Facts and Ideations
Theosophist, August, September, 1885
[Note: this article is attributed to H. P. Blavatsky in the Collected Writings, though we hesitate to believe it was written by her. The author refers to himself as “he” and the article is signed “Beta”; H.P.B. was not known to sign her articles under a pseudonym, nor to refer to herself as male. It is possible that the article was written instead by Franz Hartmann or another of the European theosophists of the time. It is possible that the two footnotes, signed as “Editor” may be from the pen of H.P.B.]
The current of public attraction runs towards psychic phenomena and is becoming in Europe stronger every year. Even German science and philosophy are beginning to feel interested: Professor Virchoff of Berlin—once the sternest opponent of the claims of mediumship and the personal enemy of Dr. Slade, is said to have fallen a victim to evidence, and is preparing to investigate psychic manifestations with scales and crucible. On the other hand the well known philosopher, E. von Hartmann has just published a new work, called Der Spiritismus.
The writer of these lines is not yet acquainted with the views held on spiritualism proper by that distinguished disciple of Schopenhauer; but the probability that he attributes most of its phenomena to “illusion,” is very great. The evening takes its character generally from the day that has preceded it; hence the Philosophy of the Unconscious should find itself reflected in Der Spiritismus. Phenomena will not be denied, but their objective and subjective, their physical and mental manifestations will be grouped together, and crammed within the narrow boundaries of that philosophy of negation that would see in our notions of matter the “mere illusions of our senses”—in each and every case.
However this may be, we would bring to the notice of those of our readers who are interested in the question, several new cases that have been mentioned in European papers; and which, having been thoroughly investigated and found as authentic as undeniable, have greatly puzzled some learned materialists, who refuse to account for them.
It is difficult to find a man or a woman who has lived and died without ever having experienced some feeling of presentiment, generated with no visible cause, yet justified after days, weeks, or perchance long years. The book of Futurity, which is said to have been wisely closed to every mortal eye, opens, nevertheless, its pages to many among the sons of earth; to so many, indeed, that an impartial observer may find it awkward now to regard such cases as simple exceptions to the rule. As Wilkie Collins so justly remarks—“among the workings of the hidden life within us, which we may experience but cannot explain, are there any more remarkable than those mysterious moral influences constantly exercised either for attraction or repulsion, by one human being over another? In the simplest, as in the most important affairs of life, how startling, how irresistible is their power!” And if no biologist or physiologist can as yet explain to us, in accordance with the canons of his science, why it is that we prophesy so often and so truly to ourselves “the approach of friend or enemy just before either has really appeared”;—or another daily and quite common occurrence even among the most skeptical—why we become convinced “so strangely and abruptly, at a first introduction, that we shall secretly love this person and loathe that, before experience has guided us with a single fact in relation to their characters.” If the causes of such frequent mental phenomena are left unexplained by our latter-day philosophers, how shall they account for the following facts, that are now being commented upon in all the St. Petersburg and Warsaw papers?
A poor seamstress living at St. Petersburg had, by perseverance and hard work, become a clever dressmaker. Finding her only baby troublesome and an impediment to her work, and unable to hire a nurse to take care of the little girl, she entrusted the child, for a small remuneration, to a friend who lived in the country. During the eighteen months of the child’s stay in the friend’s family, the poor mother visited her occasionally, and remained each time very well satisfied with the care her baby was receiving. She had meanwhile worked harder than ever, and during that period had succeeded in her business so well that she had already begun to contemplate the possibility of taking her child home once more.
About the end of April last, a few days after one of her country trips, which she had decided would be the last one, as she had now the means of hiring a nurse,—she was visited by two acquaintances. Happy in having found her little girl so rosy and healthy, she was sitting with her two friends at her afternoon tea, talking merrily with them about her intention of fetching the child home. A lady had dropped in, a rich and well known “patroness” with an order for a costume to be made without delay. These are the three witnesses—the wealthy aristocrat, and the two poor seamstresses—who, later on, vouch for the truth of the strange occurrence that took place in their presence.
The mother was at the window, with the rich material brought by the lady in her hands, measuring it and discussing with her customer the mysteries of its transformation into a Spring attire, when the door-bell was suddenly rung. Mrs. L—— (the name of the dress-maker) opened the door and let in a little old woman, modestly dressed in deep mourning, and very delicate in appearance. All those present were struck with the livid pallor of her face and the great sweetness of her tone and manners. The newcomer was evidently a lady.
“Are you Mrs. L——?” she asked, addressing the dressmaker, and upon receiving an answer in the affirmative, added:—“I have brought you some work. Here is a piece of fine white muslin—You will kindly prepare out of it a little cap and a long gown for a dead child, a baby two years old, one of my grand-children.”
“Your order, of course, has to be executed immediately and I have other work to do, that cannot be put aside”— remarked the dress-maker sympathetically.
“Not at all” was the quick answer. “I shall not need it until this day fortnight, not one hour earlier. My little girl has been taken ill with measles to-day, and will not die before that time.”
Mrs. L—— could not help smiling in answer to the rather amused looks of her rich customer and her own female friends, at such a careful preparation in anticipation of a possible future event. But she said nothing and undertook to prepare the order for the day named.
Two days later she received a letter informing her that her own child had been taken ill with measles, and on the very morning of the visit of the mysterious old lady in black. The disease had become serious and the mother was summoned in all haste. Thirteen days later the child died, just a fortnight after the order received for the funeral clothes. But the little old woman never came to claim them for her grand-child. A month passed, and “the little cap and long gown” are there still as a living remembrance to the bereaved mother of her own loss and sorrow.
This weird event reminds one of the story told of the way in which Mozart’s “Requiem” came into existence—remarks the correspondent of Swyet, a Russian paper.
Another puzzling fact which attracted attention, owing to its principal hero having belonged to the highest nobility, is copied by all the principal papers of Germany and Russia.
A well known resident of Warsaw, the rich Count O—— of B——, finding himself in the first stage of consumption, and when there was as yet no immediate danger to his life, called his friends and relatives into the house of his parents and declared to them that he was going to die on the following day at 12 o’clock precisely, notwithstanding the protests of those present. He coolly gave an order for a coffin to be made and brought into his room on that same night. After that, he sent for a priest, and paid him in advance for a certain number of masses and requiems; made his will, and ended by sending printed letters of invitation to his own funeral to a number of his friends and acquaintances. The black-bordered cards were addressed by himself, in his own hand-writing, and appointed the exact date and hour of the solemn ceremony for the transfer of the body from the house to the cathedral; as also the day of the burial. On the next day, as foretold, he dressed himself in a black evening suit, white tie, and gloves which he carefully buttoned, after which, placing himself in the coffin a few minutes before the clock struck twelve, he laid himself out in prescribed form, and expired at the appointed hour. The case appeared so strange to the authorities, that an autopsy was ordered: but no traces of poison or violent death by other means were found.
Was this prevision, or a consequence of a fixed idea; of an imagination so strongly overexcited, that death had to become subservient to the thought? Who can say?
The first symptom of approaching death—Wakley tells us—“is, with some, the strong presentiment that they are about to die.”
Then, the author mentions Ojanam, the mathematician, who, while in apparent good health, rejected pupils, “from the feeling that he was on the eve of resting from his labours.” He expired very soon after of an apoplectic stroke.
Mozart wrote his “Requiem” mentioned above under the firm belief that this chef-d’oeuvre of his genius, was written for himself; that it would be heard for the first time over his own remains. When death was fast approaching he called for the partiture and addressing those present, musingly asked: “Did I not tell you truly that it was for myself that I composed this death chant!” The order for the latter was given to him as is well known in a strange vision or dream, and Wakley thinks that John Hunter has solved the mystery of such presentiments in one sentence––“if mystery it can be called” he adds sceptically. “We sometimes”—says the great physiologist, “feel within ourselves that we shall not live; for the living powers become weak, and the nerves communicate the intelligence to the brain.”
To this Wakley also adds that certain circumstances when health is failing, are often accepted as omens. He says, “The order for the Requiem with Mozart, the dreams with Fletcher, turned the current of their thoughts to the grave.” But forthwith the learned skeptic contradicts his own theory by narrating the case of Wolsey, reminding us somewhat of the one just mentioned that happened at Warsaw. The probability of near dissolution, can certainly turn “the current of the thought” to an intimate assurance of death; when, however, that assurance makes us foresee and point out the exact hour, to the minute, of our death, there must be something besides the “natural current of thought,” to help and guide our intuition so unerringly. In Wakley’s own words, “The case of Wolsey was singular.” The morning before he died he asked Cavendish the hour and was answered, “Past eight.” “Eight!”—said Wolsey—“that cannot be;—eight of the clock, nay, nay, it cannot be eight of the clock, for by eight of the clock shall you lose your master.” The day he miscalculated, the hour came true. On the following morning, as the clock struck eight, his troubled spirit passed from life.
While rejecting the theory of Cavendish that Wolsey had received a revelation, Wakley suspects “from the way in which the fact had taken possession of his mind—that he (Wolsey) relied on astrological prediction, which had the credit of a revelation in his own esteem.”
Astrology, notwithstanding the scorn of the nineteenth century, is not always a vain pretense. Astronomy and astrology are twin-sisters, that were equally respected and studied in antiquity. It is but yesterday that the dogmatic arrogance of Western astronomers reduced the elder sister to the position of the Cinderella in the household of Science: modern astronomy profits by the works of ancient astrology and kicks it out of sight. “The contemplation of celestial things will make man both speak and think more sublimely and magnificently when he descends to human affairs”—says Cicero. The West will yet return to astrology and thus vindicate the intuition of the East, where it has been always cultivated.
“The body being only the covering of the soul, at its dissolution, we shall discover all the secrets of nature and darkness shall be dispelled.” Such is the “ideation” of the sage Seneca.
Man is composed of two bodies, the internal and the external; the inner one being moreover, double, i.e., having, in its turn, a semi-physical outer shell which serves as the astral being only during the life-time of man; while the latter is still in seeming health, the dissolution of the former, or rather of its outer shell, may have already begun. For during its captivity in the living body the “double”—or that covering of the astral form that alone survives—is too closely bound by its jailor (man), too much encumbered with the physical particles derived from the prison of flesh within which it is confined, not to imperiously require, before the astral form proper is set entirely free, to be thrown off from the latter. Thus, this preliminary process of purification may be justly called “the dissolution of the inner man,” and it begins much earlier than the agony or even the final disease of the physical man. Let us admit so much and then ask: why should we require, in such a case, in order to account for the insight some persons have of the hour of their death,—to explain the phenomenon by “revelation” from without, supernaturalism, or the still more unsatisfactory hypothesis of a purely physiological character as given by Hunter and Wakley, and that explain to us moreover nothing at all? During and after the dissolution of the “double,”1 the darkness of our human ignorance beginning to be dispelled, there are many things we can see. Among these, things hidden in futurity, the nearest events of which, overshadowing the purified “soul,” have become to her as the present. The “former-self” is making room for the actual-self, the latter to be transformed in its turn, after the final dissolution of both the “double” and the physical body into the “Eternal Ego.” Thus the “actual-self” may pass its knowledge to the physical brain of man; and thus also we may see and hear the precise hour of our death striking on the clock of eternity. It is made visible to us through the decaying nature of our dying “double,” the latter surviving us during a very short period, if at all,2 and through the newly acquired powers of the purified “soul” (the higher tetraktis or quaternary) as yet in its integral whole, and which is already possessing itself of those faculties that are in store for it, on a higher plane. Through our “soul” it is then that we see, clearer and still clearer, as we approach the end; and it is through the throbs of dissolution that horizons of vaster, profounder knowledge are drawn on, bursting upon our mental vision, and becoming with every hour plainer to our inner eye. Otherwise, how account for those bright flashes of memory, for the prophetic insight that comes as often to the enfeebled grandsire, as to the youth who is passing away? The nearer some approach death, the brighter becomes their long lost memory and the more correct the previsions. The unfoldment of the inner faculties increases as life-blood becomes more stagnant.
Truly is life on earth like a day passed in a deep valley surrounded on all sides by high mountains and with a cloudy, stormy sky above our heads. The tall hills conceal from us every horizon, and the dark clouds hide the sun. It is only at the close of the stormy day, that the sunshine, breaking through the clefts of the rocks affords us its glorious light to enable us to catch occasional glimpses of things around, behind and before us.
Another subject has interested the mystically inclined of the capital of the Russian Empire; namely, a lecture given, March 27th, at the “Pedagogical Museum,” by Prof. N. Wagner, the eminent naturalist and no less eminent spiritualist. Whatever the views of that great man of science about the powers that may be behind the so-called mediumistic manifestations, the professor has evidently assimilated the Vedantic and even the Adwaita theories about “Life and Death”—the subject of his lecture.
The vexed question about Life and Death, said the lecturer, preoccupied many other philosophers besides Hamlet. Eminent naturalists, physicians and thinkers have vainly endeavoured to solve the great mystery. Various men of science have given us various definitions of life. Bichat, for instance, defines life as a faculty to withstand natural laws, while another scientist says that life represents a series of modifications and is a faculty in living beings to oppose and resist the destructive powers of nature. Cuvier, the famous physiologist, finds that life is the faculty in creatures of constant change, preserving meanwhile certain particles, and ridding themselves on the other hand of those elements which prove to them useless and would be injurious if left. Kemper tells us that life is only a constant modification of substances.
According to Herbert Spencer, “life is a co-ordination of action” and “an adaptation of the interior processes to external conditions.”
All of the above definitions are found incorrect by Professor Wagner, as well they may be. They sketch only the external side of life without touching its essence. The universal manifestation of life, said the lecturer, rises progressively in all its phenomena from the simplest forms toward the most complex. “What then may be the causes, what are the forces,” he asks, “that govern life and modify it? It is from this standpoint that we shall examine the life-phenomenon. Life is a chemical manifestation, we are told by the majority of our physiologists. Chemism is the prominent feature in vegetable and animal organisms.”
Kant has defined life as the motion of composition and decomposition, in which chemical action plays the most prominent part.
Schelling declared that “life is an aspiration toward individuality; it is the synthesis, harmonizing those processes that are accomplished in the organism.” Then how can we believe, enquires the lecturer, “that this individuality disappears with our death? The soil of the province of Champagne consists of microscopical shells, the whole city of Paris is built on a soil that is the remaining relic of organic life. In nature, that which was is ever preparing that which will be. Life is an Energy (the one life of Esoteric Philosophy?—Ed.]. All individual energies have, sooner or later, to merge into, and become one with, the Universal Energy.
Thus saith the lecturer. It is, as Longfellow has it:—
“Ah, the souls of those that die
Are but sunbeams lifted higher.”
The spiritual Sun within which they merge finally, not to disappear but to return to earth as other sunbeams, is no “Land” from whence visitors can appear to us in their individuality. A little heat left behind is not the sunbeam, but the remnant of its chemical action, as the photograph is not the person it represents but his reflection. But:—
“Spirits they say,
Flit round invisible, as thick as motes
Dance in the sunbeam. If that spell,
Or necromancer’s sigil can compel them
They shall hold council with men . . .”
If for “necromancer” we write “medium,” the lines quoted will represent the hidden spirit and object of the learned lecturer who, nevertheless, winds up his lecture by a remark that no Vedantin would disavow. Prof. Wagner is a well known orthodox spiritualist. How then can he, who shows on undeniable and scientific grounds that all the “individual energies,” i.e., “souls,” merge into, and finally become one with “universal energy” (the Parabrahm of the Vedanta) or the universal soul; how can he harmonize this belief with that in the “spirits” of spiritualism? It is a strange contradiction. For our spirit is either the “sunbeam” of Longfellow’s poetical metaphor, or it is only “dancing in the sunbeam” agreeably to James Duff’s imagery. It cannot be both.
Life and death are as much of a mystery to the man of science, as they are to the spiritualist and the profane unbeliever. The less they talk of it, in the present chaotic state of knowledge with reference to that great riddle, the better for the truth. Modern science and spiritualism are two opposite poles. One denies point-blank everything outside chemical action and matter, the other by its own fanciful arrangement sets both at nought; and thus the middle ground of sound philosophy and logic is abandoned. Science will not hear of the metaphysics of the spiritualists, and the latter will not admit the theory of even that transcendental chemical action that the Theosophists show as playing a more important part in the likenesses of their dead—that so bewilder people—than the spiritual “energy” of disembodied friends.
However, that is as moot question that we shall leave the combatants who are directly interested to settle among themselves. Both claim to be guided by the logic of facts, and both claim for their respective opinions the name of “philosophy,” and so far—both are right and both are wrong. The method of materialistic exact science is that philosophy that—
“. . . Will clip an angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line;
Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine––
Unweave a rainbow . . .”
The “philosophy” of the spiritualists consists in rejecting every other philosophy save their own. They will prove a formidable foe to the former however. The men of science call spiritualism a “mischievous superstition” as Pliny and the men of his day called rising Christianity “a most pernicious sect.” They and the leaders of Spiritualism have a mutual right to complain of each other; for as Fielding has it, “if superstition renders a man a fool,—scepticism makes him mad.” Neither of the two enemies, however, knows anything of the mysteries of life and death; though both behave as if each of them had become the sole confidants of Nature, in whose ear the weird Sphinx had whispered the word of her great riddle. The Materialist scorns death, he fears him not, he says, for in his sight there is no “hereafter.” The Spiritualist welcomes “the Angel with the amaranthine wreath,” singing “Oh Death, where is thy sting?” etc. And yet, ten to one, the majority on both sides prefer life to that change which, according to their respective views, disintegrates the one into chemical molecules, and transforms the other into a dematerialized Angel!
Which of them is right and which wrong, time alone—that great Revealer of hidden truths—will decide. To the writer, who rejects the speculations of both, keeping on the safe side of the middle path, Death, before whose majestic stillness and tranquillity so many shudder with fear—has no terrors; perhaps, because he does not endow it with any more mystery than needed. Death is “the old, old fashion” that crept to the little Paul Dombey’s rescue; and life, but the swift river that bears us all to that Ocean of rest . . . “Put me quietly in the earth, place a sun-dial over my grave, and let me be forgotten,” prays John Howard, who found, perhaps, as we do, that people make too much fuss over death and too little over the birth of every new candidate for it.
Life is at best a play, often a drama, but far more frequently partaking of the element of a low comedy. It “is a phenomenon” after which the curtain is dropped, the lights extinguished, and the hero tired out, drops into his bed with a feeling of delicious relief. As Shakespeare expresses it—
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing . . .”
1. That such dissolution has to precede that of the physical body, is proved to us by several things. One of these is the well ascertained fact (to those, of course, who believe in such facts) that the astral doubles of living men—of sorcerers for instance—fear steel, and may be wounded by sword or fire; their wounds, moreover, reacting upon and leaving marks and scars upon the physical shells—whereas the astral bodies of even the “Elementary apparitions”—cannot be hurt.
2. When the “double” of the living man has been disintegrated before the death of man, it is annihilated for ever. When, however, death comes suddenly, it may survive the body that held it captive, but then, the process of dissolution going on outside of the dead body, the “soul” suffers, and in its impatience tries often to throw off the particles that encumber its freedom and chain it to the earth, upon the living—says the MSS. of the Copt Terentius. The cases of accidental deaths and suicides are fairly described in Mr. A. P. Sinnett’s Fragments of Occult Truth by a Lay Chela (See The Theosophist). Suicides fare the worst.