Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

The Man From Nowhere

In that highly picturesque, but quite un-Dickensian book, “A Tale of Two Cities,” there is a curious chapter describing the reception at the house of Monseigneur — Monseigneur being a great nobleman, high in favour and power at Court. Dickens describes the company:

“Military officers destitute of military knowledge; naval officers with no idea of a ship; civil officers without a notion of affairs; brazen ecclesiastics of the worst world worldly, with sensual eyes, loose tongues, and looser lives; all totally unfit for their several callings, all lying horribly in pretending to belong to them, but all nearly or remotely of the order of Monseigneur, and therefore foisted on all public employments from which any living was to be got; these were to be told off by the score and the score.”

But there were still more remarkable people present at Monseigneur’s reception.

“In the outermost room were half a dozen exceptional people who had had, for a few years, some vague misgiving in them that things in general were going rather wrong. As a promising way of setting them right, half of the half dozen had become members of a fantastic sect of Convulsionists, and were even then considering within themselves whether they should foam, rage, roar, and turn cataleptic on the spot, thereby setting up a highly intelligible finger-post to the future, for Monseigneur’s guidance. Besides these Dervishes, were the other three who had rushed into another sect, which mended matters with a jargon about ‘the Centre of Truth,’ holding that man had got out of the Centre of Truth — which did not need much demonstration — but had not got out of the Circumference, and that he was to be kept from flying out of the Circumference, and was even to be shoved back into the Centre by fasting and seeing of spirits. Among these, accordingly, much discoursing with spirits went on, and it did a world of good which never became manifest.”

Dickens was thinking of a very curious sect, or occult fraternity, which existed in France in the later years of Louis XV. The founder of this fraternity or order (oddly enough, called “The Elect Cohens,” Cohen being taken in its Hebrew significance of priest) was a mysterious person called Don Martines de Pasqually de la Tour, otherwise known as Martinez de Pasquales. Mr. A. E. Waite, from whose most curious and most interesting “Life of Louis Claude de St. Martin” I gather these particulars, says that Martinez was probably of Spanish origin; but that nothing is known of his early life or of the sources of the occult knowledge which he professed, truly or falsely, to hold in his keeping. He said that he was a transfigured disciple of Swedenborg, “and an initiate of the Rose Cross;” and one is tempted to infer from this latter claim that Martinez was either foolish or knavish, since all the story of the Rosicrucians is a dream about an order which never existed. However that may be, the evidence goes to show that Martinez, the Man from Nowhere, was in Paris in 1754, founding the Lodge — there was a Masonic connection — of the Elect Cohens. Later, the centre of the Elect Cohens was moved to Bordeaux, and here Martinez met Saint Martin, a young Tourainian of noble family, then a lieutenant in the regiment of Foix. Saint Martin became an enthusiastic admirer and disciple, and was initiated into the mysteries of the order. He was a valuable adherent; as a man of race he had access to the receptions of Monseigneur, and could propagate there the doctrines of his master. But the order of the Elect Cohens came to an abrupt end. It was understood by the faithful that Martinez had still certain secrets in reserve, that they had not yet attained to the highest grades of the order, when in 1772, the Grand Sovereign of the Elect Cohens was called by private affairs to the island of St. Domingo.

He never returned — in the body — dying there in 1774. And from that time Saint Martin gradually withdrew himself more and more from the world of occultism — which is a world where visible and sensible marvels happen or are supposed to happen — and attached himself to the teaching of Jacob Behmen, to the world of mysticism, where the signs and wonders are of the spirit, not of the body. Saint Martin ended as a Catholic Quaker, if one may use such a term. He accepted all the doctrines of the Church, and denied the efficacy of all its Sacraments.

But there was another disciple of Martinez de Pasquales, the Man from Nowhere, to whom very strange things happened. This was the Abbé Fournié, who wrote a book called “Ce que nous avons été, ce que nous sommes, et ce que nous viendrons,” published in London in 1801, and now very rare. Fournié states that at an early age he conceived “an intense desire for a demonstration of the reality of another life and the truth of the central doctrines of Christianity.”

After eighteen months of profound agitation — I quote from Mr. Waite’s life of Saint Martin — he met an unknown personage who promised a solution of his doubts, and pointing to the throng of a crowded thoroughfare observed: “They know not whither they are going, but thou shalt know.”

This personage was Martinez. The Abbé speaks oddly of him. “He left the disciples often in suspense as to whether he himself were true or false, good or bad, angel of light or fiend. This uncertainty kindled so strongly within me, that night and day I cried out on God to help me, if He really existed. But the more I appealed the more I sank into the abyss, and my only interior answer was the desolating feeling — there is no God, there is no life to come, there is only death and nothingness.” In spite of these desolations the Abbé continued in fervent prayer. He says that light came to him, but only in flashes, and now and then there were visions of things to come, which were afterwards fulfilled. In this manner he continued for five years “full of agitation and darkness, consumed by the desire of God and the contradiction of that desire. At length, on a certain day towards ten o’clock in the evening, I, being prostrated in my chamber, calling on God to assist me, heard suddenly the voice of M. de Pasqually, my director, who had died in the body more than two years previously. I heard him speaking distinctly outside my chamber, the door being closed and the windows in like manner, the shutters also being secured. I turned in the direction of the voice, being that of the long garden belonging to the house, and thereupon I beheld M. de Pasqually with my eyes, who began speaking, and with him: were my father and my mother, both also dead in the body. God knows the terrible night which I passed.”

As Mr. Waite observes, it is clear that this proof of the life to come, so long and so fervently desired by the Abbé Fournié, almost frightened him to death. He describes an extraordinary sensation which accompanied the vision, “as of a hand passing through his body and smiting his soul, leaving an impression of pain which could not be described in words, and seemed to belong rather to eternity than time.” The terror remained in the Abbé‘s soul as he wrote his story many years after the event; though he declares that he held with the figures of the vision an ordinary conversation, such as he might have held with the living. Then there was added to the ghostly assembly the appearance of his sister, who had been dead for twenty years, and, finally, there came “another being who was not of the nature of men.” The vision returned again and again and became persistent.

It is an extraordinary tale. As Mr. Waite notes, there can be no doubt of the Abbé‘s sincerity or honesty. There is one mark which distinguishes these apparitions from the apparitions of our modern spiritualistic séance. That is the mark of awe and terror even to the point of agony; of a dread so great that it could be described as a Hand piercing body and spirit. So Job spoke of his vision:

“Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof.

“In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men,

“Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake,

“Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.”

But, as I understand, the frequenters of the séance experience nothing of the dread of Job, nothing of the awful fear of the Abbé Fournié. They converse easily, familiarly, cosily with the spirits of the dead, and that Hand of Terror does not smite them.

And our conclusion? It is quite impossible to form any conclusion. Probably, I suppose, the long spiritual conflict through which the Abbé had passed had broken down the wall between perception and hallucination. There are all sorts of ways of breaking down this wall, one of them being brandy, the resulting visions being known as delirium tremens. Opium and haschisch also do the work in their manner; staring at a bright object such as a pool of ink or a crystal can induce visions in some subjects. And intense fatigue will now and then bring about like results. Amongst the nonsense and lies that gathered about the “Angels of Mons” legend, there were certain veridical stories, which no doubt gave a true account of the experiences of those concerned. Worn-out men on that terrible retreat of August, 1914, found their way barred by spectral chairs and burning candles that were not there. A distinguished officer wrote to me, telling me how he, several of his officers, and several of his men watched for twenty minutes a ghostly army.

“As we rode along I became conscious of the fact that, in the fields on both sides of the road along which we were marching, I could see a very large body of horsemen. These horsemen had the appearance of squadrons of cavalry, and they seemed to be riding across the fields and going in the same direction as we ourselves, and keeping level with us.” A party was sent out to investigate. They found nothing. “We were all dog tired and overtaxed,” said my correspondent; but he notes, very acutely, that all the observers saw the same appearance.

And so the Abbé Fournié may have hallucinated himself into that seeing of visions. Or perhaps not.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38