forces were evenly balanced, and it was impossible, according to human logic, to foresee which would win the day. I therefore had very precise questions to put to the Future: a necessary condition; for, if many people complain that it tells them nothing, this is often because they consult it at a moment when nothing is preparing on the horizon of their existence.

     I went successively to see the astrologers, the palmists, the fallen and familiar sibyls who flatter themselves that they can read the Future in the cards, in coffee-grounds, in the inflorescence of white of egg dissolved in a glass of water, and so on (for nothing must be neglected, and, though the apparatus be sometimes singular, it may happen that a particle of truth lies concealed under the absurdest practices). I went, above all, to see the most famous of the prophetesses who, under the names of clairvoyants, seers, mediums, and the rest, are able to substitute for their own consciousness the consciousness and even a portion of the unconsciousness of their interrogators and who are, in the main, the most direct heiresses of the pythonesses of old. In this ill-balanced world, I met with much knavery, simulation and gross lying. But I had also the occasion to study certain incontestable phenomena close at hand. These are not enough to decide whether it be given to man to rend the tissue of illusions that hides the Future from him; but they throw a somewhat strange light upon that which passes in the place which to us seems the most inviolable, I mean the holy of holies of the "Buried Temple," in which our most intimate thoughts and the forces that lie beneath them and are unknown to us go in and out Without our knowledge and grope in search of the mysterious road that leads to future events.

V

     It would be wearisome to relate what happened to me with those prophets and seers. I will content myself with briefly telling one of the most curious experiences, which, moreover, sums up most of the others: the psychology of them all is very nearly identical.

     The seer in question is one of the most famous in Paris. She claims to incarnate, in her hypnotic state, the spirit of an unknown little girl called Julia. Having made me sit down at a table that stood between us, she begged me to tutoyer Julia and to speak to her gently, as one speaks to a child of seven or eight years. Thereupon, her features, her eyes, her hands, her whole body were for some seconds unpleasantly convulsed; her hair came untied; and the expression of her face changed completely and became artless, puerile. The voice, shrill and clear, of a small child next came from that great, ripe woman's body and asked with a little lisp:

     "What do you want ? Are you troubled? Is it for yourself or for some one else that you have come to see me?"

     "For myself."

     "Very well; will you help me a little? Lead me in thought to the place where your troubles are."

     I concentrated my attention on the project in which I was engrossed and on the different actors in the, as yet, hidden little drama. Then, gradually, after some preliminary gropings, and without my helping her with a word or gesture, she really penetrated into my thoughts, read them, so to speak, as a slightly veiled book, placed the situation of the scene most accurately, recognized the principal characters and described them summarily, with hopping and childish, but quaintly correct and precise little touches.

     "That's very good, Julia," I then said, "but I know all that; what you ought to tell me is what is going to happen later."

     "What is going to happen, what is going to happen . . . you want to know all that is going to happen, but it's very difficult..."

     "But still? How will the business end? Shall I win?"

     "Yes, yes, I see; don't be afraid, I'll help you; you will be pleased . . ."

     "But the enemy of whom you told me; the one who is resisting me and who wishes me ill..."

     "No, no, he wishes you no ill, it's because of some one else... I can't see why . . He hates him . . . Oh, he hates him, he hates him! And it is because you like the other one so much that he does not want you to do for him what you wish to do." What she said was true.

     "But tell me," I insisted, "will he go on to the end, will he not yield?"

     "Oh, do not fear him . . . I see, he is ill; he will not live long."

     "You are mistaken, Julia; I saw him two days ago; he is quite well."

     "No, no, he is ill . . . It doesn't show, but he is very ill..., he must die soon . . ."

     "But how, in that case, and why?"

     "There is blood upon him, around him, everywhere . . ."

     "Blood? Is it a duel?" (I had thought, for a moment, that I might be called upon to fight my adversary.) "An accident, a murder, a revenge?" (He was an unjust and unscrupulous man, who had done much harm to many people.)

     "No, no, ask me no more, I am very tired . . . Let me go . . ."

     "Not before I know . . ."

     "No, I can tell you nothing more . . . I am too tired . . . Let me go . . . Be good, I will help you . . ."

     The same attack as at first then convulsed the body, in which the little voice had ceased; and the mask of forty years again covered the face of the woman, who seemed to be waking from a long sleep.

     Is it necessary to add that we had never seen each other before this meeting and that we knew as little of each other as though we had been born on different planets?

VI

     Similar in the main, with less characteristic and less convincing details, were the results of most of the experiments in which the clairvoyants were unfeignedly asleep. In order to make a sort of countertest, I sent two persons of whose intelligence and good faith I was assured, to see the woman whom Julia had chosen as her interpreter. Like myself, they had to put to the Future a precise and important question, which chance or destiny alone could solve. To one of them, who consulted her on a friend's illness, Julia foretold the near death of that friend, and the event verified her prediction, although, at the moment when she made it, a cure seemed infinitely more probable than death. To the other, who asked her how a law-suit would end, she replied somewhat evasively on that point; by way of compensation she spontaneously revealed the spot where lay a certain object which had been very precious to the person consulting her, but which had been so long lost and so often looked for in vain that this person was persuaded that he had ceased to think about it.

     In so far as I am concerned, Julia's prophecy was realized in part, that is to say, although ! did not triumph in respect of the main point, the affair was nevertheless arranged in a satisfactory manner. As for the death of my adversary, it has not yet occurred; and gladly do I dispense the Future from keeping the promise which it made me by the innocent mouth of the child of an unknown world.

VII

     It is very astonishing that others can thus penetrate into the last refuge of our being and there, better than ourselves, read thoughts and sentiments at times forgotten or rejected, but always long-lived, or as yet unformulated. It is really disconcerting that a stranger should see further than ourselves into our own hearts. That sheds a singular light on the nature of our inner lives. It is vain for us to keep watch upon ourselves, to shut ourselves up within ourselves: our consciousness is not watertight, it escapes, it does not belong to us; and, though it requires special circumstances for another to instal himself there and take possession of it, nevertheless it is certain that, in normal life, our spiritual tribunal, our for intérieur – as the French have called it, with that profound intuition which we often discover in the etymology of words – is a kind of forum, or spiritual market-place, in which the majority of those who have business there come and go at will, look about them and pick out the truths, in a very different fashion and much more freely than we would have believed.

     But let us leave this point, which is not the object of our study. What I should like to unravel in Julia's predictions is the unknown part foreign to myself. Did she go beyond what I knew? I do not think so. When she spoke to me of the fortunate issue of the affair, this was, upon the whole, the issue which I anticipated and which the selfish and unavowed part of my instinct desired more keenly than the complete triumph which another and more generous sentiment made it incumbent on me to pursue and hope for, although I knew it to be, in its essence, impossible. When she foretold the death of my adversary, she was but revealing a secret wish of that same instinct, one of those dastardly and shameful wishes which we hide from ourselves and which never rise to the surface of our thought. There would be no real prophecy in this, except if, against all expectation, against all likelihood, that death should occur, suddenly, within a short time hence. But, even if it were shortly to occur, it would not, I think, be the Pythian that would have fathomed the Future, but I, my instinct, my unconscious being, that would have foreseen an event with which it was connected. It would have read the pages of Time, not absolutely and as though in an universal book where all that is to take place is written, but by me, through me, in my private intuition, and would but have translated what my unconsciousness was unable to communicate to my thought.

     It was the same, I imagine, with the two persons who went to consult her. That one to whom she foretold the death of a friend probably, in spite of the assurance which reason gave to friendship, had the inner conviction, either natural or conjectural, but violently suppressed, that the sick man would die; and it was this conviction which the clairvoyant discerned amid the sweet hopes that strove to deceive it. As for the second, who unexpectedly recovered a mislaid object, it is difficult to know the state of another's mind with sufficient exactness to decide whether this was a case of second sight, or simply of recollection. Was he who had lost the object absolutely ignorant of the place and circumstances in which he had lost it? He says so; he declares that he never had the least notion: that, on the contrary, he was persuaded that the object had been not mislaid, but stolen, and that he had never ceased to suspect one of his servants. But it is possible that, while his intelligence, his waking ego, paid no attention to it, the unconscious and as though sleeping portion of himself may very well have remarked and remembered the place where the object had been put. Thence, by a miracle no less surprising, but of a different order, the seer would have found and awakened the latent and almost animal memory and brought it to human light which it had vainly tried to reach.

VIII

     Could this be the case with all predictions? Were the prophecies of the great prophets, the oracles of the sibyls, witches, pythonesses content thus to reflect, translate, raise to the level of the intelligible world the instinctive clairvoyance of the individuals or peoples that listened to them? Let each accept the reply or the hypothesis which his own experience suggests to him. I have given mine with the simplicity and sincerity which a question of this nature demands.1

     To resume my inquiry. In so far, then, as concerns that formidable unknown which stretches before us, I found nothing conclusive, nothing decisive; and yet, I repeat, it is almost incredible that we should not know the Future. I can imagine that we stand opposite to it as though opposite to a forgotten past. We might try to remember it. It would be a question of inventing or re-discovering the road taken by that memory which precedes us.

     I can conceive that we are not qualified to know beforehand the disturbances of the elements, the destiny of the planets of the earth, of empires, peoples and races. All this does not touch us directly, and we know it in the past thanks only to the artifices of history. But that which regards us, that which is within our reach, that which is to unfold itself within the little sphere of years, a secretion of our spiritual organism, that envelops us in Time, even as the shell or the cocoon envelops the mollusc or the insect in Space; that, together with all the external events relating to it, is probably recorded in that sphere. In any case, it would be much more natural that it were so recorded than comprehensible that it were not. There we have realities struggling with an illusion; and there is nothing to prevent us from believing that, here as elsewhere, realities will end by overcoming illusion. Realities are what will happen to us, having already happened in the history that overhangs our own, the motionless and superhuman history of the universe. Illusion is the opaque veil woven with the ephemeral threads called Yesterday, To-day and To-Morrow, which we embroider on those realities. But it is not indispensable that our existence should continue the eternal dupe of that illusion. We may even ask ourselves whether our extraordinary unfitness for knowing a thing so simple, so incontestable, so perfect and so unnecessary as the Future, would not form one of the greatest subjects for astonishment to an inhabitant of another star who should visit us.

     To-day, all this appears to us so profoundly impossible that we find it difficult to imagine how the certain reality of the Future would refute the objections which we make to it in the name of the organic illusion of our minds. We say to it, for instance: If, at the moment of undertaking an affair, we could know that its outcome would be unfortunate, we should not undertake it; and, since it must be written somewhere, in Time, before our question has been put, that the affair will not take place, seeing that we abandon it, we could not, therefore, foresee the outcome of that which will have no beginning.

     So as not to lose ourselves in this road, which would lead us whither nothing calls us, it will be enough for us to say that the Future, like all that exists, is probably more coherent and more logical than the logic of our imagination and that all our hesitations and uncertainties are included in its provisions.

     Moreover, we must not believe that the march of events would be completely upset if we knew it beforehand. First, only they would know the Future, or a part of the Future, who would take the trouble to learn it; even as only they know the Past, or a part of their own Present, who have the courage and the intelligence to examine it. We should quickly accommodate ourselves to the lessons of this new science, even as we have accommodated ourselves to those of history. We should soon make allowance for the evils which we could not escape and for inevitable evils. The wiser among us, for themselves, would lessen the sum total of the latter; and the others would meet them half-way, even as now they go to meet many certain disasters which are easily foretold. The amount of our vexations would be somewhat decreased, but less than we hope; for already our reason is able to foresee a portion of our Future, if not with the material evidence that we dream of, at least with a moral certainty that is often satisfying: yet we observe that the majority of men derive hardly any profit from this easy foreknowledge. Such men would neglect the counsels of the Future, even as they hear, without following it, the advice of the Past.

____________________

     1Other subjects of my inquiries gave me less curious, but often analogous results. I visited, for instance, a certain number of palmists. On seeing the sumptuous apartments of several of those prophets of the hand, who revealed to me nothing but nonsense, I was admiring the ingenuousness of their patrons, when a friend pointed out to me, in a lane near the Mont-de-Piété, the abode of a practitioner who, according to him, had most effectively cultivated and developed the great traditions of the science of Desbarolles and d'Arpentigny.

     On the sixth floor of a hideous rabbit-warren of a house, in a loft that served as both livingroom and bed-room, I found an unpretending, gentle and vulgar old man, whose manner of speech suggested the hall-porter rather than the prophet. I did not obtain much from him; but, in the case of some more nervous persons whom I brought to him, particularly two or three women with whose past and character I was fairly well-acquainted, he revealed with rather astonishing precision the essential preoccupations of their minds and hearts, discerned very cleverly the chief curves of their existence, stopped at the cross-roads where their destinies had really swerved or wavered, and discovered certain strikingly exact and almost anecdotical particulars, such as journeys, love-affairs, influences undergone, or accidents. In a word, and taking into consideration the sort of auto-suggestion that causes our imagination, more or less inflamed by the contact of mystery, immediately and precisely to state the most shapeless clue, he traced, on a somewhat conventional and symbolical plan, a clearly-established scheme of their past and present, in which they were obliged, in spite of their distrust, to recognize the special track of their lives. In so far as his predictions are concerned, I must say, in passing, that not one of them was realized.

     Certainly there was in his intuition something more than a fortunate coincidence. It was, in a lesser degree, a sort of nervous communication between one unconsciousness and another of the same class, as with the clairvoyant. I have met the same phenomenon in the case of a woman who read coffee-grounds, but accompanied by more venturesome and less certain manifestations: I will, therefore, not pause to consider it.


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