“Man is so made that when anything fires his soul, impossibilities vanish” – Jean de La Fontaine
Part and parcel of the psychologization of strange phenomena is the idea that the human subconscious is a bottomless reservoir of desires, dislikes, obsessions, and revulsions. The monsters of our mind are held to be those which we ourselves create in the nether realms of our unexplored psyche, the inexplicable phenomena we encounter a reflection of ourselves upon the universe, devoid of any reality except our wish for them to be so, or alternatively our fear that they may be so. But what if consciousness is not that little sprite formed from electricity and grey matter, trapped inside a prison skull, rather participates actively in something larger? This may sound suspiciously like I’m talking about a “soul” or some such equally loaded theological term, but I far prefer Maurice Maeterlinck’s term, “The Unknown Guest”.
Maeterlinck posited that we needed, or at least would very much appreciate, an explanation for the varied manifestations of the strange, particularly of those many discarnate entities that seem to have populated our universe since we started scratching symbolic representations of the world around us on cave walls (the Neanderthals, now thought to have been cave painters that preceded us probably scoffed at our work and called it “Pop Art”). Neanderthals can be so pretentious and traditionalist. I think it’s a hair thing. Now, case in point, we’ve been talking to incorporeal dead people for millennia, or rather our mortal representatives who specialize in such things have. Its dirty work, but someone’s got to do it. Yet, in one instance, spirits may chat to us about reincarnation, and in other cultures, suggest no such mechanism exists. It gets hard to figure out precisely why the dead are loitering about when you expand your vision outside one’s own cultural boundaries.
Maeterlinck’s notion was that consciousness was both personal and supra-personal. We certainly have our own ego to contend with, but we are also pushed and pulled by forces external to us, yet not, accounting for the way in which strange phenomena and abstract entities (alien visitors, monsters in the cupboard, gods, and demons) seem to conform to a specific cultural complex (that of the observer) and often differ to the point of contradicting each other. We could say that monsters and manifestations are just jerks, but that’s too pithy an answer. And if there is one thing I hate, it’s pith. It’s hard to get off your shoes and sometimes it stains.
A relatively parsimonious explanation for these strange variations would be that our consciousness exists in two states simultaneously – the part that deal with our everyday existence, and the part that actively interacts with what we can call, for the purposes of argument, a “super-consciousness”, primarily because I like to prefix “super” to things (We all have our addictions. You’ve got to own it), but a super-consciousness that is both part of us and external to us. That is to say, an “Unknown Guest” in our consciousness, and a capricious one at that, which will happily conform to our cultural context, or desires, or our fears. We certainly can and do look back at the peculiar superstitions of our ancestors and wonder how they could have been so foolish, but perhaps we are simply listening to our own version of the Unknown Guest.
One would think that even the mysterious has its ups and downs and remains subject to the caprices of some strange extra-mundane fashion; or perhaps, to be more exact, it is evident that the majority of those legendary miracles could not withstand the rigorous scrutiny of our day. Those which emerge triumphant from the test and defy our less credulous and more penetrating vision are all the more worthy of holding our attention. They are not the last survivals of the riddle, for this continues to exist in its entirety and grows greater in proportion as we throw light upon it; but we can perhaps see in them the supreme or else the first efforts of a force which does not appear to reside wholly in our sphere. They suggest blows struck from without by an Unknown even more unknown than that which we think we know, an Unknown which is not that of the universe, not that which we have gradually made into an inoffensive and amiable Unknown, even as we have made the universe a sort of province of the earth, but a stranger arriving from another world, an unexpected visitor who comes in a rather sinister way to trouble the comfortable quiet in which we were slumbering, rocked by the firm and watchful hand of orthodox science (Maeterlinck, 1914, p14-15).
And is that party crashing stranger an outsider, or an aspect of ourselves that has been lurking in our consciousness all along, pretending to be gods, pretending to be prophetic dreams, haunting our houses, and generally making an existential nuisance of themselves? Fortean Godfather Charles Fort (with tongue in cheek) suggested that we might be mere playthings, traded amongst higher-consciousnesses, and occasionally messed with through ambassadors selected from among us for their receptivity to certain fanciful ideas.
Pigs, geese and cattle. First find out they are owned. Then find out the whyness of it. I suspect that, after all, we’re useful — that among contesting claimants, adjustment has occurred, or that something now has a legal right to us, by force, or by having paid out analogues of beads for us to former, more primitive, owners of us — all others warned off — that all this has been known, perhaps for ages, to certain ones upon this earth, a cult or order, members of which function like bellwethers to the rest of us, or as superior slaves or overseers, directing us in accordance with instructions received — from Somewhere else — in our mysterious usefulness” (Fort, 1919, p158).
This is understandable in the Victorian post-Colonial malaise, with the sun beginning to set on the colonial empires of the world and all. We should forgive our forefathers for their ideological biases. I grew up in the 1980’s, and fully admit a passion for neon. Why not assume that there were things out there in the universe that treated us just like we typically treated each other? But what if we stop requiring incarnate extra-terrestrials, gods, and monsters, and turn inward to examine their reality as a manifestation of something in which our consciousness participates beyond our puny conception of if, ego, and super-ego (yes, I know Freud is on the outs these days, but you get the point). This begs the question of whether the “Unknown Guest” is crashing the party in our consciousness, or if it is the host to the instantiation of consciousness in our endearingly human shell. In the end, is that not what every religion we’ve ever conceptualized throughout the history of mankind represents – a unification with the unknown guest that we suspect resides inside ourselves, but which we feel alienated from as we work to survive the vagaries of physical existence. Patrick O’Seasnain captured this eloquently in The Unknown Guest of Dreams, waxing poetic as poets are wont to do, “I will wait for him very quietly here—Then from the dusk outside he will come stepping softly…He will release me from all bonds, and we will go away together beyond the edge of the world!” (O’Seasnain, 1917, p50). I don’t aspire so high. I’m just looking for a comfortable retirement package, but when one is “cheap and easy” certain aspects of life obligingly fall in line.
We like to imagine that consciousness is like a material possession. What if we simply “rent to own”. The problem may be that we are trying to understand the motives of a larger, conscious universe in terms firmly rooted in our own egos, but as Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”.
Fort, Charles, 1874-1932. The Book of the Damned. New York, N.Y: Ace Books,1919.
O’Seasnain, Brian Padraic. Star-drift. Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1917.
Maeterlinck, Maurice, 1862-1949. The Unknown Guest. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1914.
Around the same time, Lévy-Brühl and Jung (among others) developed ideas of the sort that Maeterlinck put forward. Perhaps this is simply evidence of the lateral diffusion of the concept, but it might also be evidence of the action of a suprapersonal consciousness. Maybe “great minds think alike” incorrectly uses the plural. If a suprapersonal consciousness is at work, we may have a problem assigning individual credit for new ideas. Mind you, I wouldn’t object to forgoing credit for my brilliant ideas if I could also avoid blame for my far more numerous bad ones.