“Coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don’t know what they are. Coincidence, if you’ll permit me the simile, is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet. A senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures. In that hurricane, in that osseous implosion, we find communion” ― Roberto Bolaño
I’m going to count from five down to one. As I do, your eyelids grow heavy, droopy, drowsy and sleepy. By the time I reach the count of one, they close right down and you go deep into hypnosis. Deeper than ever before. Now, tell me the future. Not working, huh? Well, that’s okay. It was worth a shot. There is very little agreement on what hypnosis actually is, theories ranging from an induced dissociative state, to role-playing, to a state of enhanced suggestibility, to regression in service of the ego, to just really deep relaxation. Quack like a duck. Nothing? Thought I’d give it another try. What seems abundantly clear is that when hypnotized, your brain enters an altered state of awareness, for better or worse. This hypothesized change in perception of reality has made hypnotism a subject of interest for folks investigating clairvoyance and extra-sensory perception for several centuries, from the “travelling clairvoyance” experiments of mathematician Augustus de Morgan (1806–1871 A.D.) to Czechoslovakian chemist and physicist Dr. Milan Ryzl’s extensive experiments with hypnotic trances and ESP in the 1960’s. You will forget all that you have heard. No dice? My career as a stage mesmerist is now in doubt. Good thing I have a fallback. It would be a better thing if I was landed gentry, but if wishes were fishes we’d all swim in riches, or so I’m told by some insidious rhymer.
Suffice it to say, hypnosis messes with your head. This can be useful if you want to try and shake off a pesky addiction or shed some of life’s inevitable anxieties, but can be dastardly entertaining if somebody wants to implant a few suggestions. Either way, regardless of the psychological mechanism at play, hypnosis seems to break down those annoying inhibitions that box in our routine conscious interactions, both voluntary and involuntary with the universe. Another way of saying this is that is sucks the energy out of your motive actions, which obviously is not a state of being that you want most humans in, most of the time. I mean, it might make us a nicer species, but it would probably also make us dead.
The father of Anomalistics, Charles Fort, being an irredeemable smart-ass and musing on the difficulty of identifying the source of action out of a maze of interrelationships, took this to its logically absurd conclusion when he said, “Some wisdom of mine is that if a man is dying of starvation he cannot commit a crime. He is good. The god of all idealists is malnutrition. If all crimes are expressions of energy, it is unjust to pick on men for their crimes. A higher jurisprudence would indict their breakfasts. A good cook is responsible for more evil than ever the Demon Rum has been: and, if we’d all sit down and starve to death, at last would be realized Utopia” (Fort, 1974, p1020). This tongue in cheek observation can be understood to mean that motive is important, and removal of motivation is deadly, although it does make things awful quiet.
But what if the vast majority of our day to day actions are involuntary? Certainly this is positive news when it comes to breathing, but it is problematic if our consciousness has been so ably colonized by nature and nurture that what we imagine are our higher faculties are also largely governed by involuntary reactions to stimuli. What then would be the result, if we could slip into a hypnogagic state, floating idly on the threshold of consciousness without the dubiously helpful hand of a skilled mesmerist to guide our thoughts, the obfuscating overlay of culture and propriety held at arms length. What would our brains tune into? Let’s ask American author Morgan Andrew Robertson (1861-1915 A.D.).
Morgan Robertson of Oswego, New York was an author of some notoriety, but little financial success (and thus mightily embittered, say like most bloggers) in the late 19th Century, known mostly for his vivid and realistic tales of the sea – he ran away to join the Merchant Marines when he was a lad of sixteen, and stayed on the briny between 1877 to 1886. Eventually, he settled down in New York City as a jewelry maker, but gave it up when his eyesight started to fail, turning to nautical fiction out of irritation at the horrific inaccuracies of those sea tales told by writers without the benefit of his practical maritime experience. People liked his stuff, and while he never got rich, after 1890 he made a living as a writer, and hung out in the company of Bohemian artists in the big city. Oh, and he had a fondness for paraldehyde.
Paraldehyde is a lovely little drug, a central nervous system depressant classed among those potions used medicinally as “sleep aids”. Up until the 1960’s, paraldehyde was routinely administered in many psychiatric hospitals at bedtime. While it has anticonvulsant and sedative properties, it is notably grouped with drugs referred to as “hypnotics”, distinguished from sedatives (meant to relieve anxiety), rather hypnotics are specifically meant to induce a sleep-like state. Paraldehyde was long considered one of the “safest” hypnotics, which makes it all the more puzzling that Morgan Robertson managed to overdose on it in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1915. This suggests he’d been playing with it for a while. He was found in his hotel room, standing up with his head resting on the dresser, deader than a mackerel. Of course, this happened after he managed to predict the future in three successive works with remarkable accuracy.
In 1898, Robertson published a novel called The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futililty. The extraordinary number of correspondences between the sinking of the fictional Titan and the all too real Titanic disaster are astounding, and were immediately remarked upon fourteen years later when the Titanic went down. The poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, best known for the phrase, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone”, noted the strange correspondence in her 1918 autobiography, commenting “In England I had my attention called to a story by Morgan Robertson, which had been written more than a decade before the Titanic disaster, and which was being republished because of its peculiar plot. The story was entitled “Futility,” and described the building of an enormous ship, the Titan, and of its destruction by an iceberg the second day after being launched. At the time the story was first published no such monster passenger ships were known; but Mr. Robertson’s imagination had given a picture of the Olympic and Titanic which was almost photographic in detail, and had called his ship the Titan” (Wilcox, 1918, p220-221). Wilcox only scratched the surface of the innumerable correspondences including the home country (England), the ship length (about 800 feet), the maximum passengers (3000), the same number of propellers (3), the number of lifeboats aboard and their inadequacy for the number of passengers, the advertised “unsinkability”, the month of the disaster (April), the speed at impact (around 23 knots), the time the iceberg hit (around midnight), and the location (off Newfoundland). The similarities were so startling that Ms. Wilcox wrote a letter to Robertson inquiring about his apparent prescience. Robertson’s reply was cryptic, and while he claimed no oracular abilities, he mentioned a relation between precognition and hypnotic states.
As to the motif of my story, I merely tried to write a good story with no idea of being a prophet. But, as in other stories of mine, and in the work of other and better writers, coming discoveries and events have been anticipated. I do not doubt that it is because all creative workers get into a hypnoid, telepathic and percipient condition, in which, while apparently awake, they are half asleep, and tap, not only the better informed minds of others but the subliminal realm of unknown facts. Some, as you know, believe that in this realm there is no such thing as Time, and the fact that a long dream can occur in an instant of time gives color to it, and partly explains prophecy (Wilcox, 1918, p221).
A fairly modest prophet, you must admit. At this point, most sober individuals point out that science fiction writers with serious technical chops, imagining a future often inadvertently get things right, and this is an eminently reasonable rejoinder. Extrapolation from what we know is one of the charms of our species. But as Ian Flemming very nearly said, “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times is some seriously weird shit”. And Robertson did not disappoint. In 1905, he dashed off a story called “The Submarine Destroyer”. Submarines had been around for a few years, but really hadn’t got much play by the turn of the 20th Century. An important element of his story was the inclusion of a collapsible periscope as vitally important in advancing submarine warfare. The invention of this device has traditionally been accorded to Simon Lake, who designed one for the U.S. Navy in 1902, but Robertson maintained that he had actually come up with the idea, tried to patent it, and was denied (presumably because the U.S. Navy was already investigating it). Given the fact that he more or less detailed the Titanic disaster fourteen years before it occurred, I would tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, but you win some and you lose some. Of course, Robertson wasn’t done receiving communiques from the future.
In Robertson’s 1914 novel Beyond the Spectrum, he detailed a future war between the United States and Japan. In his fictional account, the war commences with a December sneak attack against Hawaii and later involves the use of immensely powerful “ultraviolet” superweapons that inexplicably set ships aflame, blinded sailors, and crisped their skin like a sunburn.
This was the situation when the cabled news from Manila told of the staggering into port of the scout cruiser Salem with a steward in command, a stoker at the wheel, the engines in charge of firemen, and the captain, watch-officers, engineers, seamen gunners, and the whole fighting force of the ship stricken with a form of partial blindness which in some cases promised to become total. The cruiser was temporarily out of commission and her stricken men in the hospital; but by the time the specialists had diagnosed the trouble as amblyopia, from some sudden shock to the optic nerve—followed in cases by complete atrophy, resulting in amaurosis—another ship came into Honolulu in the same predicament. Like the other craft four thousand miles away, her deck force had been stricken suddenly and at night. Still another, a battleship, followed into Honolulu, with fully five hundred more or less blind men groping around her decks; and the admiral on the station called in all the outriders by wireless. They came as they could, some hitting sand-bars or shoals on the way, and every one crippled and helpless to fight. The diagnosis was the same—amblyopia, atrophy of the nerve, and incipient amaurosis; which in plain language meant dimness of vision increasing to blindness. Then came more news from Manila. Ship after ship came in, or was towed in, with fighting force sightless, and the work being done by the “black gang” or the idlers, and each with the same report —the gradual dimming of lights and outlines as the night went on, resulting in partial or total blindness by sunrise. And now it was remarked that those who escaped were the lower-deck workers, those whose duties kept them off the upper deck and away from gunports and deadlights (Robertson’s Beyond the Spectrum).
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would happen on December 7, 1941, twenty-seven years later. Far be it from me to suggest we all tune in, drop out, and start prophesizing. Robertson himself never claimed to be able to see the future, merely hinted that for some the act of writing tapped into a realm where time was immaterial. Although, given his predilection for paraldehyde, Robertson might have been feeling a little funky when he wrote those words. We want causality. We want sequence. We want to know that what we do today has consequence for tomorrow. We have been so socialized into the rush from cradle to grave, that the very notion of the malleability of time, of a kind of continuity that allows us to look backwards and forwards, to shed the motivation that impels us ever into a future, nonetheless bound to the past, that we label prescience and all such relations without causality, as coincidence, and we have a fascination, but little respect for coincidence. Perhaps Milan Kundera was on to something when he suggested, “For existential mathematics, which does not exist, would probably propose this equation: the value of coincidence equals the degree of its improbability.”
Fort, Charles H. The Complete Books of Charles Fort. New York, NY: Dover, 1974.
Robertson, Morgan, 1861-1915. The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futility. New York: McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie, 1920.