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The Unknown Guest

Maurice Maeterlinck

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The Unknown Guest is a book about death and the after-life by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Chapters include: Phantasms Of The Living And The Dead; Psychometry; The Knowledge Of The Future; The Elberfeld Horses; and, The Unknown Guest.

This book has 92 pages in the PDF version. This is a translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

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Excerpt from The Unknown Guest

This brings us without any break to the consideration of veridical apparitions and hallucinations and finally to haunted houses. We all know that the phantasms of the living and the dead have now a whole literature of their own, a literature which owes its birth to the numerous and conscientious enquiries conducted in England, France, Belgium and the United States at the instance of the Society for Psychical Research. In the presence of the mass of evidence collected, it would be absurd to persist in denying the reality of the phenomena themselves. It is by this time incontestable that a violent or deep emotion can be transmitted instantaneously from one mind to another, however great the distance that separates the mind experiencing the emotion from the mind receiving the communication. It is most often manifested by a visual hallucination, more rarely by an auditory hallucination; and, as the most violent emotion which man can undergo is that which grips and overwhelms him at the approach or at the very moment of death, it is nearly always this supreme emotion which he sends forth and directs with incredible precision through space, if necessary across seas and continents, towards an invisible and moving goal. Again, though this occurs less frequently, a grave danger, a serious crisis can beget and transmit to a distance a similar hallucination. This is what the S. P. R. calls "phantasms of the living." When the hallucination takes place some time after the decease of the person whom it seems to evoke, be the interval long or short, it is classed among the "phantasms of the dead."

The latter, the so-called "phantasms of the dead," are the rarest. As F. W. H. Myers pointed out in his Human Personality, a consideration of the proportionate number of apparitions observed at various periods before and after death shows that they increase very rapidly for the few hours which precede death and decrease gradually during the hours and days which follow; while after about a year's time they become extremely rare and exceptional.

However exceptional they may be, these apparitions nevertheless exist and are proved, as far as anything can be proved, by abundant testimony of a very precise character. Instances will be found in the Proceedings, notably in vol. vi., pp. 13-65, etc.

Whether it be a case of the living, the dying, or the dead, we are familiar with the usual form which these hallucinations take. Indeed their main outlines hardly ever vary. Some one, in his bedroom, in the street, on a journey, no matter where, suddenly see plainly and clearly the phantom of a relation or a friend of whom he was not thinking at the time and whom he knows to be thousands of miles away, in America, Asia or Africa as the case may be, for distance does not count. As a rule, the phantom says nothing; its presence, which is always brief, is but a sort of silent warning. Sometimes it seems a prey to futile and trivial anxieties. More rarely, it speaks, though saying but little after all. More rarely still, it reveals something that has happened, a crime, a hidden treasure of which no one else could know. But we will return to these matters after completing this brief enumeration.

The phenomenon of haunted houses resembles that of the phantasms of the dead, except that here the ghost clings to the residence, the house, the building and in no way to the persons who inhabit it. By the second year of its existence, that is to say, 1884, the Committee on Haunted Houses of the S. P. R. had selected and made an analysis of some sixty-five cases out of hundreds submitted to it, twenty-eight of which rested upon first-hand and superior evidence. It is worthy of remark, in the first place, that these authentic narratives bear no relation whatever to the legendary and sensational ghost-stories that still linger in many English and American magazines, especially in the Christmas numbers. They mention no winding-sheets, coffins, skeletons, graveyards, no sulphurous flames, curses, blood-curdling groans, no clanking chains, nor any of the time-honoured trappings that characterize this rather feeble literature of the supernatural. On the contrary, the scenes enacted in houses that appear to be really haunted are generally very simple and insignificant, not to say dull and commonplace. The ghosts are quite unpretentious and go to no expense in the matter of staging or costume. They are clad as they were when, sometimes many years ago, they led their quiet, unadventurous life within their own home. We find in one case an old woman, with a thin grey shawl meekly folded over her breast, who bends at night over the sleeping occupants of her old home, or who is frequently encountered in the hall or on the stairs, silent, mysterious, a little grim. Or else it is the gentleman with a lacklustre eye and a figured dressing-gown who walks along a passage brilliantly illuminated with an inexplicable light. Or again we have another elderly lady, dressed in black, who is often found seated in the bay window of her drawing-room. When spoken to, she rises and seems on the point of replying, but says nothing. When pursued or met in a corner, she eludes all contact and vanishes. Strings are fastened across the staircase with glue; she passes and the strings remain as they were. The ghost—and this happens in the majority of cases—is seen by all the people staying in the house: relatives, friends, old servants and new. Can it be a matter of suggestion, of collective hallucination? At any rate, strangers, visitors who have had nothing said to them, see it as the others do and ask, innocently: "Who is the lady in mourning whom I met in the dining-room?"

If it is a case of collective suggestion, we should have to admit that it is a subconscious suggestion emitted without the knowledge of the participants, which indeed is quite possible.

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